Originally posted August 2012
By Terrie Leigh Relf
Nothing says OB more than surf, sweet boards, and social consciousness!
In the following interview, OBcean Larry O’Brien, vintage body board collector, cave explorer, and aspiring eccentric shares one of his many passions: Creating boards from found wood and other materials.
Coronadoian “Paipo Mike” Shourds, builder of wooden body boards and recycled junk bikes since 1960, is also a collector and all-around creative person.
Terrie Leigh Relf: What inspired you to create your body boards?
Larry O’Brien: Back when I was in junior high school, carpentry was something taught in school, and sex was something you learned on the street. Making a three-foot plywood belly board was one of the elective projects for eighth graders. I didn’t make one, but some of my friends did, and then rode them. At that time, I was more interested in bodysurfing.
Nowadays, most woodshops have been removed from our schools, and I think there is only one that serves the citywide adult continuing education programs. So, woodworking has become something you learn at home or on the street. Fortunately, the Internet has been a real game-changer, and I think it’s been the biggest factor in the rebirth of riding wood.
I have no trade secrets. I freely share my designs and building techniques. I want people to make their own boards. We must keep the flame alive. I remain hopeful that someday we can liberate the glee club, and teach kids woodworking in all of the schools.
I’ve been a collector of vintage surfboards and belly boards for many years. It was only about ten years ago that I started making my own wooden boards. I don’t do it for profit. To me, they are ride-able art, and they also tickle my inner mad scientist.
Mike Shourds: I also started making wood boards back in 1960. My dad wouldn’t buy me and my brother a surfboard, so he gave us a ½” sheet of plywood and a jigsaw and said, “Make one.” Thanks dad! The beach was our playground when we were kids, so everything rotated around it.
Terrie: Larry, how did you come up with the name “beach toys”?
Larry: I might have got beach toys from one of my friends. I use it as an umbrella term to cover a wide range of surfcraft sizes and construction methods. There are many specific terms, like surfboard, bellyboard, paipo, alaia, lamaroo, bodyboard, handboard, handplane, and even Royal Egyptian Cubit Board. Calling them beach toys helps to keep it simple.
Terrie: Have you experimented with other recycled materials for your ride-able art?
Larry: I repurposed a large waiter’s tray simply by putting a bodyboard leash on it. It was a fun experiment. It still makes a good tray, and that can come in handy at the beach. A while back, I made a handboard (mini paipo) out of the lid from a toilet seat. I added a layer of cork to bring up the buoyancy. I even glued on the hotel label that says: “Sanitized for your protection.”
Last year, I made a bellyboard out of an old ironing board. It was one of those wooden ironing boards that fold down out of a wall cabinet. I added handles and a tailblock made from recycled wood. I must confess that I bought a new ironing board cover for it. It was an impulse buy. I couldn’t resist the 60s pattern.
I haven’t recycled any cork bulletin boards, but that is certainly a good source. I still have a bunch of cork that I bought used. It had been shelf padding at a retail store, so it’s repurposed in a sense, plus cork is relatively sustainable as it’s periodically harvested without killing the tree. Cork has several benefits when used in surfcraft. It makes a wood board float better, it offers some padding, and you don’t need wax on the deck.
Mike: I make them from all kinds of scrap wood I find on my walks with the dogs. I don’t repurpose broken surfboards so much any more because it requires chemicals like resin.
Terrie: What’s the most exciting wood you’ve worked with?
Mike: Probably the most exciting wood I’ve ever worked with is lightning-struck poplar. I get it from a guy in Illinois who has a small lumber mill in his background and recycles trees that would normally go to the landfill. He sells it cheap on EBay.
Larry: There’s a lot of good work being done with a farmed tree called pauwlonia. It’s light, but strong enough that it doesn’t need to be fiber-glassed. There’s no longer any need to make surfboards out of old-growth redwood.
Terrie: Have you collaborated with anyone on projects?
Larry: I neglected to mention Lazarus boards. It’s a process that Mike and I brainstormed. Essentially, it involves making a bellyboard or two from a broken fiberglass surfboard. The goal is to minimize the waste and the amount of chemicals needed to make the board ride-able. Conventional wisdom is to strip the fiberglass off the broken surfboard, reshape the foam, and then add more fiberglass and resin. By contrast, a Lazarus bellyboard gets a wide wooden tailblock glued onto the broken edge of the surfboard. Then, it’s sealed with varnish, epoxy resin, or both.
Mike: Made one or two just for fun. Waste not; want not. Larry and I took some broken surfboards, cleaned up the edges, squared them up, and finished them off.
I worked on the ironing board with him, too. Sanded it up, then re-glued it because it was cracking up. It didn’t need resin. Larry put on some rails and then varnished it all up. I haven’t used as much cork as Larry.
Terrie: Mike, could you talk a bit about glue, resin, and varnish?
Mike: Most varnishes are naturally based. Polyurethane is actually natural. Any kind of mineral spirits come from pine trees and aren’t toxic. You can get water-based varnish, but it doesn’t hold up as well. I also use linseed oil, and that’s natural. Larry uses hemp oil, and buys it by the gallon at People’s, I think.
