Hear that? Its the howl of an electric planer - the soundtrack to a working life.
The din dies. Squinting like a sniper, the shaper stoops to align an eye with the boards rail, scanning for imperfections, caresses it with sandpaper, then steps back to take in its profile.
Resting on the shaping stand, in the soft glow of the wall-mounted fluorescent tubes, the virgin form is an article of simple beauty: white as a cloud, graceful as a gulls wing.
For 50 years the business of board-making has afforded a tight group of Newcastle artisans a living. Theyve tucked themselves away in dusty sheds, juggling work demands with the call of the surf, emerging from the waves to craft articles of pure escape. The surfer-shapers.
With no marketing budgets to blow their trumpets, few outside of the surfing culture knew of their existence. Back in the day, though, say 30 years ago, 90 percent of boards sold in Newcastle were made here, almost all by surfer-shapers. Today, its flipped. Now, just one in ten is a local product.
Four-time world champion and master shaper Mark Richards reckons the day of the surfer-shaper is all but gone. Mass-produced boards from high-volume offshore factories fill the shops and web sites. The World Surf League (WSL) stars are contracted to big producers and kids worldwide can grab replica models straight off the rack whether theyre suited to them or not.
Sam Egan is a grand master of the game. He suspects instant gratification has displaced the slow burn of anticipation that came with ordering a custom-made board.
People dont go to a shaper anymore. They go to a shop and pull one off the rack. Theyve got to have it right now, he says.
Some of the big companies will have a guy who says he is the shaper, but hes never shaped a board in his life.
Sam Egan has lived a life without rancour and he is not about to start now. It is what it is.
Newcastle was surf city. Surfers around here knew they could get as good a product as anywhere in the world. Thats when we made money, those first 20 years. We couldnt make enough boards.Sam Egan
He was always good with his hands. Made his first board a wooden toothpick back in the 1950s. Learned the art of working in wood as a teenager alongside master craftsmen in the joinery shop at Andrew Cooks timber yard in Union Street, Cooks Hill.
By the 1960s, he was ordering foam blanks in bulk from Barry Bennett in Brookvale, the industrial suburb flanking Sydneys northern beaches and home to the pioneering circle known as the Brookvale Six.
They were the originals, says Sam. I was in the second tier. My account number with Barry Bennett is still zero-seven.
The surfin 60s saw Brookvale boards swamp the Australian market. But, in time, savvy Newcastle surfers noticed the emerging local products and the blokes who rode them.
Newcastle was surf city, recalls Sam. Surfers around here knew they could get as good a product as anywhere in the world. Thats when we made money, those first 20 years. We couldnt make enough boards.
Famous shapers launched careers. On the day his son Luke was born, Sam Egan made a tiny four-three inscribed with the prophetic words World Champion 2000. In 1988 Sam shaped what he rates as his best-ever board. Luke won the Australian Pro Junior title on it and stepped into a lucrative career. Sams world champ tip wasnt too wide of the mark. In 2000 Luke finished second in the world tour rankings.
At one stage, 14 of the worlds top 44 surfers had at least one Sam Egan board in their quiver. Triple world champ Andy Irons was an Egan disciple.
Andy rang me up once and said: Ive just surfed Honolua. It was huge! Everybody was on at least seven-six and I was on that six-four you made me and it went unbelievable!
Andy Irons was among at least six world champions who, at one time or another, rode Egans.
Sam estimates hes shaped as many as 30,000 boards but since the advent of shaping machines in the early 1990s, hes hand-finished way more, although he doesnt count that as real shaping.
Today, he shapes more out of habit. Hes not alone. After more than 40 years making boards, Sams great contemporary Peter Sheely is no longer supplying shops and distributers but concentrating on custom orders only.
In a protracted process of leaving his Islington workshop for good, Sam Egan looks back with pride rather than regret.
Ive got pros on tour now who still want boards. I spent 12 to 14 hours a day in an eight by sixteen room, by myself, headphones on. It sounds crazy, but Ive enjoyed it.
Only your local shaper knows your local waves, declares the sign on the front window just a few doors from the Egan workshop.
Inside the Surf Factory premises Mick and Jye Byrnes are turning out boards. Whereas most makers contract out the finish work including fin-setting and glassing, the Byrnes boys are still making boards from go to whoa.
Mick has been at it for four decades. The production demands of the boom times allowed no time for tutorials. Son Jye had to learn on the job.
Id have a go, says Jye, and hed say Here, give it to me! He didnt have time to supervise me. He had so many orders to fill and he had to make money.
