A few miles over the Wright Memorial Bridge on the Currituck mainland, hidden behind a natural fence of gnarled pines, sits a pair of parallel Quonset huts. Machined. Metal. Mass-produced. The twin buildings look like a place where brainless, faceless robots would punch out washers or bolts or some other expendable part of a larger beast even more soulless and mechanical. But beneath the grotesque half-cylinders, skilled artisans create works of beauty completely unlike their prefabricated shells.
They make surfboards – thousands of them – rushing forth from this tiny headquarters, flooding America's East Coast and reaching as far as Hawaii, Europe, Peru and Japan. Each one is hand crafted, individually painted, super-refined and utterly high performance. Why? How? What would cause a major surfboard manufacturer to choose, of all places, this remote piece of rural North Carolina as its base of operations?
"Easy," replies Patrick Herrle, manager for Wave Riding Vehicles (WRV), the Atlantic Seaboard's largest surfboard maker. "We moved the factory down here 20 years ago for one reason: so our surfboard builders could ride the best East Coast waves."
Before we move forward, you must understand a few things about surfboards. First, they are unlike any piece of sporting equipment anywhere. Even in an age where increasingly more boards are mass-produced via computer design, every single one is still unique and every single one has a personal touch. A human carves the foam blocks into smooth, responsive foils. Another human coats them in fiberglass cloth and resin. There are fin guys. Polish guys. Sanders. Airbrushers. It's a multiple-step process requiring intricate timing and years of experience. Of all these experts, the shaper is both the first and the most important. He is the one who develops a worthwhile design through a mix of hand-me-down surfboard science, instinct and experience, and – most surfers believe – a fair bit of magic.
"When you get a 'magic' board, words just can't describe it," says the Outer Banks' top surfing professional, Noah Snyder. "I've ridden a lot of different boards from a lot of places, and I'd say the best local shapers stack up against the other guys."
That's because the best shapers migrate here. If Cape Hatteras is the East Coast's so-called "wave magnet" – pulling in open ocean swell and magnifying it into the region's most consistent and powerful conditions – then those very waves function as a "shaper magnet," drawing boardmakers to the Outer Banks and holding them fast.
In the early '80s, Mickey "2M" McCarthy's New Sun factory
center of Nags Head's shaping universe.
The phenomenon really began back in the early '70s – shortly after the advent of smaller boards made the area's hollow surf more appealing – when big East Coast brands like Fox Watersports and Natural Art Surfboards moved their factories from Florida to Buxton (on Hatteras Island). Back then, the sleepy town south of Oregon Inlet was basically comatose come fall. But the place literally pulsed with the one thing all shapers need for research and for their own basic sanity: surf.
"There was nothing here then," laughs Scott Busbey, who returned and opened Buxton's Natural Art Surf Shop a year after the factory returned to Florida. "I mean there was nothing. So it was pretty much the waves that kept me here."
Three years later, Busbey began making In the Eye surfboards down in Buxton, and he's continued to ever since, plowing out 300 shapes a year. And every one sells through his shop's doors, maintaining the local craftsman mystique that's marked Outer Banks boardmaking and drawn still more shapers, and as a result, more attention. But it wouldn't be long before the boards started traveling, even if their makers didn't.
"For me the next stop was Hawaii," says Lynn Shell, another 20-year-plus shaper and owner of Outer Banks Boarding Company in Nags Head, "but that never really happened."
Instead, the islands came to him. After helping Busbey start In the Eye, Shell's extreme consistency in quality and design soon made him a favorite among several major labels and a number of East Coast professionals. In 1991, Shell Shapes drew the attention of revered manufacturer Hawaiian Island Creations, making him one of the company's four hired guns – the only one on the US mainland – and sending his name to places few East Coast shapers had dreamed.
"It was the best thing that ever happened to me since birth," says Shell. "They sell the boards in California, Hawaii – I mean, I've gotten newspapers in the mail from Australia with my boards on the front. It's amazing."
Today, as his store takes more time, Shell only custom-crafts a couple hundred boards a year. (The other 500 or so "stock boards" are rough-cut by computer, and he then fine-sands the finishing touches.) But even as his retail business grows increasingly profitable, Shell always keeps one foot in the shaping bay.
