|Steve Croft in the shaping bay.|
Steve Croft grew up surfing in the North East of England and started shaping as a teenager. Together with Mark Dickinson he founded Fluid Concept in Scarborough. A number of years ago he made the move to Cornwall and continued to develop as a surfboard shaper and designer. He is currently producing beautifully crafted and unique boards under his own Empire label. Here he shares some of his thoughts on the design process and how it is affected by creativity both in the waves and in the shaping room.
Where did you grow up?
In Scarborough. In terms of surfing it still feels like home.
When did you start surfing and what got you interested in it?
I started surfing as a young teenager but growing up by the sea it was always a part of my life.
So what prompted you to start shaping surfboards?
Because I couldn't get the shapes that I wanted off the rack and couldn't afford to pay someone else to shape them for me. Most surfers where riding narrow, high rockered tri fin short boards and that style of surfing just didn't interest me.
Did you learn or apprentice with anyone as a shaper?
I was self taught. I bought a blank, some glass and some resin and built a board. My first board I shaped in a fisherman’s net loft and glassed in my grandparents garage. It was rideable, not great but rideable. The second one I shaped and glassed in a tent in my parents garden. From there I teamed up with a friend (Mark Dickinson) and built boards in his basement. We eventually got set up with a workshop. That was over 15 years ago. Since then I've been very lucky to work with many experienced shapers and have learnt something from each of them.
Can you tell us a bit about the origins of Empire Surfboards?
Empire started as a way of getting back to the reasons that I started shaping, the style of boards I love to ride and the connection with the surfers that I shape for. At the time I was a joint owner of Laminations, one of the UK's largest factories and production shaping for several labels including Beach Beat. I was shaping boards for surfers that I never met or worse, shaping stock boards for an imagined, generic, average surfer. I'd also been riding standard tri fin shortboards for a couple of years and was becoming frustrated with my surfing. On too many days there just wasn't the power in the waves to get the most out of the boards that I was riding.
I was also increasingly dissatisfied with the detachment between shaper and surfer. I wanted to get back to building the alternative boards that I had started out shaping. Shapes that I strongly believe are more enjoyable to ride for your average surfer in everyday conditions. I had the basics of a collection of shapes, outlines and rockers that I had been working on since I first started shaping and the Empire brand was set up to bring these designs together along with everything that I had learnt since and re-establish that connection between shaper and surfer. It allowed me to experiment with designs in a way that I felt unable to do under someone else’s brand.
|Steve, coming off the top with speed and style.|
With virtually unlimited access to boards - is it possible for you to have a favourite board?
I guess I have a favourite type of board, boards that have a certain feel. All of the boards that I ride have a feeling of effortless speed and an intimate connection to the wave. For waves up to chest high I like to ride a longboard, currently a 9'4” Cassette. Chest high to over head I ride a Lumus and when the waves get more critical I ride a Spectro. If I had to take just one board to the beach it would be the Lumus as I know that it would be a blast regardless of the conditions.
|From left to right - 9'4" Cassette, 7'9" Evo Hull, 6'6" Spectro, 6'0" Lumus.|
How often do you get in the water?
Less than I used to but still enough. With our kids I find that my time, focus and the value of things have shifted. Spending time with my family is more important to me than spending all of my available time in the water.
Do you manage to get away, and do you have a favourite surf destination?
I try to get away for a good trip once a year, either surfing or just travelling. I tend to favour cold water surf trips and have had my best sessions in Scotland and Ireland.
|Steve's quite happy if it's cold & blowy.|
Any music playing in the factory - if so what's on today?
Coco Rosie, Gold Panda, Dave Van Ronk and Bowie.
Right, let's get on to the nitty gritty stuff - how many boards have you shaped?
I've never actually kept track. I shaped my first board around 1995 and have been shaping ever since. Most of it full time and some of it production shaping. I started off hand shaping and the last few years I’ve used a machine. If I had to guess I'd say somewhere between 2000 and 2500? It's the quality of what you produce today rather than how many boards it took you to get you there, that is the key.
After so many boards how do you maintain your enthusiasm?
That goes back to the connection between shaper and surfer. For example I recently shaped a Bonzer for a guy called Sean up North and was lucky enough to be able to hand the board over in person and then paddle out and surf with him. Seeing the buzz that people get from my shapes is enough. I think that when I run out of ideas or new things to try I will have had enough.
What does a normal day involve?
I tend not to have normal days. I work as a design and technology technician at a local school so I’m there 9am - 3.30pm. Then head to the factory to catch up with the guys up there. I shape or finish a couple boards and if there is surf, stop at the beach on the way back for a few waves.
|Offshore and hard off the bottom...|
Do you think that there will always be a place for the custom surfboard shaper?
Yes, custom shapers can offer a board that is precisely tuned to your height, weight, ability and the conditions that you ride. Something that an off the rack board can never match. One thing to keep in mind is that without custom shapers you don't have the rapid board to board development of designs. This progression is stifled by mass production where designs have to be standardised and production costs take a higher priority.
