Making waves with custom surfboards

The founder of Hess Surfboards never set out to make surfboards for a living, but a love for the sport – and a passion for the craft – has inspired a business creating bespoke boards for keen surfers.

Hess Surfboards has been running for 22 years, but founder Danny Hess' love for surfing started much earlier. 

‘A neighbor and family friend took me surfing in the winter when I was about eight years old. He just handed me the board and said “good luck”, then paddled away. I jumped in and was totally hooked from then on,’ he says.

Based near Ocean Beach in San Francisco, Danny designs and creates wooden surfboards by hand, mostly working on custom orders for people who are looking for a bespoke item personalized to their size and surfing style. Prices range from $1,295 for shortboards to more than $2,000 for the bigger longboards.

With a focus on sustainable design, Danny mostly uses locally salvaged or reclaimed wood and he's spent a lot of time finding the best woods for specific areas of the board. For example, poplar and cork, which have a ‘nice, even, lively flex’, are used for the rails (the curved rim of the board); redwood, fir, cedar and amapola are perfect for the light but strong tail parts; and fir, poplar and walnut are used for the decks (the top of the board, where your feet go).

Danny shaped his first board in his parents' garage at the age of 16, using basic hand tools and hand drawing a ‘lumpy outline’ on a foam blank. ‘I made a mess of the garage and the board, but it worked well and I surfed it for years,’ he says. ‘That got me completely hooked on the process of having a concept for a board and how it would ride, translating that to a shape and seeing how it worked once I built it.’

‘I never meant to build them for a living,’ he says. ‘Friends and strangers would see me ride them here at Ocean Beach. They'd ask to try one and then started ordering them. I found myself with a stack of orders and decided to step away from house-building [his previous career] and fully commit to building these boards for a living.’

Over the years, Danny's built boards in ‘many weird and ramshackle places’, from the back of his pickup truck in freight yards to an old converted barbecue hut in his backyard. These days, Danny works out of Woodshop, a craft workshop in San Francisco's Outer Sunset district, along with three other makers: furniture-makersLuke Bartels and Josh Duthie, and Jeff Canham, who paints signs and artwork. 

They've shared the Woodshop for almost 14 years – and they also happen to be close friends and fellow surfers. ‘When we found our current shop, I realized I'd landed in the place I needed to be, with the right inspiring people to share it with. I feel very lucky to be able to share ideas with each of my shop mates everyday, then go surfing with them,’ Danny says.

‘I really enjoy what I do. It's hard work and requires a lot of mental and physical focus everyday. I'm certainly fortunate to be able to come into the shop everyday and build boards for people that truly appreciate them and allow them to do the thing they really love – surfing!'

A version of this article was first published in Courier issue 47, June/July 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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