Issue 21.3: June/July 2018
Feature

The Fun Factory

It was once the hub of Waialua’s sugar industry. Now it’s home to a community of shapers fashioning some of the world’s finest surfboards.
Story by Beau Flemister. Photos by Dana Edmunds.

The stand is prelude to what lies beyond the gate, where men and women make things with tools that cut, shave, grind, shape, sand, slice and meld functional works of art: surfboards, some of the world’s best, that have won world titles and countless competitions, that have ridden waves the size of small mountains. And a tinker is a good guy to have around to keep those tools sharp.

A stone’s throw from the gate of the Old Sugar Mill in the sleepy plantation town of Waialua, O‘ahu, a man sits next to a stand advertising in crude handwriting: Knife+Tool Sharpening. It begs the question: What’s going on here that requires an onsite tinker?

I park in the dirt lot. It’s all a dirt lot, really. The mill isn’t much to look at. It’s a relic of a dead industry—a fallen empire —from Hawai‘i’s era of king sugar. The Chamberlain family first refined sugar cane on these grounds back in 1865, but the business failed and Castle & Cooke took over, constructing a new mill and plantation that prospered from 1898 through the early 1900s—the heyday of sugar. The Waialua Sugar Mill supported a vibrant community of immigrant plantation workers, mostly from the Philippines, many of whose descendants still live in Waialua. There are even some families still living in the old plantation housing behind the mill, though operations officially ended in 1996. What’s left are a half-dozen rusting, red-dirt-smeared industrial buildings in beautiful decay, the Wai‘anae mountains brilliant in the background. The buildings have that rustic, industrial aesthetic that some hip creative agency might spend millions attempting to re-create in a commercial space in Brooklyn.

At one time, the Waialua Sugar Company managed the North Shore’s most productive plantation. Its mill remained in operation until the company folded in 1996. The buildings were left to rust until enterprising surfboard shapers like Eric Arakawa moved in to take advantage of the cheap rent and proximity to some of the world’s best waves.

It takes a moment for the place to catch up with one’s expectations of what a global surfboard-making power spot should be like. But eventually it does: The whine of sanders, power drills and air compressors surges from windows and doorways. Men carry snow-white surfboard blanks from one doorway to another wearing footwear so caked with dried resin they look like clown shoes. Others wear respirators over their faces, foam dust coating their forearms like baby powder. Surfing celebrities and world champions rumble through in pick-ups, kicking up dust behind them, ready to load up their new winter quivers.

I’d heard of the many fabled and reclusive artists and mad scientist-like craftsmen who’ve worked from here. Shapers like Owl Chapman, John Carper and Carl Schaper, to laminators like Larry Peterson, Brian King and Steve Matthews. And while the mill isn’t reserved solely for surfboard makers (there’s a soap factory, a coffee mill, wood and stone workers), surfers were among the first to move in. What drew them? The obvious: cheap rent and the proximity to world-class surf on the North Shore. Every shaper here has two things in common: They are all avid surfers, and they came to the mill to get legit.

The first surfboard maker to rent here back in 1997 was local boy Eric Arakawa, who’s since become one of the most famous shapers in the world. Arakawa started out at 14, and by the 1980s he was making boards for legendary local surfers Michael and Derek Ho, Ronnie Burns, then for Tom Carroll, Derek Hynd and Mark Occhilupo. Most famously, Arakawa shaped boards for three-time world champion Andy Irons until Irons died in 2010.

“I came here because of zoning,” says Arakawa, walking me around his factory. “The North Shore back in the ’70s through ’90s was notorious for backyard shaping. It was like every other street, there was some guy building boards and getting resin fumes in the kitchen—a total cottage industry. Heck, I was one of them in the early ’80s. But it was a cool part of North Shore culture.” Apparently, there was a time in the ’80s when there were so many backyard surfboard makers that surfers out in the lineups could smell the resin curing when offshore winds blew the fumes out to sea. “But after ten years shaping at Campbell Industrial Park,” which is miles away from the North Shore, “this opened up and I was like, ‘Man, I can surf more!’”

Arakawa’s factory, he says, is in the building that was once the paint and plumbing shop during the mill’s plantation days. The showroom between the cutting and laminating rooms serves as a surf shop of sorts, the Arakawa Factory Showroom. Most shapers at the mill have these spaces now, which balances out their wholesale business to retailers.

Arakawa peeks into his office to make sure his kids, who’ve just arrived from school, are doing their homework. Beyond the bonuses of a place that’s legal, close to home and has good surf, Arakawa values the close-knit community that’s developed at the mill. “Little by little over the years, an artisan culture has developed here,” he says. “Filmmakers to cabinetmakers to the soap factory—it’s really cool to see it. The mill is a definite hub as far as surfboard making goes. There’s just nothing else like it here in Hawai‘i. A symbiotic relationship started among it all, too, with the different craftsmen. Guys would come over and ask for a part or fin boxes, like a neighbor coming over asking for a cup of sugar, you know?”

