“”Each day, before and after school, I struggled over that board, pulling a drawknife toward me, shaving it down, while everybody groaned and looked the other way. A drawknife is a dandy tool for disemboweling yourself — sort of instant hara-kiri — but we both survived.” — PHIL EDWARDS
FROM MALCOLM GAULT-WILLIAMS’ LEGENDARY SURFERS WEBSITE
In 1951, Phil Edwards was all of 13 years old, and already shaping his own boards. “Give a small surfer a solid board that is too big for him, hand him a saw and a drawknife, and — zap! — you’ve got another surfboard designer,” Edwards later wrote, adding, “The idea is to come up with the correct shape and still keep all your fingers and toes.”
The first thing Edwards had attempted with an 11-foot redwood and balsa wood board he bought was to try it out. He didn’t like its tendency to pearl. So, “Second thing I did with my 11-foot board was to saw it down to 9 feet,” recalled Edwards. “I put a point of sorts on the tip of it. Then I sat down on the Oceanside beach, put it across my lap — and we spent the winter that way, the board and I.
“Each day, before and after school, I struggled over that board, pulling a drawknife toward me, shaving it down, while everybody groaned and looked the other way. A drawknife is a dandy tool for disemboweling yourself — sort of instant hara-kiri — but we both survived.
“Several months and 35 pounds of shavings later, I had it: a whole new shape, finely tapered toward the nose and tail, a mean-looking board I could ride. The thing just lay there and glistened: It carried nine coats of 87 Spar Varnish and a shape called Early Edwards. It was still too heavy — I could lean it against the lifeguard tower and know that the wind wouldn’t blow it over — but it was ready.
“Not that the Model A Edwards No. 1 was perfect. In fact, the thing still dived to the bottom, taking me with it, and it still shot into the air in a fine, knifelike deadliness. And, worse, it introduced a new problem.
“Working in early-balsa meant that nose blocks on the boards were deeply doweled and glued into place. Which was fine, if you intended to use the board for a coffee table or something non-combative like that. It was decidedly not fine for surfing.
“The boards would pearl to the bottom, slam into the sand, and come up without noses. In those early years in California on a clear day you could hear surfboard noses snapping off all up and down the coast. Which meant that every day of surfing was followed by a long afternoon and evening of re-doweling and re-gluing nose pieces — so that we could surf the next day. So that we could re-glue the next night, so we could surf the next day, you know?
“Still, balsa had its advantages,” admitted Edwards. “The wood is nicely soft, and after weeks of paddling the board, the deck conformed into fine, molded kneeholes which made it comfortable.
“The Crisis-Every-Day life — I hated it at the time — taught me a number of things. Most importantly, it taught me how to use tools, and, in its own way, it taught me how to surf.
“I have a theory about this… It is, simply stated: If you start from scratch, cut down a tree, design, carve, shape and build a surfboard; by the time you are done with it, you will know how to ride it.”
The young gremmie got known for his efforts on his own board. As Edwards tells it, “word began to get around. Edwards is hooked on surfboards. If your board is too big — take it over to Edwards’ garage. He’ll fix it. Fix it: I probably screwed up more surfboards in those early days than anybody else. Our garage became a graveyard of old surfboard noses, kids kept coming around and I kept working over their boards; they were happy and I was learning more about the game. And I kept going back to my own, hacked-off board and looking at the thing. It wasn’t right, somehow.
“So I made a balsa-wood sandwich out of it. That is: I glued more wood on top of the nose and reshaped the whole thing. It began to have lift.
“Meanwhile, back in the surf, we had spread out as far afield as San Onofre and Huntington Cliffs.”
A momentous day came when Phil Edwards discovered the curl of a wave. “One day — by accident — I got caught in a curl,” Edwards wrote. “There should be a certain amount of tympani and crashing background music here because, in a way, this is what surfing is all about… I was scared to death. Here, the whole object of surfing was to stand nicely erect and make it all the way into the beach. And here I was, crouched in some crazy, unconventional posture on this rebuilt board, flying along while the wave broke across my back and shoulders, in a sort of delicate, hanging balance between two worlds.
“Understand, we knew nothing of trimming boards. That is, you stood on the board where you got up, or occasionally moved to the fantail to get the nose up. Anything else was nonsense. Still, in the curl, I had automatically trimmed the board into the wave until it was zinging along on the rail — and dropped into a crouch, not in any premonition of style but to keep on top of the thing as long as I could.
“Surfing history had just come full circle. That is, the Hawaiians had discovered and done this sort of thing more than a thousand years ago; they had done it better and in bigger surf. But none of the Hawaiians had left written instructions on how all this was to be done. We had just rediscovered it ourselves.”
The event changed Edwards’ life and was soon to elevate him in surfing circles as a young surf stylist to watch. “A couple of minutes in the curl changed my life,” agreed Edwards. “I spent the next few days trying to beat the break.”