Interview by Glenn Sakamoto
Benjamin Barnhart is a California-based surfer/shaper and the founder of Barnhart Surfcraft, a woodworking enterprise in Gaviota dedicated to creating works of art from surfboards to boats. Ben's journey is a path filled with the struggle of dealing with an illness and the joy of finding the beauty that surrounds us in nature. We recently spoke with Ben to learn more.
What was your childhood like?
The highlights of my childhood, the things my parents absolutely nailed, were my access to and freedom in wilderness via camping, and my love of reading and drawing. I was not tethered when in the woods and mountains as a child. I had the freedom to roam, explore, and be alone, taking it in and letting wilderness become more home than home – a place I was comfortable and safe.
I grew up in a very competitive money-and-sports driven place. But while other little kids were playing sports, I had access to reams of paper and unlimited pens and pencils (Pops was an architect), and I used them! This was very formative, and really drove the development of my eyes, without which I'd not be the woodworker I am today. I am extremely grateful for all those childhood desk hours.
When did you get your first surfboard?
I was a late arrival! Having grown up inland enough that there was no surf culture at all, I didn't find the ocean until I moved to Goleta for schooling at UCSB, after a couple years off, post high school. Even then, being a very bashful person, it took a couple years to get a board and overcome the nerves involved in stepping into an organized social scene in which most folks start at a young age.
As the thought "I'm at home" flashed through my mind for the first time ever, a bottlenose dolphin leapt directly between the sinking sun and I, its body making that perfect dolphin arc above the horizon-squashed sun. I think, at its best, surfing is the feeling of being home for me.
My college girlfriend bought me my first board for my 22nd birthday, in November of 1998 (worth noting that I missed out on the El Niño of '97!). It was a 7'0" Dave Johnson 1980's big guy semi-gun. Thruster set up, round pin, with what is now being called "edge board" rails running some 1/3 to 1/2 of the distance from the tail forward. It was thick, and wide, and nothing like what all the UC kids were riding. I recall being embarrassed about it at the time. But, oh man, I wish it was still intact. In hindsight it was just the right board for me to learn on. I finally committed to getting over my nerves and really putting in water time at 23-- the same year I learned to sail and dive. That was a great year!
What was the feeling you had when you first stood on a surfboard?
I've got a better story from some several months into learning to surf. I had started "surfing" well out of anyone's way at Poles, and have very clear memories of aquarium-clear water, feather-boa kelp, and fishes fleeing in front of me as I skimmed over the shallows. One spring day, as the sun dropped and the water cleared out, I paddled up the point and a little ways out, to watch the sunset along our south facing coast. It was a perfect day, immersed in something completely fresh and new to me, yet somehow... ingrained in me as well – Melville stuff, the calling of the seas that all y'all know and feel. Everyone else had gone in, and I just laid there on my board, feeling the little slap and pull, watching the colors change and the sunset oil-slick grow. I recall feeling completely comfortable, knowing I was in the right place at the right time. As the thought "I'm at home" flashed through my mind for the first time ever, a bottlenose dolphin leapt directly between the sinking sun and I, its body making that perfect dolphin arc above the horizon-squashed sun. I think, at its best, surfing is the feeling of being home for me.
Who/What inspired you to begin shaping?
I dreamed of building wooden boards for so many years before I got started that it's hard to say exactly. In one sense, learning to build boats inspired me. The Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding gave me the requisite know-how to turn insomnia into productive brainstorming sessions. In another sense, the forms of dialed surfboards, like the line drawings of beautiful sailboats, was inspiration. You see the functional sculpture and you want to get your hands and eyes involved creating, involved in the lineage. What was critical for the actual beginning for me, building that first board, was sharing a shop with Tris Tarantino, who was building modified strip-built hollow wooden surfboards at the time, under his "Cedar" logo. I'd been dreaming and scheming for around a decade, and here were wooden boards, actually taking shape at the bench next to mine! That proximity made it real. And once it was real, I had to get started testing ideas.
Tell us about Barnhart Surfcraft. What kinds of boards are you interested in making?
Right now I'm focused on foam-core wooden boards. My start was in hollow-core, but I find hollow-core boards to be a big leap for clients to make, so I have decided to go mostly foam-core as something more familiar for buyers. I'm either recycling the foam from old boards that I strip the 'glass from, or shaping Marko "Envirofoam" recycled EPS blanks. Moving in the direction of environmental responsibility has always been at the root of my interest in both wooden boat building and surfboard building. The phrase "environmentally friendly" gets thrown around a lot – mostly as a marketing angle. An oiled alaia is environmentally friendly.
Boards like mine are moving in the right direction, but calling them green is disingenuous, and that's something I've had to come to grips with. I use recycled foam, Entropy resin, and get a lot of strength from the wood skins and rails. Working with rough western red cedar stock, and doing all the milling myself, gives me control of color and grain layout, as well as control over the run of grain for maximum strength, and construction methods that take into account inherent wood movement. I'm building high performance boards with longevity in mind.
