If you're a PE surfer there's a good chance you'll have at least one Dennis Ellis board in your quiver. Deno's been shaping boards for about as long as he can remember, and has been keeping things funky at the bottom of Brikkies in the Boardroom for the past 16 years.
Decided to catch up with Deno to find out more about his shaping career:
It seems like you’ve been making boards forever, but when did you actually start out?
It does feel like forever! I made my first board in 1985/86 when I was 15 years old. I’m 45 now, so that’s 30 years ago, ouch!!
What made you decide to get into it?
I’d been surfing for a year or so, really enjoyed working with my hands, and I didn’t have the 250 bucks for a new stick. It just made sense to give it a bash.
The first one was so bad, the older okes at the beach gave me a hard time. It didn’t have Vee in the tail, which was the go then, as someone pointed out, so I went home and glassed a solid chunk of resin and chopped mat onto the tail. Plus the four fins (it was a quad) were made of foam, lightly glassed. First wave, they just exploded. Haha, what a laugh.
I rode that thing for about a year and actually got it to go eventually. But I think I felt the challenge within to make a proper board and perfect the technique. It’s 30 years later and I’m still learning!
Did you have to get your trainer-wheels at a local shaper before branching off on your own?
I actually got a book out the library!! Seriously! It showed how to make these old school single fins, but my first board was a bit more modern.
I knew so little about the process, it was starting from absolute zero. Every time I got a chance to pop in to Surf and Sail in Jbay I would drool over those beautiful boards.
Tell us a bit about your first stint shaping for yourself, how did you decide what to call your label – and any memorable successes or gaffs in those early years?
I started doing boards for friends from the beach. I think I’ve still got one in the roof. The 80s were all about ripping, slashing and tearing so my first label was called 'Aggro' with an icon called the 'Slasher' from a surf mag. Nick Pike used to joke my mates and I were the Aggro crew, which was pretty far from the truth - we were a bunch of weedy grommets trying bunny hops in the shorebreak.
My most memorable gaffs would have to be the exploding foam fins and the glass on vee panel weighing 2kgs!! I also cut a blank too short by a foot once, but generally the materials have always been so expensive, you really don’t want to mess up.
You ducked off to East London for a while – was that a business decision or where the waves just better!?
It was all about the surfing.
I’d spent some time in EL on school holidays and everything about the place was appealing to a young surf rat: great waves, incredible surfers and a tight knit community who really looked out for each other. Some of the best friends to have.
As soon as I got out of the army in 1992 I packed up and headed North. I’d surf cranking Nahoon Reef with people like world champ Wendy Botha, Andrew Carter, Wayne Monk, the Corby Brothers, Brad Bricknell and a bunch of unknown guys who absolutely ripped. "Maras" Steenkamp, Glynn Dalbock, Swern Mervin, too many to mention, but the standard of surfing was incredible.
Then you'd meet up at the Dolphin Hotel for pool, beers and some swinging from the rafters! Great comradery from such an epic surf community.
I had a bicycle, a board and a bag of dirty laundry. And I’d met a girl. I hadn’t even thought about a career, I was actually getting by selling empty beer crates and living on toast, tea and beer.
Andrew Carter took me in as a ding guy, and he was a real inspiration, surfing like nobody else, shaping a few boards, doing amazing artwork.
Marius Steenkamp was his glasser, such an underrated surfer. He won a Pro Am at Reef against SA's best and still no-one knew who he was. Magic Maras. He went over to Ireland for a few years and became a legend there, then just dropped off the radar.
Andrew was a living legend and really down to earth, getting to hang with these okes, I thought "jingoes ,this looks like fun"
Suddenly I was making some money, and surfing for Border with who I thought were the best guys in the country, so life was peachy.
Did you shape whilst you were there?
I didn’t really shape much on my first stay in EL. It was strictly ding repairs and surfing my brains out!
Then you missioned back to PE?
I came back to PE as a 'career' move after being offered a job to glass for Greg Smith, and this is where I learned about the search for the truly perfect board.
Tom Curren had just come to JBay for his first time, Greg made him a few boards and it opened up my eyes to the craftsmanship side of board making. I learned a helleva lot, Greg is a proper craftsman. Phil Weddel was sanding and myself and the ding guy surfed loads of uncrowded Seals and Jbay. Greg was making boards for guys like Quinten Jones, so it was a great learning opportunity.
And where to from there?
I went back to EL afterwards and opened my first proper factory and surf shop. I enjoyed 4 years of absolute bliss, shaping until 11 every morning, then driving to the best spots and surfing them usually alone with my mate Clint Bradfield RIP. The shark factor was heavy though, and after Bruce (RIP) and Andrew got attacked I felt I’d done my time.
You did a stint with Puka’s over in Spain, take us through that.
Dave Malherbe hooked me up with the job at Pukas, the huge surfboard factory in Spain, sanding boards for some of the best shapers in the world. I barely knew how to sand a board when I started there, but it was awesome to see and work on shapes by guys like Peter Daniels, Maurice Cole, Bruce Mckee (the Quattro guy) and Ron Roush, a guy who lost his hands in a car crash and used to shape boards for Sunny Garcia using prosthetic arms!! Unbelievable!!
