Thin slices of wood gently curl up beneath a long blade that Floyd Smith holds between two hands. They’re peeled away and dusted to the ground where they fall like ribbons. The process moves slowly but smoothly, one shaving at a time. After about 30 hours of work, Smith will have shaped a perfect balsa long board for a patron.
For the new owner, it will be something of a cherished novelty. With a $2,500 price tag, he plans to ride it once, and then keep it as a collectible.
For Smith, it’s a masterpiece of a dying art that he mastered more than 50 years ago. On Jan. 20, he decided to share it in a live demonstration at the Mavericks Invitational festival in Half Moon Bay.
Growing up in San Diego, Smith first became intrigued by surfboards as a neighbor built one out of the garage. When Smith first expressed an interest in learning how to make his own by hand, he was told it couldn’t be done. Not to be discouraged, Smith did it any way, and ended up catching a wave to success with a company that styled the surf scene.
Smith had a heyday with surfboards in the 1950s when he worked with his friend Larry Gordon to innovate how people surfed. Gordon was a chemistry student whose family owned a plastics company, and Smith knew how to shape a board. Together, they made the legendary southern California Gordon and Smith label.
By the 1960s, they began to replace balsa boards with polyurethane foam surfboards, which were less prone to becoming waterlogged, a nearly unavoidable problem for balsa board riders. The new boards were also lighter and easier to shape.
“Even the regular shaping is becoming a dying art,” said Smith. “Now they’re molding them, and they’re light and strong.”
In 1985, Smith took up his own carpentry business around Santa Cruz, but due to popular demand, he began to produce surfboards and related products full time.
It’s true that the balsa surfboard is a labor of love, and perhaps less practical than its modern counterpart.
Materials are scarce. The wood can typically only be obtained from Ecuador. Balsa boards tend to be expensive. And, Smith adds, acknowledging that a bunch of young surfers would probably disagree, “it takes 10 times the skill to shape balsa wood as foam.”
But just as Smith was told as a kid that he couldn’t make a board and managed to do it, he stood in front of an eager crowd this sunny Sunday decades later, scraping away at yet another beautiful surfboard.
“Everybody told me I couldn’t, but I did,” Smith remembered. “It wasn’t very good, but I sold one – and that was it.”
Learn more at floydsmithsurfboards.com.