Most people are surprised to learn that UGG® was originally founded for surfers by a surfer. Though the iconic Classic boot has been adopted as a cold-weather staple, Brian Smith brought this style from his native Australia to Southern California in 1978, intending the style to warm surfers’ feet after dawn patrol. In order to unearth these roots and reconnect with our heritage in surfing, we called on Grain Surfboards for a little help.
Based in York, Maine, Grain specializes in crafting hollow wooden surfboards that honor traditional boat-building techniques. Founder Mike Lavecchia grew up on skateboards and then began his career in the snowboarding industry. After 12 years working for Burton, he earned his U.S. Coast Guard Captain’s License and began operating a commercial sailing vessel that took him up and down the East Coast.
Throughout his maritime career Lavecchia learned the ins and outs of wooden boats and in 2005 made the fateful decision to move to York from Vermont so that he could spend more time pursuing his passion for surfing and less time driving to and from the ocean. With years of experience on boats and virtually every kind of board, Lavecchia began designing, shaping, and constructing wooden surfboards, picking up where the art form had left off.
Now for a little history lesson. The first surfboards were crafted in Hawaii from solid wood, usually balsa wood because it is buoyant and easier to handle. These boards were not, however, exceptionally durable and could weigh over 100 pounds. In the 1920’s, Tom Blake—deemed the founder of California surf culture—developed the hollow wooden surfboard and eventually secured a patent for his design in 1931. Because these hollow boards were light enough for most people to carry, the sport was opened up to a whole new audience.
With the technological advances made during World War II, surfboard manufacturing surged as foam replaced wood. Fast to produce and easy to shape, the advantages of foam over wood were purely economic, as the design and performance of surfboards suffered. This degradation was mitigated when, in the early 1960’s, Gordon Clark optimized the formulation of urethane foam and founded Clark Foam, which monopolized the surfboard market until 2005, when the company was shut down by the EPA for using toxic compounds in the manufacturing process.
This turned out to be quite serendipitous for Lavecchia, who had recently been profiled in a small, local publication for his board-building hobby. Yes, hobby. He did not begin this venture with any vision of profit and had no company name, employees, or plan when the article went viral and orders started flooding in. The shutdown of Clark Foam had left a gaping hole in the surfboard market, and many now looked to Lavecchia, among other alternative suppliers, to fill it. So he established Grain, continuing the evolution of surfboards and picking up where Tom Blake left off.
Committed to sustainability in addition to quality craftsmanship, Lavecchia laid out a noble goal for his newly founded company: bring only a single trashcan to the curb each week. This goal means Grain has had to find innovative ways to minimize its environmental impact, such as using 3D modeling to design and then precisely CNC cut each board’s interior skeleton from marine-grade plywood. For the boards’ bottoms and decks, Grain sources sustainably harvested northern white cedar from a family-run mill in northern Maine in addition to reclaimed red cedar. Further reducing waste, Grain finishes the wood in house, which—as an added bonus—reveals more of the material’s character. Any scraps or shavings from the finishing process are recycled as animal bedding, mulch, and kindling for the farm where Grain’s studio resides.
But Grain doesn’t assemble every board once the framework is in place. Instead they offer surfers the chance to craft their own boards, either through kits or workshops. The latter is where we come in.
We invited Grain to our Santa Barbara headquarters to lead one of these workshops and help us build boards for our upcoming journey down the California coast, produced in partnership with Wilderness Collective. They sent apprentice-turned-master Nolan Collins to share the Grain method with two surfers on the UGG creative team as well as UGG Collective member Sakae and Wilderness founder Steve Dubbeldam. This group spent four days in our warehouse sawing, shaving, clamping, shaping, and sanding their boards, customizing certain elements along the way and deepening their connections to surfing.
“To make your own surfboard really makes you think through surfing,” Nolan explained at the start of the workshop. “It’s definitely labor intensive, but it’s also a labor of love. You appreciate it so much more.” We’ll see next week when we christen these boards out on the waves of the California coast.
Photos by Zach Brown