Canadian-born shaper Shawn Ambrose is a man of many talents, from shaping to music to playing hockey. He remains humble and passionate about his chosen profession in the face of trying economic times. We took some time with Shawn to learn more.
What was your life like growing up?
I was born in a nunnery in St. Johns, Newfoundland, Canada! It gets pretty complicated from there, but let’s just say I had an interesting upbringing—with a great family and many stops around the world—before settling in San Diego, California.
When did you get your first surfboard?
Got a G&S single fin pintail that was 6’4” or so at age 8.
What was the feeling you had when you first stood on a surfboard?
“Hey! This sure beats standing up on my boogieboard!”
Who did you look up to and admire when you were a young man?
Evel Knievel, Elvis and Tiger Williams
Of all the places you have traveled to, what place in particular stands out and why?
We went to the Olympics this past year in Vancouver, and came as close to experiencing world peace as is probably possible. Even got to check out a couple of off-the-beaten– track surf spots on Vancouver Island! Everyone should make an attempt to go to an Olympics; it’s a magical thing to experience, and we had a good powder day at Whistler while we were there! Guess I could throw my early Indo and mainland Mexico travels in there as well.
Who or what inspires you?
People who are constantly involved in critical thinking and doing their own thing. I’m down with original thought—write your own song, pave your own path.…
What prompted you to start shaping surfboards and when did you know you would make this your livelihood?
I guess I was just that kid who likes to tinker and take stuff apart or modify it, so it was natural to want to make a board. That and it was hard to buy a new one on a 12 year old kid’s salary! As for making this a career, it just kind of happened. I went to college for a bit and had a go at being a union fire sprinkler fitter, but I always yearned for the traveling surfer lifestyle that my friends from my contest days had managed to keep alive.
I would constantly hear about extended trips to Mainland or Indo or wherever, and wanted to be able to take off for months at a time for surf travel as my friends were. So I kind of turned to building boards as a way of living the lifestyle my professional surfer friends were living at the time. I could build a bunch of boards and keep my overhead low, and just split for two to three months in Indo—or wherever—then come back and start saving to do it all over again. Sure, a lot of my friends bought houses before I finally was able to buy one, but I wouldn’t trade my life experience for anything. There’s nothing like settling in at a remote spot and just being in the moment for as long as it takes to fully appreciate it!
You’ve been shaping since 1980. How do you think the surf industry had changed since that time?
Oh, man! That’s a loaded question. I started this because I’ve always liked making stuff, from sewing trunks for my buddies in junior high and high school to wrenching on cars and bikes and making boards. Then, it became a way to keep the dream alive. And in a way, I guess I’m still living it .
I can remember when I started being able to charge decent money for shaping and pay my rent with it! I couldn’t believe it, I had been doing it practically for free for years. I try to remember that when overhead, insurance and all the other things start to pile up. I mean, I get to make toys for a living.
So, for the kids out there, don’t take it to seriously in the beginning; get into it because you love and enjoy it. If you can make something more out of it, good for you. It’s not getting any easier, but there is always room for a passionate young shaper with good business sense and some talent.
If you were on a deserted island with a pointbreak on one side and a beach break on the other, which one of your boards would you want to have with you?
At the moment, one of my S.F.E. models although I think I would have to put some side bite boxes in just for kicks, so I could also ride it as a 2 + 1. That’s if it was a punchy beach break. If it’s a burger, I would have to go with a 4 + 1 setup so I could skate the quad at the mushy beach break. Better yet, maybe I would just work on making some fruit wine and wait for the point to fire!
How do you find enough time in the day to pursue all of your interests (surfing/shaping, classic cars, ice hockey, music and snowboarding)?
By forcing myself to be organized—something that doesn’t usually come easy to the artistically-inclined, I’m told! I also believe that the mind is a muscle, and you’ve got to use and challenge it. So, rebuilding a motor on a different bike or car, and having to troubleshoot on the fly or making a handplane out of a chunk of wood or boogie board foam, keeps my mind sharp and ready to challenge my limits when I put the planer to the foam. Same as making a creative play on the ice or picking a good line down a chute in the Sierras.
Do you think you, your truck and your surf shop (the last two having been involved in dramatic accidents involving idiotic drivers) have magnetic personalities—the kind that attract cars?
Well, I like to believe things happen for a reason. That reason isn’t always known in the present tense though. I guess … you just gotta roll with it.
It’s all good as long as whatever gets hit is insured, and it’s not me on my bike! We won’t talk about the jaywalking pedestrian I hit last year on my Shovelhead while splitting lanes.
Tell us about your band.
My good friend Mike Palm makes a living as a punk rocker and wanted to get a side project going to scratch his lifelong itch to play “surf music”. And that’s what we do. The Deoras play traditional reverb-drenched surf music played on vintage Fender instruments and amps. Actually, half the fun is acquiring and dialing in the old gear!
We haven’t been playing much lately as Mike has been busy touring and is gone literally half the year. But we do have a mostly finished second album recorded, and hope to finish that up and do a few gigs this summer. Maybe, in my spare time, I’ll put up a new web page. (Laughs) In the meantime, I think we do have an old Myspace page if anyone wants to check out our tunes. I think we even have one of Mike’s more popular songs with Agent Orange (“Bloodstains”) on there.
Do you have any regrets or wish you had done something differently?
No regrets—I just do my best in the moment and keep going forward.
What are you most proud of?
Being able to make a living and hold down a nice lifestyle for my family in this crazy ever-changing industry.
Who are some of the people you feel are shaping the path for surfing today?
Well, if you look behind the “golden curtain”, there’s a bunch of guys like me who have figured out how to carve out a niche in this modern global economy. The problem is most people are more caught up with the guy playing the organ grinder and the monkey in the pinstriped suit. So I guess all us little guys will keep innovating and grinding away in the trenches, and the big guys will keep lurking and plotting and scheming.
What meaning does surfing hold for you and how has it changed your life?
Surfing has given me a way of life, and the ability and freedom to pursue the American Dream.
What brings you the most happiness in the world?
Traveling with my family.
What is your favorite board? Your favorite surf spot?
Lately, I’ve been riding my S.F.E. a lot. It’s a round-tailed, retro-influenced egg-type thing. Feels good to go back to basics with a single fin. I’ve been diggin’ the super smooth turns and it’s great in the barrel.
More often than not, I go right out front of my shop. Give me a combo swell in the fall when the kids are back in school and I’m a happy man.
What’s your favorite meal?
Sushi at The Fish Joint right here in beautiful Oceanside, California!
What are you currently listening to on your iPod?
Ipod? Isn’t that like an 8-track now? Pretty much just Pandora stations for me now. Currently in the rotation is Great Big Sea, The Fireballs, Chet Atkins, Stompin’ Tom , Old Crow Medicine Show, John Prine, David Allan Coe, Steve Earle and various old school punk (Agent Orange, Fear, TSOL, Circle Jerks, The Dickies, etc.).
What causes or organizations do you support?
Surfrider, The Mammoth Foundation, California Surf Museum and the A.R.F.
What are you most grateful for?
All of it — my family and friends and the opportunity to do what I love every day.
What’s next for Shawn Ambrose?
I’m just gonna keep living the dream, pushing limits and trying to keep the original thoughts coming.
Principal photography by Maggie Marsek. Last image courtesy of Shawn Ambrose.