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.
Follow along as we catch up with Bells Beach's Shyama Buttonshaw about the full-circle nature of surfing, big wave antics, and the mentality of hardened Victorian surfers.
In the last 12 months since we spoke mate, where have you seen design trends go and where do you think they're continuing to curve towards?
Well, this decade is funny in a lot of senses and not just surfboards, but music and clothing and everything. It's kind of somewhat recycled and design principles and stuff might be refined, but a lot of the ideas - which weren't alternative in the past - are considered alternative by today’s standards. With shortboards it's funny, it's to a certain point where the surfing's progressed dramatically, but there hasn't been any major design innovations for a very long time with performance shortboards.
Do you think it's because what's old is becoming new again and things like that? That, like, people are looking back to see what's going to be the next change?
I don't know because every decade prior was an innovation, whereas even the clothing I'm wearing now is from a certain time and it's not now. You see a lot of people wearing old '80s, '70s clothes and riding old '80s boards and stuff like that, but what I like with revisiting old ideas is you can get the foundation of a feeling, which was really good about the board, but you can learn from the 40 - 30 years since.
Basically iron out any kinks that weren't ironed out in the past.
Not, not necessarily ironing out. It's more adding different ingredients that weren't there in the past.
Do you think you are seeing more and more people come in and buy those different bits of equipment, as opposed to your performance short boards which were probably people's bread and butter previously?
Well, I guess the alternative boards used to be a really small niche market whereas it's more widely accepted now. I shape everything, but there’s still a massive place for performance shortboards, but it might not necessarily cater for the everyday punter or anything like that.
Do you think that the waves you guys get down in Victoria lend themselves to be able to sort of I guess experiment with different sorts of crafts?
Where I'm from, I live just behind Bells Beach, and the beauty is that it’s wave that gives you a lot of time, so it's very good for refining board design. And you can ride a whole bunch of different boards because of the wave shape. It's got curve, but it's not too punchy where certain boards would not fit in the curve very well, like Sydney or somewhere like that where it's a bit dumpier. You can kind of ride the whole spectrum of surfboards down there.
Do you think that that allows the consumer to want to try something different as well?
Yes and no. Victoria has a ‘black wetsuit/white surfboard’ mentality. It might be five years behind Byron, who knows? When I head north or go overseas there is a more diverse range of boards compared to Victoria, but it is slowly getting that way.
Do you think that obviously that there is that little bit of a momentum building with guys like yourself that people are actually interested to see what's coming out of Victoria?
Yes and no. I'd almost say it's got a crusty bullshit detector. It's not all sunshine and rainbows down there and it's a little bit toxic at times but that does is make your boards better where people can't write them off or anything like that. It pushes you. I've also had really good support and I've got amazing mentors but I'd be lying to say that it's all sunshine and rainbows.
When we spoke last time you cited Simon (Anderson) as a massive influence and then he was in there planing for you before...
How cool was that? (laughs).
Is he continuing to influence you?
Oh, for sure. Simon's been so supportive of me, through the past and I used to ride his boards for a long period of time and I love the way he'll shape a board for every conceivable condition. He’ll make the highest performing board he can fit for every condition. I try to take that mentality, rather than saying things like, "Hey it looks like a single fin, she'll be all right." I try and take the performance shortboard refinement and apply that to everything. For someone like him who’s been around for so long, he is more relevant than anyone and he's one of the very rare shapers that actually shapes a board for what he thinks a surfer needs rather than what the surfer wants. So he'll get a high-end CT surfer and shape him a board, which will change the faults in someone’s surfing. It doesn't necessarily gel all the time because people have got a one surf policy on a board and it might take a few surfs to get used to. It really annoys me that some surfers don't spend the time to feel those changes and benefit from it.
Make it a positive rather than a negative?
Exactly. Everyone's quick to judge.
Since we spoke the last time, have you had any bits of feedback or positive or negative that's allowed you to really grow as a shaper?
It’s always a positive when you get positive feedback, but the constructive criticism might be a tough pill to swallow but you'll learn a lot more from it. You really have to decipher every part of the board to find out why it wasn't quite right, but I've been getting really positive feedback and I've got some good opportunities. I'm really stoked to be here. So it's, it's coming along.
Do you think like something like this shaping bay at the Vissla Sydney Surf Pro allows people to open their eyes a bit more and allow people to see what possibilities there are as far as boards and design go?
Maybe, the shapers themselves. It's pretty rare when you get… I don't know how many shapers there are, do you know?
18 or 20.
Yeah. Yeah. 18 or 20 really niche, like-minded people together. There’s not thousands and thousands of shapers in Australia. It’s quite a small community and when you get that many together, there's a lot of benefit of bouncing ideas and stuff off each other.
Your big wave game has been pretty widely reported, not only in magazines but on social as well. Is it important for you to try, enhance and develop on boards for waves that you like surfing?
I never charge, if you put me next to Andrew Mooney then it looks like I'm surfing Cozy Corner or something. But that's always been really fun. I had a really bad knee injury from making a bad decision on a wave like that and that kind of opened my eyes to chasing different surf feeling. So I actually haven't surfed a heavy wave in like three years, but I plan to again.
Words and images: Ethan Smith