Santa Barbara isn’t a big city, but it’s played an outsized role in the development of the surfboard industry.
Since the 1960s, Santa Barbarans have created some of the most iconic boards, experimented with different building techniques and used new technology to streamline their craft.
The city continues to be a hub of surf innovation.
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One of Santa Barbara’s first surfboard shapers still shapes off Milpas Street today – 84-year old Reynolds Yater of Yater Surfboards.
Yater came to Santa Barbara from Laguna Beach in the 1950s. It was a sleepy town that hadn’t heard of surfing, and the waves were left untouched. Yater had already begun designing and building his own boards, but his business took off in Santa Barbara.
“There were about six or eight guys surfing in town here, kids from high school mostly,” said Yater. “I started [my business] with a friend of mine, Dick Perry. he did the glassing and I did the shaping. We rented a little place down on Anacapa Street for what I remember was $75 dollars a month. And we did everything right there.”
At that time, surfboards were built by hand out of balsa wood. Yater surfed the local waves and created boards to match.
“I made boards for Rincon and this area, the Ranch, everything from Ventura to Point Conception,” he said. “My designs were specifically for here.”
By the 1960s and 70s, Yater wasn’t alone. Al Merrick created the the iconic Channel Islands Surfboard brand, which sponsors some of the best pro surfers in the world. George Greenough invented the modern fin you still see today, and captured the first footage of surfing in the tube of the wave.
These and other Santa Barbara shapers helped make some of the biggest changes in the surf industry over the past five decades.
The first and most crucial was the switch from balsa wood to foam in the 1960s, when Southern California’s aerospace industry was taking off and the foam used to insulate aircrafts was finding new purposes.
Another was the introduction of outsourcing.
“It was very controversial in the beginning. A lot of people didn’t like it,” said Steve Walden of Walden Surfboards in Ventura. He was one of the first shapers to send his designs to China, where the boards would get made.
The third change happened in the 90s during the dawn of the computer age. Many shapers who worked primarily by hand began using a technology called a Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) Machine. It’s like a 3-D printer. You enter the exact dimensions you want, and the machine does the rest.
“The thing that’s good about it, when you have that CNC you get exactly that back,” said Walden. “So if you have a board that’s really good, then the translation is 100%.”
Now, Walden says chances are, the board you’re riding was shaped by a computer.
But, the recent demand for local, custom made products like craft beer and artisanal chocolate is changing that.
The handcrafted trend has driven the success of newer, younger shapers like 30-year-old Ryan Lovelace.
He works out of the small studio on Haley Street, where he shapes all his boards by hand.
“Because the markets are saturated and there’s so many people in the world right now, we’re able to produce things by hand,” said Lovelace. “We actually have enough people that really do care if their board is hand shaped, and care about the integrity of where that board came from. Ten or fifteen years ago, that wasn’t the case.”
Lovelace shapes two or three boards a day, six days a week in order to keep up with demand. Each one is custom designed, unusually shaped, and easily sticks out in a sea of mass produced boards. Many of them retail for more than a thousand dollars.
In his spare time, Ryan Lovelace is teaching this craft to an even younger generation.
“The guys that I’m seeing that are 24, 25, down to 18, they are hand shaping,” he said. “They think it’s cool, and they’re going for it.”
This new generation is helping to ensure that Santa Barbara remains a giant in the now global world of surfing.