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A love for wood and waves: an interview with James from Otter Surfboards

James Otter in front of his workshop

On our road trip through the U.K. we stopped to meet local surfers, shapers, entrepreneurs and surf shops. One of them was in Cornwall, where we met James and Chris in their workshop. Amazed by seeing their beautiful work turning wood into surfboards, bellyboards and handplanes, we started talking about surfboards, starting a business in the surf industry and - surf of course.

James Otter picture by Otter Surfboards

How did you come up with the idea to make wooden surfboards?

I was doing a degree in designing and making wooden furniture at Plymouth University and when I wasn;t in the workshop I was in the sea, surfing. I was fed up with how my foam boards wouldn't last very long and thought, as a woodworker, I could make something comparable in performance, but that would last longer and be made from a far more sustainable material. Then an issue of The surfer's Path landed on my doorstep in the summer of 2008 called 'The Wood Issue', which focussed on the undercurrent of wooden surfboard makers from around the world. That was it, I threw myself head first into making my first one...

James with Otter Surfboard picture by Otter boards

When did you start Otter surfboards and what did you do before?

I made my first board in 2008 during the final year of my degree, then went on to take up different carpentry jobs to fund me continuing to make surfboards in evenings and weekends. After a couple of years, I really felt like I'd refined the process and was happy to start selling them, so I set up Otter Surfboards officially in 2010.

What brings you the most joy in doing Otter surfboards?

Definitely running our workshop courses. We take anyone through a process of making their own surfboard over five days. We laugh, cry and high five a lot!! They are such special weeks, where we see our customer develop their woodworking skills, reconnect to their own two hands and give themself space to breathe and end up with a physical representation of five days of making something. Spreading the fun and joy of what we do is just so special - I love it!!

I also love some of our one-off projects that connect us to surfers, makers, film makers and other brands....often they really challenge my creative side, which is fun!

Alan Stokes x Otter Surfboards

What surprised you in starting your own business and which aspects did you not expect before or were challenging?

The surprise for me was how naturally the workshops have become the main part of our business. I originally thought we'd be a company making custom surfboards, but having customers come in and get involved is just so awesome. In a business sense, the most challenging part has always been the ambiguity; the not knowing where the next order might come from....and having to have blind faith that it will come at some point. Juggling employees and management of the business is a god challenge, but is probably the element that has caught me most by surprise, haha! Stoked that we're able to create jobs that are inspiring, fulfilling and memorable though!

Most boards are shaped from PU. Not many people ride a wooden surfboard. What's the difference between a wooden and a 'normal' surfboard?

Our wooden surfboards last much longer than a typical foam board - I have a board that I made in 2016, it's the one I use all the time and if I took the wax off of it, it would be as good as new. Then they finish about 25% heavier than a foam equivalent, which feels a little unusual on land, but in the water that just means momentum and speed. They might not be as easy to maneuver, but they race through flat sections and allow you to make it along waves where you would struggle to on a foam board.

James on an Otter Surfboard

You also offer workshops so that people can make their own boards. How long does it take to craft a wooden surfboard? And do you think anybody can make their own surfboard or would I need to have certain skills?

Our surfboard workshops are 5 days and we limit them to a maximum of three people so that we can guide everyone through the process, stress-free. No making or woodwork experience is necessary, just a willingness to learn :) We also run one day workshops to come and make bellyboards and bodysurfing handplanes, which is a great way to dip your toe into what it is like to make your own wave riding craft.

Otter Surfboard by Harry Lawlor

You also make handplanes used for body-surfing. If you had to decide: Surfing or body-surfing?

Haha, good question! I think it'll always be stand up surfing, but there is a very unique thrill to swimming in the ocean and catching waves with just your body and a small piece of wood in your hand. It's especially fun when the waves are really big or more challenging to surf.

Picture: Otter Surfboards

Where would you like to see Otter Surfboards in a few years and how do you think the surf industry is changing / developing?

I'd love for us to have regular bookings coming in to keep me and the team busy (but not too busy to go surfing every now and then!). We've been going strong now for over a decade, which is amazing and I am grateful for that every day - it doesn't feel like a job at all! If it all goes pop tomorrow, I've had fun doing it, but the security of a busy future would be nice - though I also appreciate that no-one knows (or can control) what the future holds.

The industry definitely seems to be leaning towards a more sustainable future, but I feel like progress is slow. I'd like to think we've helped disrupt the surfboard industry a bit, but I'd love to see more of that. It's rad to see what you guys are up to as well - putting a more sustainable product out in the market - yessss!!!!

Thanks for having us James! It was a real pleasure to visit your workshop and to see how much love, dedication and fine craftsmanship goes into each board.

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