For glue, I just use Gold Medal All Purpose White Glue. It’s a glue that wood carpenters use because it’s water proof. You just clamp it and it sets overnight. I also use Titebond II. The container doesn’t say what’s in it, but it’s not like you’d use a lot, just enough to coat the board and glue it together.
Terrie: What is the greenest product you can use to seal your boards?
Larry: That’s one of those questions that have more than one answer. Raw Tung oil thinned with citrus solvent is a really good choice. It dries (polymerizes) quickly without the aid of the chemical driers that are contained in many of the usual retail products. Some people will insist on water-based products. Tint and pigments can slow the UV damage, and longevity is certainly a green factor to consider. Sometimes, the greenest choice involves using up a product that you already have in your house or garage.
Mike: Hemp oil and boiled linseed oil. Boiled linseed oil has probably been around for thousands of years. It’s been used with carpentry forever, and was probably the only way to seal wood way back when.
Terrie: Are your creations for sale?
Larry: I don’t currently sell or give them away, but I might consider donating boards for charity raffles and auctions. That would be more likely if I could team up with a real artist like Michael Dormer or John Tafolla. For now, I just prefer to share my boards and information about them. It’s like the difference between giving a person a fish, and teaching them how to catch their own for the rest of their life. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with selling boards made from sustainable or recycled materials, but I just don’t have the time to make them in large numbers. If you don’t want to build your own, then Jon Wegener and Christine Brailsford are a couple of builders that sell pauwlonia boards locally.
Mike: If someone wants one, I will sell them one. I would rather show them how to make one, though. That would be much more rewarding. The kids down the block wanted one but didn’t have the money, so I gave them the wood and showed them how to do it. Once they’re done, they can bring them back and I’ll help them finish them off. Then they’ll know how to make another one.
That’s how I started. My dad showed me how to use the tools, and the first ones I made were about as crude as you can get. When I look at things or watch people doing something, like laying tile, for example, I think, “I can do that. I just need to know how to do it.”
What happens is you come to a realization. You learn by doing, by asking others to show you how. Or, you get a book or a pamphlet. Making the things we use, like shoes, or completing tasks like changing a tire or the oil in your car, is a lost art. People just want to have someone else do it for them. They don’t want to get their hands dirty. It’s sad.
Terrie: Any other comments on sustainability, being an artist, or creating functional art?
Larry: I think sharing knowledge is the best way to reduce the amount of new plastic used for surfcraft. I say new plastic, because I have some future projects that will involve recycling or repurposing plastic into surfcraft.
I’d like to see the general public get better access to unwanted materials at the landfill. The free section on Craigslist is a good source, but we could have one-stop shopping at the landfill. That would be greener with less driving around and more time for art.
Mike: There’s this guy who recycles old wood from barns. The wood is probably over 100 years old. People seem to like distressed wood for flooring.
There’s also a guy who mines elm logs out of the Great Lakes. These are probably 150 years old, as the Dutch elm disease took them down in the 30s or 40s, like the bark beetle here with oak trees. Some of those elm logs are worth over a half-million dollars.
I just pick up wood, an old cabinet or dresser, then break it down and use the wood The only wood I usually buy is birch at Home Depot. I find better wood on my own.
Terrie: What about your creative process?
Mike: I don’t consider myself an artist, although I’m sure some people consider what I do as art. I’m an all-around creative person and get all these ideas when I go out in the water by myself. Sometimes, I get these crazy ideas and then go home and try them out, like the slingshots I make. It’s a thinking process, always spinning. I think, yeah, I could make one of those. I make a few, think, that’s not it, that’s not it, then I get the right design. Good old trial and error.
I think that’s how we got to where we are today. Back in prehistoric times, the people would spy a dinosaur, wonder if it tasted good. Yuck. Then they see a mastodon, and realize after eating it that they had enough hide to make a tent, shoes, etc. This is where creativity starts. People forget these things nowadays. They just go down to Wal-Mart.
I think along the same things as Larry in this. There should be classes on doing normal things: How to unplug a toilet, change a light bulb and all those other basic day-to-day things. It’s sad how we live in a throwaway society.
Terrie: What are some of the projects you’re working on now?
Larry: My latest path is something I call Goddess boards. The template was inspired by the ancient Goddess figurines. There is always a trade-off between speed and maneuverability, and I think those goals are well balanced in a Goddess board.
Mike: I’m working on a double hand board from trash can wood. It’s like a miniature catamaran that you hold out in front. Still working on a few other hand boards.
Terrie: Thank you for your time, Larry and Mike. Anything you’d like to add in closing?
Larry: I recently attended an event in La Jolla called the Paipo Stokefest. It was awesome. It harkened back to a time when surfers weren’t as numerous, and the meeting of tribes was a happy occasion. That morning in La Jolla was filled with genuine curiosity and camaraderie. When I left the Stokefest, I found a broken Styrofoam bellyboard in the beach trash. Those Chinese boards usually only last one day at the beach. It’s planned obsolescence on steroids. Please don’t buy them for your children.
Mike: I like to help kids make something they can ride and be proud of. Something other than that Chinese junk.
Terrie: Stay tuned for the next segment where Larry and Mike take me to Coronado to ride a paipo. No doubt we’ll discuss how to upcycle that broken Styrofoam bellyboard cover, and will have even more photos to share!
Most photos by Mike Shroud; photo captions by Larry O’Brien.