“Kickin’ up Dust” is a new series taken up by our illustrious, surf-crazed intern Kevin Beaugrand, in which he delves into the fundamentals of crafting his own surfboard. From pulling the right blank to mowing foam to glassing to putting his self-shaped shred stick through the paces, we’ll follow his mildly existential journey. Check out part one here.

My vision of motion by my very own hands, was… well… in motion.

I had my blank picked out, hours reserved in the shaping bay, and a specific idea of the board I wanted to shape. Still, there were a few hurdles to overcome before I could manifest my magic stick.

Mainly, I didn’t know how a planer works. Oh, and I’d never actually watched anyone shape a board. And I didn’t know how to measure out rocker or cut a template from the board I’m attempting to copy. In other words: I lacked all of the rudimentary shaping skills needed to get started.

Alas, I’m too much of a hands-on learner for YouTube. So I needed to talk to a bona fide, in-the-flesh shaper to figure out how to get the ball rolling.

So I dropped Jim Dunlop of Mystic Surfboards a line and the renowned North Florida shaper invited me to his shop to pick his brains. Mystic is a one-man operation, so I knew Jim would be a great person to ask about the whole process, from drawing a template to glassing and sanding. After fielding a few of my questions and showing me how to trace a nose and tail template from my board, he pulled out his planer and started getting to work on the big-guy shortboard on his rack.

Jim Dunlop of Mystic Surfboards.
Photo: MysticSurfboards.net

He stripped layer after layer of foam in long, smooth passes, going from the nose to the tail and back again. Planers are originally manufactured for woodworking, used by carpenters to take the thickness of a flat piece of wood down by a few millimeters at a time while maintaining a level surface. Surfboard shapers modify their planers to allow for deeper cuts (up to a half-inch or more) that greatly speed up their work. The knob on top of the planer is twisted to adjust the height of the front plate- as the plate lifts, it exposes the rotating cutting bit to the foam.

Dunlop explained that the knob is continuously adjusted during each pass. After thousands of hours, an experienced shaper knows how to transition the depth of each cut to smoothly create the desired contours.

Up until that point, I thought each cut was a static depth and the shaper controlled the planer’s path through pressure or magic or something. To be honest, I hadn’t even thought that far ahead and I was damn thankful for Dunlop’s passage of this critical knowledge. He saved me hours of frustration and failed experimentation in the shaping bay.

Once I finished tracing and cutting templates from the V Bowls I planned on emulating, I made my way to Surf Source to put in my first few hours in the shaping bay. Fox, the manager, quickly acquainted me with the most commonly used tools—sanding blocks, rasps (basically a foot long cheese grater with handles), calipers (to measure thickness), and of course, the planer.

After Fox left me to my own devices, I figured I’d make a few test passes with the planer to get a feel for it. It was better to learn on the raw blank since I planned on thinning it down enough to where I’d trim off any of my initial mistakes.

As I removed the planer from its wall-mounted holster, I was struck by its weight and density. Before I fired it up, I stared at the cutting bit and pondered what damage it might inflict if I inadvertently made contact—I could easily see my finger being degloved (Google at your own risk) or ripped off in a fraction of a second.

I laid the planer on the deck of the board and pulled the trigger. It was as loud as a circular saw and felt equally powerful in my hands. I kept a healthy balance of fear and respect for the power tool as I attempted to learn how to finesse smooth, even cuts.

Dunlop definitely made this look easy. My first few cuts were all over the place (as you can see). I enjoyed using the hand tools because they were much less intimidating and made more gradual refinements to the foam. But since the planer sheared through the foam much more rapidly,  I decided to power on and use it for the bulk of the work and smooth out the blank with the hand tools afterward.

After the first hour or so, I couldn’t help but remark to myself how much work this was. Halfway through my session, my hands and back were aching and cramping. Foam dust filled my entire being—my hair, my eyes, and my entire sinus cavity were completely coated. Even my back pockets were full to the brim with milled-foam. And on top of all that, the dust that stuck to my sweaty skin was creating an insulated sludge that felt like some sort of weird spray-on sweater, bouncing my body’s heat directly in on itself.

That’s not to say I didn’t have a good time, though. When I emerged from the shaping room and marveled at my creation, my backache and burning nasal passages faded away. My work was far from over, but the heavy lifting was done, so I decided to finish the board at my house with the tools I had in my garage. It wouldn’t be nearly as efficient, but I could avoid $15 an hour rental fee.

After shaping two days in a row, I woke up with what felt like a sinus infection coupled with a painful cough. It dawned on me that this might be the reason shapers wear respirators and dust masks. It took me a week off of shaping (and an oral steroid prescription) to recover from what I’m calling shaper’s lung.

In the next installment of Kickin’ Up Dust, I’ll be installing fins and glassing my board in preparation for its maiden voyage.