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Weekend Agenda: Designing Functional Art with Ventana Surfboards

Surfer, photographer, and writer Dalton Johnson recently spent time at Ventana Surfboards in Santa Cruz, California, where he watched Martijn Stiphout create artisan wooden surfboards. He was impressed at the craftsmanship of shaping a board from reclaimed wood, but what really moved him was Martijn’s commitment to creating beautiful boards that are better for the ocean than traditional boards. Catch a glimpse of Ventana as it strives to be the most environmentally responsible surf company on Earth.

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The smell of freshly cut wood filled my nose as I climbed the stairs and headed towards the Ventana Surfboards workshop. Martijn Stiphout, the artisan behind these wooden surfboards, was heads down focused on milling the reclaimed wood for his newest board. Looking up from the wood he was cutting, he smiled, shut off the machine, and took off his ear coverings as he walked toward me. 

“Come, check this out!” Stiphout took me over to his workstation and pointed at a pile of metal on the table. “Check out these square nails. They came off this plank that used to be on the hull of the boat that John Steinbeck took into the Sea of Cortez in 1940.” Immediately, I understood that his surfboards were more than just pieces of wood put together to ride the waves in his backyard of Santa Cruz, CA, but they are works of art with stories to tell. 

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Over the next few days, Stiphout milled board after board, exposing the grains of different wood species. Each scrap of wood held history and was infused with meaning and story...wood from the Western Flyer boat made famous by John Steinbeck and Ed “Doc” Ricketts, benches from the Hollywood Bowl music venue, offcuts from the Santa Cruz Guitar Company, redwood from the original Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Every piece of wood in Ventana’s vast workshop has been donated by one of their more than 30 upcycle partners.

Unfamiliar with the craft of building wooden boards, I was a student as much as I was a documentarian. In short, most wooden boards are constructed as opposed to a modern surfboard shaped from foam. The surfboards Stiphout designs are hollow and begin with an internal frame specifically designed for each shape.

Once the skeleton is created, the board’s wooden skin is assembled and draped over the structure. Stiphout’s woodworking skills are showcased in his inlays. The designs are immaculate and inspired by the ocean, resembling fish scales, sunrises, kelp, and more. Once the skin is trimmed to a perfect fit, cork rails are applied to protect the structure.

At this point, the board looks ready to ride, but it needs its waterproofing layers of plant-based epoxy resin and fiberglass. In fact, Stiphout’s boards are glassed both inside and out to ensure structural integrity and imperviousness to water. 

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Watching this artisan create a board from wood that was given up as waste was as cognitively satisfying as it would be physically satisfying to ride. Seeing the end product glide through the water as toes dangle over the nose, this wooden board is a true piece of functional art.

Throughout my time with Ventana Surfboards the commitment to building functional pieces of art did not stop there. 

For most of us who sit at our desks and daydream of gliding atop the waves, we rarely consider the potential pollution our surfboards are shedding. Modern foam-based surfboards contribute to polluting the very thing that provides the joy we crave. As micro-plastics flake off our boards from dings, breaks, and UV damage this adds to the damage of our ocean. Also, most boards made from foam are not beholden to closed-loop process as the foam is not recyclable nor biodegradable. Luckily, there has been a surge in the 3rd-party certification of ecoboards, with roughly 200 certified manufacturers since 2012 by SustainableSurf.org.

Ecoboards are considered high-performance, sustainable boards that measurably reduce the carbon footprint by using renewable, recycled, and/or up-cycled materials. These boards also use materials and processes that reduce toxicity during manufacturing.

At Ventana Surfboards, Martijn Stiphout is wary of the pollution caused by the surfing industry. He creates boards that exceed the Ecoboard Project’s Gold Level certification. And Ventana’s focus on environmental responsibility doesn’t stop with surfboards. Their apparel and surf supply line allows surfers and non-surfers alike to participate in their mission to be the most environmentally responsible surf company on Earth.

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