CoastalBC: so Stefan, I've heard your name around here forever. I guess you've been an underground backyard shaper for a few years. How long have you been in Tofino?
Stefan: I think this is my 10th year, summer we'll call it.
CoastalBC: And you moved here for...
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Stefan: I moved here for the surf. I lived in Nanaimo for 18 years and then moved to Australia for a year and a half. I moved there to surf and never knew there was surf on Vancouver Island. I picked up a surf magazine when I was at Woodlands school and saw a picture of this guy getting this barrel and I was thinking "what's that?" I honestly didn't even really know what surfing was. I thought it was something done on long boards and I thought it was something I would like to try. I did a lot of other sports, skiing, snowboarding. My dad told me "you can do that over in Tofino, there's waves over in Tofino" so off I go with a trailer and a truck. I rented a board from George Timmons at Gold Coast and he asked me if I wanted wax and I thought, well yeah, I guess. You know, what's wax? I'll take it and I looked back at him and asked "the top or the bottom?" Well I got out here and gave it a try and the first few times were fruitless, and painful, and discouraging. Then I went down to HT0 and I think it was a another George down there that also owned that shop. He sold me a board, a rusty. It was a very old school rusty but nonetheless thick enough for me. I brought it up to Tofino and paddled out at Cox Bay, which I didn't even know existed, and I got to my feet and trimmed along the wave and that was it.
Stefan: every weekend, every single weekend. And then there was the decision, that taking off at the closeouts, at what I now know to be [spot name] rocks wasn't going to improve my surfing. I remember this guy, this Raph Bruhwiler guy. I could see him surfing and I thought if he can do that then I really want to do that too. So I headed off to Australia and learned how to surf. Lived with a couple of fellows that took me out in surf that was probably way beyond my abilities.
CoastalBC: you learn a lot when people do that to you, don't you?
Stefan: boy did I ever.
CoastalBC: the Ukee crew used to drag me out in this stuff that I had absolutely no business in. I'd get out there and think, how am I going to get back in? I guess I got to catch a wave or eat it.
Stefan: yeah exactly. And you just sort of takeoff on it and you're headed for the bottom, any you just hope for the best. Yeah, those were some really exciting times. At the time I thought it was triple overhead but looking back it was maybe overhead and a bit. A big wave nonetheless when you're just beginning. These guys were doing turns and pulling into barrels and I just couldn't believe it, so I just really wanted to surf more than anything I've ever wanted to do. I kept working at it and now I can surf. I came back from Australia and was back living in Nanaimo. I was still kind of driving up here and I made a trip to Mexico and beyond and I met a guy named Adam Smallwood in Costa Rica. Actually stopped to ask him if he spoke English because I was lost and he said "yeah I do". He kind of looked a little fair and I thought maybe he was Costa Rican or some sort of Traveler who has spent a lot of time down there. He looked local and he said I'm from British Columbia, from Tofino. So we started talking and I said Tofino just sucks, that's the problem with Tofino is it's just beach breaks and there's no reefs. By this time I could surf and I could get to my feet and I liked reef breaks, the predictability of them. He said "you have to move there Stef, that's the only way you can surf Tofino is you have to move there. You can't just come up once in a while ". I described an experience that I had at [spot name] where it snowed, rained, hailed, and then blew onshore about 90 knots all within an hour and he said "well move there, and there's days when it gets good". So I moved here and he was right. There's a lot of surfable days in Tofino. A lot. More than probably most places in the world. There's a tremendous amount of swell here.
CoastalBC: and a good variety of swell windows.
Stefan: absolutely. You know, we complain. I'm a big complainer about crappy surf but less now than before, because now I can surf crappy days. So after a while I decided that Adam was right. You can definitely surf here everyday and have a great time. There's great people, very little attitude, and back then if there was 15 guys out at [spot name] we were really impressed. You know, it must be good, the parking lot has six or seven vehicles in it. There were good times and it really is a place that I fell in love with as well. Decided well this is home now.
CoastalBC: so what lead you to start making surfboards?
