If you drive the I-5 south from Downtown Los Angeles you’ll see what’s left of the city’s industrial past. Railroad tracks and freight cars. Warehouses and shipping containers. The odd machine tools factory or two. As you pass East LA, you’ll gaze up at digital billboards inviting you, even during Covid, into a sprawling outlet mall called The Citadel.
What many people don’t know is that as recently as 1980, The Citadel was a Firestone tire plant. The GM Plant in nearby Van Nuys closed in 1992. Aerospace and aviation facilities left the state in droves around the same time, creating a void into which 400,000 jobs disappeared in LA County alone. Today, it seems like LA’s industrial past is ancient history. Which is why it’s amazing that another homegrown California industry–surfboard making–has managed, at least in part, to dodge a bullet. Like cars and airplanes, surfboards were not invented here; rather, Southern California was the epicenter of the modern, lightweight surfboard. It was here that extremely heavy and unwieldy balsa wood boards were replaced with polyurethane and polyester resin for the first time, creating a lightweight, broadly marketable product. And it was here, in the beach towns of Southern California, that a cottage industry of surfboard manufacturers first emerged.
Surfer-entrepreneurs like Hobie Alter and Grubby Clark, Bruce Jones and Dewey Weber didn’t just capitalize on the surfboard’s industry’s popularity; they created it. Like cars and planes, in this peculiar region which historian Carey McWilliams called an “island on the land,” surfboards became a reflection and the fulfillment of middle class aspirations to mass leisure. The surfboard is to Southern California what steel once was to Pittsburgh or meatpacking to Chicago–part of the region’s DNA and the product of both comparative advantage and the American entrepreneurial spirit.
Here, in a stronghold of Democratic politics, bluer than blue California, where a post-industrial knowledge economy dictates that more is imported through the ports or coded in Silicon Beach than physically built, a quintessentially American industry is hanging on. Unlike finance or the automotive industry, both of which received bailout packages in the 2008 crash, the small scale surfboard manufacturers that remain in business do not have a cadre of lobbyists and “too big to fail” status, which raises the question: How much longer can the industry survive? Or, is it slated to go the way of a Firestone, GM, or Boeing: out of state and out of mind for local and national politicians?
When I first heard of Greg Giddings, founder and head shaper at G-Force Surfboards in Costa Mesa, California, I felt like I was being let in on a guarded secret. He is not the owner of a surf shop. Instead, he rents space at the largest surfboard manufacturing facility on the West Coast, Pure Glass, where he shapes boards–some of them by hand, some of them using a sophisticated cutting machine that can be tailored to the shaper’s desired dimensions. Between shaping and the final product, the finished surfboard, you have a slew of skilled craftsman–glassers, laminators, airbrush artists, and tint and gloss specialists. Each one of them plies their trade by hand, in stubborn defiance of the trend towards automation and mass production that define the world of expendable, quantity-driven consumption we live in today.
Without a traditional storefront, most of Giddings’s clients hear about him through the surfboard community or find him through his sponsored riders on Instagram and other social media. This kind of cult following, which develops without the middleman of a retail surf shop, is both a blessing and a curse. Giddings himself concedes that most of his customers, while not necessarily “expert surfers” tend to have at least a few years experience surfing other boards. “It’s become a massively fragmented business,” Giddings acknowledges in a half lament. Where other industries have consolidated over the years, each mom-and-pop shaper, in a way, is an island unto himself, often shaping for a devoted local, or perhaps regional following. In the good old days, the industry’s shapers jealously guarded the secrets of the trade, and few were initiated into the art and craft of board making. “It’s fair to say a lot of it was really self-taught,” Giddings recalls, adding “I don’t say that proudly.” He shaped his first board in middle school by tearing off the fiberglass of a longboard and reshaping the polyurethane foam underneath. Later on, he started a more formal apprenticeship under the famous shaper, Bruce Jones.
