Visit with Dave Levy of Levy Surf Designs
By Peter Pan
It's below freezing and the wind is howling at the town beach. Dave Levy is outside in the cold, sanding down a new surfboard. There's no heat in this open air shaping room, but at least the sun is out. Dave is the only custom surfboard shaper in the northeast that works full time in the profession. There is a swell on the way this week and he wants to get the surfboard finished ahead of its arrival.
Surfboard shapers have always been glorified as freewheeling artists who use foam as their canvas. Often times the media will depict a shaper working in what could be considered a sterile operating room blanketed by rows of bright lights, spotless tools and a state-of-the-art ventilation system.
This might be true at one of the mass production surfboard manufacturing facilities in China, but not here in Narragansett. Levy works out of a tiny 2-room hut similar to what the shapers used in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Most custom surfboard builders now send their hand shaped foam blanks to special glassing shops for the final step in the process of making a surfboard. Levy does it all by himself. There are very few shapers in the world today that can make a surfboard from start to finish. That is why Dave has a steady clientele from all over the northeast.
His operation is primarily limited to one small room. When the weather doesn't cooperate he works in the room to hand shape the foam blank to his customer’s specifications. Then he turns the room into a glass shop to finish the process. Glassing a surfboard is an art form in itself and is probably more difficult than the shaping. The resin and hardener mixture, the air temperature and the moisture index must all be perfect or the job must be repeated. With the high cost of quality resin and glass cloth, there's really is no room for mistakes if you want to stay in business.
Levy’s glassing prowess is in such that shapers from all over the Northeast bring him their shaped foam blanks to be finished in fiberglass. Dave shaped his first surfboard in 1976 in an empty bedroom above the original location of the Watershed Surf Shop on Main Street in Wakefield. It was a custom round tail single fin for longtime ESA competitor Bob Fredette of South Attleboro, Massachusetts. In the the thirty four years since that time he has shaped and finished thousands of surfboards of every possible size and style.
Throughout his years as co-owner of the surf shop he continued to hand shape and glass custom surfboards for customers and began to build a solid clientele. In 2000 he decided to make surfboards full-time and has been able to do this for the past decade. Peter Pan interviewed Dave in his shaping room this past week and spoke about what it's like to be a surfboard craftsman in New England.
Pan: How's business?
DL: Surprisingly good! There are a lot of surfers out there who are serious about working on and improving their surfing. In order to do this you really need to ride a custom, hand shaped surfboard that is built to your ability and skill level.
Pan: Is this a better way to buy a surfboard besides just pulling something off the rack?
DL: It seems to work out better in the long run. I will make maybe 6 surfboards for someone over the course of one year and I will have them stand next to me in the shaping room while I am doing their board. They will tell me to thin out a rail or pull in a tail and say that it's exactly the way they wanted it done. Two weeks later, I see them in the water on another surfboard. They tell me that the board I shaped them was not what they expected. That can be frustrating. Sometimes it takes a surfer to try out several boards before he finds the right combination.
Pan: So they really don’t know what they want?
DL: A good surfer doesn’t necessarily know the dynamics of why the surfboard works for him. They all like to think they do and that is how they get into trouble.
Pan: What do you feel is your biggest competition?
DL: Cheaply made and mass produced fiberglass surfboards from Southeast Asia have been dumped on the U.S. market for several years. With no EPA regulations to contend with, low paid workers and cheap foam, resin, and glass, it is impossible to compete with them. Their downside however, is that many of them are poorly designed or made with inferior materials. They start to deteriorate as soon as they hit the water. These surfboards are also terrible to repair. I can’t tell you how many times I did major repairs on one of them and the repair bill was more than they paid for the board originally.
Pan: What's happening with the Stand-up Paddleboard market?
DL: That is a whole new market. Guys that have been riding production pop-out stand-ups are now requesting hand shaped custom boards for both flat water and surf riding. Due to the size and thickness of these surfboards, the costs are much higher to produce.
Pan: What do you see for future growth in the industry?
DL: Serious surfers including top amateurs, pros, and hot and up coming groms all ride hand shaped, U.S. fiberglass surfboards. Many beginners and intermediate riders will buy a low-end surfboard made in Thailand or China and soon realize that it is not well made and has no resale value. Consumers who purchase the molded “pop-out” style surfboards will also find that they do not respond like hand shaped fiberglass does.
Pan: How hazardous is your job?
DL: It's very hazardous to your health. Everything that you use to build a surfboard with is highly toxic and full of cancer producing fumes. Fiberglass cloth and resin are known cancer producers. The list of shapers and glassers from the 1960’s and 1970’s who have died from various forms of cancer just kept growing daily. That is why I wear a mask and gloves when I work.
Pan: Any parting thoughts?
DL: Building surfboards can be a dirty, messing and frustrating occupation. It is kind of like dishwashing. Everyone should have a go at it at least once in their lifetime, so they can see how really hard it is.