Gordie Surfboards : The Early Days
GORDIE SURFBOARDS : THE EARLY DAYS
In 2004, Gordie lost the lease of his surf shop location in Huntington Beach. He was older now and was ready to retire from shaping. I had shaped for him in 1968 when I was 21 years old. When I heard about the closing of the old Gordie shop. I contacted him in 2005 and offered to continue making his brand name boards and selling them in my Infinity shop. I created a website for Gordie Surfboards and wrote this article for the website. The website is now abandoned. It is an interesting history from back in the early days of our surfing sport. I am now 75 years old, still shaping in 2022. I hope you enjoy this trip back into the past.
THE EARLY DAYS
There was a shapers tree published in Surfing magazine around 1980 that showed the infant origins of our surfboard industry’s shapers up to that point in time. I acknowledge that there were decades of unknown Hawaiian shapers in the early pre history of our sport, but in the known times since 1900 surfing started in Waikiki with the official ambassador, Duke Kahanamoku. Amongst Duke’s piers there was a great waterman and surfboard shaper named Able Gomes who taught Gordie how to shape his first board. Gordon Duane, Gordie is very proud that his name appears in the shapers tree in the third tier right below Duke Kahanamoku’s. The second tier just above Gordie is made up of the first surfboard shapers of the 1930’s and 40’s including Californians; Pete Peterson, Tom Blake, Joe Quigg, Lorrin Harrison and Bob Simmons. All these guys were introduced to shaping by the Hawaiians in Hawaii. The third tier were guys who started shaping in the 1950’s. They included (amongst others) Gordon Duane, Dale Velzy, Renny Yater, Hobie Alter, Hap Jacobs, Johnny Rice and Greg Noll.
Gordie had the perfect background to become a surfer-shaper. He was a star water polo player in high school and after high school; he worked as a cabinetmaker in his uncle’s cabinet shop. There he learned to use wood working tools and to appreciate quality craftsmanship. In 1950 at age 20, Gordie joined the Navy where he was soon stationed at the submarine base in Pearl Harbor Hawaii. Before long, he was renting boards from the “bath house” at Waikiki and learning to surf. He surfed the famous Queens reef where he met Duke, his brothers, Rabbit Kakai and Able Gomes. Able offered to help him make his first surfboard. After WWII there was a surplus of Balsa wood Navy life rafts. Gordie got one of these from the base special services officer and used the base wood shop to slice and laminate the balsa wood into a balsa blank with three red wood stringers. With Able’s help and his well developed wood working skills, his first board came out perfect and rode like a dream.
From that time on he was hooked on the surfing and shaping life.
After service in the Navy, Gordie settled in Huntington Beach where he surfed and made balsa boards in a garage for a while. His surfing friend, Jack Haley had a connection with the concessionaire at the HB Pier and arranged for Gordie to rent 4 rooms under the pier for only $10 per month. Gordie set up his first surfboard shop. He stored and glued the balsa wood in the first room, routed the rocker out on the beach where the wind could blow the massive amount of balsa dust away, shaped in the second room, glassed in the third room and had a “show” room in the fourth. Gordie figures that he probably glued, shaped and glassed over 6000 balsa wood surfboards before Gordon Clark introduced urethane blanks. In fact, because foam blanks are so flexible, Gordie was the first to have Gordon Clark glue a wood stringer into his Clark Foam blanks to make them stiffer.
General Veneer (lumber co.) on Firestone Blvd, in South Gate was where all the shapers bought their balsa wood. Gordie met Velzy, Yater, Noll and all the other shapers of that time at General Veneer. There was always a competition to get the best wood after each shipment arrived. Gordie had an advantage because HB was closest to South Gate. One day he had come in early and hand picked all the best light balsa wood. He spent $700 and bought 2000 bd. ft. He rented a trailer for this massive load and filled it plus his station wagon with wood. Just as Gordie was leaving, Velzy arrived with a moving van and paid $5000 for all the balsa General Veneer had. Velzy was the biggest surfboard manufacturer in the world. Gordie was blown away; he just couldn’t believe anyone could shape that much balsa wood.
One of Gordie’s friends, Don Triece was the art director of Knott’s Berry Farm. Don designed and drew Gordie’s first logo, a surfer made from circles similar to the Michelin Man, which was dubbed “circle man”. In 1958 circle man was upgraded to the now famous Gordie shield logo featuring the “free spirit” surf man inside a curling wave and the slogan “The Only Way To Travel” written across the top. This Shield logo was considered very avant-garde in the new modern art world of the 1950’s. The slogan was probably barrowed from a famous 1950’s TWA airlines TV commercial where a cartooned passenger sang out: “ TWA; the only way to fly”. Take a look at Jack O’Neil’s logo. He simply turned Gordie’s logo backwards and copied it for his wetsuit logo.
