Ankle deep in foam planed from the surface of a 7-foot plank at the Becker Surf factory in Hermosa Beach, Calif. (pop. 18,566), Jose Barahona, 41, pulls a dust mask from his face and runs his hand along the curves of a board being shaped to ride the ocean waves.
Sculpting a surfboard’s contours is almost instinctual for Barahona, who has hand-shaped some 40,000 boards since he began working at the factory 27 years ago. “As you go, everything falls into place,” he says, describing the shaping process that he has refined into a 10-minute job.
Few manufacturers hand-shape surfboards anymore, but the craftsmen at Becker Surf always have. “We’re kind of purists,” says CEO Dave Hollander, 51, who started the company with two fellow surfers.
One of the nation’s oldest surfboard manufacturers, Becker Surf got its start in 1980 when Hollander, Steve Mangiagli and Phil Becker each invested $8,000, formed a partnership and expanded Rick Surfboards, a Hermosa Beach business that Becker and Mangiagli had bought in 1975.
Working as a team, Becker shaped the boards, Mangiagli coated them with waterproof fiberglass and Hollander painted them with spectacular designs.
Today, the Becker Surf factory employs 10 craftsmen who produce about 4,000 surfboards each year. The weeklong manufacturing process begins with Barahona—the company’s master shaper since Becker, 67, retired two years ago—who cuts foam planks with a jigsaw and then contours the boards with an electric planer and other hand tools. After shaping, the boards are painted, covered with fiberglass and sanded satin smooth before they receive a gloss coat of resin for protection against the sun, surf and sand.
Finished boards are shipped to customers around the world and sold at six Becker Surf & Sport stores in Southern California, alongside beachwear and other surfing gear. The company’s standard-size surfboards range from a 5-and-a-half-foot shortboard to a 10-foot longboard, which sell for $450 and $650, respectively.
While surfboards account for only 10 percent of Becker’s $15 million in annual sales, they are an essential—and celebrated—part of the company’s identity.
About 30 percent of Becker’s surfboards are custom-ordered by people who pay $20 to have a board built to their specifications. Customers can even watch their board being shaped, an experience Hollander compares to “being there when your child was born.”
Six of the 10 craftsmen who work in Becker’s 2,000-square-foot factory have been with the company for a decade or more. Their passion and expertise are valued by a company that prides itself on manufacturing boards of consistent quality, from high-performance shortboards to nostalgic longboards, like the ones favored by surfer Roger Hoyt.
“They really make you feel like you’re a surf star,” says Hoyt, 53, who has bought about 90 Becker boards through the years.
Hoyt, who purchased his first surfboard shaped by Phil Becker in the 1970s, has watched the sport evolve since he rode his first wave at age 12. Despite industry trends, the desire to build a better board endures at Becker Surf, where catering to surfing purists remains a legendary—and enjoyable—labor of love.
“It’s like I’ve never really had a job,” says Mangiagli, 55.