I remember not having enough money for the air ticket there but somehow selling my car the morning I was supposed to leave and covering it with an hour or 2 to spare.
That trip was my first experience working in a global market factory, with the world’s best. Plus I got to surf 6-8 ft Mundaka which scared the s*** out of me, it was so heavy.
It was an exposure to real hard graft, but the cash was great and it was an awesome cultural experience. The total opposite to the Andrew Carter shape all morning, surf all day, party all night business model.
And how about the shaping mission over to Taiwan – not a possie most of us associate with surf?
If Spain was a cultural experience, Taiwan was a cultural SHOCK. Almost too much to comprehend, especially living with the locals, with a communication brick wall. A mate, Gavin Vos, who’s in the MTB industry hooked me up with the oppurtunity. Gav still lives there, still struggles with the language.
The factory was massive and the Taiwanese have a work ethic second to none. Their unemployment rate is something like 3%, everyone just works their butts off. With very little recreation.
I had a great job as a consultant, and the surprising thing was the surf. Such a big coastline with every type of break imaginable and only about 150 surfers in the whole country. Throw in a tropical climate and super warm water, it really is a legit surf destination. When the Typhoons hit, the surf can get massive. Although I reckon the wind in PE is stronger than most typhoons over there. And I got to experience a little earthquake, which was kind of cool.
On the cultural side, hanging with the factory workers, eating weird food and endless tea ceremonies. That Oolong tea is like having 3 Red Bulls at once. I brought some back to SA and my girlfriends father almost had a heart attack from the stuff.
Not a big alcohol drinking culture, but the Karaoke scene is massive. I admit to squawking out a couple of numbers under a bit of pressure.
Weird things were the indoor fishing pools, betel nut chewers with miff teeth and the food, all of it. Especially the green '100 year old eggs' and smelly tofu which pongs like a dead sewer rat!
Since your time in Asia you’ve been back in PE full-time, and seen your business really grow. What was behind the decision to get a shaping machine – and how’s that been working out?
PE is always going to be home, like everywhere there are pros and cons. Here I’ve really had the chance to fine tune small wave boards, because it’s pretty much all you ride. Anything will go in good surf, that’s too easy.
And we have the best surf community for sure.
The support from the community has been fantastic, its humbling, and my goal is to make every customer the best board possible and improve their surfing or enjoyment of surfing as much as possible. My business is about building long term relationships with customers and eventually their families, and that right there is the reward in itself.
I’ve been lucky enough to have help from Mervin Goddard on the shop side, a custom board factory on its own, doing small output, needs a second stream of income. Mervyn came on board with massive input to the shop and outlay, and so many other guys chipped in to help out, it was really amazing. Guys like Andre Venter with the paint job, Barry Theron with the electrical and a bunch of others who pulled in and hammered a few nails, every bit helped. It was a traumatic experience, but so worth it!
The repair side of the business is really just an aftersales service. Very few factories even do repairs because of the time and effort involved. Even fewer do repairs to other brands of boards.
Making boards is not about the cash, that’s for sure, I could have spent a quarter of the amount of time learning another trade and be making way more. It’s never been about getting rich or stroking my ego as some sort of shaping 'guru'. I do it for the love and to be part of the lifestyle and community I love.
What are the advantages of machine shaping vs hand-shaping?
Getting the shaping machine was a no-brainer. A factory has to have one or use someone else’s to be competitive.
Unfortunately in the custom board market, there is a limit to the market and the amount of custom boards one can do as it is way more time consuming than doing stock.
It’s always going to be difficult to compete with the big factories which do high volumes as their costing is way less per board. So the pressure is always to increase output and favour stock over custom, which I don’t really want to do. I’m on the AC program, not the Chinese business model.
I once asked Peter Daniels why he didn’t use a shaping machine (back then) and he said he was a shaping machine! True, but there aren’t many people left like him. Shaping a board is a really physical job, doing 5-10 a day like those legends used to is damn hard work. It’s like throwing bricks on a building site all day. In the end with high volume shaping, it destroys your body.
The other 2 aspects are accuracy and the ability to reproduce a board, a few years down the line. I’ve got everything on file now. If you come back in 5 years’ time, I will give you the same board.
A nice bonus and a real design tool, is the volume calculator. Knowing the required or preferred volume for a customer takes away the hit and miss. Plus if you're building a quiver or redesigning your go to board, it's an exact science. So easy to take your 5'9 or whatever and blow it up to 6'0 with the same volume. Or maybe you're getting older and want an extra litre volume. I can do that without even changing the dimensions on the board, just adjusting the foil.
I can’t really see any advantages of a handshape in the performance board market, apart from the fact that the customer is getting a once off work of art, which they generally aren’t prepared to pay the real value for. The average shaper in a factory might get R 300 as a shaping fee, or maybe R300 for a full day. For 3 hours of physical hard graft per board which took a 20 year apprenticeship? The temptation in big factories, and I’ve seen it, is to get someone who has never even surfed to do the hand shaping because they will work cheaper than a legit shaper.
