Interview with Akela Surf Board Shaper Rob Lion

Akela Surf: Where are you from? 

Rob Lion: I was born in the Bahamas, and lived there until I was 6, when we moved to Florida.


Where do you currently live? 

That's a good one, as I tend to travel a lot. I guess you could say that I'm based in Florida, but I go between there and Santa Cruz, CA a fair bit these days.


Tell us about the role of a surfboard shaper?

“Shaper” is a term that gets thrown around a lot these days. I never wanted to be a “shaper” in current terminology. It's just too easy to call yourself that these days, with CAD files, and all the other ways to get pre-shapes out there. I don't have a problem with production guys that have put their time in behind a planer using the machine. But, I do have issues with people who use the machine as a crutch, that haven't learned the hard way, meaning to hand shape from an actual blank.

As far as I'm concerned, a good shaper needs to know not only how to scrape foam, but where to put that foam, where to take it off, and how to make it all flow, and fit inside the blank. On top of that, understanding the basic concepts of design, what the trade offs of each feature are, and how each following stage of building a board effects its performance as well as depends on the step before to make it true. There's a lot more to building a good board than a pretty shape.

That's why I like to do the whole thing, start to finish.

Tell us how you got into the "shaping" business?

I got into it, and out of it a couple times actually. I first got interested in making surfboards because of the movie “North Shore” believe it or not. The character Chandler seemed to have the life I wanted – surf all day, make boards, beautiful family, funky beach house – and was wise. So, at 14 I started bugging all the local guys to teach me and basically just swept up, fixed dings, and ruined a few airbrush jobs before high school got in the way. When I was in my late 20s, I was living in San Diego, managing construction sites, and despite making a ton of money, I wasn't happy. I'd had enough and happened to go into Channin's place on the hill in Encinitas and talked Tony into giving me a job. I didn't realize how lucky I was at the time, but there were a ton of legends working there at the time – Jim Phillips, Rich Pavel, Hank Byzak, Steve Clark, Tony Channin, Bill Shrosbee – and they were building boards for Joel Tudor, Yater, and a host of others. Made a huge impression on me.

After 18 months or so, I moved back to the Bahamas to run a charter business for some family, and started making boards for myself and friends for fun. I then moved to Brazil and worked for Mauro Roxo at CCL, shaping my boards, and continuing to destroy perfectly good blanks. I also started to experiment with EPS/Epoxy there thanks to EndyRoy.

I then moved to the UK and that's where it all really started. In a small garage across the road from Tynemouth beach, I stated building up the Royal brand of boards. I moved down to Cornwall later, and continued to build boards, getting to travel to Portugal, Italy, Spain, and Ireland building boards, and exploring. I also moonlighted in several factories there - Ocean Magic, Laminations/Beach Beat, Fluid Juice – and got to work with local and traveling legends along the way. It was an amazing time that I am eternally grateful for.

I moved back to California, to Santa Cruz in 2010 and worked for the guys at Haut/Santa Cruz Board Builder's Guild and Michel Junod. Here I met some of the craftsmen that had been career long inspirations, and am happy to call them friends now.

Now, I'm based in Florida, and have worked for Ricky Carroll and freelanced for Corevac, and Peli.

I still go out to Santa Cruz regularly, and will be living there for a year or so building parts for high performance sailboats. Which, is something I'm getting more interested in.

That's the short story, and I'd like to thank everyone the helped and supported me along the way.

Do you shape anything else?

I'm getting increasingly interested in building small multi-hull sailboats. Sailing goes so well with surfing, and there's an amazing history linking them it seems natural.

So far I've only built 2 small boats, but find it very satisfying.


What's your shaping philosophy?

Everything is geared to having the most fun, for least effort.

After doing all sorts of complex bottom contours, weird outlines(that look quite normal these days) and wacky fin set ups, I'm interested in keeping things simple. Less is definitely more, especially in weak waves like we have in Florida. Deep contours of any kind can really limit a board in weak waves. So, everything I do is more subtle these days.

Simple is good. It's got to be clean, functional, and fun.

Tell us about the name Label Surf?

Label was an idea I had in the UK a few years ago. It was going to be a no frills line of boards, back to basics kind of thing. It didn't work out at the time, to be honest. But I made a experimental board here and there with the Label brand on it just for fun.

Last year or so, I was burned out, and felt like the Royal(surfboards) name had become some sort of thing that I didn't want to do/be anymore. People were calling me Rob Royal, which drove the point home even more, and I was tired of explaining that that wasn't my name. Plus, and most importantly, I was seeing surfboards become so copycat, everyone trying so hard to be different, just to be “different” and it made me sick to be blunt. The more people try to be different, the more they become the same. It's a disgusting cycle.

