Australia's Best Shapers Series: Joel Fitzgerald
Interview by the great Hugh Wyllie
Son of Terry, brother of Kye, keeper of sacred outlines… could it be that Joel Fitzgerald's road from free surfing nomad to free thinking boardbuilder was inevitable? Consider TF was experimenting with twin fins back in 71 when Brookvale was a hub of creative possibility and everything was on the table in the quest to find more speed, better flow, and the sweet feel of something entirely new. This is long before the rise of MR and the Free Ride generation. Now over 40 years later JF is bringing new life to twin thinking and it’s catching the attention of guys like Ozzie Wright and Dave Rastovich, modern aficionados who are vibing a fresh feel on an old classic...
CW: Tell us Joel, why did you decide to get into shaping?
JF: I started shaping six years ago, because I wanted to get out of the building industry. I’ve been a carpenter for 15 years. I got into boards and picked up a few templates from my Dad and just chipped away at it. You could say I taught myself. Now I’m working part time in building, part time as a shaper.
What kind of influence has Terry had on your shaping?
I shaped with him when I was younger, at about 18 years old, but I didn’t take it up full time because back then there were so many good shapers in the industry. I rode boards off everybody. Now I take inspiration from my experience on the tour and riding other people’s boards. I had some reference from my Dad's templates, then from other shapers like Brewer and Dalhberg. I started drawing archival templates, figured out my rockers, and taught myself the basics.
We've seen Ozzie having a ball on some of your twinnies of late. What is it you love about the deuce fin setup?
It’s been good to us after being on thrusters for so long, through the 90’s. The twinny is definitely something Ozzie prefers. He likes them more than me [laughs]. We played around with some old school templates and went with an 80's thickness, heaps of volume, shorter length, and now we’re playing around with those dimensions.
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Is there anyone who directly inspires your approach to these shapes?
MR had a good influence on me. His shapes in the late 70's were amazing. Rasta surfs a lot up here too and he’s been performing pretty well on twinnies. I think the twin fin design compliments high level surfing. There’s aspects of it which are really exciting, there’s lots of things you can do with them, and I'm really enjoying that kind of freedom in my shaping.
There seems to be a common misconception about twinnies – that they lack drive, or slide out even... Why do you think this design is so misunderstood by average surfer?
Well I can say, the last one I took to Hawaii really held in, it had a lot of drive. The whole spin out, that they feel looser than thrusters or they’re not as secure in the wave is out the window. I don’t know why the thruster became so fashionable. I mean it doesn’t even really work for the professional WSL guys. They could be a lot looser in their surfing with twinnies. A lot of guys are still stuck on thrusters. I think twinnies are going to be a lot more common in the future. They’re coming back.
Where else do you draw inspiration?
The bonzer guys, Duncan Campbell, they do twinnies as well, I'm pretty stoked on them.
Can you pinpoint what is it you truly love about shaping?
I reckon the shaping thing is pretty much about just making one board and going surfing on it. It’s a process. Working with other guys is pretty helpful too because if you’re working with guys who are creative. They might be more inclined to say, "Ok make this a twinny or make this a bonzer." Then you can get more feedback. I took Ozzies board away with me and thought, 'Oh, I wouldn’t have done this on a traditional 6’6’’ twinny.' I would have done a single fin. Most shapers are working with one or two guys and I think that really helps them push their designs further.
Will you ever move into shaping fulltime?
I think the market is oversaturated. You get on with a lot of corporate companies. To me shaping is just something I enjoy, because it allows me to go surfing. I think if you want to be a fulltime shaper you’re probably best doing four boards a week from start to finish. Glass and sand them too and that’s a pretty full week. That’s the maximum in what you really want to produce. The time involved. You need a good facility to do it, well ventilated. I’m still working in building, because it’s not possible to run a surfboard business on a minimal number program. To do a full business strategy, to go in and try to compete with the other companies is not my thing.
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So would you say the fruits of your own labour are rewarding enough?
Yes, I’m really enjoying the surfing. Make a few boards, do some building, save up and go surf. Do a few boards on the road. I don’t have ambitions like other people have these days, to be the best shaper or make the most boards or be a full production company, or make boards in china. To basically figure out a way to can make money out of it. All I want to do is just make a few good boards and have a surf. Just treat it like that ay, pretty simple. People go into debt and I think it might turn people pretty insane.
What's your take on machine Shaping?
I think the machines have really helped companies that want to mass produce boards, and get 'em out there. They’ve got the cash flow, and they're looking at the dollars. But then if you want to work on templates and designs and have more of an experience shaping a board, then hand shaping is the best way to go about it. The machine shaping does take away the experience of shaping. There is really none in it, because the machine does it all. I really believe you shape better boards with your hands, due to the fact that you can put different edges into them. That's what makes them look and feel more authentic. Machine boards all look the same. I think the machine guys are really busy and sometimes they can’t cut your board for three weeks, it takes them 15 minutes but three weeks later the boards not cut. You could shape 20 boards in that time. With handshaping you are in control of every aspect of what you’re doing.
How do you think customers are responding to the resurgence of handshaped surfboards?
I think customers are savvy now, and they do appreciate what’s gone into making a handshaped board. I think it’s great that people are aware now of the difference. They’re more inclined to go that way and get the experience of a handshaped board, or anything as close as they can get to that feeling. You can plane it, really cut your rails, really harden up all the edges.
Any tricks you can share with us on refining your skills?
I’ve gotten to the point where I can reshape a preshape. Which is good for the design process. You can say, "Well, the preshape is ok but if I just do this and this, it will be heaps better.” A lot of guys look at the preshape and think, ok that board is finished, because it’s come off the machine and therefore everything must be right. But they're giving all the design power over to a computer, when really it’s just made a profile. If you reshape from there, you can make a way better board. My shaping now is a lot of going over and reshaping a pre-shape. Just redesigning it completely. It helps you understand what you can do, rather than the limitations of finish shaping boards. It’s your own take and your creativity keeps flowing from there, rather than hitting it with a soft pad off the machine. There's a bit of wizardry in it. You can't give up once your board gets spat off the machine. That's a big false sense of security. Some boards go pretty well straight off the machine, but other boards need a lot more work.
What lies ahead for the future of surfboard shaping, in your opinion?
The surf industry is like no other industry. With a few years in, I'm still learning and I'm happy to keep it really simple. Until we find the right people to work with. Just keep having fun. Surfing is supposed to be fun, as long as you're having fun and surfing then everything’s good.
What's the best piece of shaping advice you could pass on for our readers?
Do it yourself.
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