Grain Surfboards have less impact on the environment and more impact on your surfing. Since 2005, owners Mike LaVecchia and Brad Anderson have been building boards made of locally grown, sustainable yield northern white cedar. At their bucolic farm in York, Maine, Grain creates beautiful hand-built wooden surfboards, body boards and hand planes and offers surfboard-building workshops and DIY kits.
You both grew up in New Jersey. Did you start surfing there?
Mike: I didn’t start surfing until living in Vermont.
Brad: We’re both late bloomers.
Mike: We grew up going to the shore. I’ve been a water person my whole life but more into boats and sailing. We spent years and years at the beach, at the Jersey shore, watching surfers. My excuse is that surfing in the 70s and 80s was not all that attractive. I remember going in the surf shops down at the Jersey Shore and just feeling really out of place because it was the short board, thruster, neon time.
Brad: Yeah, longboards were dead by then.
Mike: All the traditions of the sport had kind of vanished so there wasn’t really anything to draw me in. You could say in the 80s there just wasn’t a lot of variety in surfing style.
The surf industry seems to be constantly evolving. What’s driving this?
Brad: there are so many places down in the history of modern surfing that have changed things a lot. From the very beginning when you had people like Bob Simmons who actually started studying the hydrodynamic properties of surfboards and planing hulls, using Defense Department engineering analysis and things like that. He’s the father of the modern surfboard. He changed the way surfboard people think about surfboard design.
You can look at the movie Gidget coming out in the 50s the and the first time there was an actual surf shop or a professional shaper; that changed everything for people. Everyone had been building their own surfboard up to a certain point, and then suddenly you’ve got these engineering principles that are being applied and these people who had developed pretty amazing skill sets as surfers becoming our oracles and the repositories of all this arcane knowledge of surfboard design. They’re the holy men and you go to him to get a surfboard. Of course, if you’re someone who watched the Gidget movie, you’re an outsider who’s trying to come in. You go to a surf shop and buy a surfboard and suddenly there’s millions of surfers within a period of 10 years or something like that. It’s gone from this very fringe kind of activity to a popular activity that’s serviced by a professional class.
And then there was the shortboard revolution and the ability to use fiberglass to experiment with shapes really rapidly. There was a period when surfboards were always made of wood and it was pretty labor-intensive process to build. And then they realized how they could make them out of fiberglass. Now they could manufacture and produce them very quickly. But if it doesn’t work, you bring it back and cut the tail off, you reshape the tail, you reglass it, glass some new fins on, boom, you’re in the water the next day. We’re the beneficiaries of all that research and knowledge and now we’re taking what they learned back and using this traditional material, wood, to build surfboards using those principles that we owe Bob Simmons, Al Merrick, and all the shapers who have experimented through the years.
Every one of those things is a paradigm shift that has helped the surf culture in various ways, sometimes not for the better. People lament the Gidget popularity as a milestone or marker on the road. And there are modern movies that people complain about having that same effect.
Tell me more about the recent changes in surf culture that concern you.
Brad: I heard somebody complain about the movie Blue Crush and the whole girls clothing thing. Now the surf industry is so reliant on apparel sales; footwear amazingly is now a huge sector in the surf industry. To some people’s interpretation that dilutes the root aspect, the core values, which is surfing and surfboards. You can see the end product when you open a surf magazine now. Every advertisement is about a surf personality. “Wear these shoes.” Why? “Because this surfer is wearing them.” That’s the focus of almost every advertisement you see in a surf magazine. It’s all personality based and trend based. Its kind of gross to someone who is interested in the core values that surround this thing. For us, those values are traditional surfing values, but also the idea of these traditional materials and handcrafted boards and not manufactured with toxic materials because it’s more affordable and better for the manufacturer.
Mainstream surf magazines often portray surfing as an extreme sport. Do you think some of the attitude on the water comes from this warped image?
Mike: I think it just depends on the spot. There are certain spots that just have more attitude than others. I know guys that I go out to dinner with, have drinks with, have over to our house but when they’re in the water, they don’t really talk to me, they’re focused on their surf. A lot of guys are very competitive about it. It’s not so much a get out, relax and enjoy the day, it’s kind of like a training routine … I think in a lot of ways because of the media. It’s so engrained that they need to do the biggest air and get barreled, so they’re just focused on looking as good as they can possibly look. So any distractions or anybody that can get in their way, it’s not that they’re annoyed at you, they just don’t want to deal with it.
