Soul shaper: Why does surfboard craftsman Ward Coffey do it all by hand? It’s the only way he knows

Ward Coffey talks shop at his Westside shaping outpost.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

There are no machine politics to be played out in this Westside Santa Cruz shaping bay, one of the last of its kind in this surf-mad town or, in fact, any others like it around the world. As technological progress — or disruption — has defined the modern surfboard-shaping experience, Ward Coffey’s business has managed to keep it delightfully old-school and down to earth.

If there were a Mount Rushmore for Santa Cruz surfboard shapers — Mt. Stokemore, anyone? — Ward Coffey’s smiling face would be up there in perfectly chiseled polyurethane foam.

“He does great boards — unbelievable,” says 81-year-old Doug Haut, his fellow surfboard-shaping legend on the Westside and an early mentor to Coffey, 61.

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He is one of a small handful of longtime functional artisans who have gained worldwide fame — if not fortune — for their ability to match this area’s world-class waves with comparable surf craft. He builds the kind of boards that not just navigate walls of ocean energy, but can make surfing them an art form unto itself.

It explains much about why Coffey does what he does and how he does it.

Why he keeps artistic expression and personal relationships front and center with his business, which has been tucked away on the railroad-tracks side of the Swift Street Courtyard since 1996.

Why he has passed on the higher volumes and loss of surfer-shaper interactions that science and technology have normalized in the surfboard industry.

Coffey is one of the very last true hand shapers in the business, meaning he takes a raw chunk of foam and forms every bit of it only with his own two hands, aided by an array of small tools.

It takes more time, more creativity, more thinking — more sounds of acid jazz bouncing around Coffey’s immaculate shaping room and foam flying off his beloved Skil 100 planer.

The modern version of that process, which has predominated now for the past 25 years, involves what is known as a CNC machine, which cuts the blank into a shaped board via a 3D computer file. The board is “finished shaped” by hand, using various grits of sandpaper, but essentially comes off the machine 95% done with all the rocker, concaves, rail lines and other signature curves that make that model unique already in place.

Mowing foam at the Ward Coffey shaping bay.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Most of what passes as “hand-shaping” these days is actually just a final scrub by the artist — or even a trusted proxy — before a board moves on to the lamination process.

Ironically, few other surfboard shapers were better positioned to rule the world if they wanted to than Ward Coffey was in his early 20s four decades ago.

Coffey’s father, Bob, was an early Silicon Valley innovator who had connected with the inventors of AutoCAD, the computer-aided design and drafting software that has brought 3D design into every facet of our modern economy — and helped surfing become a $4 billion global industry.

That’s got no soul, Dad.

“I showed my dad my first board and he was like, ‘Great, but what happens if it breaks? You should check out this new technology,’” Coffey said. “I said, ‘That’s got no soul, Dad.’”

Like so many Santa Cruz surfers and surfboard shapers who grew up in simpler times, Coffey was never in it to make a buck.

He’s got a lower Westside house from which he can smell the salt air 24/7, and a lovely wife who surfs named Susan. He’s got two high-level surfing sons who have dabbled in the pro world, Ben (24) and Sam (21) — both of whom he might convince someday to take over the family business.

And he can venture down the street on bike or up the coast by car to feed his own insatiable surf stoke, on any craft he wants, at any time he chooses.

“It’s a pretty good life,” he admits with a smile.

Santa Cruz surfboard shaper Ward Coffey discusses how and why he does what he does, by hand.

We wanted to know more about what makes Ward Coffey tick — and smile. So of course we had to finally scratch off a bucket-list item of our own and have him shape us a surfboard.

Every Santa Cruz surfer needs a “Ward board” at some point in their journey.

Coffey is the epitome of a surf-industry purist, having been able to keep his small surfboard business profitable enough by selling an experience, looking at the 300 surfboards he makes a year as 300 opportunities to connect with like-minded, stoked-out humans.

