The Wave Makers

Say “aloha” to Rhode Island’s custom surfboard makers

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Surfing is freedom. After all, the ocean belongs to everybody. The culture is chill and welcomes just about anybody. Gear is reasonable – a couple hundred bucks for a rookie longboard – and may last for years. You can use the same rash guard all summer, or for summers on end. And then there’s the feeling – the ebb and flow of the water, the rush of an oncoming wave, the pop-up, the extended arms, the rush of salty air as a comber propels you along its arc.

At the heart of surfing is the board itself, and nothing expresses freedom like those lustrous shapes and myriad decorations. Surfboards come in all styles; you can browse length, color, and number of fins. You can pick material and weight, color and pattern. More than any glove or racket, the board becomes a surfer’s closest friend. For many, it’s a work of art that you happen to stand on.

Which is why surfboard makers are so conspicuously cool.

We talked with three Rhode Island-based crafters who make their living – or much of their living – shaping raw materials into professional wave-riding equipment. New England is home to some of the most diehard surfers in the country, and the market for personalized boards is surprisingly steady. Here’s how these mavericks ply their trade.

 

David Levy | Levy Surf Designs

The Start

David is the true pioneer of board-making in Rhode Island. He’s been hitting waves since the Golden Age of surfing in the early 1960s, and he spent many years as co-owner of the Watershed Surf Shop in Wakefield; his business partner was local surfing legend Peter Pan. In 1976, he wanted a particular shape and size for his own use. “I decided to cut up a longboard,” David recalls. “I tried to make a shortboard out of it. It came out all right, but I couldn’t ride it. It came out too narrow and too thin. But you gotta start somewhere.”

Lessons Learned

David watched other surfboard makers at work, but he earned most of his skills through patience and tenacity. He knew boards intimately, of course; in stages, David discovered surfing, winter surfing, and stand-up paddleboarding before most East Coasters had even heard of them. Yet mastering the precise cutting, sanding, and glassing techniques was a painstaking process. “There was no YouTube back then,” David says with a chuckle. “Nobody would tell you anything, either. It was like a secret.” Today, Levy Surf Designs is based in Narragansett, and for many years Levy was the only full-time custom surfboard maker in the region.

Tricks of the Trade

Over the decades, David has seen surfboard design evolve. He says they’re lighter and more maneuverable now, and that retro designs can feel like “Model Ts” on the water. He’s lost track of how many thousands of boards he’s made since founding LSD nearly 30 years ago, and he also dedicates much of his time to repairing boards, which can crack or shatter on undersea rocks. A custom board caters to a surfer’s particular style. “You get what you want,” he says. “It’s locally made, for the conditions here.” 

 

Neil Toracinta | Tora Surfboards

The Start

Born and raised in Newport, Neil Toracinta grew up skateboarding – and those rides often ended at the beach, so surfing was a natural extension. “As an outsider looking in,” says Neil, “you wouldn’t assume surfing is a common thing in the northeast. But it’s a lot bigger than most people probably think.” During his junior year in high school, he became interested in woodworking and manual construction. “That piqued my curiosity, into how surfboards are made.” He dissected an old longboard, ripping off the fiberglass and reusing its foam. “I tried to glass it myself,” he says, “and it went horribly. It was tacky, but it floated. And I still have it.”

Lessons Learned

At 18, Neil had to do a senior project. “They gave us really, really vague guidelines,” he says. “I chose making surfboards, because that was something I wanted to do anyway. And to get school credit to do it? That was just awesome.” He made three or four boards, using “complete trial and error.” After college, Neil spent a few years working for corporate America, but he kept making boards, and friends started requesting them. At 26, he started building full-time. “If I didn’t do this now,” he realized, “I was just going to take on more
responsibilities.”

Tricks of the Trade

“Making boards in the Northeast forces you to be a master of all areas,” says Neil, who manages every aspect of the business himself and maintains a production schedule of about three to four weeks per order. Last year, he created more than 200 boards. “I have full control over every step, and it’s a challenge that I enjoy. It’s literally a lifetime of learning. I’m very happy with the quality, but you’ve never mastered it, really.” 

 

Kevin Cunningham | Spirare Surfboards

The Start

Growing up in Baltimore, Kevin had easy access to Ocean City, Maryland, a surfing capital. The sport was just a summer hobby until he moved to Rhode Island to study architecture and fine arts at RISD. By 2002, he was an enthusiastic surfer, but he frowned at the polyurethane used in commercial boards. “I realized they’re terrible materials,” says Kevin. “They’re very toxic. They’ll stay in a landfill for 10,000 years. I wanted a more sustainable alternative.”

Lessons Learned

Kevin worked for an architect for several years, but he made a handful of wood-based surfboards on the side, mostly for friends. “Once I started developing the greener approach, I felt a need to expose it to more people and change the industry a bit,” he recalls. He started going to trade shows and met industry leaders from California. “There’s a huge amount of design skill that came into play. A lot of stuff I had learned at RISD – ways of approaching a design problem.” He was also confident in the value of wood, as pre-Columbian Hawaiians rode wooden surfboards for centuries, and this was the norm until the late 1950s.

Tricks of the Trade

Since 2010, Kevin has made more than 500 boards. Unlike his peers, Kevin couples this work with design-build projects, mostly constructing and remodeling houses. He also recently became a father, and he chuckles at his sleep deprivation this past month. “It’s tough,” says Kevin. “Rhode Island is not the ideal location to start a [custom surfboard] business. There’s this stigma in New England; if a board isn’t made in Southern California, it’s not as good. But part of being sustainable is to make them super durable. And I like making things.”