Crafting honest surfboards: A lifestyle and a living

Courtesy Creative Commons

He hails from the surf-mecca Indonesia and grew up in the surf-town of San Diego; however junior Joseph Ramli’s rich surfer-blood wasn’t activated until he started his college career at Pepperdine and began his romance with the ocean.

Three years into his college career, his passion for all things surf-related has grown into a lifestyle of surfboard shaping that is turning heads and taking him through life with an increased measure of passion.

Ramli’s method of surfboard shaping is both a craft and an art form that involves shaping foam (although boards can be made from epoxy, wood, plastic, even cardboard…anything really) into any one of a variety of shapes, adding fins or fin boxes, covering it in resin or some other waterproofing seal, and sanding it smooth to be waxed up and ridden.

This is a look below the surface of Ramli’s life as a surfer and surfboard shaper. Though he is very new to both the lifestyle and the industry, Ramli is already dropping in on the opportunities before him with the dexterity of a life-long waterman and a tenacity all his own.

Ramli first started surfing when his freshman roommate, Andrew Woodward, bought a surfboard and got Ramli to surf with him. Ramli soon bought himself a wetsuit, borrowed people’s boards and taught himself how to surf.

“We went to third point with a wavestorm and a boogie board — Joe had the boogie board,” Woodward said. Ramli was hooked. Ramli and Woodward bought their first boards together from a guy on Craigslist. Ramli’s was a six-foot, fish-shaped board with “Bud Light” painted across it — it had formerly been decoration on a wall at a bar. “Joe painted it blue so his mom wouldn’t get suspicious,” Woodward said. “The thing fell apart after a few sessions as it was not intended for actual use in the water.”

Ramli started going to Surf Convocation and found other surfers who could teach him the ways of the waves. One of those surf gurus was senior Elizabeth Lutz.

“I’ve seen Joe grow and develop tremendously over the past few years,” Lutz said. “When I first met him he was struggling to paddle into waves on a classic beginner’s board.”

Lutz watched Ramli go from struggling on his bar-art, “Bud Light” board, to being able to “shred any and every board that he could get under his feet.”

Ramli’s newly discovered romance with surfing sparked his interest in board shaping.

“I think it’s just a general trend of mine that if I enjoy something, I want to be able to make it with my own hands,” Ramli said. “I used to be into guitars a lot, so I made myself a guitar. I used to be into skating, so I made myself some skateboards. So, obviously, I decided to make myself some surfboards.”

However, Ramli found that shaping surfboards wasn’t all that easy. It’s a skill that requires a lot of knowledge and a workspace, not to mention that the tools and materials are incredibly expensive.

But Ramli found people who believed in his dream just as much as he did.

“A business professor at Pepperdine, Amy Johnson, decided to sponsor my first surfboard,” Ramli said. “She just wrote me a check for 500 bucks and said, ‘Go make me a board.’ A friend lent me his tools, another friend had a spot I could use to shape and gave me some tips.”

Johnson met Ramli through Lutz and through hearing about his passion and ideas she saw an opportunity to help him with his goals.

“I personally love helping people achieve their dreams and if I can help break down any barriers — be it money, insecurity, etc. — I try to help,” Johnson said. “Some of my favorite memories of his success is seeing all the boards he has shaped and the pure joy he has in designing a board.”

Ramli’s adventure in board shaping began with fixing board dings and dents for himself and his friends.

“There was never a time when he didn’t have some sort of project — whether it was fixing my weekly dings, shaping a board for a friend, making fins out of skate decks, or creating some sick design with resin colors…. His creative abilities and self-motivation in all areas of his life continue to amaze me,” Lutz said.

As his hobby became more and more popular among his friends, Ramli decided to create a name for his blossoming board-shaping business. The label on each of his boards reads “Honest Surfboards” and came from a sermon Ramli had been listening to about perfection in relationship with God.

“God holds us to a standard and wants us to try to be perfect, but perfection is not what we can ever achieve,” Ramli said. “Instead, God wants us to be honest with ourselves, with other people, with him about our shortcomings. I think that honesty is not only a good goal for life in general, but it also kind of reflects my surfboards — my boards aren’t perfect.”

Hand-designed and hand-shaped surfboards are both an art and a science. Designing and shaping by machine is much faster and more accurate and therefore much easier to make a profit on. “But I think that shaping things by hand is more honest, and that is better than them being perfect,” Ramli said.  

Ramli is a true Soul Surfer and, according to Lutz, values his individuality and freedom in surfing more than trying to impress people with his skills or show off to a panel of judges. Lutz revitalized the Pepperdine Surf Club Team and has been the president for the past two years. Though she values the competitive side of surfing, she respects Ramli’s choice to not participate in it.

“If he thinks something he does while he is surfing is cool or fun, he could care less what others think or how it would score in a competition,” Lutz said. “I love that about Joe — that he doesn’t get sucked into the politics of surf culture and instead looks to interact with the wave in the most harmonious way.”

Ramli attributes his surfing and shaping prowess to being at Pepperdine.

“This is the perfect place to learn to surf, and if I hadn’t learned to surf I wouldn’t have learned how to shape,” he said. “A lot of the people who helped me through shaping and have given me the means to do all of that are all a part of Pepperdine. So my shaping experience was pretty much dependent on me being at Pepperdine.”

Ramli shaped his first board in April 2015 and in one year he’s shaped almost 30 boards.

“Someday, hopefully, I’d like to have a business, but right now I’m just having fun,” he said. “I’ve been selling a lot of boards to my friends. A lot of them are just Pepperdine students like me who are learning to surf. I want to shape something that I know they’ll be able to improve on, and keep learning at the same time.”

Ramli views shaping as a combination of a romance with the surfboard (in coaxing it forth from the materials) and an obsession with surfing.

“A shaper (understands) how the wave or water will flow around the board, then shapes a ‘blank’ into something that will have the characteristic he is looking for,” he said. “I don’t think you can be a good shaper unless you’re thinking about surfing the entire time. Shaping is less about what you do and more about what you don’t do. You start with something, and you take off as little as you can so you can be as close to perfect as possible. I think that’s like surfing, too — or that’s style at least. It’s about looking like you’re not trying too hard, but doing just enough to stay in the right spot on the wave.”

Shaping is not just a hobby for Ramli, but an opportunity to learn a lot of important life lessons and values. Because of the nature of shaping he’s had to learn to be patient (with the process and with himself), to pay attention to details, and to take his time and savor every moment.

“(Surfing and shaping) have wrecked me, taught me humility and showed me how scary and how fun the ocean can be,” Ramli said.

Woodward credits the practice of board-shaping as aiding Ramli’s surfing through the rapid growth he has experienced and also attributes his love for surfing with the huge success he has seen in his shaping.

“During his sophomore year, Joe went from being a super-unknown grom, to a full-fledged local legend,” Woodward said.

Lutz said she believes Ramli could have career in shaping.

“I think if he wants to, Joe could have a big future in shaping boards,” Lutz said. “He isn’t in it for the money or popularity. Just as his brand’s name says, he wants to be honest and true to the art of shaping. I think people will appreciate this and it will become more and more of a novelty as machine-shaped boards grow in their production rates as well.”

The first supporter of his vision, Johnson, also believes Ramli can take his shaping endeavors as far as he wants.

“He can achieve his dreams — he is incredibly talented, humble,and a hard worker,” Johnson said. “That is a formula for success and, more importantly, a life of significance.”

Akela Newman completed this story in Dr. Ken Waters spring 2016 Jour 590 course on sports journalism.