Surfboard Glassers: Overworked And Underappreciated

When a surfer talks about riding a magic board—a board that responds precisely to each subtle motion as if it were an extension of the body rather than an inanimate piece of foam and fiberglass—he usually credits the shaper. Rarely, if ever, does he tip his hat to the board’s glasser, the person who spends hours finishing the board to his exact specifications.

“Not too many businesses or surfers have much of an idea or can comprehend exactly what goes on and what we do—the detail and complexity involved, says Morning Glass Owner Tom Nesbit. “However, we don’t do it for the fame or fortune. We do it for the love of the sport and for the passion we have for building boards.

Consider the intricate process a board goes through once it leaves the shaping bay. It’s laminated, hot-coated, and then the fins and leash plug are installed. That’s followed by round after round of dry- and wet-sanding using increasingly finer grits of paper. Don’t forget that many are airbrushed, pinlined, or get a gloss coat and polish.

In all, a glasser will spend at least four hours handling a shaped blank—and that’s not including all the set-up (drying) time. Added together, the process can take up to six days or more.

“It’s pretty time-consuming, says Peter St. Pierre, one of the four cofounders of Moonlight Glassing Company in San Marcos, California. “We run from two to eight weeks {to glass a blank}, depending on how complicated they are.

Surfboards are among the last of a dying breed of custom-made handcrafted goods. While most consumer products are spit out 24/7 in automated factories, high-end surfboards are each painstakingly shaped, painted, glassed, and sanded by hand. “This is an art, not a business, says St. Pierre, referring to the process of making surfboards.

Somewhere in the evolution of the surf industry, the shapers and glassers got left in the dust of the higher-margin clothing and accessories companies’ dash to the bank. They didn’t (couldn’t?) board the lucrative locomotive that many surf companies are riding on today.

Nevertheless, they’re an integral part to the surf industry. Without surfboards, there wouldn’t be a surf industry. “It’s almost like we’re the evil necessity, the anchor that drags them {surf companies}, says St. Pierre.

Diamond Glassing Owner Bob Boeche shares a similar viewpoint and adds that the entire industry should be taking a vested interest in domestic surfboard manufacturing, before it’s history. “I think they {surfwear brands} need to be as concerned as we are, he says, between wheezing coughs. “I think everyone’s got to be concerned who’s part of this industry. We’re all in it together. We’re just a glass shop. We’re probably the lowliest dregs of all of them. But people don’t realize how much we do.

The Moonlight Experience

Moonlight sits nestled in a nondescript industrial park seven miles inland in North San Diego County. It’s in a booming part of San Diego that’s been exploding in tract-home development. Rancho Santa Fe Road, a vital artery to the area, has been subject to months of widening and renovation—and bottlenecks. Adjacent to Moonlight, which has been in the same spot since its nascent days in 1979, is a children’s day-care center. The laughing and shrieking of carefree kids on the playground is a great juxtaposition to the realities inside the close-knit glassing shop.

St. Pierre puts in 60 to 70 hours per week—and he’s not an anomaly in the glassing business. “Most of the guys I know who are doing it {working in a glass shop} are doing that many hours. On an average day, he’ll be at Moonlight by 6:00 a.m. and not leave until 6:00 p.m. It’s not that out of the ordinary to find him plugging away on a Saturday.

He’s not a masochist—he’s got that much work to do. But he is a bit of a perfectionist. St. Pierre is Moonlight’s pinliner and airbrusher, a job that needs the kind of person who pays stringent attention to detail. His three partners each he their own specialty: Gary Stuber is a master laminator, Mark Donnellon is a glosser and has been described as a “magician of a polisher, and Kenny Mann is the primary sander. Combined, they have more than 125 years of surfing experience.

St. Pierre’s wife Sally also works at Moonlight, packing finished boards that are shipped to shops or trucked back to Channel Islands Surfboards, Moonlight’s main account. When she has a free moment between bubble-wrapping and bagging, Sally cuts out discs of sand paper. “This probably saves them a half an hour, she says, rounding off a black sheet of 3M fine-grit paper.

Moonlight finishes between 60 and 70 boards a week. There’re hundreds of four-by-six prints on the office wall of happy customers (including pros such as Rob Machado—a Moonlight regular) who posed with their boards in front of the shop’s life-size poster of Shaquille O’Neal. Moonlight’s volume is low by glass-house standards (other shops regularly pump out as many as 150), but its reputation for craftsmanship has earned the company a lot of custom orders for resin tints, pinlining, airbrushing, and gloss coats—boards that take more time to produce. St. Pierre estimates that 30 percent of the blanks Moonlight receives get either airbrushed, pinlined, or tinted resin. “There’re shops that do 150, but they’re usually doing all clear, sanded finishes, he says. “Sixty or 70 {boards} is pushing it for us. It’s a lot of work.

