Josh Hall's Big Boards

[Josh Hall salute. Photo by Tommy Colla.]

At 34, San Diego surfer/shaper Josh Hall has been building surfboards for sixteen years in places like Japan, Rockaway, Puerto Rico, Portugal, France, Spain and Bali. Much of his youth was spent lurking in Skip Frye’s shaping bay gleaning insight into the master’s design process and surfing with him after work, seeing boards tested and refined firsthand. Skip provided a model of work/surf ethic which guides him to this day. Josh shaped his first board around the same time Thomas Campbell filmed him and Frye for “the Seedling.”  Referred to as “Skip’s buddy Josh” in the movie, he rode one wave on a ten-foot plus “Big Board” (now all the craze) and was immortalized in the quintessential ‘90s logging revival film which went on to influence a generation of surf culture. Campbell recently designed a laminate for Josh, now some two thousand boards into his shaping career.

While most shapers these days utilize computer technology Josh prides himself on his boards being one hundred percent hand-shaped. Call him old fashioned, but he believes in the mana that goes into a board made exclusively with human hands. At times he is outspoken about his purist views, chiding both older and younger shapers who’ve plugged their designs into computer programs, used ghost shapers and don’t actually surf what they build. Josh walks the line of having a humble respect for his elders while still calling a spade a spade — not unlike fellow San Diegan Joel Tudor whose persona and design relationship  with  Donald Takayama informed Josh’s own surfing and shaping. But don’t peg Josh as a retro soul daddy, his age keeps him in touch with the younger generation. However, it’s his pedigree, sense of history and friendly good nature that allow him access to shaping gods like Rusty Preisendorfer whose low volume shred sticks couldn’t be further from the kind of boards Josh builds and rides. Recently Rusty has been sharing his design theory on quad fin placement for the big wave guns he shapes for Mavericks and Jaws, something to consider next time you’re frothing over making a thigh high section on your Glider or quad fish.

Michael Machemer: You just returned from Spain, was this another leg of the JH world shaping tour?

Josh Hall: This trip was just a vacation to travel around Spain to see my old university town and all my other friends. But yeah, I’ve been very fortunate to create this sort of gypsy shaping thing, a term coined by Andrew Kidman and Michelle Lockwood. I’ve been to so many amazing places and have met even more amazing people, like a full Surfer’s Journal edition each trip you know? Although it is traveling, don’t ever think it’s not work. When I’m home cruising I might be doing two to three boards a day but when I’m on a work trip, it’s brutal. Ask any of the guys that are traveling around and they’ll say the same thing because you end up doing four to five, sometimes six boards a day. My last trip to France I did twenty one boards in three days. It’s one thing if you have them coming off the computer but I hand shape everything so it tends to be pretty intense. It used to be that I could go somewhere and stay for like a month or two because I wasn’t ever that busy at home, but now with my Japan distributor I’m busy every month so I can’t really be gone that long anymore.

MM: What have you been building lately, what are people ordering?

JH: Right now I’ve been building Fish Simmons of all lengths and fin designs. I was able to get my 9’0 into some solid hurricane surf this summer at Windansea and a few of the other reefs and the board just performed so well. I’ve been really trying to refine those boards with a little more rocker and a little more curve than the Skip Fish Simmons but same “Hall-ing ass” characteristics.

[Photo by Slavin]

MM: Can you explain the Fish Simmons?

JH: Well, the Fish Simmons or Skip Fish Simmons was created in the early nineties when Skip started the Big Boards, more commonly known as Gliders now. I still call them them Big Boards though. If you look at late ‘80s and early ‘90s Skip Frye’s, they have way more curve overall in the outline. After reading and studying about Simmons, Skip’s boards became a lot more parallel throughout the mid sections which has been the standard on all his models for the last thirty years. I think the one thing that needs to be made clear is Skip’s Fish Simmons has nothing to do with the Simmons planing hulls that Richard Kenvin and crew started making around 2006. They never used the word “fish” in describing those boards, they were always called “Mini Simmons”  or planing hulls, not Mini Fish Simmons. I think people started throwing that term in there and things got lost in translation via the internet. And if we’re getting technical, the whole idea behind the OG Mini Fish Simmons in the 1950s is that it was made of epoxy. So if you’re making anything with “Mini” and “Simmons” in the title and it’s not epoxy then you’re missing the point. I started calling my boards “long” and “Mini Fish Simmons” because back in December of 2007 I shaped my first Long Fish Simmons Quad. Taking Skip’s bottom contours off a ten foot plus Fish Simmons and applying that design concept to the long keel fish outline. It loosens the heck out of that template and the quad fin design just goes so well with it, they might be the fastest boards around. So for me boards under 6’6 are called Mini Fish Simmons, from 6’7-7’1 they are Long Fish Simmons and above 7’1 they are just called Fish Simmons. And guess what? Everything that I build in San Diego works all over the world. There are a lot of set ups similar to the waves in San Diego. For example, a wave like Guethary in France, a big rolling peak, like a cross between Windansea and mushy North Bird is perfect for variations of the Eagle or big pin tails. Even more so are the variations of the Fish, Long Fish and Fish Simmons which are on the top of the current shaping list as well as the Big Boards.

