John Cherry is a California surfer/shaper and master craftsman who was inspired and influenced by the work of such legends as Velzy, Bing, and Terry Martin. Starting with his first Balsa board, John has been creating beautiful custom wood projects for over 25 years. We spoke with John to learn more.
What was it like growing up? What hooked you on surfing?
My dad introduced me to surfing in about 1959, just as the experimentation with foam boards was beginning. The first board my dad brought home for me was new, 8’, Balsa Velzy-Jacobs. Dad started surfing in 1957 in Hermosa Beach. It is where I started surfing as well. During the late ‘50s and early ‘60s I also looked forward to the occasional weekend trips with my dad and his wife Joan, who was also a dedicated surfer, to San-O or Doheny in our station wagon packed with siblings and numerous boards lashed on top. During that time my dad and Hap Jacobs were good friends and frequent surfing companions. For most of the ‘60s the family rode Hap’s boards pretty much exclusively.
When did you know that you wanted to make surfboards?
Back then we had a small shop downstairs, under the back portion of the house. I remember the intrigue of that place when my dad and friends were there repairing boards or occasionally glassing a ship’s wooden hatch cover that had washed ashore to use as a coffee table. I loved the vibe and the smell of the resin. I’m sure it was then that I became hooked on the notion of building surfboards and any other craft that related to an ocean lifestyle.
When I actually made a decision to shape a surfboard, it happened in 1978 when my younger brother Frank walked into my house in Cardiff with a longboard under his arm – one that he had shaped and glassed himself. Compared to the outrageous prices that shops were starting to charge for boards (DT was asking almost $400 for his boards at the time and I was quite fond of them) the cost Frank told me was most attractive, about $125. That week I went to Mitch’s in La Jolla and bought a Yater longboard blank, glass, resin and a fin box, and built some shaping stands. Grandpa Cherry gave us the cash to get a power planer and we were in business. Cherry Surfboards was born but with no intention of developing a retail business. Frank and I shaped and rode our own boards as well as shaping boards for our surf buddies from then on.
What prompted you to start working with wood?
After I had been shaping for about 23 years I had still never built and shaped a balsa board but the desire to do so had been strong for quite some time. In 2000 my late wife Susan must have grown tired of hearing me say, “I really want to build and shape a balsa board some time.” That Christmas she presented me with a gift certificate to Frost Hardwood Lumber, the sole source of balsa for surfboards in San Diego County, and told me to go get the wood and build my balsa board. Although I had imagined the process all the time I was thinking I should build one I realized when it was time to start that I was not certain about many aspects of the project. I also realized that I lacked a few of the major tools required to execute the project. Fortunately I had access to advice and instruction from one of the best builders and shapers in the industry. Susan’s older brother, my brother in law was Hobie’s head shaper, Terry Martin. I had Terry on the phone many times during the build when I had questions or just needed assurance that I was on the right track and Terry was a treasure trove of the right information and experience. I had to borrow a bandsaw to do some of the work and I took my blank sections to a cabinet shop to have them thickness planed to my width specifications. The rest I was able to accomplish in my shop. With Terry’s guidance I built, shaped and glassed a very respectable 9–0 balsa gun with three redwood stringers. The lacewood single fin I crafted for the board was the first fin of my career. Shortly after I finished the board I had the opportunity to ride it in big California surf. I was thrilled and amazed at the speed, the glide momentum, the sound of the wood on the water and the view of the balsa under my feet. I was hooked on the beauty and the ride of wooden boards. Since then I have built many wood boards for myself and for clients.
Tell us about the first wood surfboard you shaped.
Building my first wood board also awakened in me a passion for wood as a design element in custom boards that had long been dormant. Growing up as a very young surfer in the early 60’s I was always enamored with the beautiful woodcraft that guys like Gordie, Bing, Jacobs, Velzy, Noll, Wardy, Holden and many others of note incorporated into their board designs. It represented for them a mark of excellence in craftsmanship and quality that they wished their names and logos to be noted for. In many cases their informally proprietary designs and templates of wood fins and stringer designs could identify a board to its maker from 200 yards away. As the short board era began and the longboard faded from the mainstream surf scene in the 70 and 80s, so faded the use of hand crafted wood art as a key element in surfboard design.
I guess it never really faded for me. Soon after I completed my first balsa board and solid wood single fin I was compelled to build a second balsa board. I purchased a bandsaw, a table saw and a thickness planer. I began building a 10’3 classic longboard shape for myself. It was chambered with five 1/8” stringers evenly spaced across the blank… I decided it needed a classic reverse “D” fin with a checkered panel design. I still ride it. It weighs 25 lbs.
It was at this same time that I decided I no longer wanted to glass my own boards as I had done for the past 25 or so years. When the 10–3 was finished I decided to take it to Moonlight glassing to do the glass work, except for the fin which I laid up, including an old-school, heavy bead around the edges. Moonlight did a superb job glassing it.
More importantly, the board and fin got a lot of attention while it was at Moonlight being glassed. When I picked the board up Peter St Pierre asked me if I could do a few sets of twin fins in wood with similar designs for him. I agreed to do so. The boards that followed led to more orders which led to more orders still. As months passed and orders for fins and for my boards started coming more frequently, I realized that a viable business was being created for me. I decided to invest in tools and machines to complete my wood shop and shaping facility and to retire from my 25 year county job. I retired in 2004 and established as a full time business Cherry Surfboards and John Cherry Woodcraft. Today I create projects upon request only from individual customers and I still approach each project as a one-off work of handcraftsmanship, mindful that it is very special to the customer who is requesting it. As I have found it necessary to be in the shop or the shaping bay full time for a few years now, I guess the business paradigm is working.
