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David Murphy in his Brooklyn board shop, Imaginary Surf Co.

Surfing doesn’t usually bring Brooklyn to mind, but David Murphy is helping to change that. In a wood, foam, and cork-filled workshop above Brooklyn’s artisanal hub 3rd Ward, Murphy crafts boards that have a whole new surf DNA—and ride. His Imaginary Surf Co. creations are sleek, eco-friendly, and often experimentally constructed. A tall, lanky guy with a gnarly beard and a trucker hat on, Murphy was born in Texas, raised on skateboards, and trained himself to shape boards after getting into surfing on the East Coast.

To get a full surf appreciation, we asked Murphy about shaping, East Coast surfing, and why right now is an exciting time in the surf world.

Tell us about New York’s surfing scene.

You’re not going to get a lot of people who it’s their whole lifestyle. If it is, then you’re going to move out to California or Hawaii or Costa Rica.

How did you move from skating to surfing? Do you miss skating?

I started surfing when I moved to New York, because I just really missed going sideways. There’s no other way to describe it. There’s something really magical about having the wave push you. In skateboarding the ramp doesn’t push back in the same way.

How did you first get into shaping boards?

Five years ago, I bought a Jon Wegener board, and I couldn’t ride it at all. One day, I got out of the water totally frustrated and was like ‘I could make this way better for me.’ So I did. I went to a friend’s shop and made it out of pine—it fell apart, because pine doesn’t do very well in salt water—but it was a lot better. I started with traditional Hawaiian Alaias [a 14’-16’-long board] like the stuff people were riding in Polynesia in the 1800s and really tweaked them. Then I started making boards that were modeled after boards from the 40s and 50s and moved up from there. I kind of skipped the 90s—kind of a lost decade for surfing.

It used to be that nobody would want to buy your board if you didn’t apprentice with somebody who was a famous shaper. But now all that stuff is online. Learning it on my own, I wasn’t taking a template that somebody else had handed me. I was a lot of times starting from scratch and asking a question like, ‘What would this set of characteristics do in a board?’

A board collaboration with artist Emilio Perez.

Why do you love this job?

To me they’re sculptures. I went to school for documentary film and sculpture, and it’s like sculpture with the imperative that it has to work. Every board is going to perform differently, going to determine how the surfer rides it. So if you get on a 70s single fin, you’re going to look like you’re in the 70s when you’re surfing, and it’s going to feel like the 70s. You’ll get these big swooping, carving turns.

How does one go about making a surfboard?

First you shape it, then you seal it. You fiberglass on one side and then the other. Once you’ve glassed it, it has a weave to it, because it literally is fabric. So you have to fill in the fabric, called hot-coating. Then you sand it out. If you’re looking to get a really high-gloss finish, you would add another layer of resin. And you put the fins in either before or after you add the glass. [The process takes] anywhere between 10 and 20 hours.

What makes your boards unique?

[My boards] are definitely one-offs. I’ll tailor the thickness of the foam, the flex characteristic, the type of fiberglass…. My favorite thing to be doing right now is artist collaborations.

What artists have you collaborated with? Do you have a favorite collaboration that you’ve done?

I’ve worked with Naomi Gittoes from Australia (she’s an artist working to save endangered sharks!), Colin McNamara, Spoe in France, Emilio Perez, and the graffiti artist, Then.  They have all been fun collaborations. It feels a bit like I’m creating a sculpture in collaboration with a painter that becomes a piece in a dance performance on water. It’s a very dynamic experience.

A collaborative board design with Colin McNamara.

Why is the environmentally friendly aspect of your work important to you?

A big reason marine life is dying off at such a rapid rate is from plastics and oil waste. I want to minimize my contribution to this tragedy. Surfing is about having fun out in the big blue bathtub, it’s less fun if you know you’re contributing to the end of that world.

How do you know if a board is good or not?

There’s always this obsession with whether a board ‘works.’ I think it’s kind of silly, because you could surf a door if you’re good enough. But somebody asked Alex Knost, one of the best long-boarders right now, whether one of his boards worked. His answer was, ‘Well, it doesn’t not work.’ I have a lot of boards that don’t not work, but in that process of screwing up, you end up really learning a lot. And I probably know combinations of board-shape characteristics a lot of other shapers don’t. There are a lot of people that are experimenting now. It’s a really great time in surfing.

What has all the experimentation led to?

[Boards were] made one way for 30 years. I had the unique opportunity to reinvent the wheel.

Murphy’s handplanes, $100-$180, can be bought online. Full surfboards range in price from $600-$1,500. For a consultation, email Murphy at innercirclesurf@gmail.com . 

Credits: Photos courtesy of David Murphy