[Josh holding up a shot of Skip skating.]

MM: Big quads?

JH: Yeah. A few months back I got to spend some time in the shaping room with Rusty Presiendorfer and he talked about his ideas on quad fin placement for the ten and eleven foot guns that he’s building for the boys charging Jaws and massive waves all over.

MM: Was that your first time meeting him?

JH: I’ve known Rusty for about ten years and I don’t know why but he’s always been really nice to me and always asks how I’m doing, where I’m going et cetera, just unreal. This whole thing came about because I have some new Ohana in Kauai and the guys surf Hanalei Bay really big. The boys are real close with Dick Brewer and Terry Chung; both legends making big guns on Kauai. I told them about this pintail gun template that Skip gave me with roots tied to the OG Cojo guns that both he and Mike Hynson surfed at the 1966 Duke contest and suggested that we make 10’6 quad pintails. Rusty was the first person I reached out to and he invited me to his factory in the evening to check out some boards. Well first off, it was humbling as fuck to be able to do that – just call him up and ask to come talk design. Rusty is just the nicest, genuine, super famous person I know. Accessible and always positive about things and most importantly willing to share.  So we looked at two boards and broke out the square to measure some fins up while talking theory.  Then my good friend and PB Point kingpin Paul Elder, the artist for Ballast Point Brewing and guy who’s been in charge of printing Skip Frye T-shirts for over twenty years and I were talking about these big boards for Hanalei and he ordered a 9’7 pintail off the ’66 Frye template. He says there’s this spot south of the border that would need a big pintail to really get it done right, not for size necessarily but just to cover ground. Paul has had Rusty shape him boards over the years too, so it was a nice combo of hubba there. I added on some of my bamboo J. Hall quad fins shaped by Marlin Bacon and boom, the first “Kookslayer” was born. Paul’s response, “A plus plus” — he couldn’t believe the drive yet all the ability it had in turns.

MM: Cool to be able to hang with a shaper like Rusty, a god of contemporary high performance design but then be so close with someone like Skip, whose history stems back to the origins of California surfing. What kind of boards did you ride growing up?

JH: I think the first board ridden was my brothers old Town & Country tri fin. I was a huge T&C fan as a grom, remember that Nintendo game? But the first board bought for me was a Guy Takayama two plus one long board. Then my old baseball coach Bob Boche, owner of Diamond Glassing lined me up with my first three customs — a Roger Beal high performance longboard and two Stu Kenson longboards, one being a Joel Tudor pintail knock off directly influenced from the J. Brother film “Adrift.” That helped me through until I got my first Frye in the spring of 1999.

[Skip and Josh]

MM: When did you start shaping?

JH: I made my first board in spring of 1999 in a shaping room I built the summer after I graduated high school. I worked for a master brick mason and we built this huge wall all summer so with that money my dad let me put a legit shaping room in his garage. Also around this time is when I was waiting to get my first Skip Frye shaped which back then was like, a three month wait. I watched Skip shape my board and that’s when the tutelage started. I’d watch him shape everyday and then go surf with him all over. I would watch a step he did and then go home and repeat it, so that’s how the first board went. I would watch and ask a questions every now and then but always respecting Skip and his space. I mean, I was the luckiest kid in the world being able to have access to his quiver and sit on his tool box watching him shape everyday. The most amazing years of my life at that point.

[Josh Hall and Joseph “Clams” Falcone sharing the shaping bay on the west coast, circa 2008]

MM: What was the first board you made?

JH: First board shaped was a 9’6 two plus one long board and my second was a 5’9 rocket fish that Bird Huffman hooked the fins up for, a set of blue Steve Lis glass ons — I still have both boards at my factory!  Two thousand boards later.

MM: You started shaping around the same time you were filmed for “the Seedling”?

