LEARNING TO SHAPE ...... The Early Years
It was January 1979 and I was 22 years years old. I had come home early from Hawaii after exiting in the early rounds of the Smirnoff World Pro Am and the Pro Class Trials.

As a Hot Buttered (HB) sponsored surfer, Terry Fitzgerald had shaped me three boards for the trip: a 6'9” wing pin, a 7'6” wing pin and an 8'0” full gun pintail. All single fins. All airbrushed by Martyn Worthington, they were really beautiful looking boards. There was only one problem: I couldn't turn them. In the Pro Class Trials at Sunset it was 12'--15' and after bottom turning and generating tremendous speed, I struggled to cutback or even fade. I surfed badly and was terribly disappointed. I sold the three boards on the North Shore before flying home.

Although I blamed myself for my performance, at the same time I had a dim awareness that it may not all have been my fault. My surfing had been developing rapidly during the past year, away from the purely down the line and high speed runs in the top part of the wave approach which I had inherited from Terry. I wanted to have more control so that I could also surf top to bottom and cutback easily into the pocket, which was more like the way Simon Anderson surfed. Growing up at North Narrabeen I had been heavily influenced by both Terry and Simon. Looking back now, I can clearly see that I was developing a synthesis of their two individual styles to call my own. But back then, all I knew was that my boards from Terry had begun to feel restrictive. I knew that I wanted something different to ride but at the same time I was fiercely loyal to Terry.

In Hawaii I was staying with Simon and Ron Ford. A couple of times I'd been with Simon whilst he shaped himself some new boards over there. These boards had more outline and bottom curve than what I'd been riding, and I asked Simon lots of questions about the boards and about his design ideas in general. He was very kind and patient with me as he explained various things whilst he shaped. When I looked at his finished boards, I could easily imagine myself riding them and ripping. I would have dearly loved him to shape me a board but I was so loyal to Terry that I would not allow myself to ask him.

I arrived home with no boards, and the knowledge that Terry would not return from Hawaii to shape me anything new for about 6 weeks. A few days later I drove down to Dion Chemicals at Brookvale and asked Steve Sloan the production manager if he had any seconds. Seconds are surfboard blanks with minor faults which preclude them from being rated as first quality, but which are structurally sound and are usually sold quite cheaply. Intrigued, he asked me why. “I'm going to shape myself a couple of boards. Terry won't be back for ages and I need new boards” I replied. He looked stunned, and asked me whether Terry knew anything about this. I replied that, no, he didn't, but it would be OK. Eventually he reluctantly sold me two 7'0” seconds.

Then I drove around to HB, located in the original 9 Mitchell Road Brookvale premises. Being summertime, production was in full swing as I tentatively carried in the blanks. I knew my way around the factory well, having been there dozens of times over the years watching Terry shape my boards, watching them getting glassed and so on. I loved the smell of resin and sanding dust and normally felt very at home there. Today, however, being on a special mission, I was aware of some self doubt and of feeling tense.

I found Frank Williams hard at work. Frank was Terry's head production shaper at the time. A world class craftsman, designer and good surfer. I was on excellent terms with Frank and liked him a lot. I hesitantly told him that I wanted to shape myself some new boards and would work in Terry's room. Now, whilst I could do good ding repair, I had never shaped a board. To me, shaping had always been for experts only, highly trained and gifted people, to whom I looked up to in awe, with Terry at the very top of the list. Understandably, Frank's first reaction was to ask whether I had checked this out with Terry in Hawaii? “Well, no, not really Frank, but I think it will be fine” I said. Frank's troubled expression as I told him this, revealed that he did not share my optimism. I just remember thinking that this was somehow the right thing for me to do. I felt totally committed inside. Frank reluctantly accepted the inevitable and agreed to give me some help. I was very grateful.

I wanted to shape a 6'5” small wave board and a 6'8” for bigger surf. Both single fin rounded pins. (Simon and Frank Williams did not invent the Thruster until 1981) I wanted the boards to be a mixture of Terry's and Simon's designs to give me the kind of feeling in the water that I was looking for. I remember feeling incredibly excited as I took the blanks into Terry's shaping room and gathered my wits together. All his templates were hanging on the wall, his planer was on the floor and all the other tools and bits and pieces were on the shelves above the shaping lights. I had seen all these tools in action many times before but had never ever touched them. I picked up the planer, the heavy old Ryobi Towa with its all metal body. I pulled the trigger. It felt like something magical to me. I felt so high, so excited......all these years later it all comes back to me. I was soon totally in another world.

I used Terry's and Frank's templates to create the outlines I wanted and then drew them onto the blanks. Over the next two days I shaped the boards. At every stage I'd shyly peek into Frank's room and ask “what should I do next?” He was characteristically patient and gentle with me, treatment that has always remained in my memory. Gradually the boards fell into place. The first one, the 6'8,” took me 10 hours. The second one, 8 hours. Tremendous progress I thought.( At the time, an experienced production shaper could shape a board from scratch in about 2 hours). Frank showed me where I was going wrong (sometimes where I'd already gone wrong) and nursed me along, but nevertheless I did 95% of the actual physical work. When they were finished I was very proud. They both looked good and felt good under my arm. It had been a stressful and yet very exciting experience for me.

