Aotearoa’s only full-time female surfboard shaper Lou Aitken on what led her to her craft.
Shaping surfboards from scratch is a messy business, hardly the romantic image some might have in mind. It’s hours spent hand-carving surfable shapes from slabs of polyurethane foam, squatting and stooping in awkward positions, foam and resin frequent features on the shaper’s skin.
Lou Aitken encourages people to be nosy when she’s shaping. “I want them to see how it works and what I’m doing. Going to see any shaper and their process really just gives people an appreciation for the work that’s in a board.” Lou, 24, is based in the Coromandel Peninsula’s Whangamata, where she works alongside local surfboard shaper Pete Anderson and shapes boards under her own brand, Louweazal.
It was a natural progression to shaping for Lou, who grew up on the coast north of Auckland and spent a good portion of her childhood in the waters of Tutukaka Coast’s Sandy Bay. It’s there she remembers first trying to surf standing on a boogie board. “I didn’t get into proper surfing until I was about 12, when I got a piece of blimmin’ polystyrene foam and I went from there.”
She left high school to take on a cabinet-making apprenticeship with Danske Mobler; in a team of 50 cabinet makers, she was one of three women working with wood. Taking a break from building, she headed to Australia to work alongside her uncle shaping surfboards on the Gold Coast. “I’d always been pretty hands-on, so I was keen to get over there and learn what I could. There were definitely exchangeable skills– using hand tools for shaping foam is comparative to timber, then sand paper towards the finishing process.” She was an apprentice again, her days spent in the factory learning from scratch, but Lou says it was a great learning curve that eventually allowed her to start producing some of her own surfboards.
In recent years, the surfboard industry has shifted more towards prefabricated, machine-cut mass production. Hand-shaping surfboards, on the other hand, has arguably kept the industry tied to its roots. The process of shaping boards is a conversation Lou says she has with a lot of people. “It’s quite a detailed process, and there’s basically two ways to make a board these days. With technology, you can pretty much design a board on your laptop then send the design off to someone that has a machine to make it. They cut it, and the shaping process is around 90% finished by the time you get it. You’d spend 15 mins fine-sanding it then you’d go and glass it.”
Lou is doing it old-school. “It's all hand and power tools. Basically you start with a big block of foam then refine it into the board you want. That’s the shaping part, then there’s the glassing part that’s pretty messy, with shit flying everywhere. It’s the authentic experience of it I like, and I think others appreciate.” She says the finer details in a board make a big difference, and aims to get as much detail and clarity from a customer so the board’s spot-on for the rider. Durability is also a big factor behind her work. “You pay for quality, it’s a bit like buying a car. It’s whether you want a board to last six months or years. Eventually you might think, ‘I’m glad I paid extra for heavier glassing because now my kids are riding it’, that sort of thing.”
Up until early last year she was shaping from her parent’s garage in Ōrewa. After her Aussie stint she slowly started making boards in her spare time, selling mostly to surf friends and club-mates at the Red Beach Surf Lifesaving Club. Word spread and orders came in from friends of friends, then others she had no link to. It was a packed recent summer of orders. She took on extra work as a contract glasser over Christmas too.
Lou is Aotearoa’s only female full-time surfboard shaper. “I’ve done it for two years now so if there was another chick doing it, I feel like she would have probably hit me up by now. You’d think there would be more chicks, because I learnt over in Aussie and they were very inviting so there’s a couple around. There’s definitely more women in it in the States.”
She can’t be certain of what to put the lack of wāhine in NZ shaping down to. It could be due to our smaller population, and that surfboard shaping is an incredibly niche and small community anyway, regardless of gender. It could be because Aotearoa’s surf community itself is small in comparison to somewhere like the States or Australia, where competition a new shaper brings might be seen as less of a threat. “There’s definitely not as many surfers here and it’s a more limited market, but I’m not trying to poach customers. My end goal was always just to have friends surfing my boards because I love making them, obviously it’s just grown from there.”
Working with the guidance of Whangamata’s Pete Anderson is the first opportunity she’s been given to work with an NZ shaper, which Lou says has been a breath of fresh air. She’d popped in and out of his studio before to pick up blanks, and had a yarn one day about the difficulty of getting any information on shaping from males in the industry here. “He said, ‘come down here and I’ll teach ya’, and I didn’t think much of it, but driving home I thought, ‘man, I could actually move here’, and I didn’t really have ties to Auckland anymore.”
She’s since been building boards and sanding for Pete, shaping her own Louweazal boards in between. “It’s me, Pete, and an insane glasser, and they’ve both been so helpful. All aspects of our work and the processes affect each other when we’re working on boards, but it’s been so mellow.”
In an interview Lou had with a news outlet last year she was pressed on whether she identified as a feminist. “He kept asking me, and I was kind of like, I haven’t even done much homework on being a feminist. For me, I just really hate getting the sympathy card for being a chick in the industry. I want someone to come in and say, ‘hey, what’s up?’ with no assumptions. In the surf it’s quite good, no one really has an issue with females being out there, so I like that being reflected out of the water as well.”
Lou wants her work to be recognised for its quality and that alone. “More than anything, I don’t want people to celebrate my work any extra because I'm a girl, because really anyone could do it. I want to be recognised because they’re good boards.”
Find Lou: @louweazalsurfboards
Photos: Amber Jones Photography
Want to keep reading? Find the full story, Mover & Shaper, in Womenclan: Journal One available now.