Interview with: James Otter of Otter Surfboards

As UK surfers, we largely look the same in the water, all in black, big white plastic lump under our feet and not a lot of destinction between one surfer and another. One way to stand out from the crowd is to get yourself a wooden board. Embracing the old school, and buying natural is a great way to break the ice with fellow surfers, and to kit yourself out with something locally made, unique, strong, long lasting and built with sustainable materials. Heck these days you can even go along and build it yourself under the shapers supervision!

We spoke to James Otter, of OtterSurfboards.co.uk, about landing the dream job of building boards and his experiences in surfing and shaping. We’ll try to sneak you a few board shaping tips along the way!

Photography by John Walmsley

City Surf Essentials: So James, how many years have you been surfing?

James Otter: I was lucky enough to have a family that liked to be by the coast on their holidays, so have always enjoyed being in the sea, but I guess surfing itself began when I got my first car and could escape with friends down to cornwall, so that makes it about 7 years of surfing. But then I moved down to Devon about 5 years ago when it became more and more of a regular thing and then we headed further west to be in walking distance of the coast three years ago.

CSE: What’s your favourite board?

JO: Hmmm, my favourite… I haven’t ridden a foam board for a few years now, so my favourite is going to have to be one of my own and then its tricky to chose… but its between my 5’8 fish and my 8′ minimal – I never thought I would be saying this, but just of late, I’ve been loving the clean days up to about head high on the bigger board, just sooo much fun and sooo many waves!

Photography by Lee Pengelley

CSE: So do you see yourself as more of a longboarder these days, or do you still find time to ride your fish?

JO: I’m very much of the opinion that so long as you’re enjoying what you’re riding, then its the right board for you in that moment and on that note, I have fun on all different types of boards. I started out, like many people, progressing to a little toothpick pretty early on and with that comes the ‘shortboarder’ mentality, but I quite quickly found I enjoyed my surfing more when I had more volume under me so moved onto a fish. Then I began wooden board building and the way they surf lends itself so nicely to the ‘retro’ shapes (although is is a quick way to define a group – fish, eggs, mals, I think its important that ‘retro’ shapes borrow attributes from more contemporary ideas) and I have found that they make you change your style – you have to be smoother and more responsive to the wave and I find this much more enjoyable when you’re in the water. So… I guess I’m a bit of both, but no longer necessarily fit the mould of your regular ‘shortboarder’.

CSE: Where in the UK is your favourite place to surf?

JO: Hmmm…. having lived at Chapel Porth for a year, thats right up there – if you score it to yourself or share some waves there with a few friends as the sun comes up it really is a magical place… but I’d also say that there is so much more of the UK I’d love to explore so its only my current favourite.

CSE: How often do you get to surf in a average week, given the time and effort involved in shaping a wooden board, does it keep you out of the water more than you’d like?

JO: A lot of that depends on deadlines, shows and of course there actually being waves worth delaying work for. But, I like to get in a couple of times a week even if its just for a paddle around in onshore mush, after all, that is why I moved here and began doing what I do – to be in the sea more.

CSE: So how old were you when you first got into board shaping and how long have you been doing it?

Photography by Mat Arney

JO: I’ve always been into making things, so the minute I began surfing, making my own board was something I wanted to do. At first it was simply a case that second hand boards were the cheapest way to get something under your feet. Then while I was studying ‘designer maker’ (a hands on design degree at plymouth uni) the idea of putting my love of making things from wood into my surfing got the ball rolling on wooden boards. The intention from there was to reduce surfings dependance on foam and make boards that simply lasted longer – my first board was a bio foam blank and bio resin to try and figure a few things out before going for it with wood and that was at the end of 08.

CSE: So were you tempted to stick with the foam blanks, or did you know deep down that wood was for you?

JO: The single foam blank I shaped was fun but I was only ever seeing it as a way of learning some techniques for the wooden boards. Pretty quickly I learned that though the foam shaping could inform my wood work, essentially your finding a shape within a blank, whereas the wood process is building a board from scratch, with much smaller amounts of shaping – mostly honing out the rail shapes. So once I began making boards from wood, that was it, its been wood ever since.

Photography by Simon Andrews

CSE: Can you describe the feeling you get riding a wooden board as oppose to riding foam? More buoyant, faster, lighter to carry?

JO: The wooden boards come out a little heavier than typical foam boards, but I have found that to be a bonus, which goes against what I thought would happen. I’d imagined I’d be trying to pull the weight right down to be comparable, but actually that weight gives you more momentum and again influences your surfing to be smoother and more thoughtful as well as gliding through flat sections (pretty handy here in the UK). The feeling is just unlike foam, difficult to explain, but me and others that ride them feel that essentially you just have to be more thoughtful about the wave – you can’t just push the board around and do what you want, you have to ride with the board reacting to the wave. I find it so enjoyable and rewarding when you manage to find a smooth line and race along waves – I’ve never been so fast!

CSE: How much time goes into shaping the average board?

JO: The average board from scratch is about 60 hours, but alot of that time (almost half) is put into the preparatory work – making the skins, making the rail strips, designing the board and cutting the framework. So once youve got all your components, its about 3 days of construction and one day of shaping. The day of shaping may seem crazy when you see shapers who can take a foam blank off the shelf and mow out a finished shape in 2 hours, but with the wood you have to take it off little by little so as not to damage the timber and to react to the changes in grain patterns that affect the tools you use and the way you work.

CSE: Does every board feel the same to you after years of building, or does each project still feel like a new challenge?