Stefan: well part of that was that I started working for a guy named Jack Gilley. Jack owns West Isle Construction and he asked me a few questions when I came for a job interview and I think the key question was whether I listened to CBC radio or not. I answered that one correctly and got the job and started work. So Jack says "I make surfboards" and I am "wow you do?"
Now I hung out with a guy when I was in Australia named Michael Mackie, Southerly Change Surfboards, and he was a well-known shaper and an incredibly good surfer. He took me around his factory and I didn't really pay much attention. You know I just wanted to get my board fixed and he had said come look at my factory so we did. So I started working with Jack and thought you make your own boards, and Jack said yeah, come and watch me sometime, so I watched the process and I thought yeah that's cool. Art meets craft. It's an amazing outlet for artistic talents as well as getting to work with your hands, which I really enjoy, and then the medium provides fun in the end. You know its functioning art. So Jack says "the next time I do a blank order how about I order blank for you". Well, order me two. I just figured if I made mistakes on the first one... and the other thing I had up my sleeve and I'm sure Jack realized, if I had two, the first one he would make and I'd have a board, and the next what I would make. So off we went and he essentially shaped the first board and I had input but mostly I watched. It worked well, it was a good board. It surfed really well and I thought he knows what he's doing. The thing about Jack is he taught me the basics and they're so important you can't run before you walk. Well I shaped that first board and I thought this is something I'm going to do some more. Probably the main reason I thought I would do it some more was that I was really cheap. I was making a small wage, not a terribly bad wage, but a $600 surfboard was a heck of an outlay of cash. So I liked that I could make my own surfboards and I ride them. I also had a terrible habit of snapping off fins. In one season I must've snapped off 10 fins somehow or other, so Jack taught me how to glass on fins and I got lots of experience. That kind of got me into the glassing end of things. I made a few boards with Jack and of course these boards I made, he would come down and look at them, and he'd get this, well, nice smile on his face. He was never like ha ha. You know they turned out all right. Admittedly I thought they looked good, and they did surf, but the glass jobs left a lot to be desired so on and on it went. Buying a blank here, buying a blank there and I jumped in on orders with him. After 20 or 30 boards I started to go hey I can do this, and I do a bit more and a bit more, but really it all started in Jack's garage and lead to my garage.
CoastalBC: so you're at it full-time now?
Stefan: now it's a full-time occupation and it seems like it will last through the winter. Certainly it's a love affair with the work. Definitely it's not a big money producer. Working in construction as long as I did, I have a little nest egg and I'm able to buy materials, and you know, the people around Tofino have been absolutely incredible. They come here and they order their board and they trust, and that's a big thing.
CoastalBC: people love having a local shaper that they can sit down and talk to.
Stefan: they do, they do. Invariably that's the thing and they say they want to know where their surfboard came from, and they want to be able to talk to the guy who's shaping it. I think people know that I have worked hard for a reputation of caring. In the past in construction or now when I shaping, if you've hired me I'm going to give you everything that I can and I really want to be proud of it in the end. It took a while to get people coming here. There were guys like Yens Kalna in particular, bringing in boards and saying make me one that looks like this one and meeting with moderate success at that, and a few other people who said make me a board. Often it was because they too couldn't afford a brand-new board and they also liked the idea of having a board that's made in Tofino. It was really great, they started to send their friends, and then the friends of their friends, and so without any advertising I got a trickle. So because of construction, the surfboards were possible. I'd do an eight-hour day in construction and then a four-hour day of surfboards but now it's entirely surfboards. It's been a lot of fun and each time I get to a new spot, I get a new experience. I did an art show with a guy named Kevin in Vancouver where I made six identical boards and he did some watercolors on them, and they were well received. That was three or four years ago and surfing was a hot thing then as it is now. That allowed me to make six identical boards which was a big thing I thought.
CoastalBC: a real learning process I bet.
Stefan: you know when you make six boards in a row you learn so much more than if you make six boards over six months. You learn the blank which is a big thing. You have to know your blanks. You have to know where the foam has to go and where it has to stay.
CoastalBC: it's just the same as when you're learning to surf. You come over once a week while you're learning to surf and you're not going to get very far very fast. You come over for a week and surf everyday and you think wow, I just learned so much.