One could make comparable analogies in any industry or artform. For instance, is it better to carve an ice sculpture using a chisel or chainsaw? It’s the same artists work at the end, so it doesn’t matter, but do you want to see a little rabbit or an ice castle. And really a tool is a tool, some are just more efficient.
At the end of the day though it’s an efficient ,accurate tool, if you know what you're doing with it. Hand shaping will always be the root of our craft, but times change and one needs to keep up.
Hats off to the hand shapers for sure it is a real artform, and unfortunately a dying one at that.
The really telling fact though, is that not one Pro surfer with any sort of credibility rides a hand shaped board anymore. There’s a reason for that.
You’ve always been innovative with your shapes, what are some of your most memorable models over the years?
My innovations have always been performance based. Function before fashion. Sure a board should be nice to look at, but there are also some butt-ugly boards out there that fly. One has to keep an open mind. Unfortunately most of us, myself included, are reluctant to try things which aren’t widely accepted.
My Tokoloshe and Vetkoek are 2 of my favourite and bestselling designs. The Tokoloshe started as a blank which I hand shaped until it looked like what I wanted: small and fat. That board changed my perception of small wave performance.
The other thing I’ve put a lot of energy into has been alternative construction methods, like epoxy/xps/eps foam etc. and various flex patterns. Just too much work for the average big factory though.
My D-bar which I patented years ago was tested by Firewire in California and Marc Price was stoked. He just wasn’t about to give any cash for the idea though. I see JS in OZ have come up with something of the exact same principal. But that’s surfboards for you, there’s no money in innovation. Ask Simon Anderson!
Have you ever had team-riders per se?
I’ve always preferred to have a small team of riders and I’ve had a couple of hot guys right from my EL days.
Guys out for a good deal though will drop you for a hundred bucks cheaper from another shaper.
It’s very difficult to support team riders. I do limited output and work a 50 hour week, 6 days a week just to make ends meet. Giving boards away is not always financially viable.
In fact, if any top 20 WSL pro walked in and wanted boards, I would think long and hard. Giving a guy 150 boards a year has got to equate to direct cash return. That's how many boards a top pro will go through in a year. For example, Toledo arrived at Snapper with a quiver of 60 boards!
Although it’s a slippery slope, its vital to have good feedback from good riders. I’ve built an entire range of Grom boards from my work with Alex van Rijswik over the years and it pushes me to shape a better board to help him surf to his full potential. That being said, I try do that with every customer. Build a long term relationship, shape them a better board every time, otherwise I’m not doing my job.
Back in the day your boards used to sport a crusty the clown logo – what’s the story behind that!?
AAAhh, good old Crusty!
You know that logo was just about not taking things too seriously and being able to laugh at life. It didn’t go down with a lot of people though. Clorophobes for one, yep it's a word and there're a lot of them out there thanks to Stephan King. Haha!
Also guys who were really serious about their surfing. I guess trying to get a set wave off the locals at Supers is difficult with a smiling clown on your board.
What’s your favourite aspect of being a board shaper?
My favourite aspect of shaping is easy: Seeing someone enjoy surfing one of my boards. Simple.
I also love riding something that I’ve made and learning about my surfing and the boards as they change. If I won the lotto tomorrow, I’d carry on making boards for myself.
Anything new planned for the near future?
In the future I’m hoping to grow really long hair, but if that doesn’t work out, I’ll keep smiling…
I had a ride on Ryan Andersons log at Cobbles during the Cobbles Classic, and it was such a blast. It’s the first time I’ve ridden a proper noserider and I think they do have a place in your quiver especially in PE. Just watching those okes gliding on the nose, looks like such fun. My 2 second hang 5 felt epic too.
So I think I’m going to give the longboard thing a good bash and see where that goes.
Any last words?
Here’s a few random stories…..
I ended up in London wanting to do the migrant worker thing, but big smelly cities aren’t for me. I had no cash, so I borrowed 100 Quid from a mate and missioned to Jersey Island where I knew a guy I’d met in EL and who said I could crash on his floor.
Jersey was so beautiful after London, but I had zero chance of getting work, I’ve only ever made boards. Can’t even waiter or bartend! There is one small board factory on the island and a few surf schools so my mate said try the factory owner, who also ran a surf school too.
Next day at the beach I introduced myself to him and he looked super stoked and said "hey (can’t remember what name he used) we've been waiting for you, you start tomorrow!!! The real guy never showed up, and I inherited his job and had one of the best Summers of my life, and made some incredible friends for life.
In the same vein, I once last my car keys sandboarding. You have almost zero chance of finding them, after a day all over the dunes. I said, stuff it one more ride, and rode until I stopped and fell over – and my hand landed right on my car keys!
I think the moral of the stories is, even if you think you have Zero chance, you actually have a lot more than you think, anything can happen!
Deno shapes amazing boards, from high performance wave schralpers to easy-paddling heaps-of-fun boards, and everything in between. Want a board? Tune Dennis here.
Tel/Fax: +27 41 586 2276