comscore Reshaping surfboards | Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Reshaping surfboards

    Jon Wegener and his brother Tom, who lives in Australia, shape boards inspired by designs that date from the late 1800s using a lightweight wood called paulownia.
    Jon Wegener with one of his surfboards at his home in Encinitas, Calif., last month.

In 2008, Dan Malloy, a professional surfer, received a package in the mail from Australia. In it was a thin, rectangular slab of wood with one rounded edge. It was a board like none he had ever seen, remarkable for being so slender and for lacking contours or fins.

Malloy, then living in Lompoc, Calif., took the board to a nearby surf break. He propelled himself into a wave, stood and then panicked.

"I thought, ‘Oh, this wave is way too fast for me, and there’s no chance I can make it,’" said Malloy, who has surfed for decades.

But he did make it and soon was gliding effortlessly through the water — and really fast.

Malloy was riding a board called an alaia (pronounced ah-LIE-ah), descended from the original Hawaiian surfboards. He would begin riding its smaller but equally fast counterpart, the paipo (pronounced PIPE-oh), a year later.

Both types of surfboards are made by Tom Wegener, an American living in Australia, and his brother, Jon Wegener, who is based in Encinitas, Calif. The brothers grew up surfing in Palos Verdes, Calif., and began shaping regular foam and Fiberglas surfboards as a hobby when they were teenagers and then professionally after college. They now operate separate businesses, Tom Wegener Surfboards and Wegener Surfboards, but they often share ideas and collaborate on designs.

In recent years, they have revived Hawaiian surfboard designs to innovate in a sport that had become increasingly reliant on factory production and on synthetic materials, like foam and fiberglass. While resurrecting ancient innovation is not a new practice, "it tends to be very rare," said Joel Mokyr, a professor of economics and history at Northwestern University. But, he said, some innovators, inspired by nostalgia and the belief that the wisdom of the past can trump what we know today, decide to look back in time.

Tom Wegener started making alaias after visiting Bishop Museum in Hono­lulu in 2004 and measuring traditional boards dating to the late 1800s and early 1900s. Captivated by their simplicity, he began creating his own versions, using a lightweight, naturally water-resistant wood called paulownia.

In 2006, Jon Wegener visited his brother in Australia and saw the new designs. Almost on the spot, Jon Wegener began shaping alaias of his own.

"You see something like that, and you freak out," he said. "You just want to instantly shape one."

And so the two began collaborating informally on designs.

After returning to California, Jon Wegener continued making alaias, and from 2008 to 2010, alaias grew to be roughly 80 percent of his business. Regular foam-and- Fiberglas boards, which he had been shaping and selling for 15 years, made up the rest. Customers for the alaias included well-known professional surfers, like Malloy and Rob Machado. The boards even landed roles in several surfing movies.

But there was a problem: Non-elite surfers found alaias hard to ride because they don’t float as well as modern boards. As the Wegeners experimented with different designs, they realized that the more diminutive paipo was easier to ride. It was also more fun, partly because it performs well in small waves. "Big waves are cool; small waves aren’t," Jon Wegener said. "But small waves are what you have 90 percent of the time."

The paipo ranges in length from 3 to 5 feet; some models are as slender as a half-inch thick. This allows riders to tuck into a wave’s sweet spot, he said, what surfers call the pocket.

Because the exact shapes of waves vary, the Wegeners have created various paipo designs for different types of surf, a common practice among modern surfboard shapers.

Unlike regular surfboards, which are a finished product by the time they first hit the water, the wooden boards can be refined and improved throughout their life span using simple tools like handsaws and sandpaper. They are also relatively impervious to dings and dents.

While demand for alaias has begun to decline because of their difficulty, paipo sales have increased, Jon Wegener said. He sells his boards through his website and Nalu Dry Goods, located in Bay Shore, N.Y., and a handful of Southern California surf shops. The Patagonia store in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Calif., north of San Diego, sells his paipos for $325 each.

"What’s so great about this wood movement is it’s a whole new book," he said. "A whole new chapter for surfing."


Claire Martin, New York Times

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