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Otter Surfboards

James Otter and his company Otter Surfboards craft hollow wooden surfboards – a beautiful, environmentally-friendly and long-lasting alternative to typical surfboards – and invite surfers down to their workshop in Cornwall, UK, to build their own wooden board on one of their workshop weeks. We visit James to learn about his journey as a craftsperson and his approach to creative entrepreneurship.

James, or “Jim” or “Jimmy”, as he happily goes by, emerges from his workshop, its huge bright blue barn-style doors slid wide open, welcoming in the sunshine. He’s barefooted, as always. Wearing an earnest and spirited smile, he extends his arms and suddenly I’m engulfed in his embrace. “He’s a hugger”, smiles Liz, James’ wife, who appears, equally exuberant, with the newest member of the Otter family strapped to her chest: little, doe-eyed, cheerful chappy, William. As if in the company of old friends, we easily slip into comfortable conversation punctuated with laughter. The mood fits the morning – it’s the beginning of a bright, sunny day.

Perched a stone’s throw – just over a kilometre – from the Cornish coast, where countryside rolls over sea cliffs into the ocean, the Otter Surfboards workshop is sited alongside other young businesses on a small ecological park. The journey to the workshop offers tantalising glimpses of the hazy blue smudge that lies on the horizon; the fresh sea breeze rustles the gorse and its radiant yellow flowers; and birds flit in and out of the hedgerows that line the dusty lanes dissecting the countryside.

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In the workshop, the sun stirs up a warm woody aroma. It’s like Aladdin’s cave for woodworkers; saws, files, clamps, mallets, planes and all kinds of hand tools hang from the white-washed walls. Towards the back, a small wall coated in blackboard paint is chalked up with scrawled drawings, notes, measurements and angles alongside the emblazoned all-CAPS statement “MEASURE TWICE”. On the opposite wall, hand painted in script-style writing reads, less assertively, “Cut Once”. Lined up against the rear wall, in the shadowy recess of the space, is a collection of wooden boards, each different in shape or style. James gently pulls a few from the rack exhibiting his work and that of his workshop attendees. It's incredible to think that the raw planks of cedar and poplar laid outside the workshop will also end up as such impressive works of craftsmanship.

James sets back to work, whistling as he goes. James and Liz’s black Labrador, Buddy, patrols the workshop, tail wagging, with an old tennis ball in his mouth, its lime green, slobbery threads dangling down and the brown inner exposed. The workshop falls silent as James slips into a state of concentration, templating the nose of the board, marking it out in pencil, measuring twice, of course, and then slowly cutting into the wood with a kataba, a Japanese pull saw. He moves on to planing, purposefully gliding the tool across the wood, creating perfect ringlets of shavings that find their way to the floor. He pauses intermittently and gently runs his hand along the board’s edge to assess his work.

James jolts to. “Time for lunch?”

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James:

Surfboards aren’t usually made of wood, so the obvious question people often ask is “why wood?”

I can't really tell you where my fascination with wood came from; I think it was probably always in me. I have early memories of loving wood. I remember collecting sticks, and we’d end up with piles of them outside our backdoor. And that was just sticks.

When it came to education, I gravitated towards creative subjects that required the use of my hands. Through that, I explored my connection to wood more. I enjoy making things, full stop. But for me, there's just something about wood that I love and works for me. I don’t know if it’s because each piece is different, so you react to it differently each time, or if it’s the challenges and problem-solving that comes with it, but I have always found wood a fascinating material.

So that's why wood; but why surfboards? When I was growing up, I loved going to the beach and quickly fell in love with the ocean, so it was quite natural for me to pick up a water sport. I think the drive and passion for surfing to be part of my life is because of that connection to nature it gives you; when you are in the ocean, you are so immersed in this dynamic outdoor environment that can make you feel ridiculously out of control as well as gift you moments of brilliance. It’s one of those things that once you’ve had a dose of it, you just want more. And really, Otter Surfboards brings my love for surfing and my love of wood together.

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Was making surfboards a natural progression of your creative practice or did you intentionally set up a surfboard-making business?

The first surfboard I made came from “I love making things out of wood, I love surfing, and the surfboards I’ve got keep falling apart and I’m pretty sure I could make something out of wood that lasts longer.” So for a couple of years, I went through a process of figuring out the best way to make a surfboard from wood. The entrepreneurial business side of things runs in the family, so the notion of making your own way in life wasn’t new to me; I was lucky enough to have people behind me that saw the value in just having a go, but who also could lend their experience and advice. After making surfboards for just myself on evenings and weekends, I was like, “right, I’m young enough that I don't have any dependants, I don’t have a mortgage, I don’t have those financial commitments, I just don’t have a lot to begin with, but, let's give it a go”. My family has always shown me unwavering support as I ventured down the path of building a life out of what I love doing.

