(A similar version of this article appeared in Longboard Magazine, Vol.4, No. 4.)
As the skylights illuminate the minute uneven spots on a
laminated redwood surfboard, Bill Hoopes looks carefully for flaws in his work.
"I had seen several of Greg Noll's beautiful redwood boards at his son's shop
in Crescent City, so I thought, 'Why not? If I don't tell anyone what I'm doing
and make something ugly, so be it. I'll just embarrass myself a bit. But I had
to try it: I wanted to shape a redwood board,'" he muses, applying some sandpaper
to a flaw in one of his latest creations. "It's become so much fun that I cannot
imagine what I used to do for fun when I wasn't surfing." He eyes the wood carefully
as he shapes his twentieth board in a year's time.
His interest in wood and lumber is not a new one, and
his arrival at this point in time in a shop surrounded by several classic 60's
boards and old growth redwood in neat stacks is an interesting one. It does
not seem unnatural that in Humboldt County, the heart of the redwood country,
the redwoods are being preserved in this fashion.
Working in redwood and fir sawmills in the 1960's to
finance college, Hoopes, 50, handled a lot of lumber, developing an appreciation
for redwood and its rare qualities and beauty. Later, as a foreman of a wood
re-manufacturing company, he worked with various woods and tools and learned
to love working with his hands, creating useful and beautiful items. A few years
ago, he began shaping Hawaiian-style redwoods between teaching English classes
at College of the Redwoods in Eureka, CA, where he has taught since 1974.
Bill explains, "My first redwood followed 1930's drawings
from Newport Harbor Union High School, where construction of redwood surf boards
was common in the woodshop. Improvements have occurred as I have made mistakes
and gained experience, spoken to oldtimers, studied photos and movies, and conducted
research. The ones I build basically follow the measurements for Hawaiian boards
mentioned in Dr. Don James' wonderful movie, Surfing in the Thirties[10
feet long; 21" at the widest point; 16" or so at the tail; approx. 3 1/2" thick].
Before I got into this board building too seriously, I took a board to Doc and
said, 'Well, does this look like the ones you used to ride?' I knew I was on
track when Doc said, 'You bet. This is da kine!' I guess that I wanted to give
people who identify with this period of surfing or appreciate it a chance to
have a bit of it for their wall. I have several old 60's boards, from my era,
and they give me immense pleasure, so redwoods must mean the same thing to others."
Hoopes has branched out into hot curl boards, which were
the next stage in the evolution of the surfboard after the squared off Hawaiin
boards. [The old redwoods would not go down the line on a "hot" wave, so in
1934 John Kelly pulled in the tail section, creating a board that soon came
to resemble the guns of the sixties.] He also makes replicas of Waikiki rental
boards that were produced by Pacific Systems Homes of Los Angeles in the thirties.
These are six feet long, 3/4 of an inch thick, 16" wide, and have a slight kick
in the nose. "What I like best about the Waikiki boards is the clear connection
you see to the shortboard today; when I find some curly redwood, it makes a
beautiful six foot board from material that otherwise has no practical construction
function, since it lacks strength."
To have a minimal effect on the environment, Hoopes seeks
recycled lumber or purchases lumber from portable mills specializing in windfalls
or logs left from turn-of-the-century logging shows. Bill explains that each
piece of lumber is hand selected and finish-milled in his shop. Though he uses
power tools, much of the work is done with a hand plane, sandpaper, and loving
sweat. Varnished boards are sanded to 600 and finished with several coats of
marine spar varnish, the way they used to do it. Wood chips are recycled and
other scraps made into fins for modern and 60's boards or used in other projects.
Hoopes says that many thirties boards were bolted, doweled,
and chambered. Today's glues eliminate much of the need for dowels and bolts,
while chambers are desirable if one intends to ride the board. "Several
of my friends and I plan to ride a floatilla of these babies at Moonstone [a
well-known small wave spot on the Northcoast] this summer. One friend is having
me make a him a chambered board. We should be able to take off and whisper,
'Comin' down' to any shortboard on the shoulder... instant respect, you know,
like a Mazda wouldn't yield to a Mack truck? "
Bill and his wife, Chris, and their five children center
much of their lives around the ocean...exploring, fishing, and surfing. Bill
and his two eldest sons surf Humboldt and Del Norte Counties year- round (sometimes
without a wetsuit...in the summer, of course!) and travel to the Islands as
much as they can. He also edits a newsletter for the North Swell Surfing Association,
established in 1965. But more and more often Bill can be found ankle deep in
shavings as he works to bring out the fine lines of a classic wood board from
the rough lumber milled out of a thousand year old log.