Broken and battered surfboards, with names like Bing and Hobie and Dewey Weber, are waiting for their second act in life. They’ve been tucked away—cast aside and forgotten—for decades in the attics, crawlspaces and garages of homes in Coastal Virginia and beyond. The fortunate ones find their way onto Craigslist or eBay or end up in garages and estate sales. They get discovered by someone who knows a classic surfboard when they see one. Someone who sees the board not for its crushed nose or smashed rails but for what it could become—what it used to be.
“They’re pieces of art,” says Tim Pope, a vintage surfboard collector from Norfolk. “It’s Americana. The shapers and glassers who made these boards, these guys were real artists.”
Once Pope finds a classic board that needs work, he’ll get it in the hands of a guy like Austin Walker, 34, who grew up in Chesapeake and now lives in Grandy, a small community along Highway 158 on the way to the Outer Banks.
This marks the start of a new life for the board, an existence that’s generally more show horse than race horse. This is the art of vintage surfboard restoration.
Many of those who rehab older surfboards are driven by sentiment. “They were the boards of my childhood,” says Virginia Beach surfer Hank Marx, another vintage surfboard collector. “They were the boards that we learned on.”
The restoration of old-school surfboards started about two decades ago, explains Dave Shotten, owner of Freedom Surf Shop in Virginia Beach. At the time, the vintage boards came cheap. That changed when longboarding, once marginalized by the rise of shorter and faster boards, came back into vogue in the 1990s and early 2000s, Shotten says. Surfers from all backgrounds were paying as much as $1,500 for refurbished boards, which are often nine feet or longer.
“It was crazy,” Shotten says. “They couldn’t get enough.”
Then the economy imploded. And those same surfers, strapped for cash, unloaded the same boards for half the cost.
But the market for classic boards has rebounded in the past five years, says Walker, one of a few who does restoration work for surfers in the region. He works on about 20 boards a year, with the cost for each ranging from $300–$600, depending on whether customers want boards to retain their “battle wounds” or put back in original condition.
Walker prefers the battle scars; he says they’re part of the board’s story. Restorations are unlike typical board repairs, referred to as dings. Owner of The Ding Shack, Walker generally tries to get ding repairs fixed within a week. But for the vintage work, “I like to take my sweet time and do them right. It’s like someone working on a hot rod.” He’s had a 1960s-era Morey-Pope in his shop for six months; another he’s had for four.
Most surfers only occasionally ride the vintage boards they repair. They often display them as wall art in their homes. Marx, an attorney who lives at the Virginia Beach oceanfront, said he owns 64 boards. He keeps most of them in a “bat cave” in his home. Surfboards on racks cover the walls and ceiling of the room. But don’t ask Marx which one he likes the most. “It’s like asking which kid is your favorite,” he says. (Incidentally, he said he loves his two sons equally.)
Marx describes his collection as “mature.” In other words, he’s not shopping for any new boards. But, if a stock Hansen 50-50 board walked into his life—he always wanted one as a kid—he wouldn’t turn it away.
Pope’s surfboard collection, on the other hand, is ever-changing. The Norfolk resident says friends constantly talk him out of his boards. He just traded a man in California three boards in exchange for one.
“I’m constantly trying to trade up,” he said. “You want bigger, better, badder.”
Pope, 62, doesn’t want to divulge the location where he keeps his boards because of their value. One day, though, he hopes to display them in public, maybe in a museum, hotel lobby or restaurant. He’s interested in reaching out to the developers who are restoring Virginia Beach’s historic Cavalier Hotel as a possible home. “They need to be displayed,” he said. “I’d love to have my collection in the right venue.”
Pope has three boards in Walker’s shop now. One is a Hobie “suitcase surfboard” Pope says was created for the iconic surf documentary Endless Summer but was never used in the filming. The board can be disassembled into two pieces so the surfers in the film could travel on planes with it. But by the time the filming began, newer planes could accommodate the traditional surfboards, so the board didn’t make the cut, Pope says.
“It’s extremely rare,” Walker says. “There are only a handful of them.”
Walker, who has a welcoming, gap-toothed smile, got into surfboard repair after a shop botched the repair of several dings on his board and blew him off when he complained.
“They just threw a ding kit at me and told me to do it myself,” Walker says. “So I went back home and started fixing my own boards.” Walker works out of a dirt-cheap storage unit along Highway 158 that doubles as an industrial workspace. A pastor who shapes surfboards occupies the unit across from him.
On a late July night, Walker is doing some work on one of Pope’s boards—a 1961 Greg Noll, which features a “chopstick fin,” a thin piece of wood embedded in the see-through fin. In the summer, he generally works 12-hour days. On this day, he’s already on hour 14, covered in fiberglass dust and resin splotches from his backward baseball cap to his flip flops.
Walker’s already taken off the board’s “skin”—the hardened layer of fiberglass that covers the foam board—and had a shaper clean up and smooth out the foam.
Tonight, he’s putting a new layer of fiberglass on the foam. He grabs a roll of fiberglass cloth, unrolls it along the board and cuts off a hunk, leaving a sheet of fiberglass hanging over the foam. He pours resin in a small bucket and mixes it with catalyst.
Walker pours out a little resin on the board at a time, using a handheld squeegee to work the liquid into the fiberglass. When he moves the squeegee quickly, it whirs like air escaping from a balloon.
Walker finishes applying the resin and moves on to another board while it dries. He’s far from done with the restoration, though. Next, he’ll put two layers of fiberglass on the top of the board because that’s the side that takes a pounding.
For surfboard repairmen like Walker, the deep satisfaction comes from pumping new life into a classic board that’s four decades old and looked like it had been run over by an 18-wheeler. “Each restoration is a new challenge,” Walker says. “I just feel stoked to be able to bring it back.”