Vissla Q&A with Finn Whitla (Faze Surfboards)
Vissla Sydney Surf Pro
Vissla Q&A with Surfboard Builder Finn Whitla
For the second year in a row, Vissla built a pop-up shaping bay on the promenade above North Steyne Beach at Manly, N.S.W. Australia, during the Vissla Sydney Surf Pro. The idea behind the buildout being that while competitors pop off air reverses in the soft beach breaks, shapers could work away in the shack, connect with other foam mowers and ground the event in real surf culture by merely working on their craft in a public space. From this, Vissla presents the Builders Q+A series: a series featuring questions answered by some of the countries finest surfboard shapers while they were in the shaping bay working on their boards.
Vissla catches up with Finn Whitla about his move to shape boards in Tasmania and what it was like to work in a factory that counted Kirk Hammett and Mark Philippoussis as customers.
So mate, talk to us a little bit about how you got into shaping.
I grew up on the Great Ocean Road, moving around the coastal towns of Lorne, Ocean Grove, Fairhaven, and Torquay, so all I know is the ocean. I started working for Maurice Cole in 2000. Filla coating and doing ding repairs and just general factory duties really, like sweeping floors. After a few years I learned how to sand and install fins but they were still mostly all glass on fins back then. I would do 20-30 glass on fins a week.
When Maurice Cole started B.A.S.E, I made a move over to Strapper Surfboards and worked with Robbo and Mike while I was contracting out as a sander to a lot of shapers around Torquay, and Barwon Heads. I was sanding for maybe five years, maybe more, probably six years. By this stage, I had shaped possibly two boards. Bugger all really in 10 years haha. I had sanded about around 4 thousand boards by this time and really enjoyed it.
I went down to MC’s factory only a few years ago because I had left a bunch of my boards there. He bought out the first board that I'd ever shaped back in 2003 and said, "You hold onto this. You can't lose your first board." I was pretty grateful he still had it really.
What attracted you to shaping boards in the first place? Was it just riding boards?
I guess getting to know a particular feeling while riding a surfboard and understanding what is creating this feeling. But, then I thought that it's not just the shape workin. There are so many aspects to why a surfboard performs the way it does. It could be the glass; maybe the weave was pulled slightly more towards the heel edge. Maybe your left fin has a little more cant or less toe than the other. So many variables make up your board. You really can't put it down to one thing, but It all has to work cohesively.
I was always playing around with my tail edges, taking them off and putting them back on. I heard of people taking out a piece of 320 grit sandpaper in their wetsuits and so I did that a couple of times too. Sanding off one rail mid surf just to see if it made a difference.
How did you fall into the world of Maurice and Mark Phipps, and Strapper, and all those guys. How did you get into that little clique?
A friend of mine was the sander for Maurice Cole, and he got me in the door. He said, "do you want to come and work for us?" "We need a fillacoater!". Maurice was looking for a fillacoater to join the team, and George thought of me straight away. MC was in a great position at the time. The shop on the Surfcoast Highway was doing well, and he had such a great crew, and his team was nuts. Margo, Trent Munro, RCJ etc. But there were about 7 of us working in the factory. We were filling 20-foot containers full of boards and sending them off to France, Japan, and the U.S.
But, I still remember when Kirk Hammett from Metallica was in there ordering a board while on tour in Melbourne. I opened the shop that morning and was tidying up the surfboards in the racks. I pulled a board out to straighten it up and when I put it back in Kirk was standing 2ft away. Pretty surreal. Kirk and Rob Trujillo came down to surf Winki with Maurice. James was meant to be there too but I don’t think he was feeling well. Mark Philippoussis was always there ordering boards too. It was a pretty cool time to be working at Maurice's thats for sure.
I remember Maurice calling me one Sunday morning around 7am. I saw his number and thought that's weird. It's 7am on a Sunday, something must be up "Oi, do you want to go to the F1 Grand Prix? I have all-access Red Bull Passes". Shityeah! So, he picked me up an hour later, and off we went. Classic MC though, While driving up the Princes Highway to Melbourne, some guy cuts him off and so we drive up next to him telling him to wind down the windows while Maurice was going off his head at him. We finally get there with V.I.P. Red Bull tent passes. It was pretty mental. I think it was the year Tom Carrol and RCJ were in the celebrity race. Andy and Bruce Irons were there as it was March and Bells was about to start. Crazy day with all the Red Bull team followed by KISS performing. We were allowed side of the stage with the Red Bull pass which then got us into the afterparty in St Kilda with the rapper Common was performing. Maurice didn't make it past 5pm, but I certainly made the most of those passes!
After working with Maurice for several years, I left and started full-time board building with Strapper. It was there I met Rousa the glasser. He worked with Mark Phipps in Ocean Grove and so he asked me to sand a few boards over there on the weekends. I started contracting for Mark, Rousa, and Maurice Cole while working full-time at Strapper Surfboards. For a while there I felt like I was the only sander in Torquay.
What do you think it is about Victoria that attracted such a heavy depth of shapers?
The History of surfing in Torquay is so rich and significant for Australian surfing that it was bound to breed some top shapers. Having since spent a while in Melbourne and now living in Tasmania where it's quite inconsistent and hard to get a regular surf, I look back and think that setup in Juc between Bird Rock and South Side is something pretty special. But, I guess that era through the '60s and '70s were extremely significant and the personalities making their way through the Victorian titles like Maurice Cole and Wayne Lynch paved the way for the younger crew who are now killing it. The population of surfers living in a town that has sick waves all year round might have something to do with it too. You think of all the epic waves around the country that breed great shapers. Lennox, Snapper, Angourie.
