By Chuck Graham
Surfer/shaper Ryan Lovelace, cloaked in foam dust, busily fine-tunes another RabbitsFoot, one of his signature designs that’s grown in popularity. The scent of resin wafts inside his shaping bay nestled near the Santa Barbara coastline, much like the cloudy skies swirling overhead. Lovelace then shows me one of his sketchbooks, revealing drawings of his boards, including their dimensions, and photos of surfers riding his shapes. For Lovelace, building a surfboard is a journey, and surfers all around reap the benefits.
It began at an early age for Lovelace. Trips to Hawaii to visit his grandparents and summer trips with his dad along the rugged Washington state coastline fueled his love for surfing. “I was obsessed over it, and those little tastes every summer kept me fired up all year long until we went back,” recalls Lovelace, 27.
When he wasn’t surfing, he spent time building whatever popped into his head. If it piqued his interest, then rest assured he tinkered with it. He had plenty to work with—his dad bought a late 19th-century Victorian fixer-upper house that allowed for lots of trial and error.
The South Coast beckoned Lovelace when he was 18. He was initially lured to the point-laden coastline to attend Brooks Institute of Photography. Once he arrived, Lovelace immersed himself in the local surf scene and attended Santa Barbara City College instead. As he puts it, he physically grew up in Washington, but became who he is in Santa Barbara. To say Lovelace is passionate about his craft is an understatement.
“I grew up building things so the physical building of a board didn’t feel that impossible to me. I started reading tons about it, and on my 19th birthday, I shaped my first board and glassed it over the next three days. That got the fire lit.”
Lovelace has a deep relationship with his designs. Detailed sketchbooks include the conception of each shape and type of waves the surfboard is best suited for.
“My obsession with different board designs hit like a ton of bricks. Back then, I discovered building my own board was way more affordable and possibly a way to try out all the designs I was curious about.”
Even if a design meets his expectations, Lovelace continues to look at ways to make it better. He wouldn’t tell me what he thought he did best, designing or shaping, suggesting it was better to be adept in both disciplines.
“I don’t know if I can pick one,” he says. “I don’t really think about strong suits. I think they’re different realms. It’s the thought process versus the physical aspect.”
Of course, Lovelace would have neither if it weren’t for the inspiration surfing provides.
“It lights my fire for creating new boards,” he explains. “There’s always room to try a new board or a new version of one I’m into.”
Lovelace doesn’t rely so much on feedback from surfers riding his boards, opting to simply observe those surfers instead. He doesn’t waste time on a design if it isn’t working. Typically, if he shapes a design twice and if it doesn’t meet his expectations, he’ll scrap it and move on.
“I don’t feel a need to really enter into a realm of boards I’m not cut out for,” he says. “There are tons of shapers out there to fill whatever I lack. I work closely with the guys who are into my boards. If I see something I’m not liking, or if my guys feel like we’re on the right track, then we’ll go after the design again.”
What’s refreshing about Lovelace’s approach is that all his boards are hand-shaped—no computer-generated boards for him. As is evident in his tiny shaping bay, he is far from a mass-production shaper in a big factory. He focuses on small batches of boards, usually three to five at a time.
He doesn’t want to crank out surfboards all day long. He fears if he has too many boards floating around, he would be distracted, taking away from the creative process. Lovelace has shaped just over 2,000 boards and glassed most of them himself.
“I hand shape everything, which is super important to me,” he says. “I need to feel like I accomplished something at the end of the day, and I don’t normally get that if I didn’t make something tangible with my hands. I would rather change things about the way I do business than the way I physically build my boards.”
Originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of Santa Barbara SEASONS Magazine.