Brad: My impression is that’s something that’s been culturally ingrained in modern surfing for a long, long time. You don’t have to be a skilled surfer to be a good surfer. There’s a trite saying, “the best surfers are the ones having the most fun” and I think people believe that. I read the statistic that 90% of the waves surfed are under head high. So all these impression that we have of it being a guys sport and that big wave surfing defines surfing are first of all ignorant, that’s just wrong headed. There has to be room for people to just enjoy it for what it is. I mean, that’s the whole defining characteristic. There’s nothing more to surfing than a person on a board in the water with any kind of wave that makes them go and makes them smile.
Do you think the image that’s being put out there to sell surfing is starting to change?
Mike: I don’t think it’s ever going to change entirely but there are little movements. There are people in Media like Cyrus Sutton … there are people that are more open, they’re posting picture of where they surf, putting out reports of what the conditions are. They’re just promoting it as this fun lifestyle thing. But I just think there’s going to be a few different roads.
Brad: You’ve got to remember this is an enormous industry now – 12 billion dollars a year or something like that. So the mainstream of that business is going to keep on going kind of the way it’s going. As much as they might want to change, it might be in little side projects. Like Channel Island’s getting involved with us. It’s completely outside their realm of their normal activity. But in the larger picture there’s not too much of an incentive to change, especially when the consumer is still gravitating towards this personality based sales methodology.
Are you seeing a lot of innovation in sustainable surf materials?
Mike: There was a big push when Clark Foam (the world’s premiere surfboard blank manufacturer) closed in 2005. For two or three years after they closed, it seemed like there was a lot of new thinking and people really pushed some new ideas, better foam, better resin from an environmental perspective. There were a lot of interesting things happening. I feel like maybe some of that has slowed down in the last year or two but there’s definitely are a lot of people working on more environmentally friendly processes and products. The problem is it’s all still based around this mass-manufacturing model so you still want to be able to make 250 boards a day, or whatever these big factories are making. You know, foam is still foam. It’s designed to be manufactured quickly and efficiently. But there are companies that are working hard to develop foam blanks that are made out of more natural products. There’s companies now that make 100% recycled foam blanks. They’re taking all the scraps from all the other manufacturers like Marko foam. There are others that do a sugar-based foam and a linseed oil based foam.
Brad: Like a lot of sectors, there’s also a fair amount of green washing too where people are trying to enter these markets because they think the green buyers are out there.
Give me an example of green washing in the surf industry.
Mike: There’s a lot of people who say they are using epoxy because it’s environmentally friendly.
Brad: But then they’re using high VOC additives to get a proper cure or something like that.
Mike: We use epoxy and we’re just honest about what it is. It’s not the best product out there but it’s the best of what’s accessible. And we’re starting to switch over to a better product but there are some people that say, “we use low VOC environmentally friendly epoxy” and that’s it, that’s the end of the game. Then there are people that’ll claim things are green because it can be recycled. That’s a common one.
Brad: I hate that (laughs).
Mike: “Eco-Boards, 100% recyclable (laughs)!”
Where is Grain on the sustainability continuum? What questions should surfers be asking when shopping for a board?
Brad: one of the first things is, how long is this product going to last? That’s key. You want it to last a lifetime or more. We have people that build boards in here that talk about leaving them to their kids. We love that. Think about a surfer that’s buying a surfboard every season, every two seasons, three seasons, and they’re just throwing them away. We want to change that thought pattern a little bit. Longevity is huge.
Then of course there’s materials. Our surfboards are almost entirely air. They’re not little bubbles filled with toxic gases that took toxic materials and toxic processes and energy to produce. It’s just air inside there. The outer skin (wood) is renewable from a sustainable yield material. It’s plentiful locally, so we don’t have a long supply chain. The resin we use is low to no VOC emissions. We’re constantly focused on our waste stream. Everything we cut gets cut and cut until it can’t get cut into a smaller piece. We save all those scraps. We mulch the stuff we don’t use and focus on keeping our use of disposables down. Just daily thinking about consumption and waste … constant experimentation and adoption of new materials. We’ve been using bamboo cloth to glass with instead of fiberglass, which has got it’s own energy issues too cause it has to come from so far away. We have a lot of goals we want to obtain.