Fast forward to the present. Greg, staying seriously engaged in the surfboard design and manufacturing business, also works in the financial industry providing financial planning to individuals, families, and businesses. “Now, there are so many different brands and different makes, and this just blows me away.” The internet made shaping knowledge cheap and readily available to any enthusiastic upstart. In a way, Giddings suggests, we are in a golden age of the small shaper. Anyone who wants to shape a board can go buy a blank (the uncarved piece of foam), rent a room, and give it a whirl. “But many of these small scale shapers,” Giddings adds, “they’re not full businesses where the person is actually making a living off of it.” Some fear that the part-time shaper-hobbyist might further pauperize the remaining shapers out there who can still eek out a decent wage, and that one day “it might be dead for people who actually want to make a living off it.”
Shea Weber, owner of Dewey Weber Surfboards, is less politic about the amateur shapers out there. “They might even be worse on our business than the imported boards,” Weber reflects, referring to what he calls “backyard shapers” who, oftentimes with very minimal training, sell surfboards that undercut the price and quality of the product his company creates. These DIY shapers might claim to be genuine small businesses, but they are only out there for a quick buck. Wedged between massive MNCs like Global Surf Industries on the one side and the domestic equivalent of bootleg hooch on the other, small shapers who make a high quality product lack a unified voice to champion their cause.
“Having a collective voice carries so much weight,” Shea remarks, whereas “a bunch of nagging individuals is never gonna get anything done.” In a sport known for its worship of youth, board builders, Shea claims, need to grow up, or they will become yet another victim of the divide and conquer strategies of multinationals who flood the market with cheap product and suffocate California shapers in a sea of knockoffs. To add to their allure, the makers of “Asian popouts” as they are derisively called, offer their boards to surf shops on consignment, meaning the shop owner invests nothing up front. This is a deal the small shaper could never afford.
Despite the clear dangers of predatory competition, Weber has had a hard time drafting shapers into a common cause against cheap imports. In his experience trying to rally the surf industry to protect domestic surfboard manufacturers as a board member at SIMA (The Surfboard Industry Manufacturers Association) his concerns about the long term viability of the industry played second fiddle to the presentism of surf shop profit margins based heavily on big name clothing brands. With surfboard shapers unable to unite and industry titans focusing on quarterly profits, according to Weber, no long term industrial strategy for surfboard manufacturers emerged.
But Shea isn’t a complete pessimist either. “I’m a firm believer in brick and mortar stores. Brick and mortar isn’t going anywhere.” What he sees happening is clothing-centered surf shops–with subpar customer service when it comes to actually getting people up and surfing on the right equipment–being devoured by online retail. The shops that will survive will be the ones that focus on surfboards again, and on making the sport accessible to all, including the beginners who are often stigmatized in surf lingo as “kooks.” Dewey Weber Surfboards focuses on educating the surfer, or potential surfer, on what type of equipment to ride, the process that goes into a hand-crafted board (a process that’s on view in their San Clemente factory showroom) and on the best places to go to learn to surf. Do that and you’ve got a lifetime customer, even if you lose out on the occasional quick sale.”Once you catch one wave,” Shea says grinning, “you’ll put up with a lot if you can taste what you can see good surfers do all the time.”
The award winning shaper and surf shop owner Dennis Jarvis, based in LA County, has drawn attention to the plight of surfboard makers with a website called American Board Builders, and an online petition which advocates for a 50-70% tariff on all imported boards, not just those from China. In my e-mail correspondence with him he identified the two biggest advantages enjoyed by MNCs and even American headquartered companies who make boards overseas: “There’s no AQMD, OSHA, or EPA.” (AQMD stands for the South Coast Air Quality Management Board). Surfboard production involves highly toxic chemicals, and Jarvis suspects overseas manufacturers do not properly protect their workers, or the surrounding communities, when dealing with these chemicals. None of this, of course, would be legal in the United States, where workers must be properly protected and stricter air quality rules limit harmful emissions. That regulatory imbalance adds to the profit margin of a foreign-made board which is nonetheless often priced comparably to a domestically produced surfboard. According to industry data provided to me by shapers, a standard six foot epoxy surfboard costs about $500 to produce, while imported boards, by Jarvis’s calculation, may cost as little as $200 to produce. As recently as 2005, Firewire Surfboards–the majority of which is owned by 11-time world champion Kelly Slater–was still making boards in the USA, only to shift overseas. While free-market champions often argue that industries “must” move overseas to survive, the fact that Firewire sells boards at about the same price as domestic shapers and that Jarvis and others still make boards here suggests that offshoring isn’t necessarily about necessity, but, at least in this case, profit maximization at the expense of American workers.
