For the second year in a row we built a pop-up shaping bay on the promenade above North Steyne Beach at Manly, NSW Australia during the Vissla Sydney Surf Pro. The idea behind the buildout being that while competitors pop off air reverses in the soft beachbreaks, shapers could work away in the shack, connect with other foam mowers and ground the event in true surf culture simply by working on their craft in a public space. From this, we bring you our Builders Q+A series: a series featuring questions answered by some of Australia's finest surfboard shapers while they were in the shaping bay working on their boards.
Vissla catches up with Finn Whitla about his move to shape boards in Tasmania and what it was like to work in a factory that counted Kirk Hammett and Mark Philippoussis as customers.
So mate, talk to us a little bit about how you got into shaping.
So I grew up in Torquay, and started at Maurice Cole's, just fill coating and doing ding repairs and that sort of thing in about 2001. I moved up through sanding and fins and all that kind of stuff with Maurice and then with Strapper, so that was pretty good. Then I was sort of just contract sanding for everyone around Torquay, and Barwon Heads. I did sanding for maybe five years, maybe more, maybe six years. Then, I moved down to Tassie and I was doing something completely different for a few years and then couple of years ago, I was about to get into a completely different industry – the abalone industry – and it was like a bit of a crossroads in my life, when, really all I wanted to do was shape, and that was it. I did shape a couple of bullets with Maurice back in the day, which I’ve still got. I actually went to his factory, picked them up about four years ago. He bought out the first board I shaped and everyone's written rude words on it, in the foam, and we've glassed it there. But he said "You hold on to this. You can't lose your first shape.” He had it for about six years I think.
What attracted you to shaping boards in the first place? Was it just riding boards?
I guess getting to know that feeling and how to change that type of feeling that you can get from a particular board and on a particular wave. And then moving to Tassie, there's some great waves down there and I lived right on one of the pointbreaks down there. which is where I shape now.
How did you fall into the world of Maurice and Mark Phipps, and Strapper, and all those guys. How did you get into that little clique?
A friend of mine was the sander for Maurice Cole and he was like, man, do you want to come and work for us? They were looking for a filler/coater. And it was at the time when I think Japan was Maurice’s big thing as well as Torquay and France. We were filling 40-foot containers full of boards and sending them to France. We were doing 70-to-150 a week out of that factory in Torquay. It was just crazy. We had guys like Kirk Hammett from Metallica coming in and he ordered a board Mark Philippoussis was always in there ordering boards. It was pretty cool time to be working at Maurice's for sure.
What do you think it is about Victoria that attracted such a heavy depth of shapers?
I don't know, I guess that stretch of coastline on the Surf Coast Shire is really amazing. It's a couple of miles of just unreal waves, from Bird Rock all the way through to Point Addis, and then beyond. In Tassie, it's just reliant on swell direction and that kind of thing. You can't get in the water as often as you would in Torquay, but getting back to your question, there was quite a few shapers and I think a lot of them came through a father shaping like Grahams (Corey and Russell) and those sort of guys. Everyone is pretty close as well, like Shyama (Buttonshaw), these days, he's just got a really good close knit crew with Darcy (Day) and they're always sharing bays and sharing sanding spots etc.
Is it fair to say that it's a supportive environment around where you grew up around Torquay? Is it like the mentality where the rising tide lifts all boats?
Yes. Definitely. I think in maybe the last five or six years, the scene in Torquay, there's a lot more shapers there now. It's probably doubled. I guess just being able to be a backyard shaper and then having somewhere like Vic Glass. You just have a little room like this, and you don't have to worry about resins and sanding and that kind of stuff. And that helps as well. It just allows you to be a little bit more free with what you want to create.
What prompted the move to Tassie then?
My wife. So, love, I guess, took me down there. We were doing long distance for a year-and-a-half or something like that. It was sort of in the time when MOMA had started down there so Hobart was pretty cool. I think it was one of the top ten Lonely Planet destinations at the time. I had a really good time in Hobart every time I went down there, so I thought I'd make the move down there. It was funny when I got down there, there was a couple of shapers down there, but it's really different to Torquay. I mean, the fiberglass shop down there that always has blanks and they always seem to go. But I don't know where they're going. I don't know who's shaping down there, it's really weird.
That was going to be my next question, how is the shaping industry in Hobart?
It's strange. I met a few guys and actually a guy who shapes, has just moved in around the corner, so we're going to start doing a few things together, but folks just kind of keep to themselves. No one sort of wants to do anything like this, that's for sure. Sometimes I feel really isolated down there, that's why coming up here is like a total mind-blow.
From a business perspective, has it worked well for you being down there?
Yes, I think there's a couple of guys down there that are doing sort of more alternative stuff. I kind of dabble in a bit of everything, I like doing the retro stuff and single fins, but I also like to do performance boards. That's probably been my biggest seller down there, just the standard shortboard. Tassie hasn't really caught onto the whole single fin, twinnie, retro phase. When the surf gets good, everyone just wants to grab that board they know that works, because you know, you've only got like an hour or two as these swells, they come and go so quickly. So you just want to know that you're grabbing a board that you know is going to work. They're not really up for trying anything different, which is a bit of a bummer, but I enjoy making short boards, I was lucky enough last year to get Jadson (Andre) to ride my boards and I shaped him one he's going to surf in this event this year.
He was such a legend. When Vissla asked me to surf in the Shapers Cup, they asked, "Oh, do you have a back up surfer?" I'd seen Jadson twice, we just kind of bumped into each other, but we didn't know each other. I said to Vissla, give me ten minutes, I'll see if I can find someone, I walked out and he was standing just there and I went up to him, said "Hey man, I'm surfing in the Shapers Cup. Would you be interested in riding one of my boards?" and he just said, "Let's do this".
How good’s that?
He didn't even see the board or anything. It was a board that I'd shaped for Hamish Renwick, a good surfer from Tassie. It’s his 6’0” and Jadson picked it up and said, "Oh, it's probably something I'd ride on at Pipe.” It was a step-up board for him, but he surfed and loved it, and said, “just f--king shape me one.” So, that was pretty cool.
Where do you see the future of the Tassie surfboard industry going in the next few years?
I think we've got to get a bit of a crew together, band together and get everyone out of little workshops and do a few things together, but Tassie don't really want to do anything with the mainlanders.
They're their own entity.
Yes, they are. Having said that, they're so close knit when they are together, and I'm feeling that now.
Words and images: Ethan Smith