It was a case of mow foam while the sun shone and, in those boom times, shapers like Mick Byrnes would sometimes work around the clock. Today, Jye, who produces boards under his own name, still works his share of killer shifts, especially in the pre-Christmas rush.
I had 35 boards to make in three weeks. Id be getting out of here at 11 oclock at night absolutely wrecked.
Newcastle no longer has the lions share of its local market, but the Byrnes boys retain a loyal client base. They may well be the last of the father-son combination. There are no green shoots. Every shaping bay had the same story: no millennials are queuing up for a crack at the craft.
Mick Byrnes remains undeterred: I dont know whether its dying or not but were still inviting customers to come in and have a chat about what might work for them. The important thing is, we surf.
Mark Richards was 13 when gifted his first electric planer. He figured shaping would keep him close to surfing. Hes still at it, often drawing on the past to shape the future. Last month he completed a project to reproduce the three-board quiver of his 1979 Hawaiian campaign. Right now, brand new MR retro twin-fins are prized items worldwide.
Sam Egan had told us MR is a fine shaper, a high-end craftsman influenced by Geoff McCoy, the surfer-shaper who had been persuaded by Marks dad Ray to launch his own brand.
When he was young, Mark went to Hawaii and learned from the best: Ben Aipa, Jim Richardson, Tom Parrish, Reno Abellira, Spider Murphy and Gerry Lopez. But the real light-bulb moment came in 1976-77 when Dick Brewer invited the 19-year-old into his Chuns Reef shaping room and laid bare the mysteries of the planer. Up until then, MR says, he knew what hed wanted to shape, but his hand could never follow what was in his head. Brewer changed all that.
Back home in Newcastle another great surfer-shaper of the same generation was taking a different course.
Peter McCabe and younger brother Jimmy started making backyard boards at the family home on Nobbys Road.
I was still at school but would go over to Sams workshop, Peter recalls. I started fixing dings and Sam encouraged me to start shaping.
You knew what you wanted from a board but the challenge was how to get that from a big block of foam without stuffing it up. Sam showed how it was done.
Working in the Egan shaping bays then were gun surfer-shapers like Peter Cornish and Neale Purchase. McCabe watched and learned. Sam knew he had a real prospect.
Peter was my protégé. I was hoping he would stay and push on with me.
But the real game was riding waves and McCabe had embarked on the life of a frontiersman in the wilds of Indonesia. The Dick Hoole-Jack McCoy 1975 classic Tubular Swells captured him charging intimidating Indo reef breaks. Amongst Indo-philes, McCabe is a revered pioneer. From around the globe they seek his advice on the ideal quiver for an Indo trip. Today, the legend and fellow Indo-pioneer Gerry Lopez still refers to McCabe as The Man.
Peters all-time favourite board came from that early Indo foray.
Sam made that one in Tubular Swells. It was the first of the famous Red Flames a seven-foot pin. Terry Richardson loved it, so I swapped it for one of his. The next year, I shaped one that was near identical.
When not in Indo, McCabe was back home making boards.
From the 70s to the 90s, I made literally thousands including huge orders for the Japanese market Today, its f---all.
Or, to put it another way, the focus is now on quality over quantity. In searching for Peter McCabe, Weekender has dropped by a Redhead industrial estate where he is sharing space at 3P Surfboards.
Paul Parkes, founder of 3P, toured as a pro surfer before returning home to Newcastle to establish his business. Visibility in the water, he says, sells boards. So does winning masters titles and representing Australia in world championships.
The more I work, the less orders I get. Youve got to be in the water. Thats where you do your networking, he says.
I cant speak for everyone one, but as a shaper, youre trying to make every board the best you possibly can.
Peter McCabe agrees: Every time you make a board, you think how can I make one better? No two surfers surf the same. And thats the great thing about custom boards.
And then, The Man, offers a shot of optimism.
People are working out what they want. That trend is creeping back in.
Whatever the future holds for Newcastles board industry, Steele Lewis plans to be a part of it. He believes that future is deeply rooted in the citys surfing heritage.
You only have to take a look at the legends that have come out of this place, he says, and leads Weekender into a trophy room at his SLD Carrington factory.
Theres the bell and theres the board!
On the shelf just above our eyeline, replete with the famous bell, sits the 1997 Bells Beach Easter Classic trophy. Its inscribed with the winners name: Matt Hoy. And, on an adjacent wall hangs the winning board, the blue channel-bottom beast Brian Hoy shaped.