Between handcrafting the beautiful 5'6 twin-fin fish (for you kooks out there, that’s a 5-foot-6 board with two fins that, with its V-shaped swallow tail, shares characteristics with a fish) you see in the video above and the Instagram posts below, Coffey talked some surfboard-making shop and story gleaned over his four-decade journey. The chat was edited for clarity and brevity.

Ward Coffey in his element, shaping another surfboard from scratch.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: When did you know you were hooked on the ocean?

Ward Coffey: 1973 or ’74 … that’s when I knew it was the place I wanted to be. Everything just kind of started making sense in all facets of my life. I grew up in Alameda mucking around in boats, skateboarding and sailing. I started surfing Ocean Beach in San Francisco in 1973. I pivoted towards the ocean then. I moved to Santa Cruz in 1978 and found my people. Surfers, craftsmen, boat builders, artists and a more holistic way of life.

Lookout: In 2011, the Sacred Craft surfboard show came to Santa Cruz and honored Doug Haut by having a select cast of shapers recreate his classic Bump model longboard. Lo and behold, you were the winner.

Coffey: It was amazing. All of a sudden I had Rusty Preisendorfer, who they were honoring the next year, asking me to come down and shape in that event. And Gerry Lopez calling me to see if I’ll come to another shaping event. I started developing this rapport with all these other shapers and it gave me confidence in what I was doing.

To have the icons of the industry want you to be part of that club, to say, “Hey, you’ve got this shaping thing down,” that’s quite an affirmation. When I walk in here (to my shaping room), to shape a board, it’s like, OK, I know my way around this a bit, I’m pretty good at this. And I’m stoked to do it.

Ward Coffey uses his Skil 100 planer to shape a 5'6 twin-fin fish.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: You learned under Bob Pearson and Haut mainly, right?

Coffey: Bob was the guy who basically said, “If you want to learn how to shape, dude, this is how you’re gonna do it.” You had to learn how to skim your blanks before you could learn to start cutting rocker. You had to put 100 rockers into boards before you could start drawing templates. During that time in the ‘80s, Arrow got big and we pretty much rocked the surfing world.

That was super inspirational. After that Doug invited me to come down to his shop and I had a shaping room out of there for six years. Doug is the master of all things: surfboards, wind surfboards and all surf craft. The way his hands touch a rail, the way he looks at foils and how you can put together contemporary designs. On top of that, the guy is super humble and inclusive.

Lookout: Sounds like your dad was as stoked on technology as you are on surfing.

Coffey: Yes, my dad was not a surfer. He was in the electronics industry and worked for all kinds of tech companies. I think the last company he worked for was Intel, working on the second generation of the Pentium chip. When I shaped my first board in ‘78 or ‘79, I showed him the board and told him how magic it was.

He was like, “That’s great to have a magic board, son, but what do you do when it breaks? How do you reproduce it?” He’s like, “Let me show you something. We can actually make a machine that could possibly shape this magic board.” And I was like, “Nah, there’s no soul in that, man.” He’s like, “Well then it’s going to be hard to recreate boards,” and I’m like, “Nobody wants that.” (Laughs.)

Ward Coffey likes to keep his perfectly lit shaping room perfectly tidy.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: Any regrets?

Coffey: Part of me goes, “You’re an idiot for not being an early adopter. You could have been at the cutting edge of that.” But the other part of me knows that I learned a skill and a trade that nobody knows how to do today.

Lookout: So by learning how to be a production shaper for Pearson, you learned how to consistently produce the same qualities in a board with your own eyes and hands.

Coffey: Yeah, and nobody knows how to production-shape a volume of boards or how to go through it in a methodical way. And I’ll never trade that experience for something you could do with a computer program.

Lookout: You’ve said if your boys ever took over the business, the machine would probably enter the equation.