Compensation—Or Lack Thereof

The elbow grease that glassers put forth not only gets little recognition, it also earns little money. That’s because the cost of making a board—the raw materials, rent, utilities, insurance, and labor—has surged, but the amount shops charge hasn’t followed a similar pattern.

“We’ve raised our price maybe ten bucks in the last four years. It’s not enough, says St. Pierre with a tinge of bitterness and frustration. “Glass shops should be {charging} twice as much as they are. But who would pay it when you can buy a board at Costco for 250 bucks?

True, one reason the surfboard-glassing business is struggling to keep its head above water is the influx of overseas production. You might think those boards coming in from across the Pacific have left a trickle of business for domestic glass shops. But St. Pierre says that’s not the case—Moonlight gets as much business as it can handle. The real impact those overseas boards have on domestic surfboard makers, he says, is the price: the cheap overseas boards have kept prices—and therefore revenue—down. They have made an already cheap clientele even more price-sensitive, so glass shops can’t charge more for their services.

“We have plenty of work, and there’s plenty of work out there, but everybody’s working for nothing, laments St. Pierre. “You just can’t compete. I pay the guy who sweeps my floor more in a day than a guy in Thailand who works in a Surftech {factory} makes in a month.

Shrugs an astonished Boeche at Diamond, “I mean, what are they paying them over there? A bowl of rice and a buck a day? If we keep going in the direction we’re going, this entire industry could be in trouble.

Along with overseas boards, another fact U.S. glassers must deal with is increased competition. “It’s horrendous, notes St. Pierre. “It’s like there’s a new shop popping up all the time. There’s so much competition that they {shapers} can basically dictate the price they want to pay.

Less experienced shops have fewer expenses—some may be operating under the table—and can undercut prices established glassing shops charge. “You can’t charge more because you’ve got all these little backyard shops scraping around saying, ‘I’ll do it for 125 {dollars},’ and they get kids who don’t even know what they’re doing, says Boeche.

While the business at Moonlight has been relatively consistent, St. Pierre says he’s never certain how many boards his shop will glass each month. “You have to grovel for every board you get. There’s no security in this business whatsoever. It’s either feast or famine.

“There hasn’t been one year where I said, ‘Wow, that was bitchen’, I made a ton of money,’ he continues. “Now I’d be happy if I didn’t lose money.

Indeed, St. Pierre says Moonlight was in the red at the end of last year. Moonlight charges 170 dollars a board on average. “So I figure it costs 180, St. Pierre says half jokingly. Diamond also charges 170 dollars, an increase of only 25 dollars since it opened for business twenty years ago. Nesbit says Morning Glass charges 160 dollars to glass and finish the average blank, excluding fins. He says the shop must average 60 boards per week to break even.

Another factor that’s eroded margins is overhead. Over the past couple decades, overhead—labor, rent, utilities, insurance, and worker’s comp—has shot up, but the price Moonlight and other glass houses charge hasn’t. St. Pierre says the biggest increase has been in California’s worker’s comp fees. “It’s just out of hand. For every 100 bucks I pay, I have to pay another eighteen dollars into the workman’s comp system—that’s on top of the Social Security we pay, the state disability … ” says St. Pierre. “Pretty soon no one’s going to be able to afford to manufacture here.

Cost increases for raw materials have also chewed into their share of profits. “When I first opened this place a drum of resin was 175 dollars, says Boeche. “Now it’s almost 600 dollars a drum. Glass used to be twenty, 30 cents a yard. Now it’s a dollar-seventy-five, a dollar-eighty a yard.

The Final Countdown?

Are the days of glass shops numbered? St. Pierre thinks they are for the majority. “Stuff’s going to go overseas. There’ll always be some {glass shops}, but I don’t know.

When asked the same question, Boeche responds rhetorically: “Are the days of surfboards being built in America numbered?

That sounds a little doom-and-gloom, but that’s the way many glassers feel. “We’re the bottom of the bucket, says St. Pierre. “Glass shops are pretty much disposable.

In fact, St. Pierre doesn’t even feel part of the surf industry (he draws a distinction between the surfboard industry and the surf industry). He plays down the impact he and his industry cohorts have on the surf market: “We just build surfboards. We’re not part of that whole scene. We’re not in that loop.

