There was a storm on Monday 30th May. We met at 6:30am – well, 6:50am for some – and I made coffees. Despite the early hour, Olie Le Noel was no different from the first time I met him: bright, alwayson-the-cusp-of-laughing, fashionably late – everything you’d expect from a 26-year-old surf-board shaper. It was a tough call on where to go, but with the onshore easterly persisting, Olie’s suggestion of an isolated west coast beach just north of Muriwai won the round table discussion. We emerged at a small clearing, and the sound of waves was the only indication we were near the beach. The tired gravel road was lined by forest, dark and tall; small puddles filled potholes; rain drifted down in foggy sheets. Olie went about unpacking his board, while we all – Loz the photographer, Artje the designer, Olie, me – chatted away.
Le Noel Surfboards has been around for three years, Olie told me. Hand-made, custom-designed, and sustainably built, his boards are, from all accounts, immaculate. “I’ve been building boarding boards since I was 16 and professionally building since I was 21,” he continued. “My parents were intent on not buying us things, so my two younger brothers and I ended up making our own stuff like skateboards. When it came to buying surfboards, I was like, ‘I’m not doing that.’” Dunedin was where he got his first proper look into the board-building industry. Ostensibly in Otago to do a design degree, he ended up spending most of his time shaping boards. “I was working with the ‘King of the South Coast’ – Graeme Quass. He taught me the fundamentals and was a legendary role model. He taught me a bunch about surfboard building, as well as about just surfing in general.”
From there, an OE was on the agenda, and of course, Olie spent most of the time in or around the water. “I spent three years shooting between Indo, America, Sri Lanka and Portugal. We were scraping by on nothing… Between Jim Phillips in America and Niko in Indonesia, they showed me how to hand-shape. “A lot of people shape, but not a lot of people know how to hand-shape properly, and efficiently. Jim Philips is one of the original shapers in America and he’s now 75. His shaping bay that I used to watch him shape in is next door to Bing Chaplain – who was the first guy to ever bring a board to Piha. It’s great to trace the knowledge back to the beginning. They can explain the early design decisions around surfboards and what worked and what didn’t.” When Olie arrived back in NZ, there was nothing else on the agenda but making boards, so that’s what he did.
Le Noel surfboards was born – but Olie wasn’t content following industry norms. “Initially, I spent most of my time working out how to make surfboards sustainably. I just thought if I was going to do it, then I’d do it differently. I wanted to use the traditional methods and make them by hand. “Anyone growing up in the ocean has a natural respect for the environment and we all know changes are needed. Surfboard making can be toxic, so I wanted to make a change there.” Ollie’s guiding principle became ‘glass to last’. Building a surfboard, he told me, creates anywhere between 170kg to 250kg in CO2 emissions and one tree only absorbs around 20kg of carbon dioxide a year, so when Olie builds a board, he wants it to last.
This is the reason you won’t find Le Noel shortboards. “If you get the pressure of the wave plus the weight of rider on a short board, you’re going to buckle boards all day. I once went through five in a week.” “So, how’d you go about making more sustainable boards?” I asked. “I started off sourcing virgin kauri that’d fallen in Fiordland and floated down the Haast River,” he explained. “The trees fall down in the floods and then a guy collects them off the beaches and ships them up north.” “I then take the wood to get it milled. They split it, and then I straighten it and chop the shape/profile out of it, and then I glue the wood profiles onto the foam – I use EPS foam which gets upcycled into other materials. “I then have the raw blank and can start shaping the board. At that stage, the machine would usually take over but I cut it by hand. I’ve got a Skill 100 – a 45-year-old plainer from the company that invented the skill saw.” The actual shaping comes next, and that’s the artform, Olie explained. “When you’re shaping, you start with a raw square and you have to whittle it down with the plainer into the four-dimensional cuves that are a surfboard. It used to take me about six hours to shape a board, and even two days when I started out. Now it takes me an hour and a half, maybe two hours.”
While some of these details at the time flew over my head, one thing was clear: the process is obviously very labour intensive. The time-factor, as Olie went on to tell me, eventually forced him to explore other options. “I now get some blanks delivered, which are made of high-grade marine ply or an Australian cedar. It’s lovely to use, and it’s a nice alternative to the more time-intensive kauri. The kauri is denser and still nicer to shape with, but the other materials are soft and provide a nice flex pattern. I do a mix of both
now.” My next question, of course, was how he manages this whole process by himself. “Last few months have been hectic. My standard week involves trying to shape a few boards on a Monday morning – up to three. I come back on Tuesday and check them and start glassing them. Wednesday is then sanding and filler coats, and Thursday is the intricate work – resin panels, pin lines – and gloss coats.
Friday is gloss coats and finally getting them out the door. “If I was working hard, and doing all stages of the process myself, I’m doing three boards a week, but I often do four a week and then take a week off so I can go surfing.” After all this chat about surfboards, I was about ready to see one in action. Thankfully, as we walked through the low forest and up over the small sand dune, dark lines spread across the coast. There was swell – not big by west coast standards, but perfect for Olie’s longboard. We spent the next couple of hours standing on the shore watching him glide across waves, no less wet ourselves under the relentless, mist-like rain. We had no complaints. “You know how you have life goal lists on your wall like ‘do an iron man’ or ‘climb a mountain’?” Olie later asked me. “Sure,” I replied. “Well, my goal was to live by the surf and shape surfboards.” In this regard, Olie is a success story, and it doesn’t sound like anything will be changing in the near future. Gisborne is next on the agenda, which
means more beach, more surf, and more sustainable building. Not a bad life at all.