Kenny Tilton grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii and first started surfing Waikiki in the early 1950’s. First on a redwood surfboard then moved on to a balsa surfboard. Waikiki during the 1950’s was changing and it was fun to be a surfer. Back then, local Beach Boys would watch over them whenever they went out in the water and show them the ropes on how to surf as the south swells of summer rolled in. During the summer, Kenny and his best friends Bobby and Leroy Achoy would work for Barry Napoleon and Bobby Crewson on the beach at Waikiki.
He began shaping in the mid-1950s after buying a board that Allen Gomes had made. Kenny reshaped and re-glassed it and to this day he still remembers the itch that he got from that surfboard, which had an exposed fiberglass layer that his leg rubbed against. The days of youth made way for surfboard building and a new industry.
Kenny would seek to learn the skills to improve his craftsmanship. He was mentored by notable shapers in the business of that time period, Abel Gomes, Wally Froiseth, and George Downing. He developed an eye for shaping and knew that was his calling. His friend Donald Takayama started shaping about the same time and would make it his career as well. Donald, Boogie Kalama, and Raymond Patterson lived close by to Kenny, so they would surf and do things together.
His skills as a shaper were becoming known in Waikiki and Dale Velzy heard about it. Velzy had opened another shop in Hawaii and was in need of a shaper. Kenny started working for him at his shop at 253 Cooke St. in Honolulu. There he would meet Richard Dees who was sent over by Velzy to show the new glassers at the shop how to glass surfboards the way the guys on the mainland were doing it. One of those new glassers at the shop was Raymond Patterson. The orders for surfboards started to happen and this was the beginning of Kenny Tilton’s shaping career.
There were Aloha Week in the Islands and the first “Aloha Week” took place in 1946 after the war. It included a parade, pageants, hula shows and services at Kawaiahao Church in Honolulu. The Aloha Festivals kicks off in Oahu in mid-September. Each island chooses a king, queen, prince, princess and attendants, all of whom are of Hawaiian descent and is a colorful affair, accompanied by conch shell blowers and costumes of ancient times.
During this time there was night surfing , where Kenny and a group of his friends would take shortened Kukui torches out into the lineup and light up the area where they would be taking off at. After catching the wave only the white water and silhouette of their friends could be seen in the twilight of the shore line of hotels and restaurants as they surfed towards the shore. They would do the same at Makaha and on the beach there would be a big bonfire where the flames would trail out 10 to 15 feet into the night sky.
Good friends like Mokealii and Zulu jamming away on their slack guitars as Don Stroud would be pounding on his bongo’s, Chubby Mitchell playing a sweet jazz tune on his ukulele while Kimo Hollinger would be singing a Ray Charles song. At Waikiki or Makaha’s gatherings you would also have Joey Cabell, Rabbit, Dingo, Steamboat, Jesse Crawford and the names go on and on. Classic times and good memories.
Like many in the islands, Kenny was drawn by emerging surfboard industry in California. Knowing a few guys from the mainland that were heading home, Kenny bought a plane ticket for $75.00 from his friend Freddy Noa. The airline he traveled on was called Pink Cloud Airline and the flight over lasted 15 hours. They landed in Burbank and his new friends and Kenny were picked up in a pickup truck. It was winter in Southern California and the truck ride from Burbank to Santa Monica was a cold one for Kenny. He was in the back of the truck with just the clothing he had brought over.
His stay in Santa Monica was just 2 weeks before moving in with friends that he knew from Hawaii to Hermosa Beach. There Kenny got acclimated to the surf scene and the waves. Making the drive down to San Clemente took some time. There were no freeways and the only way was the Pacific Coast Highway. But once there, Kenny made friends with the crew at Velzy Jacobs Surfboards and became one of them. There he got to know Al Nelson, Carl Ekstrom, Rennie Yater, Sandy Banks, Harold Ige, Del Cannon, Bill Cooper, Bob Cooper, Danny Brawner and he already knew George Kapu, Bobby Patterson and Donald Takayama besides the others, which included Bruce Brown, John Severson, Bud Browne and Grant Rohloff.
After the breakup of Velzy Jacobs Surfboards, Kenny moved back up north to Hermosa Beach and started working for Hap Jacobs at Jacobs Surfboards. After Jacobs, Kenny shaped at Bing Surfboards and while at Rick Surfboards he was doing the Barry Kanaiaupuni and Dru Harrison Models. In 1964 he moved up to Santa Barbara and worked for Yater Surfboards for a couple of years before moving to Santa Cruz and working for Doug Haut for a brief time before starting Tilton Switzer Surfboards and then Soul Fish in Santa Cruz. Into the early 70’s Kenny worked for Country Surfboards and Brewer Surfboards. Kenny then moved to the Big Island on the Kona side and started to make surfboards there.
In the 1980’s Kenny lived on Maui making windsurfers and surfboards for Jimmy Lewis. His shaping skills took him to Japan, Germany, and Spain. But Kenny would return home to Hawaii and start doing the first SUP (Stand Up Paddleboard) with Jeff Timpone on Maui 1990’s. Today Kenny Tilton is mostly making Koa and Mango wooden surfboards. His extensive shaping skills gained over the years goes into each and everyone one of his custom wall hangers.