Building Stoke: Neil Toracinta - Tora Surfboards
Story and photos by Rachel McCarty
The warm glow of shop lights spills out of an open garage bay, starkly contrasting with the cloudy grey skies above. Nestled on a quiet street, just blocks from the extravagant, finely crafted Newport mansions on Ruggles Avenue, Neil Toracinta crafts perfection of his own.
Some kid in a garage is at the heart of surfing’s history. It wasn’t that long ago that shortboards were the Frankenstein craft of backyard shapers who hacked up longboards to start a revolution. Everyone has to begin somewhere, and this garage is the beginning of Tora Surfboards.
Neil started surfing around the age of 13, going out with a couple of friends whenever there were waves and just messing around until it started to stick. “Born and raised” in Newport, he quickly ingratiated himself into the local lineup, which included Water Brothers owner Sid Abruzzi. “We started surfing with them, me and a couple friends, when we were young, and a lot of the guys kind of took us under their wing” says Neil. “Sid has always been really good to me. He’s always been really supportive ever since I started shaping. I just basically grew up with them, the whole Water Brothers crew.”
Newport fosters a tightly knit community of surfers. It would be hard not to share the water with legends like Sid when you grow up around there. The garage Neil shapes in, which belongs to his grandparents, is a mile from Ruggles. From the driveway he pointed out a house across the street: the house his parents lived in when he was born, before they moved just a little farther down the road.
When I stopped by the garage, Neil was grinding down the laps of a board he was helping a local high school kid shape as part of a senior project, allowing the process to come full circle. “[Shaping] started as a senior project we had to do in high school where we had to find a mentor and produce a “final product” to present at the end of the year, so I chose shaping surfboards, which was becoming my main interest at the time,” he said. “My mentor was a local guy, Bill Slaby, who taught me a lot about how to glass a board. I taught myself to shape mostly, and this ended up being good because I was able to learn the techniques and what worked and what didn’t work through trial and error.”
The addiction started with that first experiment. Much like catching your first wave, shaping your first surfboard is thrilling and terrifying at the same time. Materials are expensive, and just a few mistakes can turn a potential wave riding vehicle into a landfill-bound mess of foam and fiberglass. “My first 10 boards or so weren’t very good. I still have the first two hidden in a closet,” laughs Neil. Getting every detail right can feel like forcing the stars to align, but Neil has certainly come a long way since he started shaping in 2007.
It was influence from shapers like Bob Pearson and Matt Biolos that helped to push Neil in the right direction. “Bob Pearson from Pearson Arrow shapes boards for a lot of local guys. [Pearson is] from Santa Cruz, and some of their breaks are similar to the ones we have around here, so I definitely feel comfortable using his boards as a reference when I’m shaping,” says Neil, who shapes in a Pearson Arrow sweatshirt that still has foam dust in every nook and cranny after three washings. “Also a company like … Lost, to see how big they’ve become starting the same way I did, just making boards out of a garage.”
The smell of polyester resin wafts around the garage and I breathe in deep, soaking up all the chemical goodness that sends surfers to dreaming of empty barrels and tropical islands. For mind-surfing hallucinations, epoxy doesn't do it for me and I don’t blame Neil for sticking with the classics. “All my boards to date have been made with polyurethane blanks and polyester resin,” he says. “I’ve never tried making epoxy boards. [The polyurethane/polyester] combo has just been the easiest for me to work with, and proven throughout the industry to perform the best.”
The common complaint about funboards is that they do everything okay, but nothing well. What a shaper can take from this is that it’s important that you do at least one thing well, and Neil certainly has been following that mantra. “I generally keep most of my focus on shaping shortboards and all the components that go into making a good shortboard,” says Neil. “I shape funboards and fishes and all that too, but shortboards have definitely been my main focus. I have been getting some interesting orders, including everything from 5-foot small wave boards to 7-foot single fins and I enjoy shaping those too.” His main customers are local surfers in the Newport area, but he is branching out. “I have a few boards in the works for some big hitters over on Maui.”
Most professional shapers will agree it takes hundreds, if not thousands, of boards shaped to master the craft. However, to just feel like a shaper, to have an innate feel for compound curves and forms, can happen quickly. Neil, with only 40 boards under his belt, realized that moment “once my boards started to sell and I was getting some good feedback from guys who were riding them.” He still considers himself to be learning, but I think even the heavyweight greats of the world believe they'll always be learning too.
Feedback is key to the board building process, and unless your shaper took your brand new stick for a spin before handing it off to you, they would never know how well the board works until you crawled out of the water, shook off some sand and uttered a few concrete adjectives in between stoked shouts and hoots. If your shaper is smudging wax on the freshly polished deck of your new board, I suggest you invest in a thesaurus. Neil has no problem eliciting feedback from the guys who ride his boards, like local
he needs to fix anything, though he rarely has to fix them.”Our shaper/surfer relationship is a very close one for sure,” says Luke. “Whenever he is shaping a board or is done with one he likes to have me come over to look at it and tell him if I like the shape or not. I think that helps him a lot because he can have another surfer looking at it and telling him if
Neil has embraced the reactions he gets from surfers who try his boards. “Whether it’s what the board did well for the rider or what it didn’t do well,” says Neil, “it allows you to take that criticism and apply it to shaping so the boards just get better and better. Riding my own boards has helped me gain a good understanding of how a board works and what makes it perform well in the water too. All feedback is good feedback.”
As I walked out of the garage, leaving the radiating warmth of the shop lights and entering back into the dreary November dusk, I asked Neil what keeps him shaping surfboards when he could be making more money waiting tables.
“It’s a pretty simple concept, I have a lot more fun shaping boards and expanding the Tora brand then I would ever have at a 9-5 or waiting tables.”
You can’t argue with passion.