Glassing. I don't think anyone in the factory had given any serious thought as to whether the boards would actually get shaped.......let alone glassed. But I had. I wanted them to be white pigment all over (partially to hide some imperfections in the blanks) with a red dot on the deck and with Hot Buttered logos. One of my idols at the time was Sammy Hawk from Hawaii, and he had such a design on all his boards.

Terry had a number of different glasser's working for him at the time. Col Brooker was one of them, a thoughtful and precise craftsman. I liked him and approached him first, much to his chagrin, and described what I wanted. It seemed that at that precise moment, all the other glasser's present somehow took flight from the factory. However I had Col tightly cornered. Inevitably his first question (even though he already knew the answer) was a fearful “ Have you checked this out with Terry?” I again explained that I thought it would be OK but that if Terry got angry then I would accept responsibility. Nevertheless there was a fair amount of discussion between all the crew before I got the nod. Stoked again. I'm sure Frank's involvement definitely swung things in my favour. Now, in my mind at least, there was a kind of shared responsibility in the creation of the boards is how I remember thinking about it. I found this illusion very comforting. Anyway, I'm sure I've never been so impatient to get new boards as I was with these. After the boards were sanded, I pleaded with Martyn Worthington to install the red dots on the decks, just like Sammy Hawk. Perhaps swept up in the gathering momentum of inevitability, he also acquiesced, and painted bright red dots of about 12” diameter on the decks before they were gloss coated and polished.

Picking up my new boards perhaps ten days later seemed unreal. I could scarcely believe it was happening. I don't recall which one I rode first, but I was surfing my brains out back then and pretty soon had my feedback on both. They both surfed as well or better than anything I'd ever previously ridden! I was in a kind of non chemical heaven/ definitely an altered state. This euphoria was soon to end.

I had always known that sooner or later Terry would return from Hawaii, and that then something would happen. I was in a kind of denial about this and didn't often dwell on what that something might be. For years I had idolised Terry......I loved watching him surf, listening to him talk, and watching him shape was a treasured experience. I respected him on many levels and really looked up to him. He was a very confident and forthright person who never left you in any doubt about where he stood. At the time, he was one of the best surfer's in the world and his international shaping reputation was second to none.

I was surfing at North Narrabeen one day when Terry paddled out. He came straight over to me. Everything went into slow motion. “What are you riding?” he asked, in what I perceived to be a fairly gruff voice. “ I shaped it” I said. “Get off and give me a look at it” he replied. As I slid off the board I began to stress out big time with lots of possible outcomes running through my mind. None of them were very good. Terry very carefully examined the board, feeling the rails and sighting along the foil and deck line. I was very tense whilst treading water. After what seemed like ages and still holding the board, he shot me a piercing glance and said “ Do you think you could get orders for these?”

Now, whilst I was pretty pleased with my handiwork, I realised nonetheless that the two boards had shortcomings. At that stage of my life I did not have a lot of confidence or self belief, except in relation to my surfing ability. Since making the boards, I had not once even considered the possibility of being able to sell anything that I might shape. I had shaped them simply because I wanted boards which would do what I wanted them to do, and because I loved surfboards. However hearing Terry's unexpected question and perceiving its possible implications, I instantly realised that I was at a major choice point in life and knew what I had to say.

“Yes, I think I could”.... I heard the words tumble out of my mouth in a rush. There it was, I'd said it, something which I did not really believe, but something that was obviously very important to me.

“OK, come down to the factory on Monday and I'll show you how to do it properly” he said. That was it for me, my mind was blown, this was absolute nirvana. A hot warm rush came over me. This was a moment which would significantly change the whole course of my life. “Thank you” I said, and he paddled off.

I turned up on Monday and stood in the corner of Terry's shaping bay for the next two weeks, and watched and asked questions, and soaked up everything like a sponge. Designing and shaping surfboards properly is very complicated. Apart from requiring expert control of the various tools, one needs to have a detailed knowledge of design theory. There were very few publications available at the time that contained accepted surfboard design principles. Knowledge was therefore handed down directly from experienced shapers to those learning. The teaching of design theory with me was carried out continuously with hundreds of questions and answers, and at times what were essentially lectures from Terry. I took very detailed notes (which I still have) and also talked with Frank Williams and another shaper working there, Stuart Campbell. I also realised very quickly that getting feedback from the personal boards I shaped for myself was also extremely important. Its one thing to get feedback from team riders or customers, but the very best feedback comes from your own experience.

I therefore still firmly believe that the best shapers are those who can surf really well themselves. These days, regrettably, this is the exception rather than the rule. Back then, in most cases, the best shapers were also the best surfer's. You only have to think of Terry, Simon and Mark Richards to name a few.