So I made my first surfboard in 2008 and have now been making boards for over ten years, and I’ve been running the company since the end of 2010.

Even though you had that support network around you, was setting up a business still quite daunting?

Yeah, yeah. It still is to this day. But that can be quite exciting because it always has you assessing your business and processes and how to better them. Running a business, you are constantly problem-solving, and like with any small business, there have been some tough times, but I can’t ever imagine my life without it. And it’s not just me; the workshops have had such a positive impact on other people's lives too that it would be a shame not to be able to offer that anymore. That's the bit I’d be most sad about if I didn’t continue to do what I do.

Could you tell us a bit more about your journey and the impacts your surfboard-making workshops have had on people?

When I first started making surfboards, I put them out in some local galleries and tried getting a little press around them, and as a result, someone locally came to see me. We spent about three hours and a couple of cups of tea together, and he told me that he loved my surfboards but that he really wanted to make his own. This got me thinking: surely he's not the only person who wants to make their own surfboard. Working with him allowed me to develop a structure that I could turn into a course. That process of working through things with him stirred up all the emotions of making my first board again because I watched him go through them: the excitement, the anticipation, the creativity, the need to be completely focussed. You could see the impact this process had on him, but it also gave me a lot as well; I hadn't expected such a rewarding feeling through sharing that experience.

Through doing more workshops, I started to see patterns of how people were affected by them. Realistically, not many people stop for five days; not many people let themselves go into a different mental state for five days; not many people take the time to slow down and reflect on themselves. For a lot of people, the workshops have helped them make changes in their lives for the better. It’s mad when you hear about it happening. Of course, I know it isn’t wholly because of us – it comes from them as individuals – but even to be that small spark or instigator for positive change is incredible. And in addition to allowing time and space for those reflections, at the end of the course, the workshoppers can stand back and see a physical representation of those days in front of them – a tangible object that represents five days of hard work.

And the workshops are just as memorable for me as they are for the people who do them. People tend to have memorable markers in a year, and for me those are the workshops we run. I can’t remember what the hell happened in 2013, for example, yet I can name every person who came through the workshop that year. So early on, I decided to make the workshop courses my focus. Even though we also make custom boards, the courses are our primary business; one, there’s demand for it, and two, I get so much back from it.

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Could you tell us about your environmental ethics?

A huge reason for starting down this road was from wanting a surfboard that lasted longer and was made from environmentally sound materials. Historically, boards were made from solid wood, but in the 1920s plywood became commercially available. Tom Blake, renowned as one of America's greatest surfing pioneers, developed the hollow wooden surfboard and a process he called “skin and frame” – which is very much like the process we use at Otter Surfboards. From then, that was pretty much the way surfboards were made until the development of fibreglass and foam out the back of the second world war. These materials suited the manufacturers because they could make higher quantities and faster, and that’s mostly stayed the industry standard for the last 60-70 years. Developments in resins have brought about boards that are perhaps longer lasting or better in performance, but still there isn’t much, if any, environmental consideration. It’s quite fascinating to see that within a world of people who love being in the ocean, there isn't more of a focus on to look after our planet.

As a woodworker, I can trace where my wood comes from, I can find out exactly where the trees I’m using are grown, and for me that's fundamental. Sure, you can get wood from a timber yard, but you don't necessarily know where it's come from. Alternatively, you can work with foresters who nurture the environment, not just monocrop woodlands to satisfy short-term goals but instead use forestry techniques that allow for long-term sustainability and the health of the environment. This is how I've ended up working with Nick Hoare, from whom we get all of our cedar. He's got about 600 hectares of woodland in Wiltshire, and he uses a forestry management technique called “continuous cover”. What that means is when he harvests trees for commercial reasons, he extracts only the amount of wood needed, which protects the canopy and encourages natural regeneration. A typical commercial woodland of the same size would be planting around 10,000-12,000 trees a year; he’s currently replanting around 2,000, and he wants to get to the point that the forest is healthy and diverse enough that it naturally regenerates, without any need to plant new trees.

