The Leatherfoot Fish Project – Building a Wood Surfboard

Leatherfoot Fish Surfboard

Words and Pictures by Gero Lilleike

The thought of building my own surfboard has always appealed to me.  Naturally, things like time, money and commitment have stood in my way for some time, but that all changed in a heart beat. I came across wood surfboard builder, Patrick Burnett of Burnett Wood Surfboards on the internet and from that moment, a little seed was planted in my brain. It took more than two months for that seed to grow and I finally decided to build my very own hollow wood surfboard. It’s far too easy to walk into your local surf shop and choose a surfboard, whereas building your own, from wood, brings a whole new level of satisfaction.

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Choosing a Shape

Patrick Burnett, a surfer and waterman, has a wealth of surfing knowledge and offers building courses for a variety of surfboards and SUP’s from his workshop in Scarbourgh, Cape Town. But what shape to build? I wanted a board that would be fun to surf in the slop, easy to paddle, but it also needed to perform when the waves were cranking. I also wanted to build a surfboard that was different to what I was used to surfing on a regular basis.

Patrick Burnett and Gero Lilleike in the zone.

Patrick suggested a fish and I immediately liked the idea. I’ve never surfed or owned a fish before and the design appealed to me. I was sold. This particular fish shape is a classic retro Steve Lis outline with a twin-fin setup. The original shape is a 5’6″, this being a step-up 6’0″ of the same design. This particular board also has some added girth in the rails to float my belly but also makes catching waves easier which will help get that wave count up.

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Working with Wood

Patrick knows best when it comes to building a wooden surfboard and he managed to source some beautiful Redwood that would, with a bit of blood and sweat, become the Leatherfoot Fish. Like anything, the construction of a hollow wood surfboard happens in phases and with wood, you have the choice to exploit certain characteristics for aesthetic appeal but also to achieve and exceed your surfing expectations. The wood is the key ingredient and the possibilities are endless, making this board and the building experience, completely unique.

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Working wood takes time and patience and each phase of the process affects the end result, so paying attention to detail is important from start to finish. Each phase is a challenge, from constructing the decks, building and planing the rails, setting the ribs, sculpting the rails, sanding, chipping away, and sanding some more, its all an adventure. With each sweeping pass of your plane and every shaving that falls to the floor, you learn and discover. Every moment is savored. It’s magical.

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As for the artwork on the surfboard, I approached my friend and artist, Steve Erwin, to apply his knowledge and create something unique. I felt that artwork would give the surfboard some character and we decided to take a minimalist approach as we didn’t want to detract from the beauty of the wood itself. The oak tree on the top deck of the surfboard is symbolic of my surname, meaning ‘Little Oak’, while the fish on the underside represents the board itself which has been dubbed ‘Leatherfoot Fish’.  The artwork was applied using stencils and water-based acrylic through an airbrush.
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I recently had the chance to surf the Leatherfoot Fish in perfect 4-5 ft surf at Muizenberg, which was exceptionally fun. I was brimming with stoke. There is nothing quite like pacing along the face of a wave on a surfboard you crafted yourself. The feeling was just incredible and I can’t wait to do it again.

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