The best part of my job is the element of discovery. The fact that I am paid to keep pushing design to the next level is dream come true and is something that I never take for granted. To go to that next level you have to look outside the box. This past week my team and I had an offsite that was outside of the box and full of discovery. We visited Grain Surfboards, a company based in York, Maine that specializes in hand made wood surfboards. It was amazing. Continue reading Design Insight With Brett Golliff: Locally Grown…
You are probably asking yourself what does surfboards, especially wooden surfboards; have anything to do with footwear design? The answer is a lot. A major focus and product story we have been trying to tell for our future designs is craft. Craft can be interpreted a few ways but our key interpretations have been love for what we do and quality construction methods. If you don’t love what you do it will be revealed in your product, it is important to be passionate about your craft. Our customer consistently comes back to New Balance because they appreciate the life of our products, without great craftsmanship we lose our customer base. Over the past few seasons it has become a priority of ours to learn new ways to visually show craftsmanship in our designs. These stories naturally led us to Grain, plus it just sounded like a dope thing to do. So we went.
Grain is a small team that is owned and operated by Mike LaVecchi and Brad Anderson. What started as a love for board sports and wooden-boat building birthed a natural marriage of technique blending that led them to the waves. Mike began by making boards out of his basement and with time, along with a growth in popularity in traditional board riding within the sport of surfing led to a full-fledged business opportunity. Their shop itself was incredibly inspiring. No cubicles, not really an assembly line but an open area that can best be described of as zones of creation. Their process is very much about becoming a part of what they create and their shop encompasses an atmosphere that celebrates this mentality.
As we arrived at their shop we were greeted by their dogs that work with them, which to me was a sign of how they approached their work; they don’t see it as work they see it as an extension of their lives. We were taken through an introduction of how their company began and they showed us the first board they ever made. One aspect that was truly inspiring is their commitment to sustainability. They do their absolute best to not waste. Everything seems to be collected and reused in someway, shape or form. Many of their wood scraps go to making elements for how they display their products in stores, to giving it away to local farmers and if they still have scrap left it becomes mulch for their landscaping. Not only is it intelligent for cost reasons to get the most yield out of their material but it has also become a key element to what sets them apart from their competitors.
The surfboard market has become oversaturated with factory made foam based boards that lack in soul. You could argue that the same thing has happened to the shoe industry. Both industries have seen their products change from being a craft that was once personal and custom and began in the local shops of their town to shifting to a manufacturing process that is primarily overseas. The Grain team does their best to solve this problem by putting heart into every product they create. Their products are created from wood that is locally harvested and is generated with the greenest construction techniques available. Their process also captures an emotion that can be lost in factory-manufactured products. There is a purity that comes with a handcrafted piece that becomes a part of the customer. It speaks to them as well as speaks for them.
As we walked around the shop it was amazing to see such a hands on approach. They pride themselves on their innovative techniques that have led to boards that are built to last and are incredibly lightweight. Their board construction is very similar to how you would build a boat. They have a main beam that runs the center of the board, also known as the keel, it is essentially the spine of the board. From there ribs are connected to form the shape of the boards. This element was the most visual inspiring for me and is basically a sole unit design waiting to happen. I appreciated their approach of weight reduction. What began as simply removing holes from the ribs on a drill press led to them using a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) saw cutting custom patterns that add both structural integrity and shed crucial ounces from the final board weight.
After the spine is created they add the final pieces to create the outside surface. I saw this as a protective skin and is constructed quite similar to how a shoe is. They basically take little strips of wood and stack them by gluing them together to make the transition from a rounded surface to a flat surface. The flat surface is a large piece that has the edges tapered to lock in flush with the transition strips. In my eyes how the wood tapered and locked in flush is very similar to how we match up leather overlays. To avoid having thick pieces that can lead to irritation or other issues in a shoe we use a technique called skiving. Skiving is cutting thin layers from leather to create a tapering effect to match up tightly with an underlying piece. The final process of the board building is called glassing. It also seems to be the most challenging. They lay a layer of fiberglass cloth down to protect the wood from wear and tear. The cloth is covered in an epoxy that creates a glass like effect, very similar to a clear coat on a car or the clear coat on patent leather. It is very time consuming and highly important that it is a consistent coat. It creates a beautiful aesthetic and accents the wood grain impeccably.
For carpenter novices or people who just want to experience the culture of Grain they offer classes where you can come and build your board with them. They have a variety of boards to allow you to customize it to your style of shredding. While we were there, two surfers from California were creating their custom board. It was cool to see how they made the board more unique to their style. Grain sets you up to really accent your style with their wood choices. All pieces are book-matched which means they are split from the same board. When you lay them parallel to each other the grain of the wood matches up creating a graphic that is mirrored. It is a visually dramatic effect that is full of deep color and form following lines.
I will admit I know absolutely nothing about surfing technique, I have never been on a board nor did I have a large desire to surf. Being immersed in their shop gave me a great appreciation for not only the sport but also the culture that surrounds them. I will definitely be trying a wave sometime soon. I hear it is a very humbling experience but it is a new craft for me to discover.
Brett Golliff is a Designer 1 at New Balance.