It's been almost exactly two years since New Zealand-based 'maker' Mike Grobelny first set out to make an alaia and over a year since he posted his accomplishment in an extremely thorough time-lapse video, but it's worth a belated post because the project is as relevant as ever. Not to mention the fact that it's pretty awesome.
The surfboard (and culture of surfing) represents conflict between industry and the environment. The physical act, and the culture of surfing, provides an intimate connection with nature and natural forces. It is this emotional and physical engagement with nature that makes the surfing experience powerful and enriching for many people. In direct contrast to this natural experience is the use of toxic materials in the manufacture of surfboards, with negative impacts for both board manufacturers and the natural environment. These toxic synthetic materials provide a high level of performance, which most surfers are looking for and is not easily achieved using natural materials.
The combined aesthetic of the surfboards beautiful form and natural materials, moves the surfboard from a relatively short-lived disposable sport product to a treasured artifact, increasing its inherent value and challenging the disposable mentality prevailing in current surf-culture.
I can't speak to the ins-and-outs of surfing—much less their fabrication by hand—which is precisely why we appreciate Grobelny's painstaking documentation. It's not quite an Instructable, but credit to the Aucklander for putting the video together:
From the start, Grobelny acknowledged the age-old argument that time-honored traditions lose their essence when fabrication goes digital, but he makes a strong case for himself:
I thought it might almost be sacrilegious to CNC cut an alaia instead of hand shaping it, but during and after the process I've been inspired by other possibilities the CNC could add to and enhance the construction of these old boards. I can see how purists would say the hand shaping is an equally important part of the process as surfing the end product, as this apparently adds a deeper connection to your board.
However, I would estimate that only a small percentage of surfers end up shaping their own boards, and most would buy them from the local shaper... who in this case might have more of a personal connection with the product he is selling, but is essentially acting just the same as a CNC would to produce custom products for a market. So wouldn't it make sense to add even greater precision and the option of customization to a product which is going to be sold to someone you may not even know.
There is something quite nice about hand crafting objects for someone you do know well, maybe it's just the romantic notion of pouring your own time and sweat into crafting something which somehow adds even greater value for the person receiving it. But I think this can only apply if there is already a relationship between producer and consumer, as the product is not built for display but to function and perform in the surf as a surfboard.
As is often the case with self-initiated projects, the alaia required a quite a bit of preliminary research. Despite (or perhaps because of) his new approach to the craft, Grobelny notes that he spent "hours in conversation with local surfboard shapers and read pages of online forums and web articles":
Working with wood, I can't help thinking about the connections design has to craft and technology, especially when I'm trying to use CNC technology to cut a historically hand-crafted material like wood, to enhance it's natural properties in a way that would be very difficult/impossible to do by hand.
Design combines craft and technology. The intimate knowledge of materials and the advancing processes which can be used to manipulate it are also opportunities for designers. The two problems facing a lot of aspiring designers is the time it takes to learn a craft and limited access to the advancing technology available. We can have the best ideas in the world but if we a) can't make it ourselves and b) can't learn how new technologies can be applied, then we have a very limited means to work within.
This got me thinking about how great designers can work across such a broad spectrum of disciplines, from cars to furniture to pasta shapes, how do they have enough time to research all they need to know?
One thing they probably have learned to do well, is rely on knowledge and skill which others have spent years perfecting. Participatory design, action research and co-design, are all based around the idea that the designer is not the one man band and that we need to involve the expertise of others in the process of arriving at our outcome.
The result, of course, speaks for itself.
Most of the process is documented on Grobelny's 2010–2011 blog