Wave theory with Driftwood Surfboards
Words James Bowthorpe
Photographs Josh Olins
In his quest to make the perfect surfboard, David Forsyth is busy providing ‘a good little bridge between craft and mass manufacture’…
Working a craft is difficult. Before you can start making anything, thousands of hours must be devoted to reaching a level of skill where you are good enough to do it for a living. Then you have to work out how to convert that ability into actual work. The romance of the workshop – wood shavings, leather aprons, the smell of the sharpening wheel – will only get you so far. You need jobs, ones that pay reasonably well so that you can pay the rent on the workshop, buy tools and have enough left to live on.
The next challenge is making your craft sustainable – you need job after job after job, or the right outlet for your work, so that you can keep on doing what you love. This often includes a lot of things that don’t develop your skills (Twitter is a craft, but it’s black magic) and keep you out of the workshop, the place you are trying to get to. Last of all, though perhaps it should be first, is the need to leave something behind, to make a mark not just with the things you’ve made but how you’ve influenced others around you. It’s complicated, this craft lark.
David Forsyth came to his craft with a certain amount of inevitability. He shaped his first boards when he was 19 years old, surfed them and then took to the road for 10 years, travelling and searching like a lot of people do. Returning home, he decided to study furniture at Cambourne College before focusing again, this time on sustainable product design at Falmouth. Throughout his training, he was drawn back to the same thing he’d done as a 19-year-old – building, shaping and riding surfboards, and forming his own company, Driftwood, in Newquay.
I imagine that making custom surfboards is like custom anything – you only have one pair of hands and it’s difficult to keep up. There are long periods of consultation with an understandably involved customer before you even get to make something – and if work is quiet you will often use up all that extra time on your only project to make it as good as possible. Forsyth, in addition to being an excellent craftsman in the traditional sense – both in his use of hand tools and of a broom to sweep up afterwards, is also adept at CAD/CAM (Computer Aided Design/Computer Aided Manufacture). CAD/CAM has massive implications for craft, particularly if it can be used to augment rather than replace traditional skills – if the craftsman owns the machine, there are further implications where experimenting with technology becomes affordable. Forsyth’s ‘chambered’ surfboard design allows him to make a board out of odd bits of good reclaimed timber and do all assembly and finishing by hand. The board is a thing of beauty, where the repetitive work has been done not by an assistant or serf, but by a machine.
Having this machine can also be a burden of course; what do you do during those times when no custom surfboards are being made? That’s an expensive machine sitting there… Seeing opportunity rather than obstacle, Forsyth offers a service to other businesses around him that need components made and signs routered… ‘If it wasn’t for cutting things out for superyachts, Driftwood would really struggle,’ he says.
Forsyth is building a community around him that relies on him and his skill. This allows him room to grow; there also is a sense of looking forward, wanting to develop the craft and explore ideas rather than rest on one’s laurels.
‘It’s a good halfway house,’ he says. ‘What we can provide at Driftwood is the exploration into what’s possible with the machines. Small hubs where people can come and prototype and try small batch manufacture. A good little bridge between craft and mass manufacture.’
This brings to mind the banded workshops of William Morris’ New From Nowhere – shared workshops that serve a population where everyone knows how to make useful and beautiful things. Perhaps leaning a little towards Morris’s utopian ideal, Forsyth also uses his machine to teach others. In many ways CAD/CAM is a great leveller – you don’t need to be old enough or strong enough or certificated to use a saw if you have access to a CNC machine. Forsyth teaches NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training) and school kids how to make models, draw them in CAD software then turn them into the real thing on the CNC machine – they can see the full arc of craft in a few days and get an understanding of what it means to make something. As Forsyth says ‘the only way you learn it is by doing it’.
‘Teaching is a passion at the moment,’ he says, ‘…using the techniques and the skills to teach others, getting others into sustainable design and digital craft. I’m really amped about drawing on a computer and I want to pass that on. That should be the goal, to teach someone your craft so that they can improve on what you did – you pass on the knowledge, they learn what you know, put their own spin on it and make it better.’
Most people who make surfboards share that hallowed ground trod by instrument makers who are also musicians – they use the thing they make and they have a deep connection with it. There is also a relationship between the patience required to find and ride surf and that which is needed to make a surfboard out of dozens of strips of wood. Forsyth sums it up:
‘You never become perfect if you are a craftsman or a surfer – you’re always saying to yourself, “I could’ve done that better”; there’s always room for improvement. Whether it’s me or a student making a board; you have a connection with that item. It has come out of the time sitting in the water, with yourself, thinking about the surroundings.’