Working with wood is all about the feel, the smell, and the craftsmanship – riding a wooden surfboard is no different. The riding and making of a wooden surfboard has become ever more popular in recent years due to the divergent paths many surfers are taking with their wave riding.
Not since the advent of foam blanks have so many surfers felt the glide of a plane across wood and the glide of the same piece of wood across the water.
Paul Riesberg of Arbo surfboards has been using his traditional boatbuilding skills to build hollow wooden boards for surfers and has also taught many surfers to build there own.
How did you get into surfing?
I grew up in landlocked Germany so surfing came later. As a teenager I was really into skateboarding, punk rock, and all the interesting stuff coming out of California – which first introduced me to surfing – but I really became hooked on surfing on my first surf trip with some friends when I was 16. We went to France with boards way too small and no clue how to ride them. I didn’t catch many waves on the trip, but I learnt a lot and surfing has been a constant part of my life since then.
Where else have you travelled to surf and has this influenced your board building?
Canaries, up and down the Atlantic coast of France, Spain, Portugal, Sylt Island in Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Chile, New York, Ecuador, Outer Hebrides, UK, and the Severn Bore.
I feel riding different waves, boards, and broadening my surfing experience has lead me to look for something different from the surfboards I ride and make. Surfing should be about individual experience.
What kinds of boards do you like to build and ride?
I am not really interested in high performance, competition orientated surfing. I want to design and build boards that are simply fun to ride.
In my quiver at the moment is a pig longboard 9’2, a 6’7 semi-hull single fin with super pinched rails, a 7’2 tracker mid-length, and a 5’11 Simmons inspired quad.
How did you get into boat building and has this influenced your shaping?
After dropping out of University I was keen to learn a woodworking trade and continue to surf, so after a winter season in Morocco I applied for a place at a boat building college in Milford Haven, Wales, and got enrolled. I bought an old ford transit for £1000 to live in and take me surfing – and Wales was much sunnier than I thought!
A lot of the techniques and tools I use in the building process of the wooden surfboards are borrowed from both traditional and modern wooden boatbuilding. In a way these hollow wooden surfboards are little boats. So, the boat building really provided me with a lot of the knowledge, tools, opportunity and inspiration to start making hollow wooden surfboards.
How did you end up living, surfing, and making surfboards in Cornwall?
After graduating from the boat building college I worked on projects in Wales, London (on the new royal yacht), and Bristol – whilst travelling around Europe in between projects to run build-your-own surfboard courses. I became fed up with working 9-5 in city boatyards and had been spending my weekends at the coast surfing, so when my contract finished in Bristol I moved to Cornwall with a plan to find a boatbuilding job, but my courses by this time became popular enough for me to focus on them and here I am.
What is your family connection to wood and is working with wood an important part of your passion?
My dads father was a piano maker (there are still Riesberg pianos around and I use some of his old tools), my uncle taught marquetry, my brother is a carpenter, and my great grandfather was an arborist who had his own tree nursery.
The beauty of wood is that it is much nicer to the senses than working with surfboard foam – wood smells, looks and feels much better. Working in wood allows me to work in a completely different set up than if I was working in foam and I produce hardly any waste – the waste I do produce is getting used to fire our D.I.Y. hot tub.
Is there a sustainability angle to Arbo Surfboards?
Quantifying the sustainability of a surfboard is difficult, but I don’t think a far east mass-produced eps board with a paulownia skin on it that won’t last more than a year is sustainable. I recycle what I can and make boards to last. I use Entropy super sap resin which is 50% cleaner than petroleum based resins and I also use paulownia which is a fast growing tree.
I think that the surfing lifestyle in many cases isn’t a very sustainable activity. The difference the board you are riding makes, compared to the lifestyle you are living, is minimal. Even if the board is built out of locally grown trees. There are other choices in life that make a much bigger difference than the choice of your surfboard. For example, I reduced my impact on the environment more by becoming vegan than swopping foam for wood.
There is often so much more room to reduce consumption in many other areas. Until an individual has made all the biggest reductions they can make in their environmental impact an ‘eco surfboard’ doesn’t make enough of a difference.
Nobody really needs a surfboard and no one really needs a wooden surfboard, even though it is a great experience to build a wooden surfboard with your own hands and surf it. I always remember that it is a luxury I can afford because I am in a privileged position in the world.
What are your plans and ambitions for Arbo Surfboards?
There are around 300-400 surfboards out there built by me or under my tutelage and I am looking forward to reach a thousand. So, as long as there is a demand, I will continue to help people to build their own board and make custom boards – with a view people are having fun on a board that will last a long time.
I do workshops all over Europe each year – Spain, Ireland, Germany, France and the UK. Now that I have a larger workshop in Cornwall near Perranporth I can offer more classes and with greater flexibility here in Cornwall, UK.
Words by Mark Sankey
All images Alexa Poppe