Q&A - James Otter
Interview - Esker
Photos - Matt Arney
James started life as a furniture maker, but his love for the ocean, wood and
sustainability has led him to create, and help others create surfboards that are
more than simply wave riding craft -
Hey James let’s start with a little background; where are you from and what first drew you to the sea?
I was born by the coast in Norfolk but grew up in Buckinghamshire, so quite far from the sea but like many people as a family we had many holidays by the sea, mostly spent in Cornwall. So I guess the coast and its elements have always been a part of my life and the affinity to it only grew stronger with age.
How did you first start in furniture making, was it always something you wanted to do?
I always enjoyed making things, especially from wood and my dad’s advice was to stick with what you enjoy, so it was a fairly natural progression to continue making things from wood. I was heading into furniture designing and making and was working as a traditional timber framer, when I decided to have a go at making my first surfboard. The elements of furniture making that I most enjoyed were creating compound curves with the different processes of bending wood,so the surfboards followed on pretty neatly from that.
I know the boards are a marriage of two passions, but how did you start making that first wooden board?
The first board I made back in 2008. It was part of a larger project whilst studying for my Designer Maker degree at Plymouth. My enjoyment from the furniture making was mostly found in the bending and shaping of wood anyway, so the idea of trying to figure out how to make a surfboard wasn’t too far-fetched. The idea for it came from a magazine (TSP –the wood issue –you may remember it! Ha ha!), which explored the many people and their processes, who make wooden surfboards. Using the skin and frame technique, which we now use exclusively, was very close to the furniture I was making and lent itself to the timbers that grow locally too, so I began trying to figure out how to make a surfboard that was comparable in weight to a more typical foam board but that was ultimately much stronger and therefore going to last longer. The excitement and enjoyment that I experienced while making that first surfboard was like nothing else I’d ever felt, so I knew it was something I had to pursue, just like my dad always said “stick to what you enjoy and you’ll end up doing something you love.”
As a surfer who has only rarely ridden a wooden board, what are the differences, the subtleties of riding the board, and the processes involved in keeping maintained and shaping it in the first place?
The major difference when it comes to the making and shaping of a wooden board is that we have to create the components that we then glue together to create a rough ‘blank’ that we then shape the surfboard from. Whereas a foam shaper will have his/her blank that is much bigger than their desired shape, so they have much more sculpting and shaping to do. However, working with wood in that way poses its own challenges and it takes a minimum of two days to shape a wooden blank back to its desired form, despite starting with a blank closer to the finish point.
Then when riding a wooden board, they tend to finish about 30% heavier than a foam equivalent, so lend themselves to twin fins, mid-length single fins and traditional longboards, which are surfboards that are all about glide, style and smooth surfing. Simply put, they feel different in the water and once you start to figure them out you’ll be able to enjoy a lifetime of exploration with the same board.
The reason I started making them was because I was fed up with the life expectancy of a typical foam board, so the drive for me has always been to make products that last a long time. So we focus on using the best and most suitable materials, always striving to make the best product that we can and then getting surfers involved in the making process to deepen their connection to their board, which in turn encourages them to look after them better. All of this though can’t guarantee that you won’t ding your board. They are much tougher than a typical foam board, which makes it much less likely, but of course you can damage them. Accidents happen, right? When that happens, more often that not, it is just a surface ding, so the glass and bio resin get damaged and/or cracked. In this instance the board can be repaired like any other board. If you ding it harder and break into the wood, it is best for us to repair the wood and then re-glass that area. Finally if you really go to town on it, you will puncture a hole in your board...if this is the case we need to drain it, let it dry and then patch it back up again. Ultimately, we have boards ourselves, and customers who have boards, that are five or six years old and have been used regularly, that are just as they were when we made them. For me, that speaks for itself.
Why don't you just make boards and sell them? Where did the workshops evolve from?
We do make custom surfboards, but you’re quite right, our focus has been on running our workshop courses that began in 2011, where we take people through the process to make their own surfboard. It came from a customer (now a close friend) who approached me to talk about the boards I was making. He seemed to really get it and he then asked if I’d be happy to take him through the process and teach him how to do it. I was pretty apprehensive at first, but had always enjoyed sharing my skills/knowledge with friends, so thought that it could be a really rewarding experience. As it happens, that first time making a board with Steve was so incredible that I really wanted to figure out how to deliver the making of a board as a course for anybody to attend, irrespective of making and/or surfing experience. We focus on these as the main part of our business now as I really enjoy having people in the workshop and guiding them through a making process. The impact it has had on some of our customers has been huge and makes it all the more enjoyable and also as people understand their boards on a deeper level, their level of care for them when in use goes up and ultimately the boards last longer. Win, win.
It must be incredibly satisfying to guide someone through the process of making a board of any sort, how inexperienced when it comes to woodworking, and hard is it sometimes?
Oddly enough, some of our best boards have been made by people with absolutely no making experience. It’s a challenge for us, but so amazing to see how people’s confidence and knowledge develops so quickly during the week and ultimately, those with less making experience often make for better listeners and learners. It’s not always the case, but often. As a result of us wanting to be able to take anyone through the course, we limit out classes to three people so that I can be on hand at every moment and we end up with a really strong feeling of camaraderie and friendship as well as three well made surfboards. Some of the days are longer than others and as well as being mentally challenging through the learning,we are on our feet for most of the day, so it can be physically draining too, but what we have found is that by challenging people on their week with us, they end up with a huge amount more satisfaction and reward by the end of the five days...many find it very difficult to leave. As a result of the loving, community feeling we get through the week we also invite all of our “work shoppers” back together one weekend every autumn to celebrate the shared journeys they have been on and to hear the tales of where their boards have been. We enjoy a weekend of surfing and a feast of local food and beer together.
Find out more about Otter Surfboards here: www.ottersurfboards.co.uk