By Saphara Harrell
COOS BAY, Ore. — Foam particles float through the air, eventually falling into a pile on the floor, the culmination of the many surfboards that have been shaped in this garage.
Kyle Shellhammer is using a planer to manipulate a polyurethane foam blank, sanding it until it forms into what will become one of his Eggnog surfboards.
Riding a board for the first time can spark a passion for surfing that can last a lifetime. Well-known shapers such as Al Merrick, Rusty Preisendorfer and Bing Copeland set the stage for custom board-making and propelled the evolution of their designs.
Some of that evolution is taking place in Coos Bay, Oregon.
Shellhammer’s boards have a distinct shape — like an egg — and style that’s specific to his shaping.
The 35-year-old shaper said an Eggnog board is anything from 6 feet, 3 inches to 7 feet, 5 inches with a single fin. These surfboards are for when the waves are fun, but not too big, he said.
He shapes all of his boards by hand, taking time to learn about his customers before he makes them — sometimes going as far as surfing with the person to gauge their style.
He said factory-produced boards made overseas don’t have the same quality as handmade ones.
Shellhammer got his first surfboard blanks at 18 years old, from there Eggnog surfboards was born. He said he learned a lot in those early days.
“There’s so much more involved with shaping,” Shellhammer said, “I adapted to it really quickly because I tested my equipment.”
He said surfboards — or what he calls “vehicles of happiness” — don’t have to be perfect to work well.
“Every wave is different,” he said, “having perfectly symmetrical boards doesn’t mean they work better.”
He doesn’t use templates to make his boards, instead taking inspiration from several different sources and combining it into one.
Veteran board shaper Dan Matthews said his younger counterpart is “kind of a freewheeling guy.”
Matthews has been shaping for almost 50 years. In that time, he’s seen surfing evolve quite a bit.
“In 1964, there weren’t 50 surfers in all of the Northwest,” he said.
In the late 1960s, Matthews started a surfboard shop with some of his friends. That was before surfing wetsuits were available. Matthews said surfers used bulky diving suits that consisted of high-waisted pants and a jacket.
“We used to sprinkle cornstarch so you could get them on,” he said.
There were no gloves or boots, either.
“Your feet just got really cold,” Matthews said.
Equipment isn’t the only thing that’s evolved in the sport.
“In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the big move was to get in the barrel and go fast,” Matthews said. That changed as thrusters started to surface in the 1980s, allowing surfers to make turns on waves like a skater would carve on cement.
Matthews said he prefers shaping short boards because they’re fun to make, but adds that good surfers can ride anything from a 6-foot board to a 9-foot one. To him, surfing is attractive because it’s on the edge of being in the extreme sport category.
The element of danger is especially prevalent on the South Coast, where the shark-inhabited, frigid water isn’t the most inviting place. But the comparatively small amount of local surfers creates a sense of community.
“Even with younger surfers, if they come in with a respectful attitude,” Matthews said.
The shaper is busier these days, teaching classes at Southwestern Oregon Community College and helping run his wife’s business. Matthews said he stopped fiberglassing because of the resin fumes, which can be toxic. Shellhammer glasses all his boards now.
Shellhammer said glassing is its own unique skill, separate to shaping.
“To make glassing work you have to kind of be a mess as a person,” he said, referring to glassers as “all wacky.”
In the shop, he works quickly, smoothing the liquid resin over the fiberglass cloth before it hardens.
Although surfboard-making may be a drawn-out process, Shellhammer’s explanation for a surfboard’s purpose is simple.
“Your board is an extension of you to connect with the ocean,” he said.