– stripping surfing back down to its most elemental form


Ned MacMahon is one of the men behind the Eden Project’s award winning “eco board.” He is the General Manager for Homeblown US, a company manufacturing polyester blanks using the less environmentally damaging MDI (Diphenylmethane di-isocyanate) foam. In their environmental statement, Homeblown states that they use a “chemistry that mimics the best characteristics of our competitors, without breaching too fundamentally our environmental concerns in a tortuous balance of the environment and commerce…” It is interesting to see a company that must struggle with their own environmental ethics and the reality of making a successful product while trying to achieve a measure of success. It is a fundamental question that the surfing collective must also ask itself.

Aside from being a business man, Ned is first and foremost a shaper. His shaping roots go way back and he has worked with some of today’s most revered craftsmen. Ned is also a writer whose contributions can be seen on Wetsand and The Surfer’s Path – we have actually referenced his work here on Phoresia on previous posts as well. In his interview Ned talks about shaping, the surf industry and the future of shaping.

We welcome your feedback and comments, as dialog is essential for change.

Ned MacMahon Interview:

Q. How long have you been shaping surfboards? Can you tell us a little about the progression and your inspiration?

First I want to say thanks for allowing me to share some thoughts and ideas with you and your readers. It is truly an honor to be heard.I have been shaping professionally since about 1976 when I returned from my first trip to Hawaii. I needed more boards than I could afford so Courtney Parks of Ocean Magic let me make a board, coached me a little, and when the boards started to look OK he gave me my first job shaping. Shortly after, I went to work at Sunset Surfboards in Encinitas. It was perfect timing because with as any craft practice is essential. 1978 was the first Japanese boom for the surf market. Where surf factories would be busy in the summer and usually found other work in the winter, now with a Japanese order for 1000 that kept us going all year. It was great too because it would be 10- 5’8″s, 10- 5’10″s, etc. That was when I really felt I became a shaper.Blanks were terrible then too — we were making 5’8″s out of a thick 6’9″ blank so you really had to learn to shape rocker and foil from a bit of a blob. I got inspired by just the beauty of the process of shaping — the art form — a white block of foam, dark walls, the side lighting — when you stand back and look at a finished shape on the rack it is truly beautiful. All the compound curves working together were awesome.Ned at Home Blown Open HouseThroughout the years I have been very fortunate and have worked with some great surfers and shapers. When I worked at T&C Ben Aipa was an inspiration. He was so meticulous. He and I would usually be the first ones to work at about 6am and the first thing he would do was to walk through the shop and check everyone of his boards. He would leave tape on the boards with notes regarding air in the lams, or not the right edge in the sanding. I thought it was really great that he cared and watched all the way through. Tom Eberly was another guy I learned a lot from. I only worked with him a short while at Lightning Bolt but he knew how build boards all the way through. He could do any job in the shop and he could do it better than the guys working at it day in and day out.

There was a guy named Sid Madden — he had a reputation as someone that was a bit out there — and I worked with Sid a bit and one thing stands out. Back in the 70’s the boards were all quite thick with really full “Brewer” rails. Sid started tapering his rails really thin and said I should try it. The thin-railed boards worked great in the smooth California surf. One day I was off to surf some points up north, Rincon and beyond. Sid said stop in and see my friend Al Merrick in Santa Barbara. I did, Al was in the back of his shop in the shaping room and then after talking a while Al asked to see one of my boards. I was quite proud of this new 7’3″ I had just made. When he saw the board Al just laughed and said that it was way too thin, thin rails will never work, Sid is crazy. I think Sid was perhaps just a little ahead of his time.

Finally, I’ll make a comment about shapers in an interview with Randy Rarick. He was asked to define what a good shaper was and his answer was one that could shape a short twin fin, gun, shortboard, and longboard all in the same day and have them all come out nice. Since then I have always wanted to shape anything that has come my way and I’ve shaped everything from bodyboards to tandem boards and done so in just about every material possible.

As for the surfers, I have had the honor to make boards for guys like Gerlach back in the 70s to Sunny, JBG, Bruce and Andy Irons, and many more. It is just as much an honor for me shape boards for my brothers or my friends — some of whom now have their kids also riding my shapes. Friends like Donny McQuiston are an inspiration because at almost 50 and all the responsibilities that go along with family and running a business, he still surfs a 6’5″, he still rips, he still finds time to go to Indo for a couple of weeks a year, and usually a trip Kauai each winter too!

Q. You mentioned in your essay Wake Up in The Surfer’s Path the idea that there is a “soul” connection arising from a board being manufactured by someone who actually surfs. I wonder how many consumers out there know what processes are involved in the manufacturing of boards in Asia?

“Soul” — surfers often use this term as a qualifier as in this guy has soul or this shaper lacks soul because he uses a machine, etc. Through the years I’ve come up with my own idea of soul particularly since surfboards have become closer to a commodity.

Surfing and surfboards are magic. There is no quantifiable measurement that can be used. The experience is totally personal — and that’s the magic. Everything else in the world can be measured, tested, declared one better that the other, new and improved, etc. Surfing is the only thing that can’t, a fact that is easily proved by going surfing on your “magic” board while your friend is surfing his “magic” board. You’re both catching waves having a great time. Now switch boards — the magic is gone. Surfing is that personal.

All shapes work, all designs work — yes, some generally work better than others (really just feel different not work better or worse). Retro twin fins with box rails or hi-performance longboards that are only 2 1⁄2″ thick — which one is better? That is the magic!

Once you accept the fact that surfing is magic then you can accept that there is soul. For me soul is not whether you use a shaping machine or not but soul is who and how that tool is being used. For example, a machine that cuts 10- 6’1″ squash tails for a non-shaper to simply smooth the grooves — not too much soul there. !0- 6’1″s that Merrick will shape for a team rider to squeak out a bit more performance is using a tool correctly. But the best part is the magic still exists because even those supposedly identical 6’1″ Merrick’s won’t all feel the same.

Further, as the surfboard reaches the point of commodity (which can never be allowed to happen) people and places that have no connection with the ocean or surfing have started to make boards. This is where the issue of “soul” really comes into play. So my definition of soul has evolved into the level of connection.

Where there is a close connection between the surfboard builder and the ultimate consumer, soul exists. When there is a disconnect between surfboard builder and the ultimate consumer, no soul exists. Where a guy in China is making surfboards in a place away from the sea and he has never had the experience of surfing or possibly never even seen the sea himself, there is no soul. This is not a knock on the individuals in the shop making the boards. The skills of surfboard making can be learned by anyone but the feeling of surfboard making is something that only comes from years of experience playing in the ocean.

Q. Many blank manufacturers have moved out of the United States to avoid environmental laws. So now the problem is simply being moved to another place, out of our backyard, but into someone else’s front yard as it were. What do you think is our responsibility as surfers to the global community?

Blank manufacturing moving out of the US isn’t really the issue. Yes they can get around some EPA issues but the bigger problem is time is up. The time is now for us to do something that is thoughtful, sustainable, and good business. Any surfer that is regularly playing in the ocean wants our sea and beaches clean yet we all use a toxic piece of plastic to do so.

Ned, Mark and HinesWe at Homeblown are making MDI foam. It is more difficult, it is a little more expensive but it is cleaner for the workers in the shop and it is cleaner for the local environment than the status quo of TDI foam. MDI is not the answer but it is a step in the right direction. At Homeblown, we are continually pursuing environmentally responsible alternatives in surfboard construction. We have diligently been working on a type of foam that is about 50% plant based material. We don’t want it to go out to the market until we feel it is at least as good as other foam blanks. We are very close but not quite there yet.

Surfers actually must step up and be the leaders in the ocean environmental movement. So many companies, selling so many products from all areas of business, use surfing as an image but we must collectively hold these companies that use our image of surfing accountable. Yet we can’t hold anyone accountable unless we first do it ourselves.

Q. What is your definition of sustainability as it relates to the surfing industry?

I read what Tom Wegner said about sustainability and I agree that respect is the first part of the definition — in fact starting with respect in many areas may help solve many of the world’s issues. Tom goes on to say that the board should last a long time and perhaps that is true. This is where I differ a bit. Surfers want to get new boards and try new designs. It is fun and it is what helps things grow. I just think the key is to give back and equal amount to what you use or take.

Recently my partners from the UK traveled to San Diego for our open house. For their travels they all made contributions to areas that offset the carbon footprint of their travel. Since we are not there yet with clean surfboards there are other ways to make up for that so that sustainability becomes a part of everyday life as I know it is for Tom Wegener.

Q. You mentioned before that natural color foam, without the ingredients to make it white, is stronger and lighter than it’s whiter counterpart. What can be done to change the aesthetic of surfing so that something as simple as color does not dictate or sacrifice the durability of surfboards?

Home Blown blank with hemp glass job - Eden Project We could make our MDI foam better, cleaner, lighter, stronger and less expensive if we didn’t have to add the ingredients to the formulation that make it white which the present consumer demands. The ship of surfboard trends is turned very slowly and can’t happen all at once. We recent built a board of plant based foam, hemp cloth, and plant based resin. It produced a usable, sustainable surfboard but didn’t quite match up to what a consumer would expect from a new board. We have decided to simply focus on one thing at a time. We will get the foam right first. Then we can work on alternative skins, then finally the resin. This may take a few years. All of the natural components will be of a straw color. All of this white that we have gotten used to is a result of color additives, enhancers or bleaching. The natural versions are stronger and lighter and for surf blanks even less expensive. I think slowly that the straw color will creep into the market and over time it will win.

Q. Home Blown is providing products to both professional shapers and home shapers. Where do you see the craftsmanship tradition headed in the next few years? Do think that surfers will continue experimenting with their own creations more and more?

The process of shaping by hand or otherwise a foam core is a great way to make surfboards. I don’t think we need to change the way shapers go about their craft. Foam and fiberglass allows for ultimate customization and surfers and shapers will continue to experiment as well as the next generation needing to experience what we already have done such as the resurgence in the fish.

As for where the craftsmanship is heading? The main thing that happened as a result of Clark shutting down is that all this peripheral technology has had a chance to come to the forefront. The molded boards have been lead by Surftech, then we have hollow carbon, EPS, parabolic stringers, and on and on. Some technologies are just not suited to a varied high volume process, some like EPS have other issues like epoxy allergies to deal with. By the way, polystyrene has been around since WWII and has been used from time to time throughout the years. Polystyrene is not enough of a new step in the right direction to have any real significant change in the way surfboards are made. The molded boards have other issues. Although they appear very strong initially, when the do get damaged the damage seems to be catastrophic. The worst things about the molded boards are that a certain model can look the same. It’s like wearing a cool shirt to a party only to find your friend wearing the same shirt. I don’t want to be at the beach when another surfer comes walking up with the exact same board — length, width, fins, color, everything!.

Q. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Any final thoughts you’d like to leave us with?

We are at a crossroads for surfboards and the environment. We need to be mindful of cleaning up the mess we made over the past century. I don’t look back and feel bad about it — it got us a lot of great things we have today. Progress has happened and now its time to clean up. We are doing our best everyday to do our small part and I hope others join us.

More importantly for surfboard craftsmen though is the idea of surfing having reached a point of acceptance in general that will lead to a surfboard being a commodity. As I mentioned before, surfing and surfboards are magic. It is the only truly individual experience. I don’t want to see all the craftsmen that have dedicated their lives to making surfboards because of a love of the artistic process and the love of the surfing experience, lose that livelihood to an Asian factory where there is no connection between the maker and ultimate user — this makes the surfboard just another widget and it certainly is devoid of soul.


Top: Ned… “longboard blank with a recent issue Hansen Superlight by Craig Hollingsworth (note the perfect ice blue tint)”

Middle: Chris Hines of the Eden Project, Tris Cokes of Homeblown UK and Mark Massara -an environmental lawyer and head of the Sierra Club Coastal Dept. All with a sustainable board of 50% plant based foam, hemp cloth and plant based resin.

Bottom: the “eco” board.

• Category: board construction, diy, environment, interviews,

6 Responses »

  1. hi, very interesting article, thanks for making this available. i am intersted in devoting my life to making surfboards. but im unsure. i have been surfing for two years now, and love it more than anything else. im doing a degree in animation at uni, and know that i dont want to be a down to down animator when im older, just couldn’t hack sitting and drawing frame after frame all day, i love to do stuff with my hands, and im very creative, i am also very good in woodwork, so i thought shaping would be somthing i could do.(being able to do graphics aswell) i am also very literate on computers and have lots of ideas on how to start off a business. if anyones got any advice it would be great. i need to decide where my lifes going!

  2. Hi Ricardo,

    Thanks again for mentioning Homeblown and our new Biofoam. I wanted to also thank you for mentioning Grain Surfboards. I think these guys are great and doing a great job. I hope they can develop a business as strong as the homebuilder kayak market. I wish them the best of luck and I am ordering a Grain for myself too!


  3. Great article fellas! Very interesting. I hope to see Homeblown blanks around my hometown in the future. Is it possible to special order a blank to Canada? Any contact info?
    All the best,
    Dan McMahon

  4. hello ned i wondered where you got to over the years im still enjoying cape town surf but not the cold please send me your email adress and il send you a proper letter regards pierre

  5. I recently purchased one on your boards (used) and it has a small ding. Any special tips for repair? Thanks and good luck turning the industry around. It is possible (-:

  6. I owned a matt archbold pro model board that you had shaped for T&C back in 94′. to this day that was the best board I ever rode!