Interview on Swellnet, Feb 2015 - Grant talks with blindboy about his concerns with the current state of the industry
Blindboy: How did you get started shaping surfboards?
Grant Miller: In 1978 I was sponsored by Hot Buttered and when I got back from Hawaii without boards, Terry was still going to be away for another six weeks, so I went down and got a couple of reject blanks to have a go at shaping my own boards. Eventually I shaped two boards with Frank Williams guiding me. They actually turned out quite well and surfed at least as well as the boards I had been riding. So when Terry came back from Hawaii he asked if I thought I could get orders for them and I remember thinking “No way”, but it was a choice point for me in life, so I knew I had to say yes. He told me to come down the following Monday and he would teach me how to shape.

I spent a couple of weeks standing in the corner taking notes, listening, asking the occasional question and receiving the occasional answer. I then started shaping stock boards and within a year and a half was second shaper below Terry. He sent me all around the world to shape prototypes for the licensees in different countries. I stayed at Hot Buttered for almost three years and then I wanted to go my own way, so I left and started building boards under the Hot Dot logo. I did that for a few years then went to America and ended up staying fifteen years, mostly in San Diego and Big Sur.

During those years I spent a lot of time surfing in Mexico but I had been managing my immigration status in a way that was, let’s say, highly creative. Eventually, after almost being deported on the Mexican border it was obvious that I would probably need to leave the country, so I came back here and for the last 15 years I have been shaping boards on the northern beaches in Sydney. I just had a two year sojourn on the south coast, living and shaping down there and I will probably end up going back down there permanently at some point.

So what are the main changes you have seen in the industry over that time?
The main change in construction is the advent of shaping machines. That has had unbelievable effects throughout the industry. I own one of the few machines on the Northern Beaches myself which I use to cut my own boards. I also cut boards for 4 or 5 other local manufacturers. In some respects it has been an advance for professional shapers like me, since it saves a lot of the repetition involved in shaping. But it has also been responsible for the point that we are now at in the industry. I think we are in very bad shape. The machines have enabled some people to get involved in surfboard manufacturing that don’t have very much skill, that are poorly trained and see it purely as a business. A person can be trained fairly quickly to finish shape a pre-shaped board out of a CNC machine, whereas to be able to create a board from the very beginning out of a raw blank to a customer’s specifications is extremely difficult. It takes many years of practice to achieve it at a consistently high level so that you can accurately predict the sort of boards that you can produce.

There are a lot more people in the surfboard industry now and even though many more people are surfing which increases demand, the opportunities for individual shapers have actually diminished because of the machines. Also I’ve never seen so much gimmickry in the industry. I’ve been shaping for 36 years. I’ve shaped more than 20,000 boards and there have always been gimmicks going right back to the beginning. Mostly they just weren’t taken seriously but now they are promoted through the media and accepted by many people as though they were facts. I’m not naming any manufacturers in particular, but claims are being made for all sorts of materials and design that just don’t stand up.

They are the main changes in construction because the materials we’re using are essentially the same as they were 35 years ago. Certainly epoxy has come into vogue. Epoxy has some benefits but they have been highly over rated. There are also disadvantages but they’re rarely discussed. People find out about them when they have already bought the boards.

The other main difference in the industry is the huge number of imported boards. That has been a colossal change to the industry from even fifteen years ago. The overseas manufacturers are decimating the Australian surfboard industry and when I say that, what I mean is that they are flooding the market with products of highly variable quality. Some of it is on a par with what we can do here but much of it is completely inferior.

These surfboards are built in big factories that have economies of scale. They are built in environments of extremely low cost labour, with little or no environmental protection. They are imported into Australia very cheaply so the mark up that they are able to be sold at in surf shops and on the internet is massive compared to the mark up on Australian made surfboards. As a result the surf shops that sell these boards are rubbing their hands together because they are making so much more money. Some shops are prepared to sell almost anything to anyone to make sales.

The overseas factories have invariably been initiated by Australian or American manufacturers. They have taken technology that has taken decades to develop out of the country so that they are able to sell their surfboards much more cheaply.

What about the role of the shops?
I think that there are only a few on the northern beaches that actually have competent staff and that do care and try to match the surfboard to the person independent of the mark up on the board. A lot of the shops are just on sellers. The best people to staff a surf shop would obviously be shapers because they have the knowledge to interpret what a person needs and match that to the product, but I am only aware of one legitimate shaper working in a surf shop on the northern beaches. Some of the sales assistants are just kids of 16-18 with next to no experience. Imagine them trying to deal with a 40 year old guy that comes in that surfs once or twice a week.

