The art of shaping
OTTER ROCK — I met Robert Rube at his Otter Rock surf and skate shop on a rainy weekday afternoon. In a hoodie and Pura Vida Surf Shop beanie, he'd been discussing plans for a summer skateboard camp with a couple folks when I walked in.
We stood and chatted among surfboards of varying lengths, shape and color. The spectrum included a hanging vintage board by one of Oregon's original shapers, John Kelsey, as well as a 1964 Gordon and Smith longboard.
As a kid, Rube moved around with his military family, eventually landing in Hawaii, where he fell in love with surfing and surf culture. His parents hauled him to Iowa for high school, and when the steakhouse chain he worked for after graduating offered him a job in Bend, Ore., he jumped at the chance.
He became a "weekend warrior surfer," driving out to the coast and sleeping in his car at a time when "three surfers at Otter Rock was a busy day." He was on his way one day to Seaside to surf when he noticed the Oregon Surf Shop in Lincoln City. He and owner Mike Olson chatted, and soon Rube was working at the shop.
"Surfboards in the ’80s were like potato chips," he said. Kids getting into surfing wanted to ride thin boards like the pros. But boards that thin easily folded on sandbars. Rube himself was susceptible to breaking boards, which got him thinking about shaping his own.
It was initially a "trial by fire process." He ruined three of his first four blank decks.
"I keep my first board on the wall of my shop as a reminder," said Rube. If he's having a hard time shaping, he can look at his "hideous board" and know things aren't so bad.
He continued working at the art, spending time in Santa Cruz at the Arrow factory, watching owner Bob Pearson and his shapers work.
Closing in on the ocean, he moved to Corvallis, where he shaped out of his garage. Managers of a nearby taco shop asked if he could build a decorative board. Soon after, Taco Del Mar corporate contacted him. Could he build 20 boards a month? No way, he said. He was a one-man operation. How about 10? Rube went on to produce over 250 boards for the chain. The money helped him and his business partner open a shop in Philomath. When an opportunity to move the shop to Otter Rock arose, Rube took it.
Rube explained what was unique about shaping for the Oregon coast. Here, we get a lot of freshwater pouring in from rivers and creeks. The result is a lack of seawater salinity (which means less floatation, something a shaper considers) compared to surfing hotspots like Southern California. Other challenges include the extra weight of a 4- or 5-millimeter wetsuit needed to stay comfortable in chilly water: that much fabric can add between five and seven pounds.
Rube recently shaped for Will Fennie, who, at 6 feet 4 inches, wanted a board large enough to handle his size but small enough that he could get onto and turn across the open face of steep waves. Fennie told Rube, "I've been frustrated trying to ride boards that were either too small for me, or boards that were large enough for me, but weren't shaped for the kind of surfing I had in mind.”
Rube answered Fennie's "hundreds of questions" as they began discussions on what kind of board would suit his needs. Durability, width, thickness, buoyancy — customizing was a hands-on process that Rube encourages his clients to be a part of.
"More participation is good," he said. "It helps surfers understand what a shaper goes through."
We are in an era when computer-generated data tells cutting machines how to turn blanks into smooth, clean boards. A hundred a day can be done this way.
"A board kind of loses its soul if nobody touches it," Rube said.
Whether sponsoring high school senior board-building projects — students were required to shape by hand, with no power tools, which took three quarters of the school year — or building a board for a local surfer, Rube's thoroughness seems balanced with experimentation and a passion for what surf writer Stiv Wilson calls Rube's attention to the "classic principles of surfboard design."
The width and thickness of the board, the shape of the nose, the rocker: these are what Rube likes to talk about when talking about surfboard hydrodynamics.
He also keeps things affordable, not calculating the working hours he puts into a "labor of love."
Fennie and Rube finalized their design. They landed on a scaled-up short board with an additional fiberglass layer for strength, enough volume and planing surface to get into waves, and thin rails to allow him to dig into the face of the wave. After 15 years of surfing, working with Rube these last couple months "has been a revelation."