I already knew Jarvis was a tariff man when I got in touch with him, but further research into the numbers backed up his case. True, Chinese surfboard imports peaked at $63 million in 2015 and slumped to $35 million in 2018, but at the same time boards from Taiwan, nearly doubled to a total of $10 million dollars. The total number of imported boards remains frustratingly flat, particularly if the goal of tariffs, as President Trump states, is to encourage a manufacturing renaissance in the US. Foreign board imports to the USA–the world’s largest single market–totaled 840,000 in 2015 and 803,000 in 2018, suggesting only a modest uptick in domestic production. Even if China is feeling the pain, U.S. surfboard makers have yet to see the gain.
For Jarvis, an import tariff on all foreign boards is a blunt but necessary weapon against competitors who quite literally play dirty. I question Jarvis if domestic surfboard makers would have the capacity to produce 800,000 boards. He is unflinching in his response: “Of Course! I was making 12,000 plus boards per year in 94-95-96. We had the manpower.” 800,000 divided by 14,000 is about 67 shapers. Given that Southern California alone probably has hundreds of shapers, it seems plausible that many of the board makers operating at partial capacity today could produce more to replace the Chinese boards in the market currently.
When I ask Weber and Giddings about tariffs, they are a bit more circumspect than I would have imagined. Weber, like Jarvis, points out that much of the overseas surfboard production has merely shifted to Thailand and Vietnam from China. Simply slapping a tariff on China won’t eliminate overseas production. Weber believes in educating the consumer on the superiority of American craftsmanship and changing the law so that foreign surfboards have a permanent stamp revealing their point of origin, as opposed to the current regulations requiring only a sticker that can be peeled off. And he sees leadership from politicians as lacking: “Until coastal states make surfing a part of their DNA they’re never gonna take an import tariff seriously.”
Australia and Hawaii, in many ways its own country, Shea argues, promote surfing from the government pulpit in ways that California, or Florida don’t. Giddings, for his part, likes that people still choose his product over the foreign made boards because they are better and doesn’t want shapers who advocate for tariffs to take to resting on their laurels. When it comes to tariffs, Giddings clarifies his point for me:”Listen, I’m in favor of tariffs, but we should always ask, ‘Why’?” Even if his support for tariffs is qualified, he too concedes worry: “I think if you had manufacturing move away from here, you lose invention, you lose innovation and that’s not a good thing.” He points out that other shapers at Pure Glass are pioneers in new surfing subcultures like foil boards, stand-up paddle boards, and long distance paddlers used to go to Catalina Island. Without the manufacturing infrastructure in place, these inventions and innovations would happen elsewhere, or not at all, and a unique part of the Southern Californian way of life would be lost.
The term industrial policy is often used in Washington circles to discuss “critical” American industries such as defense or, now in the wake of Covid, medicine manufacturing. Instead of letting the free market reign supreme to maximize efficiency, industrial policy sets long term strategic goals that serve, in Marco Rubio’s words, “the common good and the national interest.” Why, one might wonder, can’t industrial policy be extended to include surfboard manufacturers, or for that matter domestic apparel companies or furniture makers who take pride in their work and produce a superior product?
A growing chorus of bipartisan voices has suggested that American industrial policy needs to take into account not just profits, but the inherent dignity of labor and the community-sustaining benefits of meaningful manufacturing jobs. No doubt Giddings, Weber and any number of shapers in Southern California and across the USA would see domestic surfboard manufacturing as key to the thriving of their communities and as a way, in the cases of the former, to staunch the bleeding of native Californians to other states. Such a policy could be fostered with the help of government, of organized shapers advocating on behalf of their industry, and of conscientious consumers concerned about where their product comes from. In polarizing times, promoting domestic American industries has the potential to become a rare source of political consensus.
Kurt Hofer is a native Californian with a PhD in Spanish Literature. He teaches high school history in a Los Angeles area independent school.
This article was supported by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors.