Southern California Surfboard Shaper Mark Brog of Soul Performance
Stoked. That’s the best word to describe Mark Brog. As soon as you walk through the door of his surf shop, Soul Performance, in Redondo Beach, he is all smiles and instantly strikes up an enthusiastic conversation. With the energy of a grommet and the devotion of a monk, Mark has been crafting surfboards for over two decades and keeps surfers coming back for more. My informal poll of surfers using his boards at El Porto always yielded two statements: "Mark really likes to work with you" and "I love this board." How can you argue with that? We caught up with Mark at his shop on a nice South Bay summer afternoon.
How long have you been surfing?
22 years…now like 24, and I have been shaping for 22 years. I started when I was 14, at Torrance Beach, back in 1981. Skateboarding and punk rock helped birth a radical approach to carving concrete, snow, and surfing.
So, you grew up here in the South Bay?
What motivated you to start shaping?
I wanted a new board. Actually, my first surfboard was a soft board that my dad made me get, so eventually I wanted to have a different board. So I went down to ET, watched them glass boards, and then got a blank.
Who did you learn to shape from?
Bruce Grant, Steven Ing (North Shore, Hawaii), Wayne Rich, Jeff Biggs, Laddie John Dill, Dez Sawyer (South Africa- Blue Hawaii), Errol Hickman (Aloha Surfboards South Africa). I spent 4 months in South Africa and trained with the local Africans at J-Bay to glass and sand, and then I was shaping for Aloha in Durban. I was gone for a year and a half, then spent 8 months in France and worked with Valerie at Ocean Safari. On that trip, I also spent the winter in Val d’Isere snow boarding and working at a ski shop — I learned French and got to do some extreme snow boarding every day during lunch time.
What is your philosophy when it comes to making surfboards?
The philosophy for building anything is to do it once and to do it right, and to put care into it. Its all about quality and craftsmanship. You can’t to do anything correctly without putting in 110%. That’s what differentiates my boards from other products or from the masses. Building surfboards is not a job, it is a passion…and not all shapers have it. For me, the passion comes from my background of airbrushing models and painting. It’s a detail-oriented passion, as well as a passion for expression. If I wanted a computer-shaped surfboard, then it would be simple, but it takes much more effort for me to get an order and make it happen and keep people happy. An important point is that I am not just a shaper, but also a sander and glasser. For 20 years I glassed all of my own boards.
I ask them what their experience level is in years, what spots they surf, and what is the next level they want to see themselves coming into. If it is a surfer who is already an expert, then we are mostly going to be picking at details, but for a beginner it may include lopping off a foot from their board size and helping them cut the umbilical cord so they can get on something else. One thing that makes me different is that I have experience shaping surfboards that work for women because my wife surfs and my women team riders, Cookie Watson and Jeannie Chick. Boards for women are different. They are generally shorter, have less width, and some extra rocker. I am very interested in promoting women’s surfing – I am even just starting to shape my daughter’s first surfboard! Also, an important thing is that I have demo boards for customers.
Wow, so you have demo boards for people to try?
Yeah, it’s the best way for someone to try a new shape to see if works or not, without having to spend money. Just this week I made a 9 footer, shortboards, and an 8 foot egg for demos, and I will add some other high performance boards to that. I see it as my service to you.
What do you need to know about someone’s surfing so that you can come up with the right shape that will help them progress?
I ask them if they are aggressive or passive….longboard or shortboard? Rear or front foot surfer? For rear foot people, it is better to keep on thrusters. For front foot people, twin fins and quads will be more fun. Some boards just won’t work off your rear foot. Many of the board characteristics should depend on whether you power off the front or rear foot. This is a key point that needs to be addressed before you shape a shortboard.
Sometimes talking to a shaper can be intimidating, at least it was for me as a grom. Do you ever recognize that in your customers and help them along?
Sometimes I wonder if what determines whether a board "works" or not is more in my head, or the quality of the waves I surf. What makes a surfboard "work" for somebody?
It really does not have that much to do with the board. Instead, it has a lot to do with your mental attitude. If you have a closed mind, you are not going to see the differences in a board like someone with an open mind. You can put people like Rob Machado on an ironing board and they would still surf great because they know how to focus their energy into making a board work. Your dedication will determine what you end up experiencing from a board. A person who is in good physical shape is going to be able to appreciate a surfboard more than someone who is out of shape because they can surf more waves.
So then, can a shaper just make a "magical" board or is it serendipity?
It’s total chance. Yeah, much of it has to do with the shaping, but "magic" boards have a lifespan and once they break, they’re gone. You know if you have a magic board because everything connects, and when that is gone, you can’t just reproduce it on a whim. As a result, you appreciate magic boards when you finally find another one. An important thing about my boards is they last so much longer than mass produced boards, so you can have a longer relationship with it. Once a board snaps in half, it never has the same feel to it.
Then what is your response to someone that comes in and wants you to clone their magic board?
If they have the board, then I suggest that they bring it in when they come to see me. From that point, I can ask them if there are subtle things they want to change or alter on the design. I have done plenty of duplications and I try to make the new board better than the original. You go off the template of their original board, but I like to see my shaping and their surfing move into the future and not stagnate. But in the end, I will make an exact duplicate since they are paying!
But in the end, isn’t it impossible to produce a clone?