Every rack board has been developed through custom shaping, it's the result of the design process and not the process itself. As soon as you mass produce something, that process dictates that the design becomes static. In custom shaping the designs are always fluid, altering and improving from board to board. It's the custom shapers that are pushing surfboard design forward. Admittedly some of these custom shapers then roll their ideas out to mass produced rack boards.
Shapers are being recognised as true crafstmen now, with some commanding huge prices - what's your view on the £1000 hand-shaped board?
I think that on the whole custom built boards are hugely under priced. I aim to charge a price that is fair for the work and make sure that everyone that is involved in building the board gets a fair wage. If some shapers can charge more, that can only be a good thing but for that price I'd expect the shaper to take some time to talk to me. To understand the way that I surf and the type of waves that I ride and design a board for me, not just a hand-shaped board out of the rack. I don't agree with paying just for a signature.
Can you talk us through your approach to shaping?
I shape the boards that I like to ride. What I look for in a board firstly is effortless speed, not having to work the board to make it go. Secondly and just as important is control and a connection to the wave, that needs to be balanced with response. As long as you have speed, control and can turn then you have the potential to do whatever you like on the wave. I guess for me the ultimate goal is to give the surfer the freedom to express their own style.
|The distinctive '2-fins' style.|
As a designer you are aiming to create both form and function - along with taking into account a fluid environment (surf conditions) and individual customer requirements (skill level etc) how do you balance these factors?
That only comes with experience. Surfboard design is always a compromise. You can't have everything and you don't get something for nothing are two sayings that are very apparent in board design.
An example is that increasing control often increases drag, so it's balancing all of these different elements to get the performance characteristics that you want. Generally a well balanced board is easy to ride but if you add a little bias in one direction it becomes a more exciting board to ride.
What advice do you give people looking for their 'perfect' board?
Firstly be honest. With yourself, with your ability, where you surf everyday and think about what it is that you really want from your board. Most importantly think about the way you surf. My best boards have always been the ones that suit my style of surfing. Those are the boards that feel most natural. Also try as many boards as you can, borrow them from friends, hire them from shops or even pick up cheap second hand boards. Each one will teach you something and give you more idea of what you are looking for.
What's your view of the current state of board design?
To misquote somebody or other “these are interesting times”. I think that it is really positive that mainstream boards have got wider and flatter and generally more sensible for the majority of surfers. It's taken a long time and some big names for these fuller template, lower rocker boards to be accepted as the norm. The surf shop racks are now full of the types of boards we and a few others were building 10 years ago but until it has the right logo no one listens.
|Front slash to tail slide.|
And being at the sharp end (so to speak) do you see any trends or cycles?
There are always cycles and trends. It tends to happen that a shaper or shapers develop a new direction. They will then take that idea to the extreme and really push it to the limit, until it is only rideable by a few very gifted surfers. Then the design gets toned down and brought back to a point were most people can use it. It happened with thrusters getting narrower and more rockered, it's happening now with Simmons inspired planing hulls. I think that is the current direction, to go shorter, wider and straighter, this gradually filters down into a watered down version in the surfshop racks.
Are there any particular shapes or styles that really interest you?
The four fin Bonzer set up that I've been working with for a few years now has been the most exciting step forward for me. This is by no means a new idea and has been around since the 80s but it's been largely ignored. I think that this offers the biggest potential advancement in performance for your average surfer. I wouldn't say that it will suit everyone but then no single design does. I've also been working with Alex Rowse on some interesting displacement hull shapes. That’s a direction I would like to continue to explore.
Are there any other shapers that you admire?
There are quite a few. Malcolm Campbell as much for his outlook on life and work ethic as his shaping. Bob Cooper was a huge inspiration to get back to doing what I love. Apart from those guys it's the people following their own path like, amongst others, Ryan Lovelace and John Wesley.
|Steve with Bob Cooper.|
Where do you find your personal inspiration?
It comes for everywhere. I watched a lot of 70s surf films when I was learning to surf. I guess those films and the guys that I have surfed with have had the biggest influence on my own style. I am most inspired by the things that I most value in surfing. I'd rather watch a stylish surfer doing very little than someone with no style doing tricks. By style I’m talking timing, flow, grace, composure, posture and importantly personality. The guy that you can spot from the moment that he turns and paddles for a wave. The ones that make it look effortless and ride completely in tune with the wave. These are the surfers that inspire me. In general, design is taking all the bits you like for the things you love, from your own experience and that of others and putting it all together to make something new. No matter how out there the idea appears it is always the result of collective past experience.
What do you love about being a surfboard shaper / designer?
The personal interactions with other surfers and the infinite variables of surfboard design. Having an idea, taking that and turning it into foam and fibreglass and testing it in the water.
In terms of surfboards I reckon that the four fin Bonzer set up has enough potential and scope for development to keep me entertained for a while. I've also got some displacement hull ideas that I'd like to pursue. Away from the boards I’ve been throwing pots and I'm working on a few pleasing things there that I am excited about. Although there are many similarities I find that the fluidity of working with clay is a good contrast to that of foam.
You can see more of Steve's boards by visiting Empire Surfboards.