As far as shapes go, I'm interested in... clean shapes. I love classic lines, and I love fair forms. It's a fascinating time to be shaping surfboards! Whether you are into brand new rocketship shapes, or modern tweaks on classics, or both – things are pretty wide open. To be honest, if I see a form as... not pretty, then I'm not going to be interested in building it. I'm also in a place where there is so much research that has been done, for so many years, on what does and doesn't work in various conditions, that I want to build boards that work and work well. I'd rather learn the beautiful classics than to spiral off into unsure things and guesswork. Why design your own sailboat from scratch, when you can build a Herreshoff, a Fife, a Gartside? I enjoy clean, balanced, fair, and proven shapes, created by hand and eye.
How important is making crafts with wood instead of the traditional polyester foam?
Wood is everything. I still find it a bit crazy that I'm incorporating foam at all! Woodworking is an ancient lineage, and on the best days, it’s with a tuned and dialed plane in hand, working excellent wood. I can almost feel the connection to woodworkers going back into the very hazy, distant past; the Aleut iqyax builders, the builders of 1800's, Danish sailing fishing vessels, the ancient Hawaiian olo shapers and sailing canoe builders. Planes very much like the ones I use on the daily have been found in Egyptian pyramids. Wood is everything.
Working with wood is also a commitment to excellence, to doing everything in your power to learn and progress in your skills-- design, joinery, wood knowledge. I love trees. And I work with their dead bodies. To my mind, that makes honoring the materials an imperative.
Who/what inspires you?
In woodworking/shaping: Other shapers, so many shapers! Boat designers. Boat builders and shipwrights. I'm inspired by newbies making handboards for themselves in the garage, doing the best they can; and at the very top – legend status creators. In design: I think the forms are all out there in wilderness. I am particularly fond of the Greene Brothers' design work, of Shaker work from over 100 years ago that is absolutely timeless, of boat designer/builder Paul Gartside's drafting work. Architects, graphic designers, Impressionist painters, fashion designers – they all come into play. In life: my heroes, for a good two decades, have nearly all been women travelers. I find no greater inspiration for how to approach life.
What is the greatest thing you have learned in your life?
I have absolutely no answer for this one! Ask me on my deathbed.
What are you most proud of?
When my head is clear, I suppose I'm most proud of still being alive. I've been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, one of the big three mental illnesses (along with Bipolar 1 and Schizophrenia/Schizoaffective Disorder). It's a daily challenge in no small way, and I've lost years of my life to it. But here I am, still kicking, and working to my utmost, finding successes now and then that I'd have never expected to arrive at.
What meaning does surfing hold for you and how has it changed your life?
Well, in reference to the last question, I don't think it would be overstating to say it's played a pivotal role in keeping me alive. I could elaborate, but I think your readers will read that sentence, and understand, because we are all moved, deeply, by the power of the ocean, and the feeling of the glide.
What brings you the most happiness in the world?
A week ago, with my dog Jackie, I drove nearly to Canada, to buy a small twenty foot keelboat and its trailer. I towed it back home to Goleta and got it parked in front of my shop on a nice, warm evening. That moment, the success it represented in getting through 40 years of challenges, all the obstacles overcome, and in what it represented for my future... well, I am dirt poor, but that night with my dog, I was absolutely the richest man in the world – such was the happiness. So, at my very happiest, I have probably just overcome some fear, some dread, some sort of hefty challenge, successfully.
What is your favorite board? Your favorite surf spot?
Tough question. I've been so locked down in the shop, pushing to make this thing work, that I've not been getting water time for a number of years. I can accept that as I love my work, but I'm ready to change it. In a general sense, I think mid-length, single fin, modernized speed shapes suite me the best, but the more thorough answer is that it's totally surf-condition and mood dependent.
I love the simple, so-so home surf spots. I hate driving any distance to surf, and I have absolutely vibrant beach/coastal ecosystems right here. For me, surfing is stepping into the wilderness, It's about immersion in a world not dominated by human culture. That's the most important thing; the tides, the winds, the seasonal changes, the animal and floral and algal neighbors. The Gaviota Coast is perfect for me in that respect.
What's your favorite meal and beverage?
Tacos de pescado, por favor. Water!
What music are you currently listening to?
I like to mix it up – from K'naan to Bright Eyes to Miles Davis, to Willie Nelson.
What are you most grateful for?
Jackie, my shop-dog-girl, and the support of friends and family.
What's next for Ben Barnhart?
In the immediate future, I'm wrapping up the current batch of surfboards, including a 5'3" Fish for a friend in Hawaii, a 5'4" Mini Simmons, a 6'-9" Pigged Hull, a 7'-2" Speed shape. A friend gave me his Pop's bought-used-in-'65 Owl pig and I'm very excited to rebuild it in wood. Lots of smaller projects like paipo and handboards are in progress.
I'm also enjoying the collaborative effort of building surfboards with my 'glasser, Michael Emery of Green Lightning Surfboards in San Diego and looking forward to other collaborations with other artists. I'll slip some small craft boat building into the work lineup any chance I get. Cold molded, skin-on-frame, traditional lapstrake, and plylap. And I've now got a sailboat to restore and get sailing, which has me as enthused as I ever recall being! Life is good. All my best to your readers, and remember to surf happy!