From the sweeping lines of Michael Peterson, to the neatly arched turns of Wayne Lynch, it’s easy to lose yourself in the nostalgia of 1970s surfboards. For Aaron Knight, co-founder of Harvest Surfboards in Burleigh, creating them is another feeling all together.
“When you make a beautiful-looking board that also rides well, it’s a buzz,” Aaron says. “When you’ve made that board for someone else, and they love it, it’s mind-blowing.”
The Gold Coast surfer and son of acclaimed local shaper Jack Knight says the artistic aspect of traditional surfboards, such as channel bottom single fins, is what drew him to the resin and paint.
“When I was around 17 I started getting in the [shaping] bay and observing the artistic side of surfboards. I was into painting at the time and started treating surfboards as a sort of canvas.”
Harvest Surfboards, an offshoot of Jack Knight Surfboards (JK), specialises in custom boards inspired by the ‘old school’ curves and contours. Meanwhile in the same factory, JK focuses on high performance shortboards.
The hypnotic swirls, abstract mushroom gardens and unusual vintage fabrics on Harvest surfboards are traces of Aaron’s journey through surfboard art, while the retrospective shapes and dimensions echo an era that has since made way for the shorter, faster, lighter.
Aaron, who manages both brands’ artwork and glassing, says the 1971 surf film Morning of the Earth is what nudged him towards the industry.
“I was fascinated by the shapes and smoother style of surfing. It’s graceful, romantic; so different to the surfing I watched growing up on the ASP thing.” He admits he doesn’t follow the current circuit.
Harvest and JK make about six boards per week. Jack, who once shaped for esteemed surfer and shaper Glen Winton, still uses scuffed plywood templates, which hang from a nail in the shaping bay, fragments of his history.
Nowadays, like most products born of the manufacturing megalodon, surfboards made in China can now be sold for much less than Australian boards. On the Gold Coast for instance, you can pick up a Chinese-made board for about $250, roughly a third of regular price tags.
The benefits for buying Chinese-made boards lie in the savings. Consider a father who wants to give his three kids new boards for Christmas – three boards for $800 or $600 per stick?
Three years ago when local shapers were struggling the most, they pointed to the high Australian dollar, increasing production costs and lower consumer spending to explain the success of Chinese-made boards.
At the time, many storeowners importing foreign boards were met with opposition from local shapers and retailers. Despite this, Aaron says foreign competition was inevitable.
“We live in a fast-paced world where, unfortunately, people look at price first. But this is the case for many industries that are impacted by globalisation,” he says.
According to the Australian Surf Craft Industry Association president Michelle Blauw, who operates D’Arcy Surfboards with esteemed shaper Stuart D’Arcy in Currumbin, the foreign board fiasco peaked and receded in 2012.
Blauw, who held a forum at the 2012 Bleach* Festival on this subject, explains that cheap imported surfboards have found a sort of place in the beginners market, and that most discerning surfers have returned to the traditional shapers.
“Initially we lost a huge slice of the market. But when people started realising that their cheap boards were quite inferior, they came flooding back,” she says. “Thankfully, the layers of our industry are settling again.”
Despite this, imported boards left major changes to the surf industry in their tracks. Many well-known shapers were forced to close their factories, while others moved production overseas.
Due to their low prices, imported boards have virtually eradicated the second hand board market. The trade system, whereby people return their current board to the shaper to be resold and in return receive a discount on the next board, has also diminished.
Then there’s the environmental factor. “Good quality second hand boards were bought three or four times before going to landfill. Cheap boards are thrown out much sooner and more frequently,” Michelle says.
The need for Michelle’s ideas on how to protect the Australian surf industry – including a landfill tax and country-of-origin labelling (COoL) – has died down in recent years. But she thinks COoL is still relevant.
“COoL is a law that applies to all products entering the country, so it frustrates us that imported boards get in without anything,” she says.
“The law is blatantly being broken. Customs personnel should be running them through the labelling system, but they’re not. Right now, buyers are responsible for ensuring the origin of the board.”
The global surfing industry does, however, have some perks for local shapers. While D’Arcy Surfboards is currently receiving orders from all over the world, Harvest is expanding into the Japanese market.
The proud distinction for the father-son duo is the experience and wisdom layered in the glass of every hand-shaped board. Modest yet renowned for his work, Jack helped Glen Winton develop the quad fin in the 1980s.
“Like the older shapers, Dad’s refined his skill with his hands over 40 years.” Affirmed by the factory’s aged ply panel walls, vintage Persian rugs and whiskers of polystyrene foam blowing underfoot, “Dad is real old school. He’s about people, not image.”
Luckily, old school is in. The world’s best riders are returning to alternative shapes and relaxed styling; single fins are crucial to any serious quiver; hell –the sun-streaked bowl cut is back.
“Our generation is bringing ideas that we love in old school surfing into the present and tweaking them with modern performance elements; blending the old and new for pure fun,” Aaron says.
Resisting the thrust of technology and increasing globalisation, the soul behind a handmade surfboard pulls us back to the wave itself – free of margins and markets – where we can taste nostalgia once more.
Now that is truly mind-blowing.
Disclaimer: Lizzy Keen has a personal connection to Aaron Knight, co-founder of Harvest Surfboards.