Surfboard shaping has a long and storied history that was molded by a bunch of pioneering people from a wide variety of disciplines with diverse skill sets. But one thing has always been true and that is the fact that at the very least some basic tools are required in order to successfully shape a surfboard. Whether it be an adze for shaping a log of wood, or an electric planer used to shape a polyurethane surfboard blank.
Without tools of some sort we would not see the diversity of designs currently available in surfboard shapes.
These days one of the primary tools are the shaping machines used by many of the large production factories.
But we are still fairly old school and prefer hand shaping all of our boards. There are a wide variety of tools that can be utilized in the hand shaping process and we thought we would introduce you to just a few of them on this page. This is by no means a definitive list of all the tools that could be used just a few that have caught our fancy!
Fairly early on in the modern era of surfboard shaping whether it was balsa or the early foam blanks, shapers realized that they needed a tool that could remove material from the blank at a more rapid rate than a hand planer would allow. That tool was the electric hand planer.
Probably every type of electric hand planer invented has been used by some intrepid shaper or another, but there is one planer that rose above all others, the Skil 100! This planer had a unique combination of features that made it ideal as a tool for shaping surfboards.
There are many of these features that could be discussed in depth but a few of the standouts are as follows. The planer was made from aluminum so it was relatively light and therefore easy to handle for long stretches of time. The fact that it was made from aluminum, in particular the base, also made it easy to modify the base length. These planers were also fairly powerful for their size and could rapidly remove material. But from our point of view the single most defining feature of the Skil planer was the depth adjustment mechanism.
This mechanism was ideally located at the front of the adjustable shoe that controlled the depth and it only needed to travel a relatively short distance in order to go from a zero cut to the maximum depth. This allowed the shaper the option of varying the depth of cut as the planer was pushed along the board, making for a lot of control over the shaping process.
Another aspect of the Skil 100 was the general ergonomics of the planer. When you are holding a tool in your hands for long periods of time it really helps if it is well balanced and comfortable to hold. There is little doubt that the Skil is incredibly comfortable to work with for extended periods of time, where it eventually feels like an extension of your arm.
It is also worth mentioning that at the time people first started using these planers they were fairly inexpensive and easy to find, so this probably contributed to their adoption rate.
Eventually most production shapers were using these planers with great success. But sadly the planer was discontinued more than 30 years ago! But as a strong testament to the beauty of this tool they are still in use today and are highly coveted with people paying in excess of a $1000 for one in good condition. A steady trade has been plied on places like eBay as people find long forgotten Skil planers in some attic and then sell them to eager buyers.
We have to admit to a strong tendencies to hoarding these planers and would buy one whenever one became available, to the point where we had as many as nine of them safely stashed away in case we need a new one someday, or some part was needed.
Some attempts were made to duplicate the Skil in a modern planer with the most successfully one being the modified Hitachi planers sold by Clark Foam. These planers were a lot lighter than the Skil but with a totally different feel. Many shapers adopted and used these planers because they were available and certainly a lot cheaper than the going rate for a Skil planer.
Many of us old Skil addicts became progressively more neurotic as we fretted about how long we could keep our planers running and what we would do should we find ourselves no longer able to use them.
Fortunately, the heavens parted and a wonderful thing happened, someone got the bright idea to reproduce the Skil planer using modern manufacturing techniques. Greg Noll and his son Jed were the initial instigators of this project and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude for seeing it through to fruition, certainly made a lot of us old shapers very happy!
Subsequently, the Accurate Planer was introduced to the world. It is produced by a company that specializes in the manufacturing of high end fishing reels using modern CNC technologies. They applied their knowledge to the reproduction of the Skil planer, but instead of utilizing an aluminum casting like the original, they opted to machine everything out of billet aluminum and then polish it once competed. Not only is this a lot stronger than the original it looks stunning.
If ever something could be classified as functional art this would be it! There is also a picture of this planer sitting on one of our boards in the banner for this page.
It takes many of the key features of the Skil planer and gives them a serious upgrade, for example, much smoother depth adjustment mechanism, even better ergonomics, great balance, very reasonable weight, a very powerful motor, modern electronics, and of course the billet aluminum! In every aspect the designers took all of the features of the Skil and upgraded them without losing the endearing characteristics that had made it a classic shaping tool. Now we are blessed with a thoroughly modern planer that does not compromise any of the good qualities of the Skil and addresses all of the shortcomings of the original. Sure they are not cheap, but when a tool is custom manufactured with this kind of care you are getting what you pay for, this tool will last a lifetime while providing stellar performance.
