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The Shape of Things to Come

After learning to shape surfboards in the Hawaiian motherland, Cape Cod native Shawn Vecchione brought his world-class skills back home.

Surfboard maker Shawn Vecchione

A 25-year surfing veteran Shawn Vecchione uses his knowledge and love of the sport to craft and shape surfboards. Photo by Luke Simpson

Shaping a surfboard is a filthy, nocturnal, meditative undertaking. And it’s one that Shawn Vecchione has repeated more than 6,000 times.

Inside a 14-by-eight-foot room that’s part wood shop, part garage, Vecchione—clad in a T-shirt and board shorts, with bronze skin and a few grey hairs—hovers over a faceless board and flares a sand screen across its face. There’s nothing gentle about the movement—a grating whiisshhh fills the eardrums, and dust kicks up and collects in anthill-sized piles on the floor. He turns the board on its side and sculpts its rails, tapering hard edges into smooth curves. A pair of fluorescent light bulbs mounted at waist height amplifies the shadows cast by nicks and bumps, imperfections that Vecchione buffs from existence.

Surfboard maker Shawn Vecchione

The 39-year-old Barnstable native relies on detail and precision to make his work stand out. Photo by Luke Simpson

In the 12 years since Vecchione first learned to shape a surfboard on the island of Kauai, his handiwork has found its way into oceans around the world. Some of his boards have been under the feet of the best surfers in the sport. Some of them are stacked inside his new Vec Surfboards headquarters on Route 6A in Orleans. The 39-year-old Vecchione is a New England surfboard shaper with a Hawaiian’s acumen. And, he says, it’s good to have brought his abilities back where he was born.

A native of Barnstable, Vecchione split his childhood living here and in Hawaii—his mom’s home. He started surfing when he was 14: Friends and family drove him to the beach and he surfed on the fickle Outer Cape coast, chasing waves sculpted by the tides and the shifting sandbars underneath. Vecchione’s aptitude for board sports spawned a three-year career as a pro snowboarder that lasted until he was 21. But when he suffered a back injury on the mountains, he bid farewell to the cold and arrived in the surf mecca of Hawaii. He honed his surf skills and brought them back east, surfing rigorously and earning a top-ten ranking from the Eastern Surfing Association while in his early 20s. In 1993, he opened the Boarding House surf shop in Hyannis. Six years later, he sold the business and returned to Kauai.

Surfboard maker Shawn Vecchione

One of Vecchione’s favorite parts of the job is watching surfers, like the one pictured above, get pleasure and excitement out of his hard work. Photo by Luke Simpson

Bobby Allen, an old-school Kauai surfboard shaper better known as Basa, taught Vecchione the basics of sanding and glassing boards. He was recruited to work under Max Medeiros at Hawaiian Blades Surfboards. Vecchione had a talent for working with his hands, but he never entertained the prospect of shaping his own board from start to finish. One day, Chris Champion, a friend and accomplished shaper, paid a visit to Vecchione and convinced him to try.

He guided Vecchione through every step until he had a beautiful six-foot board for his now ex-wife. When he saw her ripping on it in the water, he says, “It made me feel really good, in my heart, to know that I created that kind of enjoyment for somebody.” He made one for himself, too, and enjoyed it just as much. Within six months, he founded Vec Surfboards and shaping became his full-time job. He learned from mentors like Dick Brewer and Billy Hamilton, but ultimately, he says, shaping requires a talent that can’t be taught. In 2007, after years of shuffling between Hawaii and Cape Cod, he came back east for good.

Surfboard maker Shawn Vecchione

Vecchione poses in his work space. Photo by Luke Simpson

The craft of surfboard shaping has been around as long as surfing itself. Thousands of years ago, Hawaiian craftsmen toppled trees and sliced them into rideable dimensions with an ax. Now, the stock boards in surf shops are generally spit out by computerized lathes with a shaper adding finishing touches at the end. But custom surfboards, tailored to the physique and style of the rider and contoured for specific types of waves, are a cornerstone of upper-echelon surfing. “You would never see a pro surfer walk into a shop and buy a board off the rack,” Vecchione says.

It takes some prying, but Vecchione finally lists a few of the biggest names he has shaped boards for through the years: the late Andy Irons, a three-time world champion, and his brother, Bruce; CJ Hobgood, ranked number 19 in May 2011, according to the Association of Surfing Professionals; Victor Rosario, a Dominican native currently surfing waves in Europe; and big-wave surfer Liam McNamara among others. Locally, he has shaped boards for accomplished surfers like Ryan Webb of Nantucket and Dillon and John Murphy of Orleans. Dillon, who had been surfing with Vecchione since he owned the Boarding House, says local surfers were excited to have a shaper on hand who could adapt his craftsmanship to the nuances of Cape Cod’s waves. “Now we had a shaper who lived in town that was a good surfer, who understood what we wanted,” Dillon says. Vecchione caters his designs to advanced surfers. “I may not be as good [as a professional], obviously, but I can understand what he wants when he comes to the top of the wave and tries to launch an air, or if he’s trying to hold in a barrel or surf a big wave,” he says.

Surfboard maker Shawn Vecchione

Vecchioine sands each and every custom board to produce the desired symmetry, flow, and thickness for his clients. Photo by Luke Simpson

Though he works with high-level surfing pros, Vecchione says he still enjoys watching grommets grow their skills on his boards. “To watch a 12-year-old kid on my board smoke me out of the water is one of the most rewarding things, you know?” he says. In addition, Vecchione has worked as a “ghost” shaper for some of the surf industry’s biggest companies, furnishing boards to their specifications without attaching his name to them.

The custom shaping process usually begins with a “blank,” an anonymous piece of polyurethane foam. After figuring out the surfer’s needs, Vecchione uses a wood planer to form the shape of the board and swipes a series of sand screens along every inch to achieve the desired thickness, flow, and symmetry. When he’s done, Vecchione writes his signature and the board’s dimensions on the tail. Then he ships the board off to Keith Natti at Twin Lights Surfboards in Gloucester, who laminates each board with a protective fiberglass layer and sands it to a fine finish—an art in itself.

Surfboard maker Shawn Vecchione

A young surfer gets some air off a wave. Photo by Luke Simpson

In the Vec Surfboards retail shop, located on Route 6A in Orleans, visitors can custom-order boards from Vecchione and watch the shaping process as it happens. Along with a supply of Vec boards and gear, he plans to host visits from world-class shapers like Hamilton. And, if there’s time in the off-season, he’s thinking about holding a few shaping seminars. Then again, his last off-season wasn’t exactly restful: He was commissioned by MAC Cosmetics to produce 175 surfboards for display in all of the company’s North American retail locations.

Shaping a surfboard is predominantly a numbers game, Vecchione says. Sometimes making the perfect board simply means plugging numbers into a formula. But shaping is an art form, too, evidenced in the clean lines and elegant transitions. And there’s at least a little bit of sentiment involved, too. Vecchione still has that first six-foot-long, 19-inch wide, two-and-a-quarter inch deep board he shaped back in 1999. There might be certain things he would tweak, but he still loves the board. No doubt he’d still write his name on it.

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