by MIKE HIXENBAUGH
photography by TODD WRIGHT
Step inside the small surf shop and browse the racks while you wait for your appointment. The store is stocked with surfboards, surf trunks, surfboard wax, and not much else. No kitschy T-shirts or souvenir key chains here. This is a surfer’s surf shop, home to one of the sport’s few remaining master craftsmen. Bill Frierson emerges from the back, reaches to shake hands, and then starts almost immediately with the questions:
How tall are you? How much do you weigh? Where do you like to surf? How long have you been surfing? What kind of waves have you been catching? What do you wish you could do better?
Frierson nods with each response, brow furrowed, eyes squinted. He’s absorbing the answers, running the variables through his mind, picturing you gliding over a sweet swell on the ideal board. He already knows how to build it. After shaping at least 18,000 surfboards over the past 50 years, Frierson doesn’t need to crunch the numbers.
Surfboard shaping, he says, is part art, part science. “It’s the ability to create forms that are hydrodynamically sympathetic to ocean energy. When you’re surfing, there’s an awareness of the ocean around you, how it’s coming at you, where the energy is focusing as it rebounds and rolls in. I take the same awareness with me into the shaping room. I imagine and respond to that energy, keeping in mind all the variables as I run my tools over that block of foam.”
“I don’t need a computer,” he adds, pointing to his head. “This is the computer.”
If that last remark sounds defiant, it’s not intentional. Frierson says he’s not bitter that the industry he helped build seems to be passing him by. Business has fallen steadily in recent years. He knows the reasons, and he’s at peace with them. If young surfers would rather shop at big-box stores and buy machine-shaped surfboards imported from China, well hey, he figures, at least they’re still surfing.
“It’s been a hell of a run,” says Frierson, who got his start as a teen in the 1960s repairing boards in a garage on 23rd Street in Virginia Beach, and who later bought a fledgling Beach surf company and helped transform it into the biggest surfboard manufacturer on the East Coast, and who for the past 15 years has been shaping custom boards “for the love of it” in a little shop of his own off Birdneck Road. “It’s been fun, but you kind of get the sense that we’re coming up on the end of an era.”
It’s not so much a question of if at this point, but rather how soon Frierson will have to shut it down, he says. Will this be the year he walks away? Next year? Maybe it’s finally time for old Bill Frierson to disappear from the surfing scene, he says, only half joking.
He just hopes the art doesn’t disappear with him.
Frierson grew up riding waves in California and was 16 when he moved to Virginia Beach in 1965. Before his family had finished unpacking, he asked his old man for the keys and motored down to the old Steel Pier, where he found a group of teens hitting the water on surfboards. Some of them would become lifelong friends.
Surfing was still a counterculture novelty back then, and the East Coast was years from catching up with the West Coast shortboard revolution. Still, the sport was picking up momentum in Virginia Beach by the time Frierson showed up.
A local surfboard shaper, Bob White, hired him the following summer to do ding repairs at his shop. White noticed that Frierson was both smooth on a board and good with his hands – a natural for the shaping room. So when White became head shaper for a new company, U.S. Fiberglass, he asked Frierson to join him. The company would later become Wave Riding Vehicles.
It was 1967. Frierson had just graduated from high school, albeit a year late. “I just knew I wasn’t college material. And so I took the job and started chasing the dream.”
He found he loved shaping boards nearly as much as he loved riding them, and he became
obsessed with studying how small adjustments in the shaping room translated to big changes on the water. “To me, that’s the art of reading the kinesis, the movement of the ocean, as it comes across this form that you’ve created with your own hands. That’s a wild thing.”
By 1970, he had set up a small shop in Kitty Hawk, where he soon established his own custom label while continuing to shape boards for WRV. Four years later, he learned that the Virginia Beach corporation had been struggling and was for sale.He teamed with a friend in the industry, Les Shaw, and bought WRV. The business sputtered along for a few years, barely breaking even. But then something changed. As the East Coast surfing scene grew and established its own identity, local surfers started taking pride in the company that shaped boards up the street.
Loyalty. That changed everything.
“When we bought WRV, it was as if a wave had crashed, and we got on just as another, much bigger wave, was building,” Frierson says. “We were smart with money, always rolled it back into the business, and we steadily grew.”
