Come meet a man who builds beautiful boards!
When he surfs, Ryan Lovelace stands with a casual slouch that belies the deep interest he has in the boards under his feet. Lovelace is well-known for his hand-built boards, and in particular his speed-loving midlength designs. He began shaping in college, because he found out it was cheaper to make a board than to buy one. Since then, he’s been rummaging around in surfing’s attic and playing with the assorted elements of surfboard design he’s found there.
We hang around the same town, the same coffee shops, and the same lineups. I have a fish he made and it glides along to a groove of its own. A few months ago, I caught up with Lovelace to ask a few questions, which is a thing I do sometimes. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation.
How did you get started shaping?
I grew up building stuff, so that was just how we got the things that we wanted. If you wanted a bicycle or a go-kart, you fucking built a go-kart. That was our option. And so I really wanted a twin fish, but I couldn’t really afford one. And my buddy was like, ‘oh I made a board once.’ And I was like, ‘what? you made a board?’ Like, I hadn’t even thought of it. So that just kind of hit me, like, if he built one, I can for sure build one.
I asked him, ‘well, how long did it take you’ And he’s like, ‘only like six months.’ And I was like, ‘sweet, I can make one way quicker than I can save up the money.’
Turns out Fiber Glass Hawaii, the materials spot was barely two blocks from my house. So I just busted down there, and saw everything, just like, my eyes lit up! Then I went back the next day and bought all my shit. The first one was a birthday present to myself. It was something I’d wanted, something I saved for, it just took me a while to get it together, and then off I went on the first one.
What was it?
It was like a 6’4” twin fish, a keel fish. It was pretty big, but it was blocky. I wanted something that was easy to shape and a lot of foam so I could for sure surf it. It took about seven days. Something like that. I was pretty amazed. Oh, this did not take me six months! It was like, ooh, okay!
And then the second one, building things is what I like to do. So I was like, fuck, I want to make a better one. I’d see pictures of all these cool boards, and it was like, ‘I want to make a board like that! and I want to make one like that!’ So I basically just got carried away and built another one the next month. The rest is a fucking blur.
How did you get your first order?
I put an ad on Craigslist. Something like, “Custom Surfboards, $400.” I got my first order that way. The guy that got board has been my best friend ever since then. Making a board for someone else became much, much more than just making a board.
Unlike some guys who apprentice in factories along the way, sweeping up foam dust and the like, you’re essentially self-taught. Are there shapers that inspire you?
George Greenough, for sure. I don’t think you can shape in Santa Barbara without the Greenough influence. There’s just no way. He mastered our waves. You’re trying to surf the same wave, you’d better take a page out of his book, because he did it right. So definitely Greenough.
The foil of what Greg Liddle really perfected is something else. The way that he lines up a bunch of the different elements and the way that he connects them resonates with the way that I like to surf. I haven’t surfed a ton of his boards but a few of the things that he put into his are big components of my boards in terms of balance and the foil. But I’ve flipped it all backwards — the relationship of the curves — and how it translated.
What makes Greenough such a towering figure, in your view?
Anything that he touched, he changed. For me, his stuff is just such fucking spaceships. Free of any, ‘this is what a surfboard looks like.’ They just don’t have that. They’re what he wanted to make and it’s totally of his creation and they’re out there.
That along with his approach, if you want it, make it. That’s how I was raised, too. So for me, what resonates there, is like, oh, you want this kind of engine in that car? Fucking it put it in. Go for it.
The more I learn about him, the more I learn how many fucking things he built. He built all kinds of crazy shit that no one knows about. I went to one of his friend’s houses and he had like a 16- or 17-foot, it looked like a kayak, but it has a massive fucking giant, big edge bottom on it. Craziest fucking thing. And I was like, oh, what’s this thing? It’s a windsurfer. Apparently, he built it, to windsurf from fucking Leadbetter Beach out to the islands.
Like, what the fuck? Are you kidding me? That’s insane. But that’s what’s up. You get a fucking hair up your butt to go do something weird, like windsurf to the islands, then you make the appropriate craft to do that. Like, what a great pursuit. So cool. The thing is so funny-looking, I love it. I have a pictures of it, I was looking at it the other day and I was like, this thing is stupid.
You’re probably best known for your midlength designs. What do you like about those boards?
I remember watching Endless Summer 2 when I was little. And I thought I had to decide right then and there if I was a longboarder or a shortboarder. And I was like, ‘what am I?’ Am I Wingnut or am I Pat McConnell? Who do I want to be? I could never fucking decide. And thank God, because now I don’t have to. I really thought it was a black-and-white choice. And it was for a long, long time.
I don’t like longboards and I don’t like shortboards. I just like midlengths! Because in Santa Barbara, that’s the thing — there’s that big gap in the crowd between the longboards and the shortboarders. You can clean up so many good waves just right in the middle of all those guys on a midlength. You’ve got no competition.
I think you’ve maybe converted too many people.
Yeah. It’s kind of blown up. Whoops! Wait, Ryan doesn’t surf well, but he’s getting waves? What the fuck. Blew my own cover. I had it dialed for like a year.
You do a lot of cool vintage fabric inlays. Where do you find the fabrics for those boards?
There’s something about them. I just like them. Making something the way everyone else makes it, is never enough for me. I just started messing with it and I really enjoyed it and the medium. It’s a whole different challenge to take something that’s already created and figure out how it can enhance what you’re making. And there’s so many fucking cool fabrics out there that are just lost in people’s collections.
What do you think makes your boards unique?
I think that the fact that I do hand-shape them is unique. The more, I learn about my peers, the more bummed out I get. The more I realize how alone I am in my age group in doing this. Nobody. The other guys that were doing it by hand, they’ll look like they’re doing it by hand, but nobody fucking knows. It sucks, because so many people aren’t honest about what they’re doing.
Guys, when you say that nobody cares if you machine shape, I think maybe, what’s hurting your business, is maybe that? Maybe if someone is spending a thousand dollars on surfboard, they really do want you to make it. Like, that’s a lot of money. That’s no joke. I just always figure that customers actually do care and that all the shapers that tell me, oh nobody cares anymore, are just jaded and lost. I think people really fucking care.
If I was riding shortboards, I would want them machine-shaped. Like guys, the machines are an amazing tool. Super valuable. Super complex and super impressive. Tell people about how cool the technology is and how great it makes your job. Tell them about the stuff that you’re doing. Don’t just hide and be scared of the repercussions. Tell people machine shaping is awesome. Because it is. It’s fucking gnarly.
What keeps you going back to the shaping room?
That experience with [that first customer off Craigslist], like making a good friend, building a relationship around creating something, and building a surfboard, and having a surfboard be the crux of a relationship — that was really fun for me. A lot of it, was me, like when I decided to really try and do it, and keep pursuing it, was basically after the experience with him. Just saying, that added value to my life.
It’s a really cool way to get to know another human. To me, the building of a surfboard, became a lot about that. Who can I meet, what I can do? Like it’s been a crazy ride.