I deal with the fall-out from this consistently. People come to me with boards that they have typically bought in shops. The boards are so inappropriate for these people it is difficult to see how they could have been sold to them to begin with. So what happens is that the surfer who buys the board blames themselves and typically loses confidence when it is often the board that is the problem. I am able to point out to them why it is that they are having trouble paddling the board or turning it or whatever, and explain it in a way that makes sense. Then I build them a board that suits them. These are some of the reasons why I am no longer prepared to sell boards to surf shops.

The appreciation that I get is tremendous and I follow up with everyone who buys boards from me a couple of months later to talk to them and make notes on their file. I keep their files permanently so that we can gradually improve their boards over a period of time by changing one or two variables at a time. This approach, this fine grained caring approach, is such a stark contrast to buying a board off the internet or from a surf shop it’s like night and day.

As small independent shapers we don’t have the budget that these overseas manufacturers have. They can spend a lot of money in the magazines and in the online media. As a result they often have these editors in their pocket because they are paying for advertising on a big scale. So you will see things like board buyer’s guides in which you actually have to pay for an ad to be included. This immediately compromises any claim to objectivity the guide may make. Then your board is assessed by an editor with no experience in surfboard design who puts himself up as an expert.

All the boards typically score fairly highly so they are not really discriminated between. There’s very little useful information for a potential buyer and these editors make pronouncements on aspects of design when they are not qualified to do so.

Then there are the volume calculators. This is a concept that has been introduced by the importers. They have invented these calculators where you can put in variables, your height, weight etc and then out pops a number and that is how many litres of volume you supposedly need in a surfboard. I have never seen any evidence to support the theory behind this.

Certainly volume is extremely important in a surfboard but to put a number on it and pretend that it’s like a shoe size is ludicrous because it ignores all the other variables in the surfboard, particularly rocker, how the foam is distributed within the board and the type of foam that is used. The foam used with epoxy boards for example, has much greater buoyancy. To my mind this is just slippery marketing, the surfer is given the illusion that he is somehow engaged in customising his own board by putting his data into the site, but all it does really is hook him into the site which then transfers him to the shop. It’s basically bullshit but it seems to me as though it is becoming accepted fact when it is not that at all.

How could the industry change to maintain the kind of quality that you are committed to?
Surfboard shapers are renowned for being highly individualistic and as a result we have never been able to get together as a group to lobby the government for import duty changes or for the point of origin to be marked clearly on the boards. So thinking about these matters I sometimes feel like water running over a stone. It’s difficult to see how things could change.

My intention here is to increase the awareness of people who are looking to buy surfboards. When people have more awareness of the issues then they have more of a free choice. Otherwise they are operating on limited information, distortions of information, and sometimes outright lies. I think it would be very appropriate if all imported surfboards were marked: Made In China, Made In Thailand, Made in Bali, whatever the case, so that when you go and buy a surfboard you can at least know where it came from. Maybe that doesn’t matter to you, but if it does, then you have the information there in front of you.

There are quite a few Australian manufacturers who are having their boards built overseas now but there is no point of origin on the boards so they are being passed off as made in Australia when they’re not. They are made overseas in different conditions with highly variable build quality but this is not generally known because only the brand is on the board.

People who are buying on the basis of brand need to know this. An overseas board might only last them a year or 18 months whereas a well-built Australian board can last them 5 or 6 years. They are not getting that information because vested interests are doing their best to make sure it is not easily available. The more information people have, the more they can go into shops and ask the hard questions “ Where were these boards made? Why is this particular board better for me than that board? What are the downsides of these designs or materials?” And if you don’t trust what people are telling you, then walk away and find people that you can trust.

Given the difficulties facing you how do you feel about continuing in the business?
I’ve spent most of my adult life designing and shaping surfboards and even after all these years I still love what I do. When I’ve just shaped a board and I hold it up and look at the foil, it’s just a fantastic feeling. I still love the smell of the resin and the rush when I paddle out on a new board for the first time. Steve Zoeller glasses my boards and he has been a glasser for nearly 50 years. Martyn Worthington does the airbrushing and he is another veteran. We are close business associates and we are also friends. I like meeting all the different people who come to me for boards and they are all different, everyone has their own story and I love getting to know them a little bit and making the best possible board I can for them. I listen to their ideas and thoughts and turn them onto mine and they end up getting great boards.

I think what I do has great value and great meaning for people that take their surfing seriously and I really appreciate the trust they put in me. And I care about our industry obviously, but if none of us speak up then we can’t whinge about where the industry is going. If I can contribute to greater awareness and scrutiny of the industry I’ll be satisfied.

© February 2015 - Grant Miller