Coffey: That’s kind of gonna be their native language, dealing with technology. And if you’re trying to do volume, and you’re trying to do consistent reproductions of particular shapes or models in volume, you can’t beat the machine. I’m looking at doing quality and kind of small, small amounts, and the machine’s not economically viable at that point. And the thing is, I still love shaping boards, love using my planer, love the whole process.

Ward Coffey at work.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: You can’t walk into a surf shop anywhere in town and buy a brand-new Ward Coffey off the rack. That makes this right here pretty special.

Coffey: It’s been way more rewarding that way, customers coming direct to me. And, yeah, I’ve never really had a strong model presence. I’ve just been pretty amoebic about how I change and evolve through stuff. I haven’t jumped on any big marketing pushes. Right now it’s all custom boards. Like this one of yours right here. This isn’t my stock twin-fin fish. It’s a variation of my design that I customized for you.

Lookout: What’s the best feedback you get from people?

Coffey: Those emails that say, “Oh my God, best board ever. It did everything that I wanted it to do.” Or they call and say that they just went surfing and did something on a wave they’ve never done before, that it blew their mind. There are not a lot of jobs that tell you that. That kind of super cool feedback is rare in other jobs.

Lookout: Doug has 20 years on you and he’s still shaping. Can you go that long?

Coffey: I don’t see why I can’t keep on for at least another 10 or 20 years. I don’t ever want to say at X age, I’m retiring, because then you’re committed. I really like what I do. I really want to keep doing it as long as I can. I’m still having fun, man.

Lookout: Well, you’ve got yourself a surfing family, so they understand. And it’s not like you’re taking away family bonding time by doing what you do.

Coffey: We watch surf movies for fun at my house. An example from the other day: I get a text from Susan that the Hook is looking fun, and she’s going out just as I get a video from Sam, who is down in Mexico, of him in this massive Salina Cruz barrel and then Ben, who’s lifeguarding out on the wharf, calls to tell me he’s seeing some good sets roll through over at the Lane. So, yeah, it kinda works.

Ward Coffey.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

There are more kids and women in the water now, which makes everything chilled out. The day-to-day vibe in the water is way more relaxed than it used to be.

Lookout: Since you’ve seen it from way, way back, what do you like best about the new Santa Cruz?

Coffey: This out here [points toward the trail built next to the rail behind Swift Street Courtyard] is pretty cool. For the last two and a half years, I’ve seen a lot of bright, shiny, happy faces out there using it. I hop on my bike in the morning and get here super easy. That’s part of the new Santa Cruz that I really like.

There’s also an increasing diversity of people from all walks of life in and out of the water. That can present its own problems, but there are people that I meet and talk to that just bring new conversations and new experiences. And that’s really cool.

Obviously the density can be challenging, lineups get a little clogged and it’s a little chaotic and some people want to go back to the old days when guys ran the lineup [by force], which was not super great. But there are more kids and women in the water now, which makes everything chilled out. The day-to-day vibe in the water is way more relaxed than it used to be.

Lookout: Any chance we can implement a shift system to cut down on crowds, though?

Coffey: Nah, we have to police ourselves. But it’s kind of good that way because it forces us to choose whether to be an agent of good instead of bad if that’s what you want the society to live in.

Lookout: Is the old-school localism that used to regulate Santa Cruz lineups dead?

Coffey: There will always be people that live and breathe that and wear it on their sleeve. But, in my opinion, people are more willing to watch, observe and then comment on the actions of somebody versus commenting before that person even enters the lineup or gets into a specific situation.

Lookout: We let them mess up first before getting angry.

Coffey: Yeah, and I’m OK with that. The other thing for me as far as the new Santa Cruz: I have always thought about looking at stuff through different eyes, a different perspective in the sense that I’m looking for all the little nooks and crannies, within a crowded surf break or somewhere else with a little wave and no one out, where I can plug into and play my game.

I’ll grab my boogie board and fins and find an inside wave off the rock at the Lane that’s invisible to everyone else and I’m getting barrels to myself.

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