July 24, 2004
Summer days on Vancouver Islandís Esowista Peninsula are usually bedeviled by gusting afternoon winds, when sun-heated air masses rise off the land and cool littoral layers suck in to take their place. On one of those recent days, with the waves at the ocean beaches torn to unsurfable white shreds, coastalbc.com caught up with Addiction Surfboardsí Louis Robert at his new shop in Ucluelet. Louisí up-island shop is a prototypical shaping bay, strewn with foam dust, stringer shavings and piles of shaped blanks, usally filled by a changing cast of characters that included, on that afternoon, old-time local shaper Wayne Vliet, surfers Cain Edwards and Peter Devries, Hawaiian shaper Pete Meredith, shop owner Dean Montgomery, and a varied assortment of hangers-on and passers-by. Looking every bit the underground surf artisan in flip-flops, camo cap and faded sleeveless T, Louis spoke about Addictionís origins, its future and the state of custom shaping culture on the Canadian west coast.
CoastalBC: How did you end up on Vancouver Island?
Louis: I bought my first surfboard back home in Quebec. I came down here basically to snowboard; I used to run a snowboard company and sold it when I moved out here. I was 18 years old, had a bit of money, and was totally stoked. I went to Vancouver first and came to Tofino after that. One of my friends was already shaping with Wayne, so I picked up some pointers that way. I went to Mexico, stopped into a blank shop on the way back and shaped my first board in the basement. Wayne looked at it, told me it was a piece of shit, and that was it; after that I just started building boards, one by one.
CoastalBC: And the Ucluelet shop?
Louis: They were actually going to tear this building down. Dean bought the three buildings, and they were going to tear this one down to make a parking lot for the other two. He called me up and said, "Louis, the old Car Ma Jen surf shop, you could turn it into a shaping bay, bring the culture back into Ukee." I thought "yeah, that sounds like a pretty good idea," so we worked out a deal. Dean wasnít going to use the building anyway, and he thought itíd be good for his surf camp and shop. Every week, new kids from the camp come by; not so much to teach them, but just to introduce them to surfboard design.
CoastalBC: Not every surfer sees a surfboard get built, or walks in a shaping bay with three inches of foam shavings on the floor.
Louis: For sure. I basically just give them an overview of how it works. Talk about how to shape a board, tell them what does what, what surfboards are made from, the technologies that are coming up. The kids are super stoked. They go away and surf and come back by the shaping bay, and some of them end up hanging out and watching me work for a little bit. Every shaper usually keeps all this shit secret; I thought, weíll just change this little secret thing.
CoastalBC: There are no secrets in the universeÖ
Louis: Not really. I thought it was a good idea. The picture window kinda didnít work out, because of all the light in the shaping bay. When you shape you work with shadows, and it was too bright; so Iím thinking about putting tint on it or something, and thatís why the lights are all down low on the walls here. But thatís basically why Iím here. Iíd always wanted to come here. Back a few years ago, I tried to find a shop in Tofino, but I couldnít get my foot in there because itís so difficult to find space. The shop in Ucluelet will be good because I donít really want to be here glassing, and I donít really want to be here full-time. Itís good here, but itís not always good. Everybody comes by here and itís good to be seen, but in Sooke, where my main place is, itís kinda crank the tunes and shut the door. Ucluelet is a shaping bay and maybe an airbrush bay. We got a huge van with a board rack in the back of it, so I put all the shaped blanks in it and head back to Sooke, glass everything for a week, then back to Ukee for three days and shape it up, shape it up. It takes longer to glass than to shape.
CoastalBC: Iíll bet you log a little more water time this summer too.
Louis: I do. Like yesterday, I went in the morning before work and a second session after my day. It didnít affect my work time at all, and I thought "man, this is wicked." I was home by 9:30 or 10:00, had a little food and crashed out, stoked. It seems like I sleep better up here, maybe less pressure, I donít know.
CoastalBC: The last time we talked to you, you were trying out a new epoxy system.
Louis: Yeah, the urethane system. Itís a super good idea, such a good idea, but I donít think the guy finished his R&D properly. It makes a really nice board, but it looks crappy. You know a surfboard finishes hard; the urethane finishes a little softer, which causes the flex, but itís really hard to sand. You have to get urethane with 60 grit to start. Normal polyester resin boards Iíll get 100 grit, then 220, then 320, and you can take off all the scratches. The urethane, you hit it with 60 grit to break it down and after that you can start going higher, but you can never get rid of the scratches from the 60. Theyíll show right up to the end. so if you want to make a super pretty board, itís not really possible. It makes a board thatís way higher quality and lighter, but butt ugly. Nobody wants to spend two or three hundred more to get an uglier board, so people just never wanted them, and the resinís still sitting there.