Label is an attempt to escape all of that, and get back to building boards for FUNction. I stopped trolling the forums, and blogs, and stopped following other shapers. I don't want to know because it gets in your head, and next thing you know, you're doing something else. I want to get back to making, and riding boards that work for me, my friends, and local conditions. Screw the rest of that junk. It's ALL been done before anyway, and if you have spent any time researching design at all, you'll know what I mean. So, why not just make the stuff you like?

What is unique about the boards you shape?

Nothing really. I mean, I'm not doing anything new. I do everything on my boards, shape/glass/fins/sand/polish so that makes them more of an extension of my interests I guess. I'm into art, so I like to play with resin tints, and colors. But, I'm not claiming that I'm breaking boundaries or inventing anything. I just like what I like.


Tell us what do you like the most about being a shaper?

It's such a simple thing, but making something with your hands, and seeing friends and customers get so stoked on them is enough to keep me happy and making boards.


Tell us how do hand shaping and machine shaping are different?

Like I said, I don't have a grudge against machine shapes. I actually ran a machine in the UK for a while, and designed a couple of my own cuts to see how it goes. It's a tool, nothing more than a digital extension of your ideas. You design on a flat screen, adjusting your points with the mouse, or numerically, and push a button. That's huge oversimplification, obviously, but the basic idea. You can make perfectly good boards with a machine. But, they always feel dull to me.

Hand shaping is personal preference. I enjoy it. It's therapeutic, and I like the control it allows me, in real time. I found that I can hand shape a custom faster than drawing it on the computer. If I was just scaling a board from a stock file, it would be different. But, my boards are typically custom, one off ideas. So, it makes more sense to just mow it out rather than mess around with the laptop.

Hand shaping is rewarding, and full of pitfalls just waiting to happen. It takes a long time to get good at it, even if you're a natural. You're messing with a machine that has sharp blades spinning at 18,000rpm, or using a hand saw to cut your outline, or using blocks to true things up on a block of hard sponge that can get ruined with a simple slip of the blade. It's an intense project that requires much more coordination, and concentration than fine sanding a pre-shape with a sureform and sanding block. Way more work, but way more rewarding at the same time.


Tell us what part of the shape are important in determining the feeling of the surfboard?

Outline, rocker, fin placement, foil. That's it. Foil is a very close fourth, because it alters water flow over the surfaces, but the first three are the biggest components of good design. Then, it's the relationship of those 4 parts that makes it all work. If your rocker doesn't work with the outline, or your fins funk up the flow, or your foil isn't flowing with the outline, etc., it's going to be a funky object that may work, but would be better if they were all in harmony. Bottom contours are just like condiments on the meal. Some like it salty, some like it spicy. But if your main ingredients are junk, no amount of ketchup is going to make it taste good.


What advise would you give to a customer to help them get the best board possible?

Be honest about your ability, and where you want to go with your surfing. Do you want to be a ripper like Jon Jon, a stylist like Joel, or a hellman and go surf Mavericks? Maybe you just want to go fast, and slide around on a bar of soap. Do you surf slabs, or sloppy dribblers?

A lot of people want a board to perform miracles, and then get disappointed. You have to be honest about what you expect, and then listen to the shaper's suggestions. I'm lucky because my customers tend to have a good idea about design, and what they want out of the boards. And, since I know where they're surfing, I have a good idea about how to make it happen. It's harder if someone is being vague about these things.


What is the biggest lesson learned in your shaping career thus far?

Humility and the benefits of simplicity.


Who and what inspire you? 

There's been so many great people that have inspired, and helped me along the way it's hard to list them all. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for their friendship, guidance, and shared knowledge.

I get inspired by all kinds of things, surf history, sailboats, fish, art, weather. If you're looking for ideas, there's plenty out there, right in front of you.


What kind of board you like to shape most ?

After all this time, I'm back to shaping Lis style fish, and offshoots of them. And Pig style logs. These two designs have brought me more joy than any other, hands down.


Describe to us your most memorable surf trip?

This one time I went to this volcanic island in the south Caribbean and scored big time. It's called, oh I forget......


What are your future plans and goals? 

Long term, I'd like to build myself a boat, and sail around the islands. Maybe build some boards, and help get the Caribbean more on the international surf scene – without giving it away of course. The kids there are amazing, and we really have some world class surf. I'd love to see a world champ come from the Bahamas, or anywhere in the Caribbean.


Anything else you would like to share with us? 

Be thankful, love your neighbors, and drop the hate. Life's too short to not enjoy it.