On The Horizon 2.13.2020
A Conversation with Henry Warder
On the first calm weekend in nearly a month, Henry patiently disassembles his blue picnic table on his back porch, moving it down the stairs and into the yard. In its place, he constructs a large horseshoe-shaped apparatus that seems comically incongruous with the Christmas lights and old birthday balloons that surround it.
In Henry’s house in the Inner Sunset district of San Francisco, there are three bedrooms, five roommates, and one bathroom. Now, there’s also a shaping bay. Clear tarp has been taped along the base of guard rails outlining the porch, completely enveloping the six by ten-foot space. Henry wanders deliberately, inspecting his workplace before giving himself a non-verbal final go-ahead. He brings out a seven-foot foam blank from his kitchen and delicately places it in the rack.
It's shaping day.
Henry’s journey into the shaping bay was almost inevitable. A mechanical engineer by training, he has designed medical devices and prosthetics for the past six years. When his work as a medical device engineer brought him to San Diego, it didn’t take long for him to catch the surfing bug.
It took even less time for him to transition from surfer to shaper. He had begun buying foam blanks and designing his own boards in a construction site next to his office. That was the birth his new surfboard company: Horizon Surfboards.
Now living in San Francisco, Henry’s affinity for shaping has continued to grow. Henry sat down with me to discuss his journey into the shaping bay, his love for the weird-looking boards, and how his experience as a medical device engineer has informed his shaping.
When we were living in San Diego, we had only been surfing for a few months before you told me you were going to shape your own board. If I recall correctly, I literally laughed in your face. But you went and did it. What was that spark for you to start shaping?
Well, San Diego is a pretty big hot spot for making and shaping boards. I think there's definitely a bit of a culture of shaping boards in San Diego that doesn't exist many other places. I had a coworker who had shaped a lot of boards and glassed a lot of boards and it seemed like a really good opportunity to do it. And so I just decided to go for it. To dive in. But I think I was enamored by the prospect of riding something that I had made. I wanted to know the feeling of making design changes - design decisions that would directly affect how I rode or how I surfed. Even if I didn't really know what I was doing to begin with [chuckling].
I’d like to talk about the parallel between designing & fabricating prosthetics and surfboard shaping. In both cases, there’s this human component - a person would be giving feedback on how it felt and behaved. Can you tell me how designing prosthetics and other medical devices has influenced your shaping process?
I would say that the act of doing either of them are definitely two very separate things in my mind. But I think that the underlying motivations behind why I'm drawn to them are similar.
With surfing, I think I spent 90 percent of the time thinking about the hydrodynamics of the board, the curves, learning about the tiny minutia of why certain boards are shaped the way they are, and why [shapers] make those decisions. And I think that that is really a reflection of my design mindset that I focused on when I first started doing it. That probably stems from my background as an engineer.
I think one of the big reasons why I'm drawn to [shaping] is that it is a humbling experience. You can make all these calculations and spend all this time planning the exact dimensions of it, what's it going to look like, and how it's going to feel. Even if you spend 90 percent of the time doing that, it doesn't matter once you trace the outline on the blank and start hacking away.
So much of it comes down to feel. And I think part of the reason why the first three boards I made are almost unsurfable is because I underestimated how much of shaping surfboards comes down to feel. I underestimated how much of [shaping] is learning to let go of the detailed plans that you had made and detailed ideas of what you wanted it to be.
When shaping, what are the specific hydrodynamic principles you're looking for?
So, there are a couple of main principles that I would say really affect how a surfboard feels and how it performs. I've been experimenting with different types of bottom concaves, different types of tail shapes, and different types of rails. I’ll try my best to explain one principle I pay attention to.
As you drop into the wave and you're going sideways across the face of the wave, the water curls up and around you. So, the direction of the water is going up. As your board is glued into the side of the waves, the water hits the bottom of the board and a portion of it will go out the back of the board because you're moving forward. You want the board to be channeling that water back. But another big portion of the water also comes up and crawls around the side of the board.
A major hydrodynamic principal: water likes curves. Flow likes curves. If you have gentle curves that don't have a lot of change in radius, the water sticks to it really, really well. So, as your rails get fatter, your board will be better glued in the side of the wave. You can then stick to the inside of a really steep wave easily.
The first board I made had super thick rails (edges of the surfboard), and that's great if I'm pulling into, you know, fifteen-foot screamers, which I'm not. On the second board I shaped, I made the rails really skinny, really thin. They're still rounded, but it's just a smaller radius in curvature. Because of that, it didn’t do very well in big waves. You can't really drop into a wave and feel like you're getting held. On the most recent board I shaped, I tried to strike a balance between more of a small wave, skinnier rail and something that's a little bit fatter so I can handle more conditions. But that that's something that I've been playing with and trying to dial in.
You’ve had quite the collection of Craigslist boards. What leads to the high turnover of boards in your quiver?