And grew. And grew. Until WRV had become the biggest surfboard manufacturer on the East Coast – so big that Frierson and his shapers struggled to keep up with the swelling demand. In the early 1990s, WRV became the first major surfboard company to begin using a shaping machine. The new computer-guided technology helped free Frierson to focus more on his passion – personally shaping custom boards. But over time, the demands of running a major corporation wore on him.
By the time he sold his share of the company in 1997, WRV was grossing more than $7.5 million annually, Frierson says. He used part of the proceeds to build himself a little shop off Birdneck Road where he could get back to his roots; the rest he invested. He thought back to the risky decision to buy the company almost 25 years earlier.
“Back then, everyone thought surfing was a fad,” he says. “They thought it was going away. I loved the sport too much to believe that. I loved shaping, I loved surfing. I wasn’t ready to let go of that.”
He’s still not ready.
Frierson steps into a blue room where Styrofoam dust covers the floors. Hand saws, draw-knives and planers hang in a corner. A section of wall is covered in chicken-scratch notes and design sketches. He sets a long piece of foam down in the center of the room and explains the technical process of transforming the white blank foam into a piece of functioning artwork.
Bill Frierson doesn’t offer live demonstrations. Not in here. There can be no distractions in the shaping room. This is holy ground. He grabs an
electric planer and pretends to work on the foam.
“I walk the hull as I shape it as though I am surfing the hull in the water,” he says. “It requires absolute concentration, because in the end, the board comes out as a representation of what I was thinking.”
There aren’t many shapers still doing it like this, certainly not on the East Coast. Even most custom surfboard makers rely on a computer. They punch in a series of variables and let a machine do the grunt work. Where’s the soul in that? Frierson wonders.
Every year, his little business makes less sense. Every winter, starting about three years ago, he thinks hard about calling it quits. Every spring, he finds reasons to keep going. He hopes to shape 60 boards this year, but there’s no telling if the orders will come in.
The deep and lingering recession didn’t help matters. Neither did the move by commercial airlines to begin charging hundreds of dollars to check surfboards. Frierson used to make good money custom shaping boards for customers traveling to Costa Rica and other surfing destinations.
Another key factor that the fit 66-year-old finds no pleasure discussing: His most loyal customers – the surfers who have been riding a Bill Frierson stick since the mid-1970s – are aging out of the sport. And their kids and grandkids don’t all surf.
“I’m screwed,” Frierson says and laughs. “It’s hard to see a way through to a place where this is going to rebound. People at this point aren’t ready to say, ‘Hey, this is the way to get a surfboard: To sit down with Bill.’ ” The thought is interrupted by the unmistakable ring of a rotary phone. He grabs the receiver. “Frierson.”
He keeps the 1980s relic around as a reminder of how much has changed over the years. Plus, he just likes it. With that phone, he doesn’t have to worry about a dead battery or a dropped signal.
It’s the same with automated shaping machines, he says. Sure, they are efficient. But they have limitations. They can’t feel the curve of the board, imagine it cutting through the water and make
adjustments on the fly. They can’t watch a young surfer catching waves and know, without question, how to make her the perfect board.
And now he remembers why he’s still plugging away every summer in this dust-filled shaping room: “For the love of it. And because I have a feeling – I have a hope – that there will be other youngsters who love it, too.”
They might not be able to make a living the way he has, but Frierson has met a handful of young surfers who have asked him to teach them how to shape their own board. He wonders if enough would be interested to start teaching classes.
“I just hope we’re passing it along to enough young people who love it for the same reasons I love it. Who love to see it come from a block of foam to a foil. Who love shaping a board, then getting out on the water and riding it, because it’s magic.
“I hope the art will survive,” Frierson says, then as if trying to convince himself, adds:
“I know it will. It has to.”
SIDEBAR – In the shaping room
The variables Bill Frierson considers while shaping a surfboard are too many to list and too complicated to explain in a few words. Like a veteran surfer riding a wave, he relies on experience and reflexes as he works to craft the perfect board. Below are a few of the thoughts that run through his mind as he shapes.
The surfer: “A surfer’s ability and physical proportion are probably the two most important factors in a custom order,” Frierson says. Every variable depends on the person who will be riding the board. A new surfer normally wants a surfboard shaped to maximize stability; an expert surfer typically wants a board that maximizes maneuverability. A heavier surfer requires a board that floats better, whereas a smaller surfer might struggle to maneuver a board that’s too large.