Whole Grain


FEATURE-September 2009
By Peter A. Smith
Photographs by Nick LaVecchia

Mike LaVecchia and his crew build world-class, wooden surfboards in York.

On Long Sands Beach in York, families parade through the fog carrying ice cream cones and Nerf footballs, leading sandy children and barking dogs. Offshore, in the frigid swells, androgynous-looking frogmen in black Neoprene wetsuits climb onto longboards and silently surf a steady left-hand break. West of the waves, past suburban homes, lush, green tidal coves, white fences and horse barns, stands a modest gray warehouse: the world headquarters for Grain Surfboards.

Inside it looks like slacker heaven. Two skateboards rest against a wall. Surf videos lie scattered around a TV. A pair of wooden surfboards hangs over a bar. A BMW motorcycle stands partially disassembled in a corner. But looks can be deceiving—this beehive of wooden-surfboard makers buzzes day and night.

Today, the big, open workshop hosts six students. They scrape thin curls of white cedar with hand planes, spoke shaves, and draw knives. Grain’s owner, Mike LaVecchia, a round, easygoing guy, walks over to Forrest Noble, a student who’s come up for the class after surfing full-time along the Mexican coast.

LaVecchia looks over the student’s board in-progress. Noble holds up his plane. “Am I using the right guy?”

“It might not be, once you get into the rocker,” LaVecchia says. “I like to use the spoke shave. Whatever works for you.”

Noble leans into his plane, carving millimeters off the rail of his board. Then, he bends down for a closer look at the overall shape, so that by Friday—when all the top sheets are on, and the whole thing resembles a hollow, wooden airplane wing—the board will be completely handmade, and completely dialed-in for riding waves.

When he was a kid, Mike LaVecchia built wooden snowboards at his parents’s house in New Jersey. This was in the early 1980s, long before snowboards were manufactured commercially. He later got a job with Burton Snowboards as the manager of the first domestic team (sort of the “U.S. farm team”), in Burlington, Vermont, during which time he sponsored future Olympic snowboarders Shaun White and Ross Powers. In 2001, LaVecchia left the snowboard world and started work on an 88-foot schooner for the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.

“I loved the idea of being on a boat in my own little world,” he says. “It’s sort of like camping. It’s just super simple, and so I spent a lot of time sailing.”

Vermont isn’t exactly the sailing capital of New England, so LaVecchia eventually moved to Maine, where he started surfing the southern coast and building custom yachts with Paul Rollins, Sr., a boatbuilder in York. From there, he took the next logical step: messing around, building wooden surfboards.

Although surfboards have been around for centuries, few wooden surfboard companies existed in 2005, when LaVecchia’s friend Jim McGinley, then the publisher of N’East Magazine, wrote a story about the tiny, low-ceilinged workshop LaVecchia and his brother had set up to make prototype wooden boards. McGinley’s story led to call, from an Associated Press reporter, whose story on Grain came out on December 19, 2005. The story coincided with news that Clark Foam, producer of some 90 percent of the world’s foam-board blanks, would be shutting down its factory after repeated run-ins with local regulators and California’s Environmental Protection Agency.

“Surfers are generally pretty environmentally aware,” LaVecchia says. “Nobody really ever thought about how bad foam was until that happened. Then, everyone said, ‘We need to rethink this.’ The next day, we had a couple dozen people from around the world wanting to know more about us. It was just nuts. All of a sudden, we had like six boards in two days. And we said, ‘This is it. We’re in business.’”

Near Ashland, Maine, a small milling town 58 miles south of Madawaska’s border with Edmundston, Canada, Pat Lovely and his sons buy northern white cedar trees from individual harvesters. While the wood is not Forest Stewardship Council–certified, the harvesters leave a substantial portion of cedar standing per acre. “So it regenerates,” Lovely says. “There’s no clear-cutting.”

The Lovelys cut the light, rot-resistant timber into 8- and 12-foot lengths and send 1×4’s and 2×8’s to Grain, where they are cut into planks and strips. Using a combination of semimonocoque construction (developed for aviation in 1929) and modern computer-assisted design (CAD) technology, Grain co-owner Brad Anderson, a former computer consultant and boatbuilder, creates custom surfboard designs.

“We really like people to be involved in the design process,” Anderson says. “We ask them, ‘How big are the waves you ride?’ ‘How tall are you?’ ‘What’s the rail shape you prefer?’ ‘Is there another board you love?’”

A Grain surfboard takes between 40 and 50 hours to build. First, the frames and planks are cut to match Anderson’s design. Then, a long, internal, spine-like frame is fabricated to run the length of the board. After that, cedar planks are layed on the top and the bottom of the frame, they are glued down around the rails in much the same way a boat is planked. Finally the planks are shaved down so they are smooth and flush around the hollow core.

In early 2009, Channel Islands Surfboards in California agreed to let LaVecchia use their design
for The Biscuit, an all-around board that lends itself to Grain’s construction method. “It’s a greener
alternative for them,” LaVecchia says. “And for us, we get to work with an amazing company that has world-class shapes and product testing.”

Building boards with hand tools is just part of Grain Surfboard’s pragmatic philosophy. Their waste cedar shavings go to local farms for animal bedding. The rest of the scrap wood is used and reused. “The worst-case scenario is that we’ll take all the wood to a bonfire and drink a beer around it,” LaVecchia says. But his attitude doesn’t just stem from being cool with nature and not so cool with chemicals. “Material costs a lot of money, so we are always trying to get the most out of it. You know, ‘Save some trees, but also save some cash.’”

Because an unvarnished, wooden board would soak up water and get heavy, the only nasty and, for now, unavoidable part of Grain’s process comes in the final step, when they glass a board with fiberglass cloth and epoxy resin so that the entire board becomes hard, impermeable, and long-lasting. Not that many surfers plan to get rid of their handmade, custom boards.

Back inside the warehouse, Forrest Noble bobs his head to reggae music and runs a hand planer along the rail of his board. A few more days and he’ll have it out on the water. A piece of wood shaped just for him to cut through the water and perfect swells along the coast.

Grain Surfboards | 60 Brixham Rd | York | 207.457.5313 | grainsurfboards.com

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