At 14, Steele Lewis was sweeping floors and cleaning toilets at Roy Lees Pacific Dreams factory, before working his way through every stage of the process while watching shapers like Brian Hoy and Peter McCabe push design frontiers. He caught the work ethic early: today, his average working shift begins at 3.30am.
While at PDs, Steele witnessed Matt Hoy return home from his world travels with a bunch of boards that had caught his eye. They would all add to the bank of what worked and what didnt.
Matt Hoy will never be accused of taking anything too damn seriously which might explain a recent Instagram post, 20 years on from when he was ranked #5 in the world. The photo, shot in an SLD shaping bay, depicts Hoyo standing next to a semi-shaped blank and is captioned: Its Friday and youll get what youre given. Friday is the one day of the week Hoyo devotes to shaping.
Jokes aside, what an emerging brand like SLD gets from having a partner like Matt Hoy aboard is a lifetime of high-performance cred and knowing what works.
Matt is indeed the son of a gun, his dad being ace surfer-shaper Brian Hoy.
Dad shaped his second board when he was 16. He shaped for years and when he stopped, I started.
Matt still rates his best board ever as the first one Brian made for him in their shed at Ridge St, Merewether. But when Matt first jumped on the tools, he found it harder than it looked.
Dad walked in and said, I cant watch this, and walked straight out.
Of all the shapers who once plied their craft at the mega-productive Pacific Dreams factory, Steele Lewis is a notable survivor. Hes embraced the power of computer machining and software that not only allow every shape to be stored as a computer file, but give the shaper the option to tweak any single component of that shape. With that techno muscle, hes looking to recover a share of Newcastles lost market.
Sam Egan is in his corner. Steele is a good hand-shaper but hes also got a machine. Thats important because it means he can get through twice as much work. He has to, these days, to compete.
SLD is ambitious about its place in the future of custom-made boards and, with Hoyos networking, is identifying opportunities inter-state. The ultimate dream is to fly the company name among the WSLs top 44.
Despite that aim, theres still an underpinning modesty, so typical of Newcastle, to all this. That humility, says Steele, owes much to the example set by Sam Egan, regarded in surfing circles as a genius.
Steele Lewis: A few years back an international surfing magazine listed the most influential shapers of all time. Sam was in the top 10. Anybody who has made boards in this town owes something to Sam.
In 1977, Stockton goofy-footer Greg Antcliff shaped three boards and jumped on a Denpasar-bound flight. His quiver of single fins was such a good fit for Uluwatus lefts that he returned with the single ambition of being a surfer-shaper, quit his job as an electrical tradesman and registered the name Peninsula Surfboards.
A few years back an international surfing magazine listed the most influential shapers of all time. Sam was in the top 10. Anybody who has made boards in this town owes something to Sam.Steele Lewis paying homage to Sam Egan
I had the surfing bug real bad and I could see that this was a way I could be my own boss in a cottage industry and down tools whenever the surf was good, he reflects.
It was a fantastic work-life balance, I was having contest success at a pro-am level and I met people more than happy to order boards.
Peninsula boards featured on every peak from the corner at Stockton to Birubi and beyond. But, by the mid-1990s, Greg could see the shape of things to come.
The writing was on the wall. Mass produced boards from China and Thailand were arriving here and the era when we had been supported by our local area was on its way out.
In 1999 he re-trained as a high school teacher, started a new career but still made board for select clients.
Last year he was invited to contribute a board for a new contest. The King of the Rocks at Merewether was created to commemorate the contributions of local surfers, like Garry Callinan, who had died in recent times. The format was unique: contestants would surf a selection of custom-made retro twin fins shaped by the likes of Sam Egan, Mark Richards, Matt Hoy, Jye Byrnes, Peter McCabe, Paul Parkes and Greg Antcliff.
Luke Egan won on a Roger Clements replica twin board hand-shaped by Sam. Luke donated the board to Roger. The magic continued in this years event when Ryan Callinan rode the 2018 Egan-Clements twin to victory.
At one point in the festivities, the board-makers arrayed themselves on the beach in front of their creations and Dave Anderson snapped a photo. In many ways it told the story of an industry that may have more yesterdays than tomorrows.
Studying that image of artisans from two generations shoulder-to-shoulder on the sand, you sense something fleeting, but magical like the final shafts of sunset at the end of a perfect day.
- This story was first published in the pages of the Newcastle Herald Weekender on February 24, 2018.