JH: Well I can’t say that was a planned thing but yes, “the Seedling” is another event that came out of that time frame. My first Skip Frye was a 9’6 egg 2 plus 1 but right away I also purchased a used 10’2 Eagle from Bird Huffman and a 10’2 Fish Simmons. That was all before summer of 1999 which is when Thomas Campbell was coming down to shoot the Skip stuff and that’s how we originally met. One day in July Skip calls and tells me to meet at the shop the next day, “we’re going to San Onofre to ride the Big Boards.” So we meet at the shop, I have my 10’2 Fish Simmons and Skips loads up both the 11′ and 12′ Fish Simmons on the roof. I’m freaking out that I’m going with Skip Frye to San-O and about half way up says we’re going to check out his friends shop. Turns out his friend is Donald Takayama. Now I’m sitting there really freaking out “can this really be happening?” You have to understand that besides Skip, this was the peak of the Takayama/Tudor era and of course those two were my other huge influences on style and boards. Donald greets us, introduces me to all the guys in the shop and we load up the Valiant and caravans and  head to San-O. This is my first day ever seeing San-O so I’m super nervous, stoked and embarrassed all at the same time. Thomas greets us there with some of the boys and says he’s gonna shoot a bunch of stuff from the hill and from the water. He actually tried getting behind Skip on a few waves lugging around this big ass camera housing on a forty pound log. Old Man’s is head high peeling both ways and I hit the water with Skip on one side of me and Donald on the other. I swear Donald paddled out with a cigarette in his mouth but that could be a lie, haha. We get to the peak and here comes this wave. Donald looks at me and says to go right, so he can go on the longer left. We both slightly fade the drop towards each other then crank bottoms turns at the same time. That was the start of my first session at San-O, a Surfer’s Journal type of day. LJ Richards was there, I met Tom Morey and got to ride the prototype of the Swizzle and then “the Seedling” wave which I still can’t believe happened. Maybe Skip made it happen, maybe it was just Thomas. Either way, a pretty trippy foreshadowing.

[JH and JC shaping at the Clams Casino, Rockaway, 2008]

MM: Canonized in the quintessential retro film with potential hipster leanings, haha. Speaking of which, let’s talk about your relationship with New York?

JH: The  only time I even thought about New York as a surf destination was Jimmy and Joel’s part in “the Seedling” and even after that I had no idea I would ever go there. I tend not to like big cities. My first real trip there was for the New York Fish Fry in 2008, the year Manny Caro, Chris Christenson and RK came out. The year the Mini Simmons was called the “yo guy, whaddya gatt there a pizza box?” Haha. What blew me away was meeting guys like you and Chris Gentile, Tyler Breuer, Joey “Clams” Falcone, Franco Rinaldi and the crew. To go to NYC and have real in-depth conversations about surfing, surf history and design just blew me away. I mean, I know pro surfers out here that don’t even know what a concave is, so talking with you and a few others, I thought to myself, wow these guys know more about surfing than I do…even more about San Diego, haha. Hanging there at Mollusk Brooklyn and “The Casino” with Joey Clams just made me appreciate what I have in San Diego and not take it for granted. We can roll out of bed late about three hundred and fifty days a year and score waves, whereas in New York you really have to be on it. I mean in NYC, I’ve gone out in conditions I would have totally written off in San Diego. Not only that but you guys surf in the snow! To me that was the most hardcore thing I had ever heard of. Gnarly…I just couldn’t believe that!  Not to mention all the insane people I’ve met in New York from hanging with Andy Kessler, watching John “Dubstar” Schultz spin records at the Leopard Lounge, all the food and drinks around town, covering grenades at Union Pool, taking a board across town with Andrew Kidman, a part train part walking tour, skating mongo through the streets while eating Dominican chicken sandwiches or watching the Yeah Yeah Yeahs warm up at Secret Project Robot; getting a ride back to Brooklyn after a surf sesh by Johnny Knapp and getting schooled on what real hip hop is and the start of Nas’s career. I feel like New York is a home away from home sometimes. It’s the people, genuine, real, and interested. It was at that first surf film festival that you, Adam Cannizzaro and Tyler Breuer did, where I met Sancho Rodriguez and he’s my whole reason for anything I have going on in Spain and Europe for that matter.

MM: What’s next for JH?

JH: Well the future is just surfing and refining shapes that I’ve always been building.  I could care less what boards look like, they have to work and how do you know if they work if you aren’t riding them? I feel a lot of boards get built on looks and fads versus guys putting in time riding and refining them. That’s the number one thing I’ve learned from Skip — you have to ride everything that you build. Imagine me trying to take a stab at Rusty or Lost’s short board market? Those things don’t even float me, I’ve never ridden one, what the hell would I be doing building them? Shit, look at Skip he’s 73 and still refining, surfing and shaping everyday. That’s what I hope to be doing.

Order your own Josh Hall custom at the shop today! Go HERE to view what’s available in shop.

 – Words by Michael Machemer

[Chris G. tucking in on the 5’10 Hall/Falcone collabo quad fish. Photo by Tommy “Wave Dancer” Volovar.]