CoastalBC: If it doesnít look good in the shop it never makes it to the water eh?
Louis: Exactly. But I want my boards to look good too.
CoastalBC: What are you focusing on now, what are you shaping?
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Louis: Iím shaping a lot of shortboards. Lots of fishes through the summer, but lots of squash tails on Island-type boards. A lot of people want the thin, thin boards, and itís hard to understand, but thatís what they want. A lot of fishes too, some classic Ď70s fish; a little bit of everything, but mostly short boards for sure. I got a big order from Inner Rhythm, so Iím trying to fill up their shop with a little of everything without considering season or anything. I appreciate what theyíre doing because they really want to put Canadian boards on their racks; maybe 50% of all their boards will be Canadian. There are a few shops that are going a different direction right now with all those Chinese boards, and sometimes they cut down their selection of Canadian boards to go with the Chinese ones, so itís totally cool that Deanís wanting to go Canadian.
CoastalBC: yeah. I like having a local surf industry. It evolves great local designs that work really well in our local breaks.
Louis: Yeah, itís hard though. The industry is so young that some people might not trust a young shaper here. Itís understandable. We donít have as much experience as a 30,000 board shaper, but I think thereís something great here. Like look at what Stefan Aftanas is doing in Tofino; itís a surf town, but before him there was no full-time shaper there, which was totally lame.
CoastalBC: with no surf industry, you have to import the basic elements of the local board culture.
Louis: Exactly. And itís happened. Thereís so many shapers now all over the Island and mainland that the custom marketís covered. You can get a custom board wherever you are in BC. And I think thatís really good; hopefully the surf shops will start getting more into Canadian boards. Dealing with the mass-market invasion isnít easy though. In China they shape boards on a shaping machine, coat them with normal polyester resin from Australia on an Australian blank, and itís kinda the same product. The problemís that they only need to pay their employees a couple of bucks a day, and it could destroy the shaping culture thatís evolved here on the West Coast, in California, even Australia. Right now in Australia thereís a huge war against the Chinese invasion of boards; when you go to shops down there, theyíll have signs that say "no Chinese boards sold here." A lot of people like Nev Hyman and shapers like Darren Handley are teaming up together to be able to fight the Chinese boards. They work together to make a better shaping machine, a better product, just to be able to compete. Everyoneís super scared.
In Hawaii lots of surfers feel the same and boycott Chinese boards. In France too, the Cobra factory in Thailand has been sending a lot of boards into Europe, so the French guys have bought a machine as well to be able to start pumping out boards and competing. But people here donít care. They just want a hybrid that costs $350. Itís the same in the furniture industry, the guitar industry. Itís the same for every product on the planet right now, but surfboard cultureÖitís got some soul to it, more than a tennis racket.
CoastalBC: We hope so.
Louis: I feel it. Anyways, whatís going to save me is custom. Just making the best product available, and trying to make it better. Iím learning a lot through the connections Iíve made, and I think the future of custom shaping for me would probably be to get a computer shaping machine. Letís say a guy comes into my shop, we type up his dimensions, we design the board on the computer, then we cut it out. Before, the computer machines were ones where youíd shape a board by hand and then duplicate it; but now, the CAD programs are so user-friendly and so precise, you can do it the other way around. I used to be so against it, but then when I worked around it, I was like "God, this is so much better." If a guyís board is a 6í2", 2 ľ" rocker, then the next board we could the exact same board but a different rocker; weíd know that we had the same foil, same concave, everything, we just go back in the file and change the tail rocker a bit. In a way, a lot of people see it as cheating, but itís just designing and shaping the board on a different medium. You save the file and itís there forever, which is pretty awesome for me. Thatís basically what I think the Canadian industry should do. Maybe Iíll team up with the other local shapers and buy one and everyone can get super high quality, consistent boards in Canada. Iím just stoked on making boards, stoked on getting my name out there, and for the other Canadian guys too, hopefully we can all make a go of it.
CoastalBC: Nice. Are you going to be coming up all winter too?
Louis: I think so. The people in Ukee seem to be super welcoming. They come here and welcome me, and theyíre super stoked to have a shaper back in town. Theyíre ordering lots of boards and they really want to support the thing. So I think Iím going to keep coming up three days every ten days, so people can come here and get their ding repair done. I like coming up, itís just four hours, and Iíve got this huge van that runs on propane. It only costs $35 to come up, not bad for a huge Econoline.
CoastalBC: Not bad at all. Thanks Louis.