Max Stewart: Young, Free, Alright!
The Rad and Creative Youth of Australian Surfing
Presented by Arnette
Let's meet Max Stewart – a young dude (just turned 23) with very good hair and a rising surfboard company, Eye Symmetry. A shaper's life is by no means considered easy-living.The work is hard, rarely glamorous and terribly competitive. So why would someone with the world at their feet and at least three more years of hanging out at home and playing Playstation sign up for it? Answer: Passion. Max Stewart has it in spades. After speaking to the young surfboard maker on a Tuesday lunch I was so inspired I had to go out and make something myself. Anything. I chose soup. It was delicious (sweet potato and pumpkin) but that has nothing to do with this story. This is Max’s story.
Interview by Mike Jennings
CW: Hey Max, how’s your day going? Have you been surfing or anything?
MS: Nah, I’m actually super busy right now finishing a bunch of boards for Ben Penny because we’re going away on Thursday for a couple of days down south. I only shaped them on Monday so it’s a mad rush.
Right. When you go and shape boards for a guy like him, how many do you shape and what do you shape?
Ben Penny is super new and he’s never worked with a shaper before so we’re kind of starting from scratch but I shaped him four shortboards the first time and right now I actually got him a step up board, a 6’3” rounded pin with heavy glassing for when the surf gets big this winter, and a little quad 5’5” fish. And then three shortboards. Mainly just the shorties but I want him riding different stuff as well.
So growing up as a surfer, what led you into this particular world of surfing, the shaping?
Ever since I was a little kid I was always into making stuff and I always fixed my own boards and stuff like that. I actually did pretty well at school and there was a bit of pressure to not do something like this, from family and whatnot.
Pressure to go to uni?
Yeah, to go to uni and in inverted commas “Get a real job”. I feel like that’s the pressure on most kids today. You go to school then you go to uni, but I got a job making stuff with my hands. I got a job at a key repair business. So I was actually fixing shoes and engraving stuff.
Were you in one of those places like in the middle of Warriewood Square?
Umm yeah, actually it is that same company but I was at the (Waringah) Mall. So while I was doing that I was thinking of what I really wanted to do and it was always making surfboards. So then I went on that journey and knocked around every single place on the Northern Beaches, and finally Hayden Shapes gave me my start. Since then it’s been no looking back really.
Tell me about the first time you shaped a surfboard?
The first dysfunctional surfboard I ever shaped was when I was 14. My dad had snapped his mal so I pulled all the glass off and tried to make a fish. I shaped a few boards from my house after that, I started buying blanks and shaping in my backyard and in my garage but I couldn’t make the boards… I couldn’t laminate them, I always stuffed them up so I was like, “I can’t do this, I have to figure out how to make these things.”
How did you learn? Were you using the internet, your dad?
Pretty much self-taught. I remember when I was 17, shaping at my house I had my board and I’d just try and copy it you know, like rocker, rails, outline, yeah just try and copy that board.
What about tools and stuff?
Tools I just bought mainly. My dad had a garage with hand tools and stuff, I was always familiar with them so I wasn’t using exactly the right tools but I had an idea. I think I YouTubed a few shaping videos. That’s when it first really started and then I got the job at Hayden Shapes and I was super busy. Since the day I got that job at Hayden Shapes to the day we’re speaking now, I’ve been so busy making boards.
What’s the journey from Hayden Shapes been like?
It’s been good, it’s been really busy like I haven’t had a normal young adult life. A five day week is a really short week for me. I usually work seven days a week. Oh actually, I had some time off travelling for about three months a couple of years ago. Apart from that I’ve just been making surfboards the whole time.
At this point you could choose to do a million different things with your life. Surfboard shaping seems like a pretty difficult and competitive industry, what brought you to choose that path?
I guess that’s actually part of the attraction. I never really wanted to do something that would be easy. The challenge kind of excites me. I also just feel like it’s just something I really want to do, I always say that but I don’t really know how else to word it, you know? I felt like I could bring something else to the table too.
That’s cool. What do you feel that something else is, or could be?
The core of it is attention to detail and quality. I do some stuff that I’ve never seen done before. Stuff like hand-laid carbon decking layers which take maybe two hours on a board but add zero weight and quite a lot of strength. I’ve never seen that done before, I think that came from my head.
How the hell did you go about setting up something like this? How do you go about setting up your own business and factory?
I pretty much just dug in. I was looking for a factory for like a year and I couldn’t find one that suited. One popped up and then I basically just went for it. Built this whole place pretty much by myself. I had the help of draftsmen when needed and labourers and stuff like that, but I just went for it and built it in three or four months and started making boards. I was saving for a while and I had a fair bit of cash for my age, but still nothing on what I needed, Mum helped me a lot and that was pretty much all her savings. I don’t come from a rich upbringing or anything like that, we’ve basically been living week by week since I started.
So it’s a real balls-out crack at making it?
Wow. Has it been difficult getting your head around the details? I don’t even know what you need to do to start a business but I imagine that there’s official licenses, accounting, I dunno…
It was a bit difficult at the start getting certification of the building for the purposes of surfboard making and some legalities like signing the lease and stuff, that was all new to me, but it wasn’t too bad. Apart from that it’s pretty easy. The back-end of the business is pretty simple, everything is done under one roof so bean counting is pretty easy.
The hardest part is definitely paying the bills and I guess that comes back to people buying the boards, just getting people used to something new. It’s always a challenge getting people accustomed to a new product because I don’t know shit about marketing, I just make boards and take photos of them.
Because you’re a young dude, is it hard to get surfers’ faith in you as a shaper?
I think so for sure, but what’s bean really helpful with older crew is having Tom Carroll on board for sure.
The two time World Champ! What have you shaped for Tom?
I’ve shaped him four boards now. Basically just small wave fun boards from around here, he likes quads – three quads one thruster. His favourite board is a 5’4”, basically a fish, a 5’4” devilled rail, quad, swallow tail low rocker… he took it to WA and was riding it out there and loved it. But we’re gonna make more boards for him. He wants to come in next week and design some new stuff.
Do you have icons and heroes in shaping in the same way that a young photographer will have a favourite photographer and a young surfer will have a hero surfer?
I feel like making surfboards from your own head and something new is probably a lot better. I’ve seen people do some cool shit, I think Ellis Ericson is doing some rad stuff because it is so different. I feel like my boards are between that and a performance surfboard shaper like Matt Biolis or something like that, because they’re fun and fishy but we make performance surfboards too. The success of shapers like Hayden from Hayden Shapes and Matt Biolis would definitely be two but it’s not as though I zone in on them and look at their stuff and go, “Oh I want to do that.”
What’s your ultimate goal with this, is it to be able to make a career out of it?
Yeah basically, make a career out of it, maintain on not just wanting to be another shaper, I want a point of difference so I guess create somethign different that a lot of people foam on and then from there personally I just want to live a normal life and employ people and have people stoked on working for me, so that’s basically it.
And just to wrap this up, what’s the next step?
Umm… hang on… Tom Carroll has just walked in. (Off the phone) Tom, have you got a little bit… just doing a phone interview. (back to the phone) Can I call you back Mike?
No worries man, I’ll let you get back to work. Have a good afternoon.
A short documentary edit on Max Stewart and his rise into surfboard shaping by by Young, Free, Alright! featured filmmaker Tyler Bell.
Young, Free, Alright! is a fortnightly editorial series presented by Coastalwatch and Arnette showcasing and profiling young and up-and-coming photographers, filmmakers, bloggers, artists, musicians, shapers, surfers or whatevers that we've been digging. The rad and creative groms of Australian surfing. Alright!
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