San Diego-based surfboard shaper Jeff McCallum creates functional works of art. With humble beginnings sweeping and boxing boards for other shapers, he has worked his way up to top of his craft. Blending retro-inspired shapes with modern color palettes and a serious commitment to craftsmanship, McCallum's surfboards are some of the most sought after in the world. He has traversed the globe shaping for clients from France to Japan, including a session at Deus Bali. Always crafting by hand, continually innovative in color, materials and shape, the young artisan talked shop with us.
The age old question: how did you get into shaping?
I started working for San Diego-based shaper Chris Christenson. I had just moved to San Diego from Denver. My dad was always out here for work and I eventually just made the move and never left. I was surfing Crystal Pier where I met a guy who was just quitting with Christenson. It's really hard to get your foot in the door, so I interviewed.
I was pretty much the shop rat—I did all the dirty work. Eventually I started using the shaping room and glassing. By the time I left, I was glassing boards for him at night and working during the day. Christenson gave me a foot in the door, but he didn't hold my hand. He taught me the respectful side of paying my dues and taking my time. I learned not to blow up too soon, where my skills wouldn't be ready to keep up with demand. I took time developing skills and so I was able to deliver before the demand came up.
Your work has exploded in popularity, especially in Japan, Australia and France. Why do your boards appeal to these surfers so much?
In all those places, Japan especially, people really appreciate quality handmade goods. In the US people are beginning to transition out of buying big box mass-produced goods, but in Japan, Europe and Australia they really have respect for quality and craftsmanship. It's something they can pass down to their kids and keep forever. It's something they can be proud of owning, proud of the story behind it.
Especially in Japan, the lineage of shapers is a big deal for people. Christenson was taught by Dick Brewer who was taught by Bob Sheppard who was taught by the father of modern surfing Duke Kanamoku himself. I've got the same thing going. I'm bringing in the next generation the same way I was brought in, lots of hard work and dedication to the craft. Chris' popularity in Japan definitely helped me out. As I get older I start appreciating quality and the story behind things, from surfboards to furniture. If I can get a board from the old masters like Brewer or Gerry Lopez, it's really cool. It's like anything you buy where you pay a bit more. You can have pride in what you own. It takes a lot of time, labor and skill from my whole crew. There are lots of guys who have been doing this for 30 years and you'll never see their name in a magazine.
Your board styles definitely have an eye on the past. Are you more influenced by surf style of the past or present?
It's a little bit of both. For the guys in the past, style was more important. You could be ripping turns, have no style and be a total kook. Now it's a bit different, you can be doing huge airs with no style and still win contests. In my mind, the optimum is a mix. You want to be ripping hard and powerful, but it's got to be smooth. The boards I make definitely help that, they surf a bit smoother. Look at Joel Tudor. There's just something about his style, even if you don't surf you'll stop and watch.
Outside of surfing, what are some of your major design influences?
The design stuff comes from a lot of different places. I like things that are high quality and simple. Look at older Porsches, before GPS screens and all of the electronics. The interiors are simple, all function-based design—it's clean, it's tight, it's pure organization. No frills. That really appeals to me and goes in to the boards I make. There are few companies that do it well, Apple is another. Even if something is simple and high quality, the details have to be there too. It's all about the details, people appreciate them and they can make or break a product. Right now there's a lot of pressure on me to do a clothing line and extensive branding. I just don't want to half-ass it. It's got to be tight. Same with interviews (laughs), everything's gotta be on point. Wading through what's good in media, branding and clothing is tough.
Rumors have been going around that you're going to hang up your tools in 2015. What's next and why call it?
2015 is a big change for me as a shaper and business owner. At one point I was over the whole thing, but it's something I really like to do. I've created a good business and lifestyle. In 2015, I'm going to do it the way I want to do it, not the way other people want it or tell me to. If it works, that's awesome. If not, I'll retire.
Right now, I am able to create a new, risky design, surf it myself and pass it along to some friends to test out. Every board is really different, we don't make four models in a range of sizes. It can be confusing for the customer, but I don't want to mass produce. I'd rather let them figure it out. We'll take a step back in production, but a step forward in product design and quality. I want to spend more time shaping and less time on the computer. Our boards will become even harder to find—if you want it, you're going to have to hustle to find it. It's coming to a critical point in my career, where I either need to go big in production or do it my way. I'm choosing my way.
Check out McCallum Surfboards for more information or to commission your own board.
Images by Garrett Highhouse