Is it fair to say that it's a supportive environment around where you grew up around Torquay? Is it like the mentality where the rising tide lifts all boats?
Yes. Definitely. I have been thinking about that, and Torquay over the last few years. There are a lot of great young shapers in Torquay now. Back when I lived and worked there, we had no social media or even a half-decent internet connection. It wasn't necessary. What was, was face to face customer interactions, and in a way, we just kept to ourselves and did our own thing. We had no idea what was going on in the other factories around town. We didn't see any boards going out the door as you do now on Instagram. We just made sure every board going out of our factory was the best we can do and at the highest quality.
It is because of Instagram and Facebook that I see the passion and comradeship between shapers over there in Torquay. Guys like Shyama Buttonshaw, Darcy Day, Corey Graham, Gash, Dicko, Mike D'sas, Vanda, Palehorse It's great to see it evolve into the thriving industry it is today and I'm stoked for all those guys.
What prompted the move to Tassie then?
My wife. So, my wife lives in Tassie, and we met in Torquay. I moved about 11 years ago. We were doing long distance for a year-and-a-half. It was around the same time MONA opened, and Hobart was pretty vibing. I think it was in Lonely Planet's top 10 destinations around the world at that time. I certainly had a fun time in Hobart every time I went down there, so I thought, hell let's move to Tassie. Plus it has some really sick waves!
I wasn't shaping or even working with surfboards; to begin with, when I got down there, I was DJing on weekends to make a living, which was a lot of fun. I would travel and surf all week while playing and promoting at a handful of clubs and bars over the weekends.
The surf scene is very underground, and I had a hard time finding my place. I started surfing contests and met more crew and then the thought of setting up a shaping bay at home became a reality. I managed to shape a couple of boards for some local surfers. Hamish Renwick, a pretty handy ex QS surfer, he was able to give me some amazing feedback. We dialed in a performance board and that kind of kicked it all off, Faze was born.
That was going to be my next question, how is the shaping industry in Hobart?
I'm starting to meet other local shapers. Nick Stranger has been making boards in Tasmania for over three decades. We set up a mobile shaping bay with a little help from Vissla at the Aquiva Surf Festival for a bunch of local and interstate shapers. There are shapers scattered all over the state north and south. It's great to catch up with them at the local Surfing Tas events. The local Fiberglass Shop is now a place I bump into other shapers, their core product line has grown into surfboard building materials which is super handy.
From a business perspective, has it worked well for you being down there?
Yes and no, the surfing population is pretty small in comparison to a place like Torquay or Manly, but so is the shaping scene. I think I moved at a time where surfers wanted something a little different from a local shaper. My focus, in the beginning, was performance boards, and working with some really good local surfers helped move that forward. Now, the focus seems to be shifting towards twin fins and mid-lengths, which is great because I can experiment with colours and different designs and not just knocking out clear glass 5’10’s on repeat.
I thought about a move back to the mainland, but a conversation with David Lee Scales put my thinking cap on and focused on Tasmania to grow my business. The mainland is quite over saturated in the areas I'd like to live, so it makes sense to stay where I am. I have worked pretty hard to get this far and I don't send many boards to the mainland, it's just too expensive. Getting supply's can be difficult at times but for the most part its pretty good.
Being a part of this event here in Manly has been really beneficial over the last couple of years. I have met some fantastic shapers I now call mates and it’s opened up other opportunities with Vissla here in Tasmania. Still, the highlight up here for me would be surfing with Jadson Andre in the Shapers Cup, even though I struggled to grovel in the waves, Jadson completely blew up on one of my boards that I had shaped for Hamish Renwick, so that was pretty awesome.
Yeah, he is such a legend. When Vissla asked me to surf in the Shapers Cup, they asked, "Oh, do you have a backup surfer?" I said to Vissla, give me ten minutes, I'll see if I can find someone, I walked out of the tent, and Jadson was standing just outside doing an interview. I walked up and waited for him to finish and said "Hey man, I'm surfing in the Shapers Cup. Would you be interested in riding one of my boards?" all he said was, "Let's do this."
How good's that?
He didn't even see the board or anything. It was one of the first boards I'd shaped for Hamish. It was a 6'0 round tail and Jadson picked it up and said, "It's probably something I'd surf at Pipe." So it was a step-up board that he lit up on in 2ft Manly. I think he scored a 9.8 and a 9.5 or something.
Where do you see the future of the Tassie surfboard industry going in the next few years?
It's certainly growing, and there are more and more backyard shapers popping up. If we had more consistent waves in Tasmania who knows where it could go, the points are certainly busier than ever these days. I’d like to build a hub in the years to come. A place for shapers, glassers and sanders to come together. A Joymill or GlassLab type of community. People are surfing more and surfing all year too with the latest suits and so they want a surfboard made locally, which has been awesome.
I want to start getting some younger guys and girls into board building. Not just shaping but understanding the whole process. I think it's important to know the how's and why's from start to finish not just being a shaper. Over the last little while I have been working on some boards for Shipsterns with the local guys. I'm starting to play around with tow-boards and step-ups. Getting some boards together for the next generation that are all ripping and having a solid crack down at Shipsterns and they are bloody 16 years old!
They're their own entity.
Certainly are. The young guys are in good hands with Marti, Tyler and those guys. They're all doing the right thing too, showing respect to the old guard.