That may be, but glassers and shapers are an integral part of surfing. Boeche says surfwear companies—image people—ought to support surfboard manufacturers. If the magic of surfboards is lost, he argues, then surf brands will become irrelevant to consumers.

“The people in the stores don’t make very much on a surfboard. They make it on the clothing and the watches and the sunglasses and all the other stuff, Boeche says. “But a surfboard is what brings the people in there.

“Once the image of the surfboard goes down, he continues, “what are we going to have?

“We need the whole industry to get behind it. If the whole industry doesn’t get behind it, it just won’t work. The Rustys, the Al Merricks, and the Losts are doing all they can do, but it’s going to take help from the big companies, the clothing companies, that have the money. To keep this going, they’re going to have to help us out. We’re all in it together.

But even though they’re overlooked and under-recognized, and even though the cost of running their business has become extremely expensive and nearly unfruitful, glassers like St. Pierre have managed to keep it all in perspective: “If the surf’s good, I just leave and go surfing. That’s the only thing that’s kept me going. And it’s rare in America that you get to build something bitchen’ and actually see it being used. That’s fun. Going down to the beach and seeing your friends riding something you built makes it worth it.

ere’s no security in this business whatsoever. It’s either feast or famine.

“There hasn’t been one year where I said, ‘Wow, that was bitchen’, I made a ton of money,’ he continues. “Now I’d be happy if I didn’t lose money.

Indeed, St. Pierre says Moonlight was in the red at the end of last year. Moonlight charges 170 dollars a board on average. “So I figure it costs 180, St. Pierre says half jokingly. Diamond also charges 170 dollars, an increase of only 25 dollars since it opened for business twenty years ago. Nesbit says Morning Glass charges 160 dollars to glass and finish the average blank, excluding fins. He says the shop must average 60 boards per week to break even.

Another factor that’s eroded margins is overhead. Over the past couple decades, overhead—labor, rent, utilities, insurance, and worker’s comp—has shot up, but the price Moonlight and other glass houses charge hasn’t. St. Pierre says the biggest increase has been in California’s worker’s comp fees. “It’s just out of hand. For every 100 bucks I pay, I have to pay another eighteen dollars into the workman’s comp system—that’s on top of the Social Security we pay, the state disability … ” says St. Pierre. “Pretty soon no one’s going to be able to afford to manufacture here.

Cost increases for raw materials have also chewed into their share of profits. “When I first opened this place a drum of resin was 175 dollars, says Boeche. “Now it’s almost 600 dollars a drum. Glass used to be twenty, 30 cents a yard. Now it’s a dollar-seventy-five, a dollar-eighty a yard.

The Final Countdown?

Are the days of glass shops numbered? St. Pierre thinks they are for the majority. “Stuff’s going to go overseas. There’ll always be some {glass shops}, but I don’t know.

When asked the same question, Boeche responds rhetorically: “Are the days of surfboards being built in America numbered?

That sounds a little doom-and-gloom, but that’s the way many glassers feel. “We’re the bottom of the bucket, says St. Pierre. “Glass shops are pretty much disposable.

In fact, St. Pierre doesn’t even feel part of the surf industry (he draws a distinction between the surfboard industry and the surf industry). He plays down the impact he and his industry cohorts have on the surf market: “We just build surfboards. We’re not part of that whole scene. We’re not in that loop.

That may be, but glassers and shapers are an integral part of surfing. Boeche says surfwear companies—image people—ought to support surfboard manufacturers. If the magic of surfboards is lost, he argues, then surf brands will become irrelevant to consumers.

“The people in the stores don’t make very much on a surfboard. They make it on the clothing and the watches and the sunglasses and all the other stuff, Boeche says. “But a surfboard is what brings the people in there.

“Once the image of the surfboard goes down, he continues, “what are we going to have?

“We need the whole industry to get behind it. If the whole industry doesn’t get behind it, it just won’t work. The Rustys, the Al Merricks, and the Losts are doing all they can do, but it’s going to take help from the big companies, the clothing companies, that have the money. To keep this going, they’re going to have to help us out. We’re all in it together.

But even though they’re overlooked and under-recognized, and even though the cost of running their business has become extremely expensive and nearly unfruitful, glassers like St. Pierre have managed to keep it all in perspective: “If the surf’s good, I just leave and go surfing. That’s the only thing that’s kept me going. And it’s rare in America that you get to build something bitchen’ and actually see it being used. That’s fun. Going down to the beach and seeing your friends riding something you built makes it worth it.