Old School Surf Style by Surfboard Shaper Ian Balding
Wilmington surfboard shaper Ian Balding channels surfing’s roots by crafting boards from balsa.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Jason Hudson
Since Polynesians were first observed riding waves in the 1700s, surfing has become an unshakeable force in modern culture. The aspect of the sport that has evolved the most is equipment.
In its origins in South Pacific cultures, surfing was rich in spirituality and ritual. The practice of creating surfboards was an act of prayer, considered a tribute to the ocean. The giant craft (“Olo” or “Alaia”) ranged from 10 to 16 feet and were created from wili-wili or koa wood. These original wave-sliding craft were large, heavy and cumbersome vessels.
The continued and quick progression of surf technology into the 20th century opened doors to other materials such as balsa, foam and fiberglass. Balsa, a dense yet relatively lightweight wood that allowed for a more maneuverable craft, became the early standard. Once fine-tuned and coated in fiberglass, the responsive material allowed for taking the sport into more conditions. Thus, surfing as it is seen by today’s generations was born.
Today’s boards are primarily mass produced, machine shaped to precision out of foam and other technical composite materials and then finished by hand. Yet many surfboard shapers are pushing against this progression in their practices, shaping craft with a unique vision while still honoring some of the construction techniques established centuries ago.
Ian Balding, one of North Carolina’s most versatile shapers, gets back to the roots of the sport by creating surf craft for a range of sports and conditions, primarily out of balsa.
A New Jersey native, Balding discovered surfing in magazines at a young age. He was immediately fascinated by the sport, and his list of aquatic addictions — surfing, body surfing, swimming, body boarding — began to grow. Over the years his love for the sport blossomed into a career as a professional surfboard shaper.
Like many shapers, Balding began creating boards for himself, gradually gauging and understanding how certain types of boards and materials behaved in certain conditions. He quickly came to the realization that naturally occurring products would be his passion and pursuit. Combining the understanding of construction methods and hydrodynamics, he grew the foundation necessary for the creation of these beautifully simple vessels.
As he grew as a shaper, his interests pulled him in many different directions. He attempted boards of all kinds, from short boards, classics, heavier shapes and long boards to standup paddleboards, and word of his talents began to spread, creating a wide demand.
Inside his large shop in Wilmington, where foam and wood dust linger in the air, there is an obvious method to his madness. On one side of the shop are boards waiting for glassing; on the other side, boards await ding repair. A long table is scattered with templates and machine parts, and Balding is working to diagnose a broken hand planer. Above him are giant blocks of foam and wood blanks, ready to be molded to life.
While Balding often shapes with foam, creating his own blanks from giant blocks of EPS (expanded polystyrene), he greatly prefers working with balsa.
“Working with balsa is extremely time consuming,” he says, still fiddling to remove the blade from the planer. “Materials and the tools to shape them are more expensive, but the final product is always worth the time and price.”
Balsa shapes allow Balding to focus on things that have fueled his passion since he was young — specific surf breaks.
“Balsa has the extra weight and rigidity to help cut the chop,” he says. These characteristics are necessary for a board that will see large, deep ocean swell.
Being a custom shaper comes with its share of challenges. In a culture of mass production, local, small-batch shapers like Balding have to be able to understand and create many styles of boards. To meet the demands of each individual client, Balding must use his expertise to create the proper equipment for the conditions the client will be facing. Balding’s boards are used in a variety of places and conditions, from big-wave surfing in Hawaii to winter swells in the Caribbean to the sloppy south swells of North Carolina.
Understanding how hydrodynamics come into play in these different scenarios is extremely important when outfitting an individual. Balding spends time asking questions and really figuring out each customer, a task only a custom shaper can achieve.
“Getting volumes and rockers right for each surfer is huge,” says Balding. “The biggest demand is for boards built for very specific conditions.”
Truly understanding that wave and how it works, he says, is paramount before any raw materials are even ordered.
With a freshly repaired planer in one hand and a firm grip on a dense wood surface in the other, Balding begins a series of graceful movements to shape the rails of the board. Thick balsa dust swirls around him, and the piercing sound of his electric planer making cuts signifies the slow process of creation.
Intermittently checking his progress, he squints one eye down the lines of the board, his attention to detail unparalleled by any machine. The work of art he is creating, though highly evolved over generations, has changed relatively little in its functionality over that last few centuries. And that’s the way Balding likes it.
“Getting volumes and rockers right for each surfer is huge. The biggest demand is for boards built for very specific conditions.”