The Shape Of Things To Come: Al Merrick Q&A

Board builders are the ultimate canaries in the coal mine when it comes to the popularity of surfing. They can spot growth trends where it counts — with actual surfers who do more than just embrace the surf look. So how’s the air around our particular section of the action-sports mine? According to Channel Islands Founder and world-renowned shaper Al Merrick, the future smells sweet for both his business and the overall growth of the sport.

How would you rank surfing’s popularity right now compared with last year and five years ago?
Al Merrick: I can only speak for myself. I really don’t have touch with the rest of the industry because I’m in Santa Barbara and a bit removed from what’s going on down south. This is far and away our busiest year. So, as far as surfboards go, the market is good and strong. Worldwide, business is strong.

Is surfing just plain ol’ getting more popular?
No question. The sport’s growing like crazy. The women’s market is growing especially rapidly. There’re more girls in the water, and outside the continental United States it’s also growing rapidly.

Some people say surfboard sales go up during a recession. Do you see your business pick up when economic times are hard?
Yes. I’ve always noticed that and I’ve been one of those people who advocate that theory. Maybe not every surfboard maker will see an increase, but I think the shapers people trust will definitely grow. There’s just more time on people’s hands and surfing’s a real cheap sport.

Are boards being produced in China a threat to the surf industry? If so, what, if anything, should be done about them?
I don’t know whether they’re a threat or a possible help to the surf industry. Maybe the sales of boards in mass-market stores like Kmart could possibly create a downturn. It did in 60s, when they mass-marketed boards. Back then there was a definite downturn.
It’s gonna happen and I don’t think there’s any way the surf industry can stop it. I haven’t seen it occur in any other industry, and there’s certainly a lot bigger industries with a lot more power facing these same issues. I don’t see how we would have the political power to say, “Change the way the tariffs are set up.” For example, we can’t make boards here and then ship them to Europe or Australia. Their tariffs are way too high. However, those countries can ship product here because we don’t have those types of barriers.

It’s important for surfers to get the exact dimensions they need. Do you think mass-produced boards will be able to meet those needs?
No, they’re not gonna to be able to meet the absolute custom needs, that’s for sure. If someone surfs on a board made in China board for a while and he gets better, he’s gonna naturally want something that’s more suited to him. If he sticks with surfing then he’ll probably jump over to a board that’s made more specifically for him. Surfboard consumers are really highly educated about what works, not so much in their knowledge of dimensions or things like that, but they could go into a shop and put a board under their arm and go, “This feels good to me — this is right for me.”

In ten years, how will the surfboard manufacturing business be different, and what will stay the same?
That’s a hard one to say. There’ll always be room for customizing boards. There might be some new materials. Materials that can’t be hand-shaped and have to be molded and yet are so vastly superior in their performance to what we’re doing now that they may take a larger market share. I see that possibly happening.

If you look at all the components of a surfboard — the design, the foam, the glass, the fins — which part do you think needs the most change at this point?
Because I consider myself a designer, it’s always what can improve the board’s performance. That’s always first in my mind. Whether that’s a particular shape or a different type of material, that’s a possibility. Certainly, the materials we’ve been using — and we’ve been using them for so many years now — are probably the one area that most likely would logically change.

What’s the latest and greatest innovation in the surfboard manufacturing market?
Probably the most interesting innovation I’ve seen lately is the Salomon blank. It’s interesting because it’s a different approach to surfboard blanks. It’s hollow and you’re able to change the flex patterns of it with stantions inside. It’s also extremely light. I made Kelly Slater a board that’s like three pounds or something. That’s probably the most interesting innovation. Whether that’s what will be happening in the future, I don’t know yet. It’s still under a lot of testing.

Do you see other foam products moving into the market?
Styrofoams have been around for ten-million years, but have never panned out. But there are always new advances in that stuff, so the possibility is there. There are also a lot of materials out there that just aren’t applicable to surfboards or that we’re not able to get a hold of because the manufacturer only produces them by the boxcarload. They go toward really big projects. Surfboards are pretty tiny.

What fin system — glass-on, FCS, Red-X, Future, and so on — is the most popular, and what do your customers and team riders prefer?
It just goes back and forth. When it comes to our wholesale business, FCS would be the most popular and most asked for. They do a great job with all their fins, and they’re really pretty progressive in trying to market their product. Red-X has been pretty strong in the last year, and a lot more people are asking for it. That seems to be a good product, too — a lot of team guys are wanting that. They’ve also been playing around with Speedfins — a new thing from Australia — on my boards a little bit. There’s something new that might be good. We do some Future Fins, and they’ve got real good fins.

Everyone has an area where they’re stronger and where they put time and effort into. I don’t subscribe to any one particular system. I’m driven by what my teamriders and the public want, and we’ll accommodate them with whatever that might be. More and more guys are going back to glass-ons, too.

Why do you think that is?
I just like the way they perform. It also has to do if they’re used to them. That’s important. There are things out there that may be better. Hollow boards may be better, or Styrofoam boards or Epoxy may be better. But we’ve surfed polyesters and polyurethanes for years. Everyone’s grown up on it and we’re all pretty used to the way that material reacts in waves. So we have a certain preconceived idea of what should occur under our feet.

The same thing is true for fin systems. People grew up on glass-ons and they like the performance and the feel of them. You find a lot of guys who are going back if they can. If they’ve got to do a lot of traveling, then the fin systems make a ton of sense to them.

Where do you see your business growing?
I don’t really track that. I’m in the shaping room every day, and that’s where I do my best work. I’ve just never explored much outside of that. I make surfboards — that’s what I do. I don’t really have any aspirations to go anywhere else or any thought of it. It sort of takes my time up.

Do you find yourself being pulled in all sorts of directions?
Yeah, there’s always some pull, but I’ve managed to avoid it pretty well — with a few exceptions here and there. I’ve always realized that where I’m best is in the shaping room and other than that, I don’t know a whole lot, so I don’t try to go beyond what I’m capable of.

How much longer do you see yourself in the shaping room?
I don’t know. I see myself in there until I get tired of it or I’m not useful. I enjoy doing it right now. I don’t enjoy it when I get extremely busy, but I really enjoy designing and shaping for especially good, high-quality surfers. That’s a lot of fun. As long as I enjoy it, I guess I’ll do it.

How many boards a day are you doing these days?
I do anywhere from five to eight, somewhere around there. But that’s off the computer. It’s a whole lot easier than trying to do three boards from a raw blank, and I get a lot better surfboards on the average. You used to get one magic board in ten. You might get eight in ten now, or six in ten.

Is it that the computer is able to give you the same dimensions, so you’re able to fine-tune that much better?
Yes. You don’t have a lot of twists or variations that may have been put in there by trying to shape by hand. You’ve got a pretty consistent thing coming out and then you can do slight variations on it. You can order it thicker or wider, change its dimensions, or change your rocker a little bit.>

For example, I can kick up the tail but keep everything else exactly as a surfer is used to — volume, entry, rocker, concaves. Then if a surfer goes out and it surfs a different way, we can go, “Aha! That was the tail rocker!” It eliminates a lot of guesses.