How Do You Make a Living, Surfboard Maker?

Noah Davis talks to surfboard shaper Drew Mason about turning a passion into a business, cultivating relationships with surf shops, and the benefits of branding.
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Noah Davis talks to surfboard shaper Drew Mason about turning a passion into a business, cultivating relationships with surf shops, and the benefits of branding.

Drew Mason grew up surfing, catching his first wave when he was eight years old. While he pretty quickly realized he would never join the professional ranks, he did develop an affinity for shaping his own boards. A couple years ago, Mason decided to try to turn that passion into a business, launching Mason Surf Designs. It's not a full-time job yet, but he hopes it will soon become one. He chatted with Pacific Standard about jumping into the deep end, the trials of a weekend shaper, and the real key to creating a successful surfboard business (think T-shirts).

How long have you been making your own boards?

About 10 years. It was more of a hobby to start, just like I'm sure it is with anybody. Buying boards got too expensive. About two years ago, I started pushing my business and doing it for more than just fun.

What prompted the decision to try to turn this into a business?

I think the biggest push is that if I want to do something every day for the rest of my life, why not do this? A lot of people who love to surf want to be pro surfers. I think this is a little bit different. The hobby can be the job and be still fun, whereas an athlete might get burnt out. I was making boards and trying stuff out, and I got really good feedback from it. I figured I'd try to make that push, to get into the position to do something I love every day and make a product that people like.

Did you talk to anyone about how to move from hobby to business?

I shadowed a handful of shapers, but that was more about how to make a better board and the technical aspects of it. I never talked to anyone about the transition of making it into a business. The business side was always in my head. I never questioned how to make a business out of it. If the product works and people like it, they are going to tell their friends. My idea was that it will grow organically and naturally. Either people will come to me asking for the boards, or they will sell quickly in shops. Creating that demand will create the need for me to do it full time.

How many did you make the first six months?

(Photo: Courtesy of Drew Mason) 

(Photo: Courtesy of Drew Mason) 

The first six months I probably made about six boards. I was working full time. It was a weekend hobby. Normally, it's a six- to eight-week turnaround from when you start making it to when it's surfable. It's a time and material investment. You have to wait two months before someone can buy it. That was all coming out of my pocket.

Because of my wife's career, we moved from the Bay Area to Los Angeles. We've been here for the last year. So I only had a year under my belt of trying to create awareness in the Bay Area before I had to do it all over again down here. I'm working full time to pay the bills while my boards are going into shops and creating that desire and need.

Can you just walk into a surf shop and ask if they'll sell your boards?

It really depends on the shop. A mom- and pop-owned shop is easier than something that is a bit more corporate. The risk is on the shops if they have a new board builder come in. A million people want to try and build boards, but how many people want to do it for the rest of their lives? Most shops aren't going to place an order with you to have a dozen boards on their racks without having any user feedback. You usually start on consignment. Once a shop realizes that they've sold six of your boards in the last two months or something like that, they'll realize that that’s a decent pace. They'll start talking about setting up a deal. I'm at that tipping point. I have my boards in a number of shops, but it's still in the consignment phase.

Are you gaining momentum?

I feel like I am. Two or three months ago, I was featured in Surfline.com's Shaper's Alley article. That was pretty exciting. I think there were only 10 people in it. I wasn't expecting that because there are a lot of really good shapers and makers in the area who have been around for a long time. I'm technically the new kid on the block, and I've only been in L.A. for a year pushing my product. Aside from all that, I think I'm gaining as much momentum as I can, especially since it's still more of a weekend job. It's slow going, but I think it's going good.

What would it look like if you quit your day job and did this full time?

It would be stressful and awesome at the same time. I like working with my hands and creating something out of nothing, but surfboards don't make money. There's no mark-up or profit in them. That's why so many boardbuilders over the years started clothing or accessory lines. You're making about 20 percent on a board versus 50 to 75 percent on a T-shirt.

Where does that passion, love, and creativity cross with what you need to do to make ends meet? That would be the stressful thing. If I could be making boards every day and not think about the numbers, that would be ideal. But that's not how business works.

So you need to build a brand in addition to making great surfboards.

Yeah, I like the idea of being a lifestyle brand.

How much does a board go for?

The short boards are a bit more custom with higher-end finishes, so the low end is starting at about $750. On my long boards, which I do more work on because of their size, the prices are a bit higher. It's $1,050 for getting into one but up to $1,400 or $1,500 with bells and whistles.

And how much time does it take?

My man hours depend on the length. Every foot adds time to it. If I'm working on a long board, I can be in the shaping bay for anywhere from two to four hours depending on the complexity. That's just shaping the blank to a finished product. I take the blank to a glass shop and have them do the fiberglass work. I'd rather spend my time shaping and have my buddies at Waterman's Guild do a top-notch polish job. The boards have my creativity and shape, and their professional glass job. I think it helps sell my product.

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How Do You Make a Living? is an ongoing Q&A series.

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