Matt Calvani is a California surfer/shaper who heads up the Bing brand of surfboards. Matt continues the tradition of the South Bay surfboard building legacy while adding his own modern touch. We asked Matt to share with us his life of shaping.
What was life like growing up?
I grew up in rural Massachusetts near the ocean. My mom was a housewife and my dad had a business restoring old antique lighting—a self-taught craftsman. My parents got divorced when I was eight. I lived with my mom. She was truly remarkable and went back to school at 37. She got a B.A. in interior design. Then, it was off to California in 1984. I was in the middle of eighth grade and we lived two blocks from the ocean in Hermosa Beach. I was stoked because I always loved the ocean and got into surfing right away.
Tell us how you got started shaping
I became a typical surf shop gremmie and got to know a local shaper by the name of Tom Stanton. I started hanging out at his shaping room on 26th Street and became totally fascinated with the craft. I think he got sick of all my questions and finally gave me job helping him airbrush surfboards.
They became my second family. Tom was a perfectionist and a master craftsman who gave me a solid foundation to go out on my own. Like most fledgling shapers, I started in my garage shaping for local South Bay surfers. After getting a couple hundred boards under my belt, I rented a small unit next door to three of the main historical South Bay factories of the 60’s—Bing, Greg Noll and Rick. Some of the legends were still around shaping surfboards (like Hap Jacobs, Phil Becker and Lance Carson).
This was when I learned the old school art of shaping and longboard design. Meanwhile, a revolution in design was going on with the shortboards. Boards went from bulky flat rockers to extreme rockers, foils and ultra narrow outlines. Al Merrick was leading the revolution and Shoreline Glassing, in Hermosa Beach, was glassing them. I was airbrushing a lot of the Channel Islands back then. It was an exciting time, and I took complete advantage of the entire goings on. Dennis Jarvis of Spyder surfboards was tapping into Merrick’s designs and had a superstar surf team. I ended up with a job “rough-shaping” for Spyder and part-time for Hap Jacobs. This was also when the first crude shapes were coming off the KKL shaping machine and I mean crude.
Merrick was one of the first to jump on the technology and Dennis was always right behind. With the machine coming into the picture and the need for “rough shaping” not as prominent, I decided to go with a job offer at Becker Surfboards. This job was a trial of nerves. Phil Becker told me I had to work up to 11 shaped boards a day by hand or they would hire another shaper and I would lose half my income. I made the plunge but… man… that was the hardest year of my whole career. After seven years of that—I was done.
Tell us why you chose the Bing brand as your business.
I was already shaping single fin designs for Rick Surfboards with my friend Jeff Stoner and for Lance Carson when I ran into Bing in Baja Mexico on a random surf trip with some buddies. I told him I was building Ricks and owed him some royalty money for a few Bing & Rick boards Jeff and I had built. Then, I offered to shape his boards if he ever needed anyone to do it. As luck would have it, his good friend and one of his original shapers, Mike Eaton, who was the current licensee for Bing Surfboards, happily relinquished the name since he was quickly approaching retirement himself. This couldn’t have happened at a better time for me. With Channel Islands and several other companies dominating the shortboard niche, I quickly realized that if I continued down the path I was on, I would struggle for a long time to carve out a place for myself in this competitive market. Bing gave me just the opportunity that I needed to move forward in my career as a shaper.
I always knew that I wanted to take Bing Surfboards in the direction of “a core high-end brand”. The Bing brand has always had a mystique about it—from its association with David Nuuhiwa and Dick Brewer to the Campbell Brothers bonzers—that has made it a part of surfing history. I started introducing and refining those amazing historical shapes. My goal was to capture the essence of those eras in surfboard history while adding the knowledge I had learned in my own journey.
How come there isn’t a Matt Calvani brand?
I strongly believe in a “brand,” a company that goes far beyond its original founders. I don’t want this company to be about me. It’s more about carrying on the Bing legacy, setting my ego aside and focusing on building the brand to the extent that I don’t even sign the boards. In the 60’s, Bing employed a lot of talented shapers, but in the end it was the brand that stood the test of time. Take the Ford Mustang, for example. Not too many people know who designed that car, but people know that it was a quality product because of the Ford brand name.
Who inspires you?
Pioneer shapers Matt Kivlin, Joe Quigg and Bob Simmons, who inspired Dale Velzy and Hap Jacobs in the balsa era. That led to the first surf shops and surf brands like Bing, Rick and Jacobs. This, in turn, made way for the shapers I worked with, like Dan Bendicksen, Dennis Jarvis and Phil Becker. They all, directly or indirectly, inspired me or taught me what I know today.
Do you shape your boards by hand or do you use a machine?
I guess the easiest answer is BOTH. I started shaping boards before the machine was really even relevant, grinding my way through shape after shape at Becker. When the computer came along, I began to see its value as a tool just like my Skil or Rockwell. When I opened my own surfboard shaping and glass factory, the machine really became crucial to my production because in order to keep nine guys fully employed and busy, it takes volume. I just wasn’t able to manage a business, employees and shape that many boards a day by hand. I learned to use the technologies to help in the production, but hand-shaping is equally as important and critical to my business.
With each design idea and concept for a certain board model that has specific performance goals, I typically go through an R&D phase. I hand-shape iterations (sometimes 10 to 20) of a new model until I arrive at the one that works and has the aesthetics that I envisioned. Then, that final shape is scanned and programmed to be milled on the CNC machine. The outcome is that I can maintain the quality and consistency of every board and have the ability to scale the master shape’s dimensions by length, width and thickness.
What is your favorite board? And favorite surf spot?
I have a lot of go-to boards for certain conditions that I know will work, but most of the time I’m trying new concepts and testing them. In that regard, I really don’t have a favorite board.
La Saladita, Mexico for longboards. It’s a left and when the swell and size is right, it can break just like Malibu. For shortboards, it would have to be Tavarua— Cloudbreak and Restaurants. Both are places that I know the wave will be near perfect and always break the same year after year.
What do you love about surfing?
When surfing, the two favorite places I like to be are on the nose or in the tube.
What is the greatest thing you have learned in your life?
The greatest lesson I have learned is how to manage my life, relationships and finances so that everything is in balance.
What are you most proud of?
That I believed in myself and persevered. In high school, my career counselor kept telling me I needed to go to summer school or I wouldn’t graduate high school. He said, “What are you going to do?” I told him I was going to make surfboards. He told me, “You can’t do that!” Everyone told me I couldn’t make a living making surfboards. I sometimes regret not going to college, and I think I got pretty lucky. I usually tell kids that have an interest in shaping to go to school first to have something to fall back on.
What brings you the most happiness in the world?
When my life is in balance. When my guys have work. When Margaret and I are getting along well and everyone around me is healthy. I don’t consider myself materialistic, so I don’t need a lot of unnecessary things. I’m grateful for what I’ve got.
What’s your favorite meal?
Growing up in an Italian household, it’s pretty much anything Italian. The runner-up is sushi.
What kind of music do you listen to?
Anything that sounds good or inspires me.
What are you most grateful for?
My family and friends. And for Margaret Yao, who is the best thing that ever happened to me and who will become my wife this fall.
What’s next for Matt Calvani?
I’m going to expand the Bing line of alternative shortboards with my team rider, Chris Del Moro. He’s a super talented surfer and person, and it’s one of those shaper and surfer relationships that happens so rarely. So we are looking forward to the results from his involvement and the impact it will have on the Bing brand.