[Laughing] I've cycled through God knows how many boards. Now I feel like upwards of 15 to 20 in the last year. I feel like part of the reason why I'm so drawn to trolling Craigslist and finding these boards is because I want to know what [a specific design] feels like or, you know, why someone decided to make this board look this way. If you make this design, what does that change? What does that change in what I feel when I'm surfing?
So, I think I'm really drawn to that. I'd say 70 percent of what draws me to surfing is the boards. Yeah, the shaping of the boards, the designing of the boards. The different feelings that the boards give in waves. There is almost no other sport on Earth that enables that. It's a really beautiful thing to have such total creative control over your gear... over the things that enable your performance in the sport. I can't think of another sport that has that and that makes it so easy for surfers to experiment.
Would you say that’s why you’re so attracted to the eccentric looking boards?
I think part of the reason why I'm drawn to eccentric shapes is that weird, and exaggerated shapes better allow you to feel what that difference makes in your surfing. It gives you a better understanding of whether a certain board element is advantageous for the type of wave you're surfing most regularly.
When I see those boards out there [in the water] with those unique features and designs, I think about the decisions the shaper made when he or she was making that board. I then want to understand those decisions. I can't see a weird board or not try surfing it and not try to emulate it in my own way.
What’s your favorite surfboard design?
I don't have a favorite. But I really like some of the stuff that George Greenough pioneered back in the 70’s maybe? He developed what's called an edge board, which is a wonky looking surfboard. There are no other surfboards out there that look like it, but it is fine tuned to be both a really good big wave board and also a small mushy wave board.
And it's basically two boards in one. It has this weird sort of spine that runs concentrically around the rails of the board that channel water really easily through the center. When you're in a big wave, the water will hit the rails, but also channel back along the outer channels to keep the water tucked onto that fat rail. It glues you into the side of waves really well. But if you're on a small wave, the bottom portion is just one very shallow, single concave, which makes you get up and planing on the water much quicker. You can get through flat parts of waves or small waves, but you can also feel good about pulling into big, scary, steep waves. I think that's really cool.
It was designed because this one guy had a vision and decided he would just try it, tweak it, and play with it until it works. And there are all these great stories of him like out on the beach trying out a new design. If it doesn't quite work, he doesn't have sandpaper with him because he's surfing. So, he comes in and finds a block of concrete and is sanding away at the board on the beach.
Yeah. He'll sand away at portions of the board and then get car bog, which is like spackle, and just slap it on top of the board. He'll kind of mold it how he wants it, then go back out and try it again. That is so cool. So old school. I think the image of that is awesome. It's like hacking away with like a piece of concrete and then covering up with car spackle and going back out. That is really incredible.
Tell me about some of the other shapers you admire
I mean, anyone who read this will think that I'm going to say Ryan Burch... and I am going to say Ryan Burch. [Laughing].
I mean if you didn’t, it would be a lie.
I have such a crush on Ryan. So obviously, Ryan Burch.
Have you ever met him before?
You know the answer to that... I chickened out. I chickened out. I chickened out. I could've met him, but I chickened out because I was fanboying. He was too far away. He was too cool. He was surrounded by other cool shapers. And I didn't. I felt like I couldn't do it. But Ryan Burch is really amazing.
Because he's taking those risks. He's not content with just shaping the squash tail thruster. He wants to try and figure out why boards work the way they do. I mean, some of the shapes are out there and they're weird and almost exaggerated in their design intent. But it's clear to me that he's picking something that he wants to learn about, exaggerating it, surfing it, figuring out how it feels, and then filing that away in his encyclopedia of tricks to use in his next board.
Can you describe to me how shaping a board is different from other engineering projects you take on?
Definitely. It gives me more of an outlet to work with my hands. I think it makes me a better designer and engineer because it forces me to be really intentional as well. You can't put foam back. Once it's off the blank it's off. You can't put it back. If you're moving too fast or if you're not focusing or if your mind's not in it and you know, you take a little too much off, now you've got to course correct.
On my first board, I didn’t give it the amount of time that it needed. And I think that learning that lesson was a really humbling thing. And I think it has really translated into my work as a designer and engineer.
I think it's definitely a form of meditation for me in that way. Everything gets shut out. And for that day or for however long, that's all I can think about.
Last question – what does Horizon Surfboards look like in 5 years?
Here's the dream. Here's the dream. The dream is that I continue to shape and that it turns into enough of a side project for me that people are asking me to shape them boards.
At this point it's not about making money. You know, it's just about getting the reps in, practicing, and trying out as many different things as I can. The whole reason that I started it is to have an outlet for testing out all the different parts of my encyclopedia.
I think that I'd like to hope that surfboard design will continue to evolve and change. And as people start to understand more about why surfboards work the way they do, that, people will be more open to try wonky designs.
Henry is living in San Francisco and shaping boards. Check out his website & portfolio at henrywarder.carbonmade.com and Horizon Surfboards (@HorizonSurfboards) on Instagram.