Terry was an exacting teacher who took his craft and the transmission of his knowledge to me very seriously. He had never taught anyone else to shape at HB. Fortunately I was the kind of person that liked to do things thoroughly, and I think it's also fair to say that we were intellectual equals, and so Terry and I were a natural fit. He expected me to achieve high levels of accuracy and pretty quickly I did so. In the very beginning for instance, after cutting out the board's outline with a saw, I would rough out the basic shape with the planer. Essentially removing the majority of unwanted foam from the raw blank. Then I'd take it into Terry's room. He would pick it up and sight along the board from various angles.....and then mark an X with his pencil onto any high or low spots or obvious bumps. At first, I sometimes could not even see what he was pointing out to me. It seemed so very subtle, and often it was. However I quickly learnt and gained confidence. He checked my boards for a significant period of time and gradually left fewer and fewer X's for me to consider. He got me shaping some stock boards by the end of the second week, and it became very obvious to both of us that I had a remarkable level of natural ability as a shaper and that I loved everything about it. I had loved the smell of resin as a 13 year old kid fixing dings and was now really in the thick of things. We had a big Japanese order under way and within 3 to 4 weeks I was shaping 5 boards per day/25 per week. I kept asking him for more and more work, I just loved it, and Terry would just laugh and tell me to go surfing. I knew that this was exactly where I wanted to be, everything was just perfect.

I came up with the idea of calling my boards Hot Dot Designs, and so as I rapidly began getting custom orders, both HB and Hot Dot logos would go onto those boards. In addition, alongside Frank Williams and Stuart Campbell I shaped a large proportion of Terry's various models. These boards, in versions like double wing swallows and Drifta's, had HB logos with designed by Terry Fitzgerald written on them. Later, when Frank left HB to work with Simon on the Thruster, we were joined by shapers Ronnie Woodward, Russel Lewis, and briefly by Greg Webber.

The introduction of the Drifta and later the Thruster was a very interesting time at HB. The Drifta had a shorter stubbier outline than normal, with a single into double concave and spiral vee. However it was the fin arrangement which really differentiated the board from others at the time. There was a large single fin with a finbox and then two small side fins offset from the centre on either side. This was around the time that Simon first revealed the Thruster. Part of the intention of the Drifta's fin set up was to be able to roll the board heavily on rail without spinning out. The primary drawback of single fins was their propensity to spin out under pressure. This was partly due to the width of the tail, but also because they had only one fin, which at a certain point in a turn would simply leave the water with little or no warning.

I remember watching as Terry shaped the first Drifta, and then him bouncing various possible names for it off of me as we stood in his shaping bay. During those years he took me heavily into his confidence. The board proved to surf very well and definitely held in better than a straight single fin. In August 1981 Terry sent me to Europe to shape prototypes of our various models, particularly the Drifta, for his licensees. Backing up a little, in late 1980 Simon began surfing his Thruster at Narrabeen. At first I thought it was a bit of a gimmick. However after Simon returned from the Hawaiian winter in early 1981 and started developing his ideas further, it seemed to me that he was definitely onto something worthwhile. At HB these developments also began to be taken seriously since up until then all the boards were either single fins or twin fins. Then Simon won the Easter Bells contest in huge perfect surf on a 6'6" Thruster. Immediately people started wanting them. I quickly went to Simon and asked him for some fin positions to try them for myself. He very kindly and modestly provided them, and as fast as possible I glassed three fins onto a known good board which had previously been a single fin. The improvement was dramatic with more drive and holding power, yet still with excellent manoeuvrability. I was instantly sold. It was the end of an era in surfboard design worldwide and the death of the single. Certainly we still sold a lot of Driftas. However increasingly people wanted the Thruster and we obliged.

Over time I shaped boards for sponsored surfers such as Steve Wilson, Ken Oliver, Dougall Walker, Rodney Kirsop and Gordon Barnes. Steve Wilson was on the IPS World Tour, and so this was my first experience in shaping for someone at that level. Working with these various surfers helped facilitate progression in my shaping and was naturally very exciting. I also wrote a number of design articles for Australian surf magazines which were accepted and published without editing.

After almost 3 years at HB, for a number of reasons, I decided to go out on my own. Although I gave very fair notice of my intentions, my parting with Terry was regrettably not amicable and I left on bad terms. This has always been a matter of considerable regret for me. Although I was subsequently written out of the official history of HB, the facts are that I was there and contributed, at a significant turning point in surfboard design. After a couple of years of successfully running my own business, Hot Dot Surfboards at Brookvale, I went to the United States and began my infatuation with California and Mexico which was to last 15 years. In the US, I shaped my own boards under the Miller logo and also shaped for a number of other surfboard brands. I also learnt to glass, sand and polish and spent a lot of time surfing in Mexico. Its 34 years ago now since my early days at HB. I still love shaping surfboards, working with different people to help them improve their surfing, making high quality boards and going surfing.

© October 2013 - Grant Miller

........... Coming next >> The American Years