Which type of wood do you most enjoy working with to produce surfboards and/or fins and why.
In addition to appreciating that a viable business has been created for me from something I used to wait anxiously to come home and play with on weekends, my woodcraft keeps me ever entertained and amazed with the natural beauty variety of the woods I work with.
Peruvian walnut is as dark as a roasted coffee bean. Holly is as white as parchment paper. There are a million shades and earth tones in between. Flame Maple and quilted Maple have 3-D ripple effects in their grain and Hawaiian Koa, the king of woods in my opinion, has almost all of the above with its variation of color and pattern and an iridescence to its grain that turns on and off as the direction of the sun’s light changes across it relative to the direction of the grain. The design possibilities they provide are limitless. No two projects are ever alike.
Which shaper, past or present, do you most identify with?
I must humbly admit that for the first 25 years of my shaping career I was even further from the mainstream surfboard industry than might be considered “underground”. I taught myself to shape based on a good feel for tools in general, an eye for symmetry, and an intuitive sense of what shapes or contours worked where in a shaped surfboard based on riding them for many years before I ever picked up a planer. But I had always shaped for the pure joy of shaping and riding the boards that I made or the joy of shaping for a friend if he popped for the glass, the resin, and the blank. Until I started taking my boards to Moonlight, shortly after I married Susan Martin and met Terry Martin, I really had no connections within the world of professional shapers.
Who or what has had the greatest influence on your life and why?
I was considered by all that knew me an accomplished shaper by that time. But what I learned over a few years as I spent time in the shaping bay with Terry Martin definitely brought by skills to a higher level. He taught me a better understanding of the shaping process, how to truly see the board through its stages in the shaping bay and numerous other tricks of the trade. Hobie rightly called Terry, “The best shaper on the planet” That is of course subjective and perhaps debatable. What places me on the affirmative side of that assertion is Terry’s nature as person in addition to his skill which earned him the nickname “ The Machine”. In spite of his legend status in the surfing world and his self awareness as one of the great shapers Terry remained truly humble and generous with his knowledge. I have been present more than once to see Terry invite a complete stranger into his shaping bay for a lengthy session of “Shaping 101” if he sensed after meeting them that they had a true desire to learn. I know Terry retained the stoke with each and every one of the 80,000 + boards he shaped and he remained equally stoked and interested in what others around him were creating. I learned much more than that which relates to shaping from Terry. If I could be just like someone when I grow up… it would undoubtedly be him.
My friend Rich Pavel, also a close friend of Terry’s, is another shaper who has had a tremendous influence on my approach to shaping and my eye for the finished board as it relates to performance. Much of this came from discussion. Even more came from observation and from riding the result of what I observed. Rich has an amazing, innate talent of blending the right foils of blank and rail with subtle bottom contours to produce ultimate-performance boards at any length or style – that are also user friendly from the first trip down the line.
Can you tell us about your work with The Wounded Warriors?
Recently I have been involved with the Wounded Warriors Surf Camp in Del Mar, California, Operation-Amped at Camp Pendleton and K-2 Foundation. All three organizations are focused on providing surfing as an uplifting and healing experience for
disabled vets and in the case of the K-2 Foundation, civilians as well. During the last two years I designed and shaped two special boards to provide leg amputees a platform which allows them to more easily capture and enjoy the true essence of surfing, that being the feeling of being one with the speed and motion of the wave on a fast board that they can more easily paddle and control when they are riding.
What is your current state of mind?
My current state of mind and focus regarding building and shaping surfboards and making fins, is much the same as it has always been since I started shaping in the mid-1970s. I have always enjoyed building and shaping boards, crafting custom fins or crafting any project that relates to the surfing world with a specific individual’s requests or a specific aesthetic goal of my own in mind – as opposed to a business plan designed to grab my share of the market or become well known by repeating multiples of anything. It has been a continued series of one-off projects combining art and function for friends and specific clients in my surfing community. Today I am blessed that my community extends worldwide.
At this point in my life I really have no regrets. In the beginning my only goal was to learn the board building craft and be able to produce shop-quality boards of my own imagination for myself and my surfing buddies. The evolution of my craft, besides my own drive as a bit of a perfectionist, has come about through the aloha and support of the surf community and in the later years through the generous sharing of information with me by many other talented individuals in the surf industry. I feel blessed and grateful.
With this in mind and realizing that in this day there are really no “trade secrets” I do enjoy very much sharing what I have learned from others as well as the few methods I feel that I have personally developed, with like minded and right-hearted newcomers to this fulfilling art and craft.
What does the future hold for John Cherry Surfboards?
The future? At this point in my life a change is occurring. I am entering a mode of new retirement and attempting to dial back the volume of work I am doing. Last year I was blessed with a beautiful new woman in my life, Lauren Lee, now Lauren Lee Cherry. I still accept orders and commissions, just fewer. Although I will always be compelled to shape and create other art in wood I am looking forward to spending more time enjoying the ocean first hand and hitting the open road as I choose with my wife Lauren and our furry, four-legged kids.
Find out more about John Cherry and his woodcraft here. Photos courtesy of John Cherry. All rights and copyrights are reserved by the respective owners and may not be used without permission.