When Jed Noll talks about growing up with his dad, Greg Noll, it’s not loaded with the ostentation that might come with being raised by a surfing legend and big-wave pioneer.
Jed was brought up in Crescent City, California– removed from the epicenters of surf culture– where Greg worked as a commercial fisherman to support the family. “I had no concept whatsoever of any of his accomplishments,” says Jed. “He was just dad.” Whether or not Greg shared any surf lore with Jed at a young age, a love of the ocean runs strong in the family genes.
By his late teens, Jed had taken a strong interest in shaping surfboards. It didn’t require stories of his dad’s sojourns to Oahu’s North Shore or knowledge of the surfboard shaping empire that he built, beginning in 1951. In fact, like most teenagers, Jed had an easier time learning from anyone but dad. “When you’re 18 years old it’s tough to believe that what he’s saying is right. It was much easier to learn to shape boards from other people.”
Jed moved to Santa Cruz and began shaping boards professionally. Upon honing his craft, however, he went back to work with his dad. Together Jed and Greg have revived Noll Surfboards. The family business, which is now based in San Clemente, builds everything from classic, period specific surfboards from solid redwood, all the way up to modern shortboards– and literally every type of surf craft that’s existed in between.
Jed took some time out from working as “the elbow grease” in the family partnership to talk about Noll Surfboards’ past, present, and future:
What’s the story behind your dad’s decision to stop building boards for so many years?
Throughout the late 60′s dad was doing 250 boards every week out of his shop in Hermosa Beach. It was a 20,000-square-foot factory. And at that point he pulled the plug and didn’t like the way the industry was going. The shortboard revolution had just started. And it was a whole other wave that he was going to have to adapt to. He had already been in it for about 20 years. And they’d already gone from redwood to foam and longboards to shortboards. He was just over it. So he spent about 15 years as a commercial fisherman.
What are some of the challenges associated with building solid wood surfboards?
With the wood boards we have to remember that all of them– before 1950– were made by individuals, so no two boards are identical. So we’ve tried to pick out boards that we think were good boards from that time period. But a guy down the street could have a different example from the same year and it’s going to surf completely different. Some people come into the shop and say “This isn’t what it looked like.”
But the thing is, if you get nine guys who made boards from that time, you’re going to get nine different boards. That’s how they evolved. Every one of those guys was a craftsman and made boards based on their own style, ability and comprehension of the craft.
What’s the reaction when people come to check the boards out at the shop?
It’s really cool to see people’s reaction to all of this stuff in one place. They’re very curious about the how and why of everything. It’s a part of our history, which is important to me.
There are things that I’ve taken from old designs and been able to apply to modern surfboards, not in extreme cases. But there are concepts that, when you can understand the evolution of the surfboard from the last 100 years, and when you see that evolution and understand it, I can take them and apply them to my shaping.
What’s the attraction to these surfboards for you and the customer?
Sometimes we work with redwood that’s 2,000 years old. To be able to work with a material like that and turn it into something that you can hope will be around for generations is a great feeling. It’s preserved, and 100 years later it will be in the same form
In terms of the wood boards, even though they are dimensionally correct and totally surfable, the majority of them are going up on the wall. The price range can be anywhere from $6,000 to $20,000. At this point sometimes it has to do with what the wifey likes and the remodeling of the house. One of the wood boards we did went for $40,000 at an auction. That was the most expensive board that we’ve done.
Do you ride the older, period specific surfboards?
They ride awesome. It’s like wiping the slate clean and relearning how to surf. It allows you to end up in places on the wave where you might not go. [On modern surfboards] you have all this control.
On the old boards you don’t change directions that often so you’ve got to learn to be able to trim and stall and speed up without changing directions. We all take that for granted these days because when you get on the flat of the wave [on modern boards] you can do a big roundhouse or use your fins and rail for acceleration. With these other boards you’ve got to create your own kind of flow, which sounds mystical and trippy, but it’s true. You’ve got to conform to the board, not the other way around.
Does your dad ever talk about his winters on the North Shore?
He’s got some really funny stories that I’ve heard so many times. He talks about the first time they rode Sunset Beach and the first time they took off on waves like Sunset and fell straight on their asses because they didn’t have the control and the equipment wasn’t right. It’s great listening to him talk about piling into the car and driving through and seeing the North Shore spread out in front of him for the first time.
I think that’s one of my favorite things to think about, being able to go over to the North Shore– this was only 50 years ago–you could have had those waves to yourself. That sounds like an amazing time of life.