Perhaps the most sought-after shaper currently at the mill is Jon Pyzel. A transplant from California who moved to the North Shore for warm water and world-class waves, Pyzel fixed dings at Country Surfboards, was mentored by master shaper Jeff Bushman and then began working out of the Old Sugar Mill around twelve years ago. He cut boards for Eric Arakawa and even bought his first shaping machine from John Carper, another renowned shaper still working here.

While a shaper might be wildly talented, his or her success is almost always deter-mined by who rides their boards. At the moment the best professional surfers on the planet are riding Pyzels, like current two-time world champion John John Florence from the North Shore. Florence has been riding Pyzels exclusively since 1998, when he was five years old. Many of the world’s most prestigious events have been won on Pyzels: Florence won multiple Triple Crown of Surfing Cups and the 2016 Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational; Billy Kemper won two Pe‘ahi Big Wave Challenges; Koa Rothman won Surfline’s Wave of the Winter. Pyzel has entered the “Stab in the Dark” competition sponsored by Australia’s STAB magazine, in which twelve shapers give a board (sans logo) to a top-tier surfer, who rides all of them and picks the number one. Pyzel has won the last two years. In Pyzel Surfboard’s new showroom/retail space at the mill, Florence’s rash guards hang on the walls next to dozens of framed magazine covers with surfers gracing them, feet planted on his surfboards.

On the way to his shaping room, we pass a couple that looks like they might have drifted away from the coffee tour a couple buildings over. “It’s pretty informal around here,” Pyzel laughs. “People can just stop in and ask questions. I think this place gives people a throwback ‘country vibe,’ and this is one of the last places on O‘ahu where you can find that. The mill’s changed a lot; it used to be a little like the Wild West on the outskirts of town, but I also feel really connected to the North Shore here. A lot of times, around the world or in California, for instance, surfboards are built in very bland, generic industrial zones, but when I take a picture of the mill, everyone’s like, ‘Wow, where is that?’”

Shaping bays are like artists’ studios, places for exploration and invention, messy and filled with the detritus of creativity. Pyzel’s, littered with foam dust and stringer shavings, is no different. Surfboard manufacturing isn’t great for the environment, as the aroma of polyester resin wafting around the mill might suggest. Typical surfboards are made of polyurethane foam and poly-ester resin fiberglass—petroleum-based products. Pyzel, along with dozens of other shapers around the world, has been experimenting with more sustainable materials. Marko Foam, which Pyzel uses in most of his surfboards, contains 25 percent recycled foam (a 25 percent reduction in waste). Pyzel is also trying out algal foams —blanks made with 20 percent algae oil instead of petroleum. “We’re far, far away from being really sustainable, but shapers are making steps,” says Pyzel. “I don’t know if you wanna call them ‘eco-boards,’ but they’re better boards.”

“The community has developed fairly organically, and it’s still a work in progress,” says Pyzel. “You could walk through and see nothing but dusty people and red dirt, but if you spend a little time down here, you realize there’s long-term creativity.”

The first thing you notice about a Two Crows surfboard is the color. “We’re big on color,” says Carl Olsen, the shaper of the shaper-artist duo that is Two Crows Surfboards. “The three C’s, actually: color, creativity and craftsmanship. Just yesterday my wife and I were going to dinner, and she asked me, ‘Should I wear the gray dress or the floral one?’ and I’m like, ‘Is that a question?’ Always color. Which is why I love working with my business partner, Welzie. He oozes color.”

Piles of crusty paint, discarded Dixie cups and unintentional resin runoff sculptures lie scattered around the shaping bay. The boards themselves, mostly longboards (“logs,” as Olsen calls them), practically smile while they cure. Every hue evokes something you’d see on the North Shore. The pale blues in a mid-afternoon sky. The pink at dusk. The lime green of the Wai‘anae foothills. All this paint and pigment got them a little rousted by the more traditional, clear-boards-only crew in the mill. “We did color when everyone else was doing clear boards, so yeah, we got some crap from guys early on,” laughs Olsen.

Olsen and Welzie were among the last craftsmen to get a space in the mill, and Two Crows got pigeonholed as the young hipster brand—not that Olsen didn’t have shaping chops. Before moving to Hawai‘i ten years ago, he worked his way to head shaper at renowned Pearson Arrow Surf-boards in Santa Cruz, California. Olsen takes his fellow shapers’ jeering in stride, pointing out that Two Crows’ clientele usually prefer a fun board over one a world champ might ride to glory. Not that they can’t hold up in competition: The recent Women’s World Longboard champion, Honolua Blomfield, won her title this past year on a Two Crows.

“I’ve traveled a lot and found that throughout the world, surfboard builders seem 
to have their little centers like this,” says Carl Olsen of Two Crows Surfboards. “It’s because we work with each other and feed off each other’s creativity and innovations.”