But as beautiful as this planer looks, it really starts to shine when it is put to use, it improves on the Skil in every way and is silky smooth, an absolute joy to use! One of the key features is how much more powerful it is than a Skil, nothing gets in this planers way!
While we were sad to set our trusted Skil aside this new planer was just too much fun to use. Every now and again we still pull out the Skil, but after using the Accurate Planer for sometime now, it is getting harder and harder to switch back.
Progress is a good thing!
Hand planers are a crucial tool in the shaping process as they are commonly used to plane down the stringer. A good hand planer is an essential tool ,but the range of quality in these tools is huge, as is the price range!
A really good block planer makes planing the stringer down a simple efficient operation, bad one makes it a nightmare! We love block planers and typically have at least five or six of them handy all set at different depths and with different iron angles. Our favorites are small block planes that are typically used in luthier work as they have really good feel with nice thick solid irons on them.
Here in Hawaii it is critical to try and find planers that use either good quality steel or bronze, otherwise they rust like crazy, which is really hard on the tool as you are always having to clean the rust off.
Having a good hand planer though is not good enough, you have to be able to keep it really sharp so understanding how to sharpen and maintain the planers is essential for success.
If the planer blade is not really sharp it will have a tendency to tear the foam on either side of the stringer, which can be a total bummer as you now have to sand it back down again, and could result in a circular effort!
An essential tool for a successful hand shape!
A lot of shapers will claim that a surform has no place in the shaping room. We totally disagree with this sentiment as it is a tool that has a number of valuable roles to play in the shaping process as long as you have a good understanding of the tool and how to use it.
We do agree that the modern surforms that are commonly found in hardware stores are terrible, for some reason Stanley chose to abandon the older style surforms for new ones that are uncomfortable to hold and use and just don't work as well.
Robin personally collects old Surforms, especially the older ones made by the original company that manufactured them before they were bought by Stanley. These tools are an absolute joy to use for certain tasks and we would be lost without a few of these in our shaping tool chest.
This photo shows some of the Surforms in our collection, four of which are used on every board that we shape.
Something that has really advanced the use of the surform has been the introduction of the Microplaner blades that are made out of stainless steel and serve as a replacement blade for the tool. These blades have the equivalent of small planer blades all over the blade and make very clean cuts in foam or wood. A surform with a microplaner blade is our goto tool when dealing with triple stringers or the nose and tail of the board as the stringers can really be dialed in super cleanly.
We also use the surform for cutting our deep bowled double concaves as the rockered bottom of the tool makes it easier to shape in the concave.
There are a myriad little tasks that a surform is ideal at handling so we feel strongly that they are another one of the essential tools to have in the shaping room.
But the quality of the tool is critical to its success!
We have to be upfront and admit that we are unabashed template junkies, we like making and collecting templates.
For those that don't know what a template is and its role in the surfboard building process here is a very short description.
When a shaper designs a new board that is going to be hand shaped the first step is to either create a new template for the design, or try to use existing templates to render the outline for the design. Templates are most commonly made using either doorskin or masonite as the template material, these are around an 1/8" thick. These materials work well because they are available and relatively easy to machine and true.
A template can be either full length or what is referred to as a spin template (one edge of the template has the nose of the board and the other has the tail, and they are spun around), see the drawings below.
Once the shaper has the desired template it is used to draw the outline on the blank. The typical procedure is to layout the dimensions for the board on the blank and then to use the template to "connect the dots". If the template is full length it is a lot easier and faster to draw the outline, but this only works for boards under 8' as the material is commonly only available in 8' lengths.
Over time a shaper will amass a collection of templates that represent a wide array of designs, these curves can be combined to make ever more outlines, as needed. These templates make it easy to reproduce a given design at any point in time.
Our template collection currently stands at somewhere around 256 templates for surfboards ranging from 5' 9" to 12' 6"!
In recent years we have taken a slightly different approach to our template design and manufacturing process. All of our templates are now designed on a computer, makes for mathematically perfect curves, and then printed out on a large format printer as full size half-width templates. This printout is then transferred to wood to create a clean template very quickly.
The beauty of this approach is that it makes it a lot easier in this digital age to store the original designs and also to communicate design ideas to our customers, as we can send our design ideas directly to the customer before the board is made. This gives them a chance to visualize the design and makes it a lot easier to discuss potential changes. these digital drawings are then also utilized to communicate color setups for the board. Makes for good record keeping and accurate representation of what the customer will be receiving with their order!