At Homecamp we see great beauty and importance in creating something from seed to finish. We pride ourselves in supplying honestly crafted, useful goods for the outdoor lifestyle, what we call product’s with purpose. We always love the chance to speak to other like-minded individuals who are creating quality gear to enhance your outdoor adventures for years to come. Surfboard shaper Tom Wegener is one of these artisans, hand-crafting surfboards from Paulownia wood. We speak to Tom about all things sustainability, a changing industry and living in paradise.
We are currently seeing a shift (back) from mass-produced, cheap and poorly made design to hand-crafted and artisan. There is certainly a romanticism in your boards in that you have been a part of each step of the process, creating from seed to finish. What lead you to want to create in this way? Besides a lesser environmental footprint, what else does shaping in this way give to you? And give to the customer?
Two major things had an impact. Firstly, I’ve always loved wood and was lucky enough to surf old balsa single fins in California when I was very young. Growing up I also had a small wooden sailing boat that I spent a lot of time on. I saw Paulownia, or Kiri, in use in Australia back in 1999 and was enamoured with its qualities. There was a cheap glut of the wood available at this time, and it was light and strong and perfect for use in salt water. Secondly, and not so romantically at all, I became sick in 2005 with a rare strain of pneumonia and nearly died. Afterward, I developed an allergy to resin. I swore off using it or having it on my property, anywhere near my family. This opened my mind to the ‘green’ surfboard factory ideal that I have pursued since. Shaping with wood and now cork as well, allows me to invite my customer into the factory and we can make a board together from start to finish. The customer can get a real hands-on experience and largely make their own surfboard. We still use masks and take precautions but because there are no toxic ingredients involved any health risks are minimised.
Throughout your shaping career you have shifted towards a sustainable way of making surfboards; using Paulownia wood for the designs that you create without toxic materials and excess waste. Did you find it difficult to stand fast in your environmental responsibility in an industry that is typically the opposite? Have you found you’ve needed to educate your customers?
It has been a journey and not one that I saw at the beginning. It still is a journey. We are always trying to eliminate waste in our home factory but it is a challenge. The wood allowed me to innovate on my property in a way that I don’t think any other material could have done. So, it was a combination of the commitment to a greener factory and a material that was doing what I wanted it to do, namely surf as good as the old Balsa wood. It was a real bonus to discover that the Kiri shavings could be used as compost on my rainforest trees and in the gardens! I didn’t consciously stand fast to a particular environmental responsibility as such. Though I did really enjoy sharing my knowledge and experience in the hope that other shapers would catch on. With regard to customers, we have always been very lucky in attracting like-minded people to our boards. There are plenty of surfers out there who just love wood and want a connection with it. Conversely, we find our customers in general to be well researched and sure about what they want. Consumers these days are more aware of what they put their good money in to that’s for sure.
In 2013 you took a break from shaping surfboards to write your PhD on the sustainability of the surfboard industry, which was then published as the book ‘Surfboard Artisans.’ Why did you decide to take this time off to explore the surfboard industry, and how has your shaping changed since?
Well it was a bit forced in a way. At this time the GFC was in full swing in Australia. The local surfboard industry was hit with the GFC, a high Aussie dollar and a flood of cheaper, imported surfboards. To me at that time, there was no money for me in the surf industry in Australia and my overseas surfboard orders dried up. There is not a lot of money in surfboards at the best of times but I was genuinely worried about the survival of the surfboard factories, big and small. I had always wanted to continue my education, actually I thought it would be in philosophy, but it turned out to be a study looking at the surfboard artisan and our contribution to culture and society. What is interesting is that the surfboard industry survived the GFC and continues to survive while many other manufacturing industries go under, especially in Australia. The contribution of the surfboard artisan is largely undervalued by mainstream society, yet “surfing” as a brand is used to sell everything and anything – and I really wanted to understand that more. I was also criticized for being a “sell-out” when I signed a licensing deal to have a range of finless boards made offshore with Global Surf Industries. So, this was a motivation as well and I come to a peaceful conclusion about this in my book. I’m probably more inspired, braver and tougher than I was before the book. Innovating is what I love to do, it’s just what I have to do. If I am criticized now it doesn’t really affect me and I want to be able to live without judgment as well. I want to appreciate what everyone else is doing with judgement or fear.
You’ve recently launched your Wegener Surf Stay experience, where guests can come and stay at your home and learn to shape their own board. What inspired this new experience? And why is this kind of intimate, hands-on interaction important to you?
We’ve been inspired by many, many visitors over the years. We have been hosting surfers from all over the world at our house for the past 16 years. It’s something that happened naturally and we always enjoyed the company and the influence on the children when they were younger. It’s just something that we were good at and really enjoyed. It’s the concept of surf culture, or the Hawaiian “ohana”. We are all family. There is a lot to be gained by shared experiences. These are the things that we value, but you can’t really put a price on that.
It became of more importance when Margie really wanted to quit her job. She now does the two things she loves; she works on a fashion label with a friend and she runs Wegener Surf Stay, which has been her dream for years. She loves looking after people, making them feel at home and sharing life experiences. For me, I love sharing my enthusiasm for surfboard construction, design and surf culture. It’s good to have people around.
You currently reside in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, the Noosa region on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland. Besides surfing, what are some of the other ways you like to switch off and recharge in nature? Do you find it difficult to separate your work from this crucial downtime, from time with family and friends?
My favourite moments are spent painting water colours with my daughter, Sunday. With water colours and impressionism you have to be completely immersed in the light and the moment to do a good painting. We like painting the sunsets at Noosa. My daughter is also surfing with me a bit more now. Our son Fin has moved out and we miss him, so it’s good that Sunday will come surfing with Marg and I still. The thing about doing what you love and pursuing what you are ultimately passionate about though, is that our work is not really that separate from our day to day life. I like my trees and I’m trying to grow my fruit trees & produce a bit of food from the garden. My wife loves the garden and we are super busy working on the shed and making improvements for the surf stay. We have a lot of work to do, but we know that it will constantly evolve over time and we have a vision. We’ve had some tough times, like most people, but we’re just loving this life right now and we live in paradise.