We have designed a collection which offers a modern interpretation of traditional purpose-led workwear. Based on the needs of those driven by innovation and creativity in or outside of the workshop.
Talking to James Otter about wood starts with a fascinating race through, ironically, plastics. We are talking about his wooden surfboards, which he makes out of cedar and poplar, grown slightly further up the south-west of England than his Cornish workshop.
Otter comes from a long line of wood makers and carpenters and is fascinated by the intricacies of wood and how it works, bends and feels and what it can be used to create.
Making surfboards out of wood could be seen as a reaction against plastics but it is more layered than that. The journey towards what Otter Surfboards has become was initially fuelled by a desire to marry a passion for wood as a material with his passion for surfing; to create boards with minimal environmental impact. Along the way though it has developed and sharing and facilitating a love of making is now a major part of Otter that sees 80% of the surfboards that leave their workshop being made by their owner under James’ guidance and tuition.
A polyurethane foam board might only survive a season or a few years of hard use, maybe as long as a decade if care is taken with it. At the end of its natural life, however long, it can’t be recycled. An Otter board on the other hand, made out of sustainably grown wood and glassed with bio-epoxy, both lasts longer and in theory can be reduced back to the sum of its parts. The durability and longevity that are a result of the material properties of wood also make them a lower impact choice as they don’t need to be replaced as frequently.
One of the primary timbers used to make Otter’s wooden surfboards is poplar; in the post-war years hundreds of thousands of these trees were planted, destined for matchsticks. Poplar burns fast and hot, making it the ideal wood for matchsticks (not to mention the fact that it grows straight and fast) but it is of value far beyond fire-lighting.
Sadly, by the late 1970s, the rise of the disposable plastic lighter caused demand for matchsticks to fall and so did the need for poplar. As a light, strong and straight-grained timber it has many potential applications but has often been overlooked because of the matchstick association. Makers like James, who select their materials based upon functionality, are reviving its popularity though.
Otter’s start in wooden surfboards followed a period making furniture and timber-framed buildings. Setting about finding a suitable timber, he first tried ash as it bends and takes vibration well – old fashioned planes are often ash – but it was too heavy. Keen to use a local wood, he then realised that the best way to make his wooden surfboard business sustainable was to use locally grown cedar and poplar – woods that are both light and pliable, but also in plentiful UK supply. The characteristics and structural properties that make them suitable for canoes or matchsticks also make them ideal for surfboards.
The timber that he uses now grows in Somerset and Wiltshire, in woodlands that James visits several times a year. He has strong working relationships with the foresters who supply his raw materials and it is important to him to see the trees that will one day become his surfboards and watch them being felled and milled before he loads the planks onto his van to bring back to Cornwall.
The final make-up of the board is determined by the properties of wood; it is an organic material that has to be worked with. Otter’s wooden surfboards are constructed much like a boat or aeroplane wing, with spars and bulkheads bonded to a bottom skin which is then wrapped with thin strips that form the rails.
Once a deck skin is put on top sealing the hollow structure and forming a wooden “blank”, the board is shaped, sanded and then glassed. Larger offcuts from the process are made into laminates for belly boards and hand planes, smaller yet into shavings that are used when packaging products or used as kindling.
Although at first it would appear that Otter’s business is in designing and making wooden surfboards, the heart of Otter Surfboards is the community of people that make them. Almost as much as he loves creating boards, Otter loves sharing the process and experience with the people that join them for a week to make their own wooden surfboard on their workshop courses.
His boards already have longevity, but when an individual invests their own time and energy into creating their surfboard, the resultant pride and the care and attention that the board receives extends its life even further. The maker invests something of themselves in the process; some start with few woodworking skills but all leave having created their own board.
The surfboard is finished when the maker says so, not James. He lets them decide how much to plane off, sand down and when to stop because by the end of the week they have learnt the skills to make those decisions. It’s their surfboard, and this cements that.
Otter’s workshop courses create a real sense of community; bonds are formed over the varying experiences of a week of woodwork, learning alongside each other and workshoppers become part of the Otter Surfboards family. Every year all past surfboard workshoppers are invited to return for their Annual Gathering of Makers, to surf and celebrate with others with whom they share a common experience.. At Otter, being a maker means everything.
Making and surfing is intrinsically tied together. You are going into a headspace where you can’t think of anything else apart from what you are immediately doing. It’s why he enjoys surfing and why he enjoys making.