H.B. was a tough place to surf in the 1950’s. The easier spots like Malibu, Palos Verdes Cove and San Onofre were more popular with the old flat, heavy balsa boards. The HB surf pioneers were a tough, aggressive group which included Blackie August (Robert’s dad), Les Walen, Jack Haley, Bruce Brown, Walt Wessel, George Stremple, Dick Thomas, John Gray, Rocky Freeman, Don Stuart, Del cannon and Gordie. Many a balsa board broke in half against the pilings of the pier and Gordie remained very busy. Gordie’s shaping pros were becoming well known. Many of the best surfers would come to him for their Hawaii boards. In fact, Gordie made Dick Brewer’s first surfboard.
For a while in Hawaii, Velzy boards and Gordie boards were the two most popular boards. All the Velzy guys hung out together and surfed a spot just North of Sunset. After a while everyone just called the spot Velzyland. The idea came from the newly opened Disneyland theme park. The Gordie guys mostly surfed a spot just South of Sunset, which everyone called Gordieland. Sunset itself was everybodyland. In 1960 the Kammie market opened across from Gordieland and the spot in years to come became known as Kammieland.
Gordie was one of the first to shape the forerunner of the modern short board when Owl Chapman and John Boozer came to him for shorter, faster boards to ride at Pipe Line. Everyone was trying to ride Pipe with standard 9’ to 10’ long boards. They were too long to fit in the hollow wave and too slow to make the section. Gordie made those guys 8’ baby guns especially for big Pipe Line before short boards were discovered.
In Huntington Beach, the Gordie shop under the pier became a big hang out spot and the scene of many late night parties. It made sense, if you were a surfer and went down to the pier to check out the surf, before long you were hang’n with the guys at the Gordie shop. Those were fun times with friends and full of goofy pranks. They used to make resin bombs by adding too much cobalt and MEK to the resin. They would throw the batch off the pier. When it landed, it exploded like a land mine. It wasn’t as easy to use resin in those days, there were several fires caused by the extremely flammable early polyester resins.
In 1959, there was a mysterious fire that gutted the Gordie shop under the pier. Gordie lost over 100 surfboards in the fire and was nearly ruined. In addition, he lost his lease under the pier. In searching for a new location, John “Frog” Van Oeffelen, team rider and long time friend, found an old oil field welding shop for rent up at Pacific Coast Hwy. and 13 th. Street. He and the gang helped Gordie move into the new location. There they entered the 1960’s and a new era of the polyurethane foam surfboard. The new shop was typical of surf shops in the 60’s, it smelled of the grass matt on the floor and laminating resin. You could only buy surfboards and sometimes a T- shirt. There were no sunglasses, skateboards or other superfluous junk. You bought paraffin wax at the supermarket.
This was about the same time as the Gidget movie, surf music and the Beach Boys made surfing popularity explode. In fact, Gordie produced an underground surf film, “Sacrifice For Surf” that featured the HB pier and his favorite spots in Hawaii including one of the best sequences of a young Dewey Weber ever filmed.
It was the 1960’s and the sport of surfing was exploding. Gordie made several very special show boards with multiple stringers, curved intersecting stringers, nose and tail blocks and radical abstract color designs. These boards were all displayed at the worlds first surfing trade show, the Surf O Rama at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.
Gordie also advertised in the very first “Surfers Annual” the forerunner of Surfer Magazine created by his friend John Severson. From the exposure at the Surf O Rama plus advertising in the new Surfer Magazine, Gordie gained many dealers in Ca. and the East Coast.
Most of the Surf shops of the time became so busy shaping the boards that they now began sub contracting the glass work out to specialty glass shops. The demand for Gordie surfboards was now bigger than ever. He quite glassing the boards himself and sent his shaped blanks to Jack Pallard’s glass shop in Redondo Beach to be glassed. Later, he sent the boards to Bill Holden’s glass shop in Costa Mesa
All the surf shops were experiencing stupendous success. Velzy was driving around in big expensive cars and enjoying the high life, but through miss management he lost the whole thing in the early 60’s. Business pressures built up for Gordie too. Between 1956 and 1980 he built around 46,ooo surfboards. In his little shop in HB, he had a show room for local surfers; he shaped the boards, and handled an unrelenting schedule of packing and shipping boards to his dealers. Gordie was CEO, advertising director, shaper, salesman, custodian, packer and shipper. He said the pace made him “grouchy”. He just didn’t have time to hang out with buddies or baby sit shoppers.
Gordie’s shapes are unique; His “plan shape” (outlines) were always graceful with smooth flowing lines. He hated big noses, fat rails and thick boards. He always made boards designed for good surfers, not beginners. The blanks were sculpted, foiled out to thin noses and tails. Rails tapered in a perfect parabolic radius. Gordie didn’t make a lot of templates over the years. He just changed the dimensions of the boards as styles changed. I’ve seen the Mark 5 template used on a 1960 board with a 15.5” nose and a 16.5” tail, and then the same Mark 5 template was laid out as a 1966 era nose rider with an 18.5” nose and a 15” tail.
When Greg Noll introduced the Miki Dora “Da Cat” model with a step deck, Gordie answered back with his Lizard model step deck, a nose rider that featured an elliptical concave on the deck that was easier to step into than the Da Cat model. His regular nose rider model had a similar elliptical concave under the nose. When the Aussies introduced V-bottom short boards, Gordie created the Assassin Pin tail V-bottom. This was the beginning of the short board era and the Assassin became shorter and shorter working it’s way down from about 9’ to 7’6”.