For me, knowing the people who work the land and understanding the supply chain is extremely important. In my mind, that should go hand in hand for any woodworker – but sadly it doesn't always. One of the common misconceptions is that anything natural or made from wood is sustainable, and that’s not the case. It’s only sustainable if the entire supply chain works in a sustainable way.

How does it feel taking a tree you've seen in the forest and then crafting surfboards from it?

It’s a heart-stopping moment when you see a tree being felled in the forest. When you see it come down, it's like boom, there's 30-40 years worth of growth stopped. There’s a gravity to that, a weight of responsibility, and it drives me to want to make something worthwhile and to use as much of the timber the best we can, almost to honour the tree. From a fully grown tree, we can make six or seven surfboards, so each board has about five or six years of growth tied up in it.

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Being out in the ocean on a surfboard you’ve made yourself must be pretty special. How did it feel the first time you went out with your own board?

Extremely nerve-wracking because I didn’t know if it would float. It’s incredible though because you are accessing this world in which you love to play in through something you’ve made yourself. It takes the excitement and enjoyment and multiplies it tenfold.

It’s crazy. I remember a couple of winters ago, in one of those ridiculously sunny periods, I was paddling out, and the way the sun was hitting the water showing all its colours and illuminating the cliffs, and then I had my wooden board in front of me, it was like I was in a dream. And then suddenly a pod of dolphins popped up. It was awesome. And I can’t help but think that the element of laying on a wooden surfboard I’d made myself was a part of what made that experience so incredible.

And people who come to the workshops feel like that too – they feel that surfing on a board they’ve made themselves heightens the whole experience for them. It’s interesting when we think about the longevity of our product: people come and make their boards and forge this incredible connection to them, and then they make lots of other memories as they surf with them. So their relationship with their board just grows and grows. It’s amazing to know that the boards are so durable and well made that they are going to last a long time and people are going to make so many memories with them.

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Each year, you hold the Otter Surfboards AGM (Annual Gathering of Makers); could you tell us about it?

Early on we realised that people were having lots of experiences with their boards but that we weren’t often getting to hear about them. I thought that there was an opportunity to continue to engage people and essentially keep them as friends, because after spending five days together you often end up quite close. A lovely way to catch up with people and bring them back together seemed to be to set aside a weekend every year for past workshoppers. Our customers come from all walks of life – it’s incredible how diverse they are – but when you put them in a room together, because they’ve all got this shared experience, they connect in a way that perhaps they usually wouldn’t. That’s really cool to see – I really love that.

Could you explain your business philosophy and the evolution of Otter Surfboards, and tell us how you intend to move forward as a business into the future?

Although I have a greater breadth of knowledge now, my motivations are still the same as when I started out: to create long-lasting surfboards from environmentally-conscious materials and run immersive workshops for others to build their own too. I still have such a hunger to learn new things, and thankfully the business continuously offers me the opportunity to do so – there’s always something to be trying or testing out, either business-wise or on the product side of things. But as time moves on, I better understand the importance of balance and ensuring I don’t expend all my energy on the business that I have none left for other areas of my life. Luckily, surfing has always given me the opportunity to stop and draw energy back into myself.

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Something we’ve always tried to do is stay within our means in terms of growth. I remember hearing Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, say “there’s two ways to grow: one where you grow stronger, and one where you grow fat. You have to look out for growing fat.” I only heard this a couple of years ago but retrospectively I feel it echoes how I’ve moved forward with the business. It was only me at the beginning, and I was lucky enough that I didn’t need to support anyone and I could afford for it not to grow quickly. As time moves on, you begin to need more stability – I now have a family, which I’d say changes the way one look at a business. But ultimately, we decided, in terms of growth or building the business, the focus is always going to be on “building a better product, and giving people a better experience”, and it’s not about trying to get bigger numbers through the door and it’s not about trying to run a workshop every week, because for me that would really undervalue the experience people would have as I would just be knackered all the time. It’s all about trying to build strong products and a strong business.

You’ve recently opened up your product line, haven’t you?

Yeah, so it’s no longer just surfboards; we do a range of paddleboards, and with the offcuts, we make paddles, belly boards and hand planes. But everything revolves around enjoying the ocean and that connection to water. I think the products we offer will always have that connection to the ocean. Out there, it feels like you are playing, which I think as adults we don’t tend to do as much, and we don’t give ourselves much time to enjoy experiences. When you jump in the water, you’re a kid again. There’s just something about water.

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This story is from Volume Twelve

The Water Volume

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