Shaper of the Month – July 2012
Surfing, traveling, and shaping surfboards around the globe is a dream few get to live. Adam Warden of AJW Surfboards is one of those fortunate souls who get the chance to do so. Born and bred on the East Coast, Adam now spends a good amount of his time shaping here in San Diego.
From his humble backyard beginnings, he has worked hard to become an established and respected member of the surfboard shaping community. We sat down for a minute caught up with AJW fresh off a stint in Peru where he shaped 45 boards. Now he’s heading back out the door to for a few months to do the same thing before coming back to combo swells and offshores this Fall in San Diego.
When did you start dabbling in shaping surfboards?
Basically, I was 14 years old and I wanted to go buy a new surfboard but I didn’t have the money. I found out I could get a blank so I tried making my own and got one all glued up, shaped it. Back then resin was a lot cheaper so you could build a board for $90. Nowadays it costs way more. But back then and I thought to myself, I’d rather have a shitty board for $90 or two for $180. It was like $350 for a new board then, so pretty much a function to get a board was why. Then I did the first couple and at the time being 14 years old I thought it was pretty good. After about 10 boards I thought I knew what I was doing and it took about 100 boards to realize I had no idea what I was doing. Most shapers say it takes about 100 boards to know what you’re doing, and at that point, you’ve learned your hands and your tools. Then it takes about 1000 boards to realize that everyone out there is kinda wingin’ it. When you get to like 5,000 boards or more you start to learn what your good at and what you’re not good at. You try to focus more of your time on your best attributes and which designs work better. Most high-level shapers tend to just repeat their best designs and evolve from those original designs that work good. The ones that don’t work well, you don’t re-do.
How did you learn the ropes to becoming a top-level professional shaper?
When I first started out and I’d done 30 boards just totally by myself between 14 to 16 years old shaping, glassing and sanding them in my backyard, never having anybody. I just read a couple of things about how many CC’s of catalyst to use etc. After those 30 boards the local factory, Fibercraft, where I was buying all my materials eventually let me start watching them. I learned a lot and they taught me how to glass. I got a job putting fins in when I was 16 and could drive. I put fins in for a few years and then I got a job shaping. I did some airbrushing too; I’ve done everything. Once I got closer to 50 – 100 boards I realized it’s more productive to focus on and specialize my time on one thing I’m better at and paying for glassing and sanding and realizing that they’re both another art themselves. Shaping is only 1/3 of the process. I’ve come to California and I’ve worked with a lot of factories in San Diego. I’ve shaped in Australia, Hawaii, Europe, South and Central America. Now I’ve worked with a ton of people but I’d say I learned the most from the sanders and glassers. I’m friends with a whole ton of shapers and we learn a lot from and influence each other. But it doesn’t matter who you are. You could have Dick Brewer or anyone training you from the beginning, but there’s only so much training, it’s pretty basic. You pop your rocker, put your rail bands on and you shape the board. There’s still a lot of other things that are important like fin angles and where the edges go. These types of things take years of experience. There’s no such thing as a young shaper that’s shaping incredible boards. You have to put your time in. Usually most of the younger shapers that people say are good, it’s more the guy is a phenomenal surfer and makes his boards look good. It takes 20 years to really get into your own, I’m constantly learning.
What is the biggest challenge of being the mastermind behind a successful surfboard label?
Running a business as a whole is a pretty challenging thing. The United States is a really good country for the fact that anybody can start a business for fairly cheap, in other counties they have a lot more start-up costs. Any idiot can go down to the courthouse and get a business license and run it. However, you have to pay your taxes and do the whole thing. The biggest challenge with surfboards is ¾ of the competition out there isn’t business savvy. There are a lot of people thinking, “Ok, just throw some good surfboards at a guy that rips”. But the concept is basically living within your means; that’s how you have to run a small business. Don’t spend too much money on advertising, and don’t buy more than you can eat. Don’t go too big too quickly. That’s why so many people say there’s no money in surfboards. Companies get investors and throw all this money into sponsoring a pro, when in reality the margins are so low in surfboards you have to be really tight on your overhead. You can’t overextend yourself because going bankrupt is really easy. That’s the biggest challenge, playing the money game. It’s always coming in and it’s always coming out and you have to find that balance. Also, you can’t let your ego get involved in the business, that’s a major challenge without a doubt. You have guys coming to you and saying, “Man, this board is insane, I can get you in Japan, I can get you here and I can get you there!” But you have to realize you can’t take on too much work at one time and do shitty work. It’s not so much with the surfboards as with the finances. If you have a certain amount of money, you have to determine how many boards can I comfortably shape with that, collect the money, and then build more. You can always have an investor come in and kick down, but you have to be realistic with your own business goals. Don’t get ahead of yourself.
What are some of your favorite spots to surf?
I love going to Todos for sure. On the East Coast, it can be waist to chest high and really shallow and you can get better barrels than you can anywhere in the world. I’ve always traveled my whole life going and I’ve gone to tons of different places.
When did you start shaping big wave guns?
I’m from the east coast and I’d never had the chance to do big wave boards. It was always a challenge. When I was 16 or 17 I started going to Puerto Escondido every summer for a month by myself. I mean these aren’t typically rhino guns but at 16 years old I’m not paddling out at 20-foot days in Mexico, my goal was basically triple overhead. So I learned how to do semi guns right off the bat and tried to ride my own stuff. Mainland Mexico is one of the spots that are not like Hawaii, where you can ride chippy boards. The shape doesn’t matter as much as having a big board for Mexico. So it’s pretty easy for a newbie shaper to be comfortable just learning volume. I started doing some beefy 7’6” ‘s then pretty much transitioned to bigger waves and more foam. The tougher thing is shaping boards for waves like Teahupoʻo or Pipeline where guys are taking off under the lip. Heavy reef breaks are a lot more challenging because you have to ride chippy small boards. You need a rocker that’s flat enough to paddle well, but bladey to make the drop. Big wave boards definitely aren’t at all 100% of my business, it’s completely my own passion and hobby and I make what works for me. I always tell people if you want the best board a shaper makes, get what they ride themselves. If you’re gonna go talk to a guy who shapes for Hobie, order a longboard or what he specializes in. If you want a gun, get it from a guy who surfs big waves. If you want a small wave board, get it from a guy in Florida.
You were recently featured in the Surfer Magazine 2012 Summer Surfboard buyers guide. What can you tell me about the boards?
For the board forums, we try to do a wide variety of models to cover every range of conditions. I like to showcase what we specialize in. Being from the East Coast small wave high-performance boards for chest high and under is my specialty, no question. I have pretty good experience in that and making contest boards for the kids. I try to advertise with that and show what we offer. I do travel boards too for guys going to indo so we try to have a wide array of what we can offer, but 90% of my business I would think is my specialty in small wave boards.
What goals does AJW Surfboards have for 2012?
More international sales and setting up distributors is my number one goal. Every year I do a bunch of boards in Peru and Spain. I’ve shipped boards to Venezuela, Panama, and Japan. My main goal is to get more set up in the European scene and Japan.