JO: Every board is different, simply because no two bits of wood are the same. Each board seems to throw up new challenges and I think while with anything you repeat you try to persue the idea of perfection, you never quite get there as you simply become more critical as you get closer to that end goal. However, I remember quite clearly a point while I was planing the first rail on my first board where I reallised that although I loved making furniture out of wood, this was a whole other level of enjoying making something.
I got those giggly excited feelings you get in your stomach and I knew I had to do all I could from that moment to keep on doing it. A feeling im sure many people reading this will understand… remember that first wave?… Its that excitement that I want other people to have, which is why I am now running workshops. With the first one-on-one workshop I remembered what it was like to make that first board again – Steve had his camera out at so much and far too many high fives were happening to ignore so I’m really excited to get other people in making their own board too.

Photography by Mat Arney

CSE: Is there a common problem with board shaping that seems to occur every time, and if so, whats your tip for getting through it without ruining a board?

JO: Every board has its own challenges, but the important thing is to try and spot them early on and deal with them. Say a piece breaks or slips when gluing, you sort it out there and then because pretending it hasnt happened, or trying to fix things with the time pressure of glues going off can end up causing more damage.
At the same time though, you need to know where to draw the line – overworking some things can be a big problem too! The only thing I can say really is that you have to practise, you have to be patient and you have to always try and improve… that way you’re not only learning but progressing too.

CSE: Does working with wood allow for more of a margin for error than foam might? If you damage a piece, can you just replace it without having to scrap the board as you might with a foam blank?

JO: I guess to some extent thats true – if you drop something into your foam blank or take too much out by mistake, thats it, you’re either throwing it away or drastically changing the shape. However, with the timber being more of a shell, you haven’t got much tollerance if you do damage it. When you get to the point where you are taking material away to find your shape, to replace a piece is incredibly hard and you’ll likely never get it as good as it once was.
I’d always encourage care and patience over aything else.

CSE: Have you noticed any change in the industry since ecological and environmental issues have been more widely publicised around the world?

JO: I became interested in the making of boards around the time of the clark foam closure, so from then on it seems the industry has understood that there are problems with the way equipment is made and that not caring for the environment is pretty short sighted.
However, like you say those issues have also been publicised globally, so there has been a shift in product marketing that has been treading the fine line between delivering fundamental messages and greenwashing consumers. I’d say the industry is changing, but it is important that brands have complete transparency for the way they produce their products – consumers need to know how things are made so they can make the judgement call for themselves and not be influenced into buying from expensive marketing schemes that bigger brands can deliver. As with everything, its important to ask those questions, but not be daunted by them… every single purchase has an affect somewhere in the world – so again, care and patience are needed!

Photography by Lee Pengelley

CSE: Are more people turning to locally built sustainable wooden boards rather than mass produced foam boards from overseas that cause a lot of pollution?

JO: It would be nice to think so, but as surfing is an ever increasing pass-time, its difficult to tell. However, I do know that all my boards have gone to experienced surfers, so maybe there is a trend in people further down their surfing path to move towards buying boards that will last longer and have a lower envoronmental impact.
It’s funny really, because I dont see that the sustainable angle on my boards is actually their selling point – that is simply a brand descision and something I personally believe in. Its like… they are beautiful, they are locally crafted, they do last longer, oh and they also happen to be made from sustainable resources – again because I think alot of people are sceptical of products that sell themselves on their environmental friendliness alone.
I feel pretty lucky that as the designer and maker of the boards, I get to chose every single material and process that goes into making the boards and each of those is done with an environmental conscience simply because that’s what I believe in.

CSE: You have a course starting next month where surfers can come down to your workshop and build the boards for themselves under your guidance – we think its a great idea – tell us a little about it, why should our readers book a slot, and whats in store for them?

JO: The courses, as I touched on earlier, are a way of getting people building their own boards. Nothing quite beats the feeling of peeling a plane along the rail of your surfboard and then paddling it out into the sea knowing that you built it, so I wanted to get other people doing it too.
Steve, who I ran my first one-to-one workshop with through the winter actually approached me about it, but having seen how excited he was about the whole project, I thought it would be great to figure out a way to give that opportunity to others.

Photography by Mat Arney

Im going to run the course in small groups over five days at various times through the year to try and give anyone who’s interested a few dates to try to aim for – although I’m happy to be flexible for anyone who cant make those and is happy for a one-on-one week.
The five days will be three days of constructing and two days for the shaping process. So youll begin the week with your kit – deck and bottom skins pre-made to your own spec, rail strips and frame work and start by fitting the framework together and getting it glued onto your bottom skin. The second day is rail day, getting all the strips onto the board and cutting and fitting all the necessary extras for fins etc. The third day is all about prepping for the deck to go on and by the wednesday evening, we want all deck on. Then the thursday will be about rough shaping, getting the most of the excess wood off the board and allowing us to find the boards shape. The friday then will hopefully be a day of celebration as we finish off the shaping, give the board its final sand and then mark up the fins and sign the board off – all ready for glassing. This can then be taken away to be glassed near you at home or left with us to get it finished for you, with a lead time of about 4-6 weeks.

We are just about to move our worshop into a new premises, to give us some extra elbow room for running the courses and we’ll be looking into putting on some evening events and teaming up with local eateries and places to stay to get some discounts for our board builders to allow people to enjoy the whole week down here in Cornwall. We’re planning to stay near St. Agnes, but watch this space for our final resting place.

CSE: Heres your chance to convince us all to ride locally shaped wooden boards, state your argument! Why should we all buy wooden?

JO: See above.

Haha, urm… I guess it comes down to why we all surf – to enjoy the world around us from a fresh perspective.

And finally, what advise would you give to anyone interested in getting into wooden board shaping?

JO: Advice… get stuck in, but be patient – its a lot like surfing!

 

To find out more about James’ surfboard building course, visit his site at www.ottersurfboards.co.uk

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