"Nobody makes surfboards for the money," says Shell. "Just the other day I had a guy come in going on and on about some board I made him a bunch of years ago. That's why you do it."
WRV top gun Tommy Moore agrees. "Last spring I was in Costa Rica and I saw some random boards of mine, which was pretty cool," he says. "I think that's what it's all about: seeing a guy out having fun on a board I made."
Even when shapers here quit the business, they never really quit. In the '80s, Mickey McCarthy's New Sun Surfboards became an Outer Banks icon, one of the first "town" labels to make a mark. Located across the street from Nags Head Pier in a blue cinderblock building known as the "Blue Box," this centrally located fiberglass house became the hot spot for area craftsmen. It was a melting pot of design ideas, where McCarthy and other seasoned names like Mike "Fatboy" Price and longboard legend Murray Ross taught young guys like Mike Beveridge, Mike Rowe and Steve Head the chops they apply to this day.
Burned out on the business end – and intrigued by his love of surf photography – McCarthy closed New Sun in the mid '90s to focus on his lens work, though he still cuts and airbrushes boards out of his home. McCarthy makes between 50 and 100 boards a year, focusing on his new EXP design, a favorite among pros like aerial specialist Jeff Myers. McCarthy combines his talents well; he is probably the only shaper who has shot a magazine cover featuring one of his own surfboards. And though McCarthy no longer spends whole weeks in the factory, he remains in the mix, and he's excited to see the local board-building scene holding strong.
"I think it's more vibrant today than ever," says McCarthy. "Not only do we have a group of older guys who've been doing it forever, every time I go over to the factory I see new boards in there being glassed. You can tell when they're somebody's first one, and you can tell they feel the stoke. It's a pretty special feeling to shape a board and ride it."
(top) For WRV's Jesse Fernandez, surfing is half R & R and half R & D. (bottom) Every good board starts the same way: as a piece of white foam in the hands of some shaping sharpshooter.
Here's Scott Busbey, fully loaded.
Of McCarthy's many proteges, Ted Kearns is probably the most recognized. Kearns first got his foot in the door as a teenager when he loaned McCarthy his planer in a pinch. Twenty years later, TK Performance Shapes is one of the hottest local labels, a favorite among up-and-coming amateurs and polished pros from New Jersey through South Carolina. He even makes boards for shops in Hawaii. At one point, Kearns stopped shaping because it didn't provide a consistent income, and he became a deputy in the Dare County Sheriff's Department. But after four years he took off the badge and went back to boards in 1998 – not just because he missed the business, but because the business missed him.
"Suddenly there was more interest, both in my boards and surfboards in general," says Kearns. "When we worked at New Sun and on through the '90s, once September came it was a lot of wind, rain and a lot of unemployment checks. Today it's more of a year-round profession."
More folks are shaping along the Outer Banks than ever before. And that's good news for Rascoe Hunt. Hunt may never have shaped a board in his life, but he probably touches more boards than anyone on the beach. Hunt is one of the unsung heroes of board-building: "the glass guy." He's the one who coats those pristine white blanks in all the icky resin and itchy cloth, laying it over perfectly, adding just the right mixtures so it hardens into a clear, candy-coated shell. It's one of the most thankless jobs in the business, but it's important. Without guys to do the "wet work," nobody would ever ride a shaper's designs. And as the proprietor of Gale Force Glassing, Hunt also provides the nexus for most of the area's growing number of smaller, independent board builders to come together and exchange input. And even on his most aggravated day, he's proud to provide both roles.
"I guess people just love surfboards," Hunt muses. "There's an aura about the surfboard factory. It's definitely part of the soul of surfing."
Back in the WRV headquarters, Jesse Fernandez powers out one of the half dozen or more orders waiting to be built each day. A former world-ranked longboarder with deceivingly gray hair, Fernandez, like most shapers who have been doing it forever, is an expert in every style – longboards, shortboards, semi-guns for bigger surf, fast "fishes" for the small stuff, high-performance blades for the pro's next magazine spread. Fernandez gets his hands dirty with every type of stick you can imagine. And he's just as fluent – and fluid – in the water, ripping harder and riding waves better than most surfers half his age.
Pat McManus: yesterday's top surfer is often today's top shaper.
