Wood and Waves - An interview with James otter, surfboard builder
PUBLISHED: 18:32 25 July 2011 | UPDATED: 19:45 20 February 2013
James Otter's mix of craftsmanship and eco-consciousness combine to produce surfboards that stand out from the crowd. Words and photos by Lee Pengelly...
In this age of mass production its refreshing to find a natural product that fits right into the environment, understated yet full of the craftsmanship and passion of its creator. Something that James Otter of Otter Surfboards does well. He makes hollow timber boards, beautifully crafted from local cedar and hardwoods and not only do they look sleek and cool, they are environmentally sound too, bringing the art of surfing and board-making together in an eco-friendly product. The principle behind their design isnt too far removed from traditional boatbuilding, but marrying these techniques with such a popular activity is creating a buzz.
James, 24, trained as a designer/maker at Plymouth University making wooden furniture, and during this time developed his first two boards. This was the catalyst that was to take his passion for craft and surfing to the next level. After graduating in 2009 James set up a workshop near St Agnes and started making more. I feel responsible as a designer/maker to assess the environmental impact of every stage of the manufacture of my surfboards. My aim is to minimalise a surfboards impact on the world we live in, from the building processes through material consideration and their performance.
James emphasises three main points. Craftsmanship comes first and foremost, and the need to maintain high standards including construction and performance techniques, material consideration and waste reduction. Secondly, he hopes to achieve longevity with the products he uses and, in turn, reducing any impact on the environment. The fact that they are handcrafted and lovingly finished gives them a value beyond the financial cost and, as an owner, this promotes the need to cherish a board and the idea to pass it down to future generations. Lastly, it is important for James to source materials locally, in turn reducing transport costs and helping to support local businesses.
How are the boards made?
James shapes boards using techniques borrowed from foam board makers. Using CAD software in the initial design process, a marine ply skeleton is cut out by a computer-controlled router, then hand-assembled by gluing the pieces to an external timber skin. This lower skin is quite thin, allowing the timber to bend. Narrow strips or rails are then built up following the computer-designed shape. Blocks are added into the internal frame to take the nose, fins and tail before the final skin is added. Thicker than the bottom skin, the top is designed to take the rigours of life in the ocean.
Although surprisingly light, the boards are tough and inspire confidence. They are finished with a non-VOC epoxy resin fibreglass coating, then lacquered to give them a glossy coat. These coatings make it watertight and protect it from the elements.
James sources his locally grown timber inCornwall and Devon, preferring to use western red cedar and various hardwood offcuts from sawmills near Porthtowan. Any spare offcuts are then used to make small handplanes and the rest he uses to fill his woodburner.
The whole process of making a board takes between 4-6 weeks. James hopes to out-source some of the finishing work soon, although with this type of craftsmanship the wait is worth it.
James is a member of the Cornwall Crafts Association and Devon Guild of Craftsmen, regularly showing his work in galleries in the county. Throughout the summer his boards will be on display at Trelissick Gardens and he has also donated a board as a prize for a Surfers Against Sewage project this year. Later this year, James and his photographer friend are also planning a project in conjunction with Polzeath Gallery Tubestation to produce a board made from a local tree, which will be documented with a series of photographs showing the journey from conception to completion.
James also works with local surfing legend Keith Beddoe, producing a selection of bear surfboard shapes, which he hopes will be available in stores soon. With school demo days, craft exhibits, and the whole production process involved, I wonder if James finds the time to actually get out there and enjoy the surf. Chapel Porth is my favourite spot and I prefer solitary surfing rather than crowded spots. My personal belief is to enjoy what you do. I thoroughly enjoy making these boards and each one gets me so excited as it gets closer to completion, which is almost as fun as riding them, James admits.
For further information about Otter Surfboards visit ottersurfboards.co.uk