FAMILY TREE - The wooden roots of the Campbell Clan
Words by Will Bendix, pics by Alan Van Gysen.
Brian Campbell’s hands are well-worn tools. Coarse with use and reliable. Sure of themselves. They tell you a life story in a brief touch. His friendly but firm handshake affirms this and belies his 67 years of age at the same time.
“We could have gone mad when we started,” he says to me, holding a long strip of wood while we talk “…building many of these boards a month. But we didn’t want to get ahead of ourselves before we got it all jussst right”.
The wood is Japanese Cedar. It’s light and incredibly strong, and it will soon form another strip of skin on the six-foot timber skeleton lying between us. A hollow surfboard made up entirely of wood.
Running late on the drive up from Cape Town, I’d almost missed the small sign that led me to the Campbell’s farmyard workshop on the coast. ‘Ystervarkfontein’ it said suddenly, planted stubbornly on the side of the N2 heading toward Mossel Bay. Swinging off the smooth highway, a dirt track bumped over a series of hills where farmlands punctuated thick milkwood bush before giving way to a final road. A few hundred metres further along a smallholding stood framed against the expanse of blue where sky meets sea.
The Campbells are third generation woodworkers, living on this self-sustaining farm they manage in the Southern Cape. Brian learnt his craft from his father, and in turn passed his artisan hands on to his son Ant. Campbell Senior has always been waterborne, first building balsa canoes when he was a schoolboy in Zambia and spending years exploring the rivers there. A move to the South African coast and his combined passions led him to building paddleboards, speed racers and ocean kayaks out of wood, the sleek torpedo shape of one which hangs from the roof above us as we talk. But it’s Ant who is now carving a path for the family trade into the lineup.
“Both my boys surf and are surfing crazy, and that’s actually how I originally started surfing” Ant grins. “Then a couple of years ago we looked around and thought perhaps there’s a demand for something like this. So we’re kinda blending lifestyle with what is practical at this point in our lives, it made complete sense,” he explains as he knocks on a sleek nine-foot longboard.
Wooden surfboards are nothing new. Quite the opposite. Ancient Hawaiian royalty used to ply the waves on massive Olo boards made from the Ula and Koa trees. Commoners also surfed, but it could literally cost you your head if you dropped in on the Big Kahuna.
Then Tom Blake pioneered the way for Californians with his hollow redwood board in 1926. Bob Simmons took it a step further and popularised boards made of lightweight Balsa. In South Africa, lifeguards first rode waves on wooden crocker skis covered in canvas before jumping on the Balsa bandwagon.
War, as it does, changed everything.
New materials like fibreglass and styrofoam were made possible by advances in technology following World War II. It wasn’t long before a surfer called Pete Peterson built the first board incorporating these new lightweight materials. ‘The Oom’, John Whitmore, shaped South Africa’s first styrofoam board in the 1950’s, shortly before polyurethane foam caught on. And the rest, as they say, is history. Foam and fibreglass quickly replaced wood as the preferred surfboard materials around the world.
But if modern surfing has showed us anything, it’s that there is still a lot of pleasure to be gained from revisiting the past, and innovating in the present.
Between them, Brian and Ant share over 60 years of experience and invaluable expertise. The depth of their craftsmanship is obvious as they explain the process they’ve adopted to build their boards.
“We’ve basically got a ply frame that’s constructed off a template, and it’s completely hollow inside” says Ant as he walks me through the first steps.
For each board, a template of ribs is cut out and stationed along a centre stringer. The ribs are then drilled to lose any excess weight without compromising their integral strength, and the basic skeleton is glued up. Once this has dried, flat timber rails are nailed on to keep everything stable.
“Then we sand it and this is when you start to actually shape,” Ant continues. “You might decide you want a slightly thinner tail so you’ll sand off the top of the ribs, you’ll take away more than what your template had. You might change your deck to make the board a bit thinner in the middle, change your rail…whatever. That’s up to you, but you shape the board to a degree by sanding the ribs.”
After this, the planks on the top deck are laid up and temporarily nailed in. This is also where you get to choose the wood you want. Balsa is the lightest but it has “no integral strength”, so the Campbells prefer working with Syrian and Japanese Cedar. “They are a little bit denser and a little bit heavier, but it’s gonna last you a lifetime” says Brian, tapping on the exquisite inlays.
“When we’ve laid it out, we flip it over and do the bottom. First you’ll sand all the little idiosyncrasies out, and then you can shape the bottom of your board,” Ant continues. “You can decide if you’re going to give it a vee or a concave, all those things. But you have to sand it into the individual ribs again, so it’s quite a process. What we’ll do is sand and then take a plank and lay it on to check whether the ribs are touching in all the right places and make sure we’re getting the desired shape. Is this side the same as that side? All that. So it’s not like a foam blank where you can kind of give it the eye, use a little fluorescent tube and ‘cheat’. If you’ve taken too much off, that means putting on a little strip and waiting for it to dry, and then you can sand it back to where if was supposed to be... You quickly get better at not making too many mistakes!”
After the bottom deck is shaped and laid up, the nails are removed from the entire board and it’s given a sanding.
The hardest part of the process though is still to come.
“When it’s all nice and smooth, we start sticking on the rails. And that is the most time consuming” says Ant.
Brian smiles wryly, “It’s punishment. That’s where most guys who’ve tried this have just given up.”
It’s plain to see why. The rails are made up over a number of days by meticulously laying up and sanding 12 thin strips of wood to create a perfectly curved outline.