Here is where living on the Outer Banks truly pays off. The Florida native could have spent the past dozen years in the Sunshine State, staying warm year-round. But he wouldn't be able to put the boards through their paces as often or as aggressively. Like Moore, Shell or Virginia Beach's most recent transplant, factory owner Tim Nolte, it's this symbiotic relationship between wave rider and board maker that helps the shaper and the surfer both refine their skills. It's a learning process that makes living here crucial to each shaper's development as a craftsman and in turn benefits every single surfer who buys a board.
"It's not like you're working at a bank where you're punching the clock," says Fernandez. "We're building boards because when the surf's good, you put down your tools and go. You go ride a surfboard that you made. Then you come back to the shop and make the next one even better."
Want to take a piece of the Outer Banks home with you? From custom shapes to garage-sale finds, here’s a list of locally made boards.
Mickey "2M" McCarthy may have sold the factory, but he kept the tools and skills that keep him a local favorite.
Whether it’s 2M or Steve Head, this upstart label only uses "ghost" shapers with the scariest skills.
Shaper Scott Perry bailed for California a few years ago, but he left more than a few boards behind. Now he’s back and looking to build again.
Carl Barry is one of the next generation of shapers pushing board-making’s boundaries.
This northern beach private label bears some of the area’s sweetest fruit.
Corolla Surf Shop
This northern beach retailer's private label is Outer Banks-specific, made by the likes of Tim Nolte, Ted Kearns, Mike Cherry and Carl Barry.
Eric Holmes is another fine craftsman, helping to keep shaping alive south of Oregon Inlet.
Tommy Moore knows a good board should pilot well…and paddle well.
1970s and '80s shaping legend-turned-sailboarding pioneer Ted James is no longer with us, but Buxton's Fox Watersports remains a Hatteras icon. Scour the used rack for a rare find or hit the shop for a brand-new molded board based on his best designs.
Aptly titled. Young buck Adam Price is one of the freshest additions to the Outer Banks shaping scene.
The name says it all. Rodanthe Surf Shop is the source for these soulful sticks that remain a local favorite.
Hatteras Island Boardsports
Another new label, Avon competitor-turned-shaper Mark Newton shows he has what it takes in and out of the water.
Hawaiian Island Creations/Shell Shapes
Lynn Shell has an international reputation and an Aloha State label, but his personal stamp always says "made in Hatteras."
Sanding, glassing, finning and now shaping, Mike Rowe applies his years in the Gale Force Glassing factory to these 100 percent homegrown designs.
Twice the innovator, photographer/shaper Mickey "2M" McCarthy used a unique pier angle to snap this surf mag cover shot starring his own experimental design.
Hot and Nasty/Tropix
These vintage beasts are no dinosaurs. Before ex-pat Mike "Fat Boy" Price cruised to Costa Rica, he made big boards for big men – and big moves.
In the Eye
As the owner of Natural Art Surf Shop and Buxton’s only factory, Scott Busbey is the biggest board-building force south of the Bonner Bridge.
With fabric inlays and custom artwork, longboard legend Murray Ross makes works of art you can step on.
Pat McManus Surfboards
Always a local standout in the water, McManus now puts his precision moves into foam and fiberglass.
This smaller shop label offers big creed by hiring local powerhouses like Ted Kearns and Murray Ross.
Modern boards spend almost as much time riding over the wave. Pictured is surfer Jeff Myers.
The revered Robert "Redman" Manville worked for everyone from tiny Hatteras Glass to giant WRV. Find a used shape by this recently deceased artisan and you’ve scored a rare piece of high-performance history.
There’s one secret Nags Head shop owner Steve Hess shows willingly: how to make a good stick.
With more than two decades in the biz, few have been making boards longer, better or sharper than Rodanthe bladesman Mike Beveridge.
Tim Nolte Surfboards
Logs to chips, futuristic materials to traditional media, this longboard legend steps across all boundaries.
Once half of Gale Force Glassing, Ted Kearns’s new label proves this former cop is one of the Banks’ best hired guns.
Wave Riding Vehicles
Nearly every local shaper has made a pass through this biggest of factories; today Jesse Fernandez, Tommy Moore and Mike Clark hold down the fort.