Stefan: yeah that's entirely true. I have to say doing those six boards in a row was probably the biggest growing stint in my shaping abilities and that product was going to be shown to a lot of people and so my glassing became a lot more reasonable. Glassing is another art form.
CoastalBC: glassing is something that shapers do around here but in a lot of places...
Stefan: they don't, no. I think it's really important as a shaper to know how to glass. Even if you don't do it.
CoastalBC: even if you ship it out to Pacific glass down the road you need to know what they need to do.
Stefan: that's right you should. The need to know how to critique a glass job and know what good job is and what a bad job is and you need to know how much a board should weigh. A board can weigh a lot from a heavy lamination and you don't want to compensate for heavy lamination with a heavy sanding job. It just doesn't add any performance to the product at all. I've done a lot of glassing now and realize how important it really is and how much of an art form it is as well. The one thing, glassing is not the funnest job in the world.
CoastalBC: I've haven't talked to shaper yet who loves it.
Stefan: I think in the future, if there is work for me in this industry, I would still glass my own personal boards and a few others because as a shaper I think you really know what you want. It's hard to find the continuity. It's like you want an extension of yourself in another person where you can hand them the board and they can see in the shape that you are looking for in the glass job, hard rails this far up, and this much, where they are, you know you can really move that tucked edge around, not much but it makes a difference. Doesn't seem like much but you get somebody like Sepp Bruhwiler on a board and he'll feel the difference and he won't hesitate to tell you "this board sucks" or "this board rules". They know, they know. They may not know what it is but they know there's something wrong or right.
CoastalBC: looks like you do lots of ding repairs too.
CoastalBC: is that seasonal or is it all the time?
Stefan: that is all the time. I have done, I, I can't even imagine how much ding repair of done. I'll bet that I've seen a good 30 percent of the surfboards on this island. I see them all over the place. I see them when they're sold and I think oh I remember that one and that one and it's really neat. I really like that.
CoastalBC: I was just looking at an old Island Rhino in your front hall and thought "I know that board".
Stefan: there you go. It's fun. Around here there's a fair amount of surfers. There is some business to be had there. You don't want to have guys out of the water. They come here and I meet the surfing community. A lot of connections made through ding repair. A lot of surfboards sold through ding repair. It's like, 200 bucks to fix this board cause it's really been worked, you know, or we can get you into a new board for a few hundred dollars more. Sometimes it's a big tossup for guys whether they'll do it or not. Often sentimental value is the only thing the clinches the decision.
CoastalBC: sometimes sentimentality leads to bad decisions but I don't a throwaway my old boards either.
Stefan: it does, it does. I always encourage people, "never get attached to your surfboard". Try not to name it. Love it, treat it well, but remember that the best thing for your surfing is to surf as many surfboards as possible. Maybe you're a longboarder and you're an absolutely natural longboarder. You've been riding short boards and you want to ride short boards, but one day you grab somebody's longboard and you find that you're the cross stepper, you're riding the nose and you're really having a lot of fun and you just don't know.
Even simple things like a different rockers, flatter boards, thicker boards, thinner boards. Don't ride what's in the magazines, ride what works for you, and that's really important. I think some times guys starting out really hurt their surfing for three or four years, which are important years, and they just don't progress. Paddling time matters but standing time really counts. The more you're standing the more you're progressing. If you're out and you have the hottest looking stick out there but you're only getting to your feet once or twice a session, you're not going to progress or its going to take years. It's important. Try as many boards as you can.
You, are really the final factor. You have to go out there and say "that looks like crap. I'm getting make it look good". I used to look out there and go it's just crap, but the better surfers in this community, surfers like Raph Bruhwiler would get 6 or 7 waves well you are watching in say 40 minutes, and he would just rip it up. You know you really have to get out there. I was on a boat trip the other day and my friends said "argh, there's too many people out there and it's not very good". I said "well you can get a lot more waves out there then you are sitting on this boat". Get out there, no matter what the conditions, surf it, surf it especially when you're beginning. Those crappie days will only make you a lot better on the good days, the perfect days.
CoastalBC: thanks Stefan
Stefan: it was fun