Austin Saunders is an East Coast surfer/shaper who quite simply, builds beautiful surfboards. Entirely self-taught, he started his own business at the age of sixteen – mastering the arts of designing, shaping and glassing. We spoke with Austin to learn more.
What was your life like growing up?
I was the typical beach kid. I spent the week practicing for football or playing paintball, and spent the weekends on the beach. I hated school, but my parents expected me to go to college. I lasted almost two years in college working towards a business degree. School wasn’t for me, but those two years have helped me run my own business.
When did you get your first surfboard?
I got my first surfboard when I was about 12. I borrowed it from my Uncle Greg. I guess that first experience is what started my journey to building surfboards. I grew up playing football and I have always been big, and the board I borrowed definitely didn’t fit me. Even though it was in the 8 to 9 foot range, it was built with “typical” dimensions … and I’m not your typical surfer. In fact, most people these days aren’t typical.
What was the feeling you had when you first stood on a surfboard?
First I was thinking, “Holy crap! I am standing up?” Then, all I felt was pain as I faceplanted into the beach. Everyone teaches you how to stand up, but no one teaches you how to stop before you hit the shore.
Who did you look up to and admire when you were a young man?
I have always admired my family. All of my family members are hard workers. We never had a lot of money when I was growing up, but they always showed me that if you work hard at what you love, you are paid back in the end. I guess you could also say I admired James Brown. I always joked about how he said, “I am the hardest working man in show business”—I consider myself the hardest working man in the surfboard business. We have that in common.
Who or what first inspired you?
My first inspiration came in the form of a 1968 Hansen Competitor that I purchased when I was 14. It made me realize that was the type of surfboard that I wanted to build. It was old, worn and used, but through the little bit of green pigment it still had intact, I could tell that it was something special. I still have that board today.
How big is the surf scene in Virginia?
Considering how little of a coastline we have, the surf scene is fairly large. We have noticed the surf scene growing in the 35 year plus age group and a huge upturn in the over-50 crowd. The great thing is that this works to my advantage. From the beginning, all my boards were custom. The 50-plus crowd needs boards built to their exact needs. You are not going to buy a board off the shelf that works for you when you are new to the sport, on the East Coast and over 50. If you want something that is going to work for you, on day one it has to be built for you.
What do you think the surf world should know about the surf scene in the South?
We are the most surf stoked people you could find. We are used to riding a two foot swell with wind chop, but you should see us when it really starts firing. A lot of times we are counted out because we are on the East Coast, but we have some fantastic surfers (and let me add shapers) who get very little recognition.
You don’t look like the stereotypical surfer and shaper. Is that to your benefit, detriment or makes no difference?
I was definitely was made for football—not for surfing. But take a look at our society. Most people aren’t your typical 135 pound California surfer types. I guess being larger than most shapers works to my benefit. I learned to adapt my boards to fit my needs and I can translate this knowledge to other body styles and body types.
You are unlike many other shapers in that you make traditional surfboards as well as alternative surf craft. What prompted you to make these other alternative surf craft?
Someone once said that to find out if someone is really worth their salt, you ask them if they are the best in their business. If they answer “yes”, chances are they’re not. If they respond by saying that one day they hope to be and that they learn something new each and every day, then that person most likely is the best in their business. I try to learn something new each and every day. Even though alaias, paipos, and hand planes aren’t something new, they have long been forgotten. They have become a lost art and through learning how they were constructed, my knowledge of how all surf craft work deepens. But the real reason we should give the attention to these alternative surf craft is because they’re just plain fun! Have you ridden any yet?
What is the greatest thing you have learned in your life?
I guess balance. Everything in life and surfboards is about balance.
Do you have any regrets or wish you had done something differently?
Everything that I originally considered regret actually worked out in the end. Every challenging experience deepened my knowledge and taught me valuable life lessons. Actually, I regret trying to eat a whole dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts on a bet. The first six goes down easy. No so for the rest.
What are you most proud of?
I think I am most proud that I did this myself. I never apprenticed under anyone. I learned shaping from books and videos. I learned glassing by trial and error. I only had the help of my family and friends like my dad, Troy, Uncle Joe and friend Rich. I was 16 when I started my business and, since that time, I started and ran two different glassing and shaping facilities. Just recently, I opened a surf shop that carries the Austin name. My new shop represents me. I didn’t want the Wal-Mart mega outlet of surfing. I wanted a shop that shows tradition and craftsmanship—the way things use to be. At my new shop, we specialize in boards, not clothing.
What meaning does surfing hold for you and how has it changed your life?
Surfing is my life. I work seven days a week, roughly 12 hours a day. When I actually get a day off what else would I do? I go surfing. While I’m surfing, I think about how I could redesign the board to make it a better noserider, turn better or catch waves quicker.
What brings you the most happiness in the world?
Sunny day with chest high, peeling waves. English Bulldogs. The “Hot & Now” sign turning on as you drive past Krispy Kreme. A freshly oiled AR-15. A 51 shoebox Rat Rod. My fiancée Jamie.
What is your favorite board? What is your favorite surf spot?
My favorite all-time board is my 10 foot Soul Glide. That board has been magic since day one. My favorite local surf spot is called Greens because all you see when you look onshore is all the bright green, million dollar manicured lawns. Where exactly is it? I will plead the Fifth on that one. My favorite non-local spot is Infinities in Kauai, Hawaii. It has an awesome left that goes on for miles. Friendly people (if you are respectful), warm waters and warm air temps. What more could you want?
What are you currently listening to on your iPod?
Too $hort, Mikey Avalon, Sublime, James Brown, TI, Rage Against the Machine, Anti-Flag. It’s a given that Too $hort will be blasting when some Soccer Mom with her 8 year old kid comes walking through the factory. You should see the people diving for the volume control.
What causes or organization do you support?
We are a big supporter of the March of Dimes. We have been a main sponsor for their contest for the last seven years. We also support our local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, many other local charities, and some schools that I sponsor.
What are you most grateful for?
My incredible good looks and my winning personality!
What is next for Austin Saunders?
On the home front, I am getting married in June to Jamie … and, yes, she surfs. In business, I plan to run full steam with the Austin Surf Shop. It is a traditional surf shop with boards and board supplies. We have a new model coming out that reeks with tradition. It is called the “.51”. It starts with a high density foam blank, custom paulownia or balsa stringers, super heavy volan glass work, all gloss pigment resin work, custom glassed on pivot fin and traditional wood tail block. The only thing we aren’t doing with the .51 is pouring the foam blank. Everything else is made right here at the factory. We also have a new website coming out that shows all our custom wood boards like the balsa and paulownia customs, the alaias, wood paipos and hand planes.
Find out more about Austin Sauders and his surfboards here.