Stepping outside of the shaping bay into the sunlight, I ask Olsen where he finds inspiration for his vibrant, offbeat designs. The sky is still cloudless, tradewinds turned off for the day. He points to the mountains. “It’s pretty inspiring. Aren’t you inspired? It looks like a painting, the kind of stuff they teach you in art school—composition, background and shadow play. … It’s hard not to be moved.”

Steve Mock slides open an ancient chain-link gate with both hands, his forearms coated in fiberglass dust. Mock owns Island Fin Design, and he’s been making surfboard fins by hand since 1979. Yet another surfer who moved over in the ’70s during the North Shore’s surf-migration influx, Mock was a backyard guerrilla craftsman until he moved to a legit space at Campbell Industrial Park, then, like Arakawa, to the mill, where he can be closer to home and family.

In the workshop, Mock’s youngest son, Alika, is sanding a fin. There are vises, drill presses, sanders and shaping machines on various tables and hundreds of fin panels on a wall, many of them templates for fins used by world champion surfers over the past thirty years. In one corner of the room are rolls of aloha and palaka prints, plaids and other fabrics he sources locally for his work. From Town & Country Surfboards to the fins on Florence’s Eddie-winning Pyzel board, Mock explains his tapering and foiling techniques, which sound more like airplane engineering than,
well, surf stuff.

At one time Island Fin Design produced thousands of fins for factories all over the world, but Mock has transitioned into boutiques and shops often catering to an eager Japanese market searching for the highest level of craftsmanship. While still functional, some of his fins are used as décor for trendy Waikīkī hotels.

“I feel very fortunate to have gotten a spot here at the mill,” says Mock. “The popularity of this place is definitely growing, and at the same time it’s still a little off the beaten path, so people have to search for us. I think as surfboard retail has narrowed down a lot in surf shops, it’s opened up a great opportunity for us to sell here.”

I follow Lon Klein of Haleiwa Surfboard Company gingerly through his large workshop, zigzagging around serious-looking industrial machines that might decapitate me if I pressed the wrong button. The warehouse smells of rich, freshly cut hardwoods, and hanging on one wall are various saws and cutting tools, while against another wall leans lumber of different dimensions. Air compressors hiss like giant, angry snakes.

Sprightly for 75, Klein waves me upstairs to his showroom with the paw-like hand common to many craftsmen at the mill. While most of the woodworking machinery below is used to make custom doors and windows, upstairs is the surf operation. One of the first guys to set up shop here at the mill after Arakawa in 1998, Klein has been coming back and forth from California since the ’70s. He shows me a collection of stunning hollow-core wood surfboards crafted with locally sourced hardwoods: koa, kamani, milo, mango. Klein is one of the few humans on Earth who makes these surfboards, and has even fabricated his own
jigs, machines and presses to build them.

A child of the 1940s, Lon uses a lot of‘oh boys’ and ‘gee whizzes,’ as in: “Gee whiz, at first it was hard to get guys in here after the sugar mill shut down,” he says.“It was like walking into a horror movie, the building we got at first.” Working with legendary shapers like Dick Brewer, who crafts the foam cores, Klein makes surf-boards meant to be ridden, despite the fact that they look beautiful hanging on a wall. Indeed, many customers buy them as wall art, which is why Klein’s main retailer is not a surf shop but Martin & MacArthur in Hawai‘i and Las Vegas.

The amount of labor required to finish one of these boards is astonishing—up to 150 hours, depending on the length—and the prices they command reflect it. Mate-rials, like high-quality koa wood, are also scarce and expensive. Klein, however, doesn’t appear fazed one bit by the challenges; he’s proud of the commitment it takes to build these works of art. “I believe my love for the ocean and surfing gets internalized and then manifests itself in these boards,” he says between compressor hisses. “I know it does. I’m building a beautiful, three-dimensional object that’s a functional piece of art. Boy, I hope people ride them!”

“Since John John won his first title, I’d say double the amount of visitors have been coming through,” says Pete Matthews, co-owner of Waialua Surf Shop. “But it’s not just John John. This whole zone is still really authentic, and the people you see on a daily basis around here, the old legends and new icons—it’s crazy. There aren’t many other places in the world where you can experience that.”

I ask whether he collaborates with other craftsmen in the mill, what with him working with wood while the others use polyurethane, and he laughs. “Steve Mock at Island Fin Designs does my fins, Larry Peterson glasses the boards and Dick Brewer does the cores. It’s just a terrific hub of creativity around here.”

Heading back to my car, a wellfed Labrador ambles over, sniffs my pockets, then wanders off. I roll away from the rusty buildings toward the gate, and two pro surfers ranked among the top ten in the world speed toward the mill like kids running to the tree on Christmas morning. It reminds me of something master laminator Brian King told me earlier: “We’re basically toy makers in here. We’re Santa’s elves 24/7, 365.”

Hanging a right toward Snake Road, I see the Knife + Tool Sharpening man posted up near the Waialua Bandstand. He looks up from his vise and throws me a shaka. HH