In the late 60’s after Velzy lost his business, he worked a while for Hobie Surfboards as a shaper. At that time, Velzy really got into the “wild west” cowboy scene. He loved to wear his cowboy outfit, ride horses and collect western style guns. Velzy spent many days wondering around in Death Valley, the Mohave Desert, and Arizona. Gordie often accompanied Velzy on his explorations of old ghost towns and mine shafts. Gordie laughs as he recalls a time when they wondered upon an old graveyard outside a ghost town in Arizona. Velzy was hunting around for weathered pieces of wood for a project he was building at home. He pulled a big slab of wood out of the ground that had been there for 100 years marking some crusty old miner’s grave and loaded it into the truck. When Gordie saw it in the truck, he said: “man you’ve got to put that back. We’ll be cursed, that guy’s ghost will follow us all the way back to Huntington Beach and haunt us for ever”. Velzy saw the potential hazard and reluctantly returned the grave marker back to its rightful owner. It was this time while Gordie was into hunting and guns that he chose the name Assassin for his new pintail V-bottom short board. Gordie was thinking that the surfer would assassinate the wave with this predatory surf weapon. Unfortunately, Shortly afterward, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated which put a dark shadow over the word assassin. Gordie muses now that the name Assassin was probably a big mistake, but who could see the future in 1967?
During the busy, golden years of the 60’s, Gordie hired several different shapers to help him keep up. He was very particular about the quality of the work and he would inspect every board to see that it met his standards. Gordie says that the first guy he hired, Larry Felker was amazing; he could shape 10 boards every night. Larry would shape all night and sleep all day, but Larry was out of control. He would get his paycheck on Friday and spend it on booze and gambling all weekend. Once Gordie got a phone call to come and pick him up in down town Santa Anna. Larry was gambling, got drunk and beat up. He had spent the night sleeping in a back alley. Larry had a wife and two kids. When his wife found out he had a job at The Gordie shop, She brought a tent and the kids and camped in the yard behind the shop all week until the paycheck came. Gordie had strict instructions to hand the check over to her. Larry had drug problems too and eventually died in a Hawaiian prison from a drug bust.
Del Cannon was another guy who learned and shaped for Gordie. Del was a hot surfer and well known in the growing surf industry. Del eventually left and opened his own shop in San Clemente. Later, he closed his shop and became a commercial fisherman in Hawaii.
Mike O’Day is a soft-spoken guy who did top quality work for Gordie on and off for years. He eventually became the head shaper for Bob Russell of Russell surfboards in Newport. Finally, he quite shaping, got a job with the Phone Company and retired to Oregon.
Don Stuart, Bruce Jones, Steve Boehne, Randy Lewis and Jim Fuller can all thank Gordie for their first shaping jobs. Some went on to make surfboards under their own labels. The Gordie shaping alumni all agree that he was a tough guy to deal with, but he taught you a lot about shaping, he was fair and there was always a paycheck at the end of the week.
Gordie’s best years were the 60’s where the classic boards were suited to his meticulous wood working abilities. Nobody could shape a rail just like Gordie; they were unique. At a time when others made templates with long straight rails, bulgee hips, and fat noses, Gordie’s templates always had a continuous curve with a slight point in the nose.
The hot surfers knew that a Gordie board would ride just right. As the 1970’s eclipsed the 60’s, the short board eclipsed the long board. You would not be caught dead carrying a long board across the beach at the pier. Gordie like Greg Noll, Jacobs, Bing and many of the other big name shops of the 60’s found intense competition from thousands of new start up shops. The name of the new game was not quality; it was CHANGE. Shape designs were changing so fast that the board you just bought was old fashioned 6 months later. Consequently, prices dropped by half; quality became secondary and the new experimental outlines though often crude and unbalanced made the old long boards look prehistoric. Despite this, Gordie had a good run in the 70’s bringing in Randy Lewis, a popular local HB shaper and by sponsoring the “Hole in the Wall Gang” Surf team of HB. The Hole in the Wall Gang was not named after the gang made famous in the Butch Cassidy movie, but was named for a hole in the retaining wall holding the sea cliff opposite the Gordie shop. Water from the gutter in front of the shop flowed through a pipe and exited to the sea through the hole in the wall. This is where the Gordie guys surfed. The Hole in the wall gang was a strange assemblage of seasoned HB surfers who weren’t part of the regular contest circuit, but like the typical Gordie rider of the 60’s they surfed hot, partied hard and carried the Gordie tradition of non conformity. Because of the depth of ability in the group, they immediately started winning contests, taking home the trophies and put the Gordie shield in the forefront of the competition scene.
In 1984 the landlord who Gordie rented his shop from died and his estate sold off the property to developers – That was the end of the Gordie shop, but not the end of Gordie Surfboards. A few of Gordie’s old shapers are licensed to make Gordie boards and the name lives on. You can contact Steve Boehne in the Infinity website or call the Infinity shop (949-661-6699) about getting a custom Gordie board, T-shirt, or window sticker.