No, not impossible, but close to impossible. A computer-shaped board can be made over and over, but they are not magical. If you are a spiritual person that wants energy from a surfboard, then you want a hand-shaped board. Anything that is magic comes from energy, like the love in a relationship. A guy buying a board off the rack is getting bachelor-style love. Its not until he sits down to have a serious relationship with a board, like the relationship he would have with his wife, that he is able to develop his surfing and progress to better waves…like going from 2-3 foot slop to Sunset.
Since you brought it up, what is your feeling about computer shaping?
They have their time and place. It can be good if you are making the design changes for yourself, but I can shape a surfboard faster than you can type the info into the computer, so with a computer you are not really saving any time. Also, someone shaping from a computer does not have the direct relationship like that between a shaper and surfer. Look at all of the pros — they don’t ride computer boards, they ride hand-shaped boards from Rusty or Merrick. They wait for a shaper, not for a computer. If you are smart, you wait that extra little bit of time. The saddest thing about computer shaping is that a lot of the work is going overseas – not that they don’t need jobs overseas – but unfortunately, there is a disinterest in kids around here about making their own boards or even making repairs. Kids just throw their boards away instead of trying to keep the art going. Hand shaping helps people learn more about surfing and gets people more jobs in the surf industry. In the end, there is always going to be the demand for an experienced shaper. Not just any old shaper, but one that will take somebody’s wishes and make them come true. I think the reason I am a good shaper is that I still try all kinds of other peoples boards. That’s important – as shaper you need to try other peoples boards. You have got try some wild stuff to open your palette.
What is the job market like for new shapers?
It’s very limited. In the South Bay, there are about 50 backyard shapers who can make something that is rideable. They have an elevated level of design and can make a board that is really functional. Please, go to a backyard shaper before you get a pop out from Costco. At least there is some level of progression. To get a job as a shaper?…man it is easier to become a doctor! I have put in 11 years in my own shop and those years were the ones that made me legit. It was hard work. The 10 years before that were the building blocks. Before anyone can call himself or herself a good shaper, they need a minimum of 10 years. It wasn’t until after I started Soul Performance that I considered myself any good.
Given that most surfers can’t afford to own tons of new surfboards, do you think that that it is better to stick with the same design that works or to explore alternatives?
First, every surfer should have a longboard because it helps you surf more days. In the end, you need to have all the basic tools in your toolbox. You need a hammer, a tape measurer, and a screwdriver. Every surfer should have a gun, longboard, and a high performance shortboard. You need these three basic tools, and then you can add to that quiver later. You need the longboard for small waves, the shortboard for day-to-day surfing in good or shitty waves, and a big wave board so you can’t give any excuses about why you didn’t paddle out when it got big.
Do see the recent increase in the popularity of surfing as good or bad?
It’s a good thing as long as it is coupled with environmental awareness. Otherwise, you have a large group of people that are saturated with weak energy. Imagine if all of these new people joined the Surfrider Foundation. Surfing requires dedication. It can be hard making boards for beginners who are not serious. Surfing is not social club hour…you have to surf as often as possible. It’s a hard core sport, and unfortunately, it is being marketed otherwise.
Do you ever get sick of shaping?
It doesn’t become just "work"?
No. Since this is my shop…no. Every surfboard I make is different and I airbrush and treat them uniquely, so it is like making art…making a splash!
Is shaping a hazardous or toxic profession?
No. I am so fit from shaping. The only reason it would be hazardous is if you don’t wear a mask. Getting foam dust in your eyes kind of itches, but you can wash it out (laughs). However, I am getting a little tendonitis and have to work with a brace. After I shape a couple of boards, it is as though I have walked for several miles. Shaping is the perfect combination of exercise, focus, and craftsmanship. To me, it’s not at all like a job; instead, it’s a passion that combines all of your focus, creativity, and physical conditioning. Amateur guys take a couple of days to make aboard, but I can make a shortboard by hand in a couple of hours.
Focus, creativity, and physical conditioning…sounds like you are describing surfing.
Yeah, I wish I could surf as well as I shape! A lot of the shapers around here do surf, and it’s why we have so many good shapers. Some shapers don’t surf and that’s not a good thing. It doesn’t allow personal relationships to develop where local surfers use local shapers. Local shapers are great because they know how to shape boards that will work in the local spots.
Do find that surfers are less knowledgeable about shaping than ever before?
Yes and no, because now there are web sites and videos strictly about shaping. However, if you went out interviewing people, I think you would find that they know less about board building than people did in the past. I guess people are less interested in learning and just want the end result.
J-Bay and Burnout.
Anything to add?
Yeah, some special thanks to Mom and Dad, my wife Sheryl, grandpa George Schwegler, my glasser and team rider Mauro Teixeira, Marcello Malinco, Ralf Koch, and Tommy G.
Some advice to groms: 1) shape your own board, at least once, 2) set your sights high and far, 3) our planet is a fantastic place that needs to be explored because you wont feel the juice unless you leave the South Bay, 4) think freely and outside the box because you are only limited by what others say, not by your dreams.
INTERVIEW BY JORGE VAZQUEZ
If you want to contact Mark
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Address: 2215 1/2 Artesia Blvd
Redondo Beach, CA 90278
Hours: Mon.-Fri.(11:00 – 6:00pm)
Sat.(11:00 – 5:00pm)