“The shape of the rail is difficult, because you’ve got two angles” explains Ant. “You’ve got the bend of the board in the outline and then you’ve got the rocker, so as you turn that piece of wood it starts to flip up because it’s a flat piece of wood. It bends one way nicely, but when you bend it the other way, it twists, so you can only do three strips (one way) at a time. Then you wait overnight, sand it up, you do three more, wait overnight, sand it up again, wait, add three more…but then it’s like an iron bar. When it’s done it’s strong.”
The final step is to add the nose and tail blocks which are cut exactly to size and fitted. “Then you can do your final rail shaping, final sanding, and Bob’s your auntie, it’s ready to roll for glassing” says Ant.
The whole process is a labour of love that father and son have toiled many hours to master.
“When we started, our shape wasn’t exactly right – our rails were a little too thick, our board was a little too thick, the noses and the tails weren’t right,” Ant admits.
“Initially we didn’t have the confidence to come down, but we got a little bit wiser, worked a little harder and we refined it. Our shapes are right now. We can make them as thin as you like.”
In an era where a standard surfboard can be cut, shaped and glassed in an afternoon, each handcrafted board the Campbells make takes approximately one month from start to finish, including the final epoxy lamination. Ant and Brian estimate they can produce four boards comfortably a month, working on different stages in the process. It’s demanding, meticulous work made even more challenging by the fact that the farm runs off solar and wind power, which means the use of electrical tools is kept to a bare minimum. And the Campbells would have it no other way.
“We love woodwork. I think wood is fantastic and a lot of this stuff is just hand tooled with the hand saw, the hand planers,” says Ant. “We actually find that works much better than electric tools. Especially for things like the rails. To take a hand-planer to these, ahhh, it’s a pleasure!”
Ant catches himself and looks at me sheepishly. “I know I sound like a real hippie and I’m not,” he laughs. “But you can really feel the grain of the wood in the planer as you’re moving. With a belt planer you just feel a vibration, and you look over and voooovvv!” he mimes, holding the imaginary power-tool in his hand “Half of it’s gone and you can’t get it back.”
As beautiful as they are, Antz Boards are not about to take over the surfboard market, and that’s not the intention.
Although exceptionally light for wood, they’re still heavy compared to your standard 6’0” shred stick - you’re hardly going to be busting big air reverses on these babies. But they tap into something fundamentally pure about surfing. They draw beautiful lines, and the longer the board, the more negligible the weight difference becomes. What’s most unique, however, is that the Campbells want anybody who surfs these boards to be part of the ride, from start to finish. Their next step is three day workshops on the farm where surfers stay over and are shown how to build anything from a one-day Alaia, to their own wooden fish or longboard.
Shapers who actually want to share their secrets? It sounds almost as unusual as getting your custom order on time.
“When we first started my dad was a bit resistant because he said guys are going to steal our ideas, our techniques, which have taken forty, fifty years of experience to gain” says Ant. “But for me the ultimate pleasure is actually seeing people gain an ability that they thought they didn’t have, and suddenly putting it into effect by producing something they’d love to have, and they can put their name to it and say ‘listen, I did that’.
“We could set up a factory, make a whole lot of boards, and live that hectic life, but that’s not what we’re after. We’re wanting to make boards, surf the boards, and enjoy the people that enjoy the boards.”
“It will also improve our language enormously if we’ve got people watching us” quips Brian, who jokes that the debate between father and son occasionally gets heated in the shaping process.
“What we’d do is give them total training up in how to do a layup, how to cut those ribs, how to plank it up, and they could order the total kit from us. They’d learn the process here and then go home, and put it together in their own time. To a lot of guys and girls, that’s an accomplishment they can really be proud of.”
The fact that the farm borders its own beach with a few discreet but cooking waves close at hand for appies-in-training to enjoy definitely doesn’t hurt. We walk around the back of the workshop to survey this playing field, from the headlands of some of the Southern Cape’s finest points in the distance, to the beach in front of us. It’s here that Ant collects much of the resources for his other project he shares with his sons Max and Oz, an initiative they call Sea-cycled: using debris and washed up litter from the beach to make anything from mobiles and candelabras to furniture. He shows me a bowl that’s been made with leftover epoxy and crushed shells. He’s busy working on a lamp stand made from the circular plugs of washed up slipslops. He can fashion you a designer bench from driftwood and probably build you a house from the most unlikely by-products, as I soon find out.
“I’m far from a tree-hugger” Ant chuckles. “But in all the sports I’ve done, I always believe you’ve got to give back. Otherwise you’re just a user. I mean, how else are you going to promote a positive way of thinking?”
“So I’m taking from the environment, taking the wood, and then giving back by taking away the junk at the beach…I mean, it’s just a little bit. But I’m enjoying the beach, enjoying the waves, so I feel I also need to be giving back.”
We walk through the garden where the Campbells grow all their own veggies, the wind turbine working hard above us as we come round to a circular room at the back of the house. A wooden plaque shaped like a bone greets you at the door with the words ‘Dog Box’ engraved into it.
“The dog was living here, but he got evicted,” grins Ant as I’m shown inside what was formerly a large rainwater tank that’s been converted into a cosy bedroom, replete with fireplace and a driftwood ceiling. The ingenious unit would have most trendy interior decorator types klutzing with rustic delight, but for Ant it’s just a resourceful means to an end.
Outside is an open air shower. The best feature: a small square window looking directly onto a nearby lineup so you can check what the waves are like while soaping up.
It’s getting late, and Ant needs to get back to work. Before I leave, my parting shot is to ask him what the master plan is. He smiles quietly and says nothing for a while, then replies.
“Doing this, you learn the old handmade skills that we used to have. And it’s lekker skills to learn, it’s hands-on, and us people of today are losing those skills.
“Hopefully my sons take over the surfboard making function of this business, that’s the plan – that one generation, my father, hands over to my generation, and I hand over to my kids.”
Source: Zigzag Surfing Magazine