Giving Shape

I’ll take it black,” says Bob “Ole” Olson, keeping it simple as he always does. I stash the sugar packets in my pocket and hand him a steaming cup of dark coffee. Lahaina’s merciless sun is winning the battle against the air conditioner inside the small industrial unit that Olsen has transformed into a vintage shaping room. But Ole—calm, collected and cool— gulps his cup of warm Joe, sits it on a shelf and grabs an electric planer from a wall-spanning collage of basic shaping tools: tape measures, hand saws, levels, t-squares, calipers and dozens of his time-tested templates.

Even at 79 years old, Olsen’s still-chiseled arms glide the planer down the rails of a Styrofoam blank with effortless precision. Ole operates like a surgeon, but one who wears board shorts instead of scrubs. His smile illuminates the room. His tanned bare feet appear snow-covered from the two inches of foam dust accumulated on the floor.

After a few passes with the planer, Ole looks up at me and explains, “I’m so happy to still be doing what I’m doing. I’ve always done things a certain way and that’s always worked for me.” The surrounding clippings, letters, autographed celebrity photos, posters and trophies are a testament that both surfing and shaping have been good to Ole—and Ole good to them.

Ole was born in Long Beach, California on November 27, 1929, one month after the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. At 18, cruising down to San Onofre in his Ford Model A, Ole was one of a small handful of Mainland surfers. His redwood surfboard was ridiculously heavy and the waters were frigid without a wetsuit. 

“It’s funny when I look back at it. We never thought surfing would become so popular,” Ole remembers. “We just thought of it as a passing fad.”

After serving a tour in the Korean War, Ole returned to California and took a job teaching woodshop at Garden Grove High School in Orange County. During his summer vacations he shaped surfboards and sold them out of an old quonset hut in Sunset Beach, just north of Huntington. 

A close friend of Ole’s, Dick Metz, is the founder of The Surfing Heritage Foundation, which serves as the unofficial archive of all things surfing. “That old shop of Ole’s was definitely one of the first surf shops ever,” says Metz. “Sure, there were people building surfboards and selling them, but Ole actually had a shop where people could go and buy one.”

Besides some small corner advertisements in the first issues of Surfer magazine, Ole never did much marketing. He continued shaping into the early ’60s, as surfboard materials switched from balsa and redwoods to polyurethane foam and fiberglass. But instead of pursuing it full time, Ole stuck with teaching wood-shop and sold the rights to his business to Hobie Alter. Alter would continue to sell surfboards under the distinguished “Ole” name.

As the surfing population continued climbing worldwide, Metz believes few of the surfers from that early generation realized, or even cared about, the sport’s monetary potential. “We were from the Depression generation, and we just wanted to surf as much as we could,” says Metz. “We were never into it for the money.”

Ole’s handcrafted approach to shaping has always emphasized the quality of his product over profit. “Ole has always been one of those guys who can make art out of foam,” says legendary surfer and original Ole team rider Corky Carroll. “But being a true craftsman, he was never a high volume guy. I don’t think he ever wanted to put out 10,000 boards a year—he’s happier with a few good ones.”

In 1971, Ole moved to Maui, worked as a finish carpenter and eventually started making custom surfboards full-time. To this day, he continues to create some of the finest surfboards in the business.

Although the shaping industry has undergone massive changes with regard to materials, technology and theory, Ole’s methodology remains the same. “Bob is one of the few shapers with a link to the beginning of modern surfing,” says Matt Kinoshita, owner of Kazuma Surfboards. “He has knowledge and experience that younger shapers like myself will never know.” 

Ole uses his hands and eyes to make his cuts instead of relying on computer programs. Because of this, Kinoshita says Ole’s handcrafted boards can’t be reproduced by today’s technology. “I believe that Bob knows his tools so well that it would actually be harder to get the same perfect, finished product that he gets by hand-shaping. Each of his creations is a special work of art that no machine could duplicate.” 

To the surfboard connoisseur, purchasing a good Ole board is like investing in a blue chip stock. Randy Rarick is a surf industry luminary, the man behind the Triple Crown of Surfing and event producer of the annual Hawaiian Islands Vintage Surf Auction. “We actually won’t have any classic Ole boards at the auction this year,” says Rarick. “And I think the reason is that whoever has a really good Ole simply doesn’t want to get rid of it.“ 

Continues Rarick: “While other shapers have come and gone, Ole’s work has transcended five generations of surfing. And so a classic Ole board from the ‘60s could easily sell from $5,000 to $10,000 at the auction.”

As I listen to Ole talk story from across the shaping room, it becomes clear that he’s one of the most singular characters I’ve ever met, with some of the best stories. His shaping has built friendships with surfing celebrities like Jimmy Buffet; a signed photograph from Jimmy reads: “Ole, thanks for the board, she’s beautiful, and we don’t look bad either for a bunch of old farts.”

As a prank, Ole once bought a cheap drum set for the six-year-old son of some friends, knowing the little guy would keep them up all night. Some 30 years later, that six-year-old had turned into a man and introduced himself to Ole as Tris Imboden, the drummer for Chicago. 

When he was 66, Ole was featured in the second edition of a book by Etta Clark titled, Growing Old Is Not for Sissies: Portraits of Senior Athletes.  Another legendary Maui surfer, the late Woody Brown, who surfed until he was 89, is featured on the cover of the same book holding an Ole surfboard. At 79, Ole continues to surf. There must be something in the water. 

Before we say our goodbyes, Ole and I discuss why we love surfing so much. “It has something to do with the chemistry of moving water and all those positive ions bouncing around,” he says. “Surfers are surrounded by, and addicted to, that positive energy.” 

But Ole believes this holds true for all people. “Ask anyone to close their eyes and imagine a peaceful place, and most people will describe themselves besides an ocean, river, lake, or waterfall,” he says. “Moving water puts people at ease.”

Pulling away from Ole’s shop, with his shaka in my rearview, I think about how some people can have that same effect on us—and how Ole’s shaping goes far beyond foam and fiberglass. MTW

Photos by Sean Michael Hower

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