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Monday, November 12, 2012
Updated: December 5, 2:14 AM ET
Good Wood


Handcrafted surfboards, snowboards and skateboards made from wood. Yes, they're made for riding.

Snowboards and surfboards have, without a doubt, enjoyed the benefits of modern materials like P-tex, foam and fiberglass. Take a look at the walls of any snowboard or surf shop and you'll see the products of modern design and fabrication lined up in their shiny and eye-catching glory.

This is what makes the Wood Shop, Grain Surfboard's recently opened storefront in Portsmouth -- a small city situated right between some of the best surf spots on the New Hampshire and Maine coasts -- such a unique experience.

Up a narrow and off-kilter staircase, past a mural that says "hand built," all the usual wares are on display: surfboards, snowboards and skateboards. Except, in this case, they are made of a simpler, more humble material: wood.

The lustrous sheen of the Grain surfboards makes them seemingly pop off the wall, drawing you in to study the meticulously designed layers of wood that craftsmen in York, Maine, spend countless hours building. A wall of PowderJets are racked like a series of art pieces, each featuring a different design of wood grain on the top and bottom. Wooden skateboards, paipo, hand planes and other tree-born ephemera fill out the space.

Up until the last 60 years or so, if you wanted a surfboard you probably built it yourself out of wood.

-- Mike LaVecchia

The allure of the material is strong, but given the performance of modern equipment, what is motivating people to want to ride these things?

"We seem to forget that for thousands of years people rode only wood boards," says Grain Surfboards co-owner Mike LaVecchia. "In fact, up until the last 60 years or so, if you wanted a surfboard you probably built it yourself out of wood. But times have changed and the industry has convinced us that we all need to be surfing an ultra-lightweight board made from foam and shaped by a famous person."

Working with wood, LaVecchia says, is a time-tested method of making surfboards. The knowledge base was already there; it just got left on the sidelines. Grain wants to pick that up and take it forward.

"What we're trying to do is go back in time and pick up where wood boards left off," says LaVecchia. "We're taking basic techniques that Tom Blake and others invented in the '40s and applying some modern thinking and materials to create a board that has all the environmental benefits of simpler times, but also serves the needs of today's surfers."

Grain boards take surfing back to its roots.

Inspired by his friends at Grain, PowderJet founder Jesse Loomis decided to try to take that same design ethos to his own backyard, making snowboards one at a time with an eye on pow-friendly shaping and durable, sustainable wood-based constructions.

"I'm a carpenter, so was well aware of the strength and versatility of wood, and I've seen enough old Burton Backhills that were clearly used for many seasons of powder surfing before they were retired," says Loomis. "The PowderJet attempts to bridge the chasm between how snowboarding started out and where it seems to be headed."

For both companies, using wood is a shift in thinking that takes an extra dose of communication to reach potential buyers. Both brands already sell their boards in traditional surf/snow shops, but, as LaVecchia explains, the Wood Shop was the chance to showcase their lines in a more hands-on manner.

"Every one of our boards is unique," says LaVecchia. "It's important for people to be able to see, touch and feel them in order to understand what goes into them. It's fun to see peoples' reactions when they actually see one of our boards firsthand."

"I think there is a bit a resistance to the wooden boards," adds Loomis, "just by the nature of their not looking as polished and versatile as your standard park board, and I totally get that."

The Wood Shop gave Loomis a chance to make sure the qualities of a PowderJet deck can be appreciated firsthand. "It's a super-tactile experience when you pick that thing up and eyeball it; it has such unique lines, and people really respond in a cool way when they picture what the board might feel like strapped to their feet on a big powder day."

Real Vermont maple syrup for sale as well as boards? Why wouldn't there be?

Classes where dedicated surfers can build their own surfboards are a big part of Grain's program, and so, despite the diminutive, 600-square-foot size of the Wood Shop, Grain will be building a board over the course of the next few months, opening up the floor for visitors to ask questions and get involved in the process.

Concern for using resources responsibly is central to that process, a mindset that Wood Shop's focus on natural, recycled and organic materials reflects.

"We're trying to support local businesses and show our customers that they can be out enjoying the things they love to do while using products that have much less impact on the environment they're enjoying it in," says LaVecchia.

But it's not just hippie ideals; performance, sustainability and handcraft are equal players here.

"Why would someone rather ride a board that does less damage to the environment, used mostly natural materials, was built by hand -- and possibly their own hands -- lasts a long time and surfed as well or better than foam?" says LaVecchia. "I guess I'd ask, 'Why wouldn't they?'"