Tucked in amongst the iconic Torquay surf shops on Victoria\’s Great Ocean Road, Corey Graham crafts custom surfboards from his factory that is an unofficial archive of surf history. Working in the shaping bay that has been used by many a shaper before him, Corey speaks about handcrafting, dreaming and the love of creative cross-pollination that drives him.
You’ve pretty much lived here all your life, can you give us a snapshot of your childhood in Torquay?
A snapshot of my childhood was pretty much…in the factory, skating and surfing. Whenever there was no surf, I was skating and whenever there was shitty weather, I was in dad’s factory, just hanging about and making a nuisance of myself. It was kind of a totally normal thing, to be growing up in a surfboard factory. It got to the stage where I was in there for so long, that one day, dad left the factory and accidentally locked me in there. I was in there for quite a few hours that night. So I was always in there, in the way, so pretty much my growing up was in these kind of conditions.
Being around your old man who is a shaper was probably a strong influence on you to take this direction. Did your dad pressure you into carrying the ‘Graham’ name?
No, he actually tried to stop me from getting into making surfboards, because it’s a hard graft. He said there’s so many better things you can be doing with yourself and you should go out and get yourself a ‘real job’, that sort of thing. And he tried to turn me off it and um, it just didn’t work.
Russell Graham still glassing today, in the Torquay workshop he shares with his son.
Tell us a bit about your old man’s shaping bus from back in the day…
Dad was making boards for Midget Farrelly at Midget’s factory for many years and then one day, he and a mate just decided to buy an old school bus. They gutted it and turned it into a factory on wheels and they just slowly made their way down the coast, making boards in the car parks and whatever. They were called ‘Change Surfboards’, hence, why I picked up the name for awhile. And yeah, he just stopped into local car parks, did ding repairs, made boards for crew and eventually made his way down here where he met my mum.
Shaping is seen as a ‘dream job’. Is this always the case?
No. You gotta work hard…you gotta work really hard. People think it’s a dream job and that I kind of slack off, surf all the time and pick up tools when I want to. When the surf’s good, I rarely get to see it, ‘cos I have too much work to do and it’s a time consuming job. Each board takes me several hours–3, up to 6 hours to hand shape. And I don’t get paid much per hour and if I get sick, if I don’t work, I don’t get paid. There’s no safety net, there’s no nothing. You stop working, you stop getting paid. Having said all that, I take all that on board because I love what I do and I’m really fortunate to come into work where I can sculpt and have ideas and my ideas aren’t hindered. I can act upon them whenever I want. Yeah, it’s a great existence, but you gotta work hard or you’re gonna go no where pretty fast.
What do you find most rewarding about this job that allows you to out so much good energy into your boards?
I kinda made a deal for myself–for every 5 customs I shape, I have to shape a board for me. Not for me personally to go surfing on, but just some shape that I’ve either thought of or I’ve dreamt about. I’ve had a lot of dreams about a lot of different shapes and flow, so to keep my motivation, for every 5 boards I make for people, I get to make what I call ‘homeless surfboards’, ‘cos they’re not shaped for anybody in particular or a shop or anything, I just feel like it and it’s good that I’m in a job where I stay longer and do things I feel like, that are totally unpaid and they’re just for fun. Also one of the best things about my job is doing things for customers where the outcome is exactly what you hoped it would be, that people love the board and I hope they feel a bit of the love I put into it, ‘cos I’m trying to translate to them and the love they get out of it out in the water. So that’s a really good part of the job, ‘hitting a board for six’, so to speak, where the guy just loves it and makes you feel good.
So you just mentioned shaping boards from dreams, I’m told you shaped a board that was from a dream…
Yeah, I do it all the time. I don’t have every dimension or exactly how it looks, but I wake up with a feeling and I just try to recreate that feeling in the surfboard while I’m shaping it. Look, they’re not dreams of me going out in perfect surf, they’re random dreams and I think I can capture the randomness of them by shaping them immediately. Like, I’ll have a dream where I’ll wake up at 2 in the morning, I have to come up here and draw it out, while it’s fresh and then try get to sleep again, which rarely happens after that. But I’m fortunate to be in the position where my job allows me to wake up and act upon things and not particularly follow a ‘rule book’ or what’s trendy. It’s more like, I had a feeling and try to capture it. Has there ever been a time where you felt like throwing in the towel and what were your reasons?
Yeah, yeah. Well, I actually did, I walked away for about 3 or 4 years from shaping, purely because it’s when I was stocking the major surf shops and brands, and that was right when the Thailand board thing hit. There was no creativity in what anybody was shaping, it was shaping by numbers. These accounts were coming to me wanting the boards cheaper and cheaper and the only place I could take the money out of was my own income, ‘cos materials weren’t getting any cheaper. So at the end of the day, my boards that were retailing for $800, I was making $40 a surfboard. And if you’re gonna rely on that much money per shape job, to make a living, you need ample work. And a) I was working really hard for not much money and b) they weren’t really ordering many boards anymore, so they put me in this position where I had to re-evaluate what I wanted to do. I was pretty much working and going broke and then at the same time, I had everybody with their hand out wanting me to do free boards for them. Drove me nuts, so I walked away. I woke up one morning and thought, I can’t do this, so I rang the factory and said I’m not coming in anymore and I rang the big accounts that I was dealing with, saying I wasn’t doing boards anymore. There was no warning, there was no nothing. I just didn’t come back in here.
Were you still around here though?
Yeah, and I travelled a lot, doing surf schools. It was actually the best thing that ever happened to me, ‘cos I actually spent so much time in the water, surf schooling and reconnected with what surfing was to different people. It wasn’t this retail picture, postcard kinda dream. It was a reality of people enjoying themselves in the water and having fun. Seeing the smiles again, I kind of forgot the business side of it all and that was a real awakening for me. Spending that much time in the water, enjoying surfing again and realising that the main surf industry wasn’t catering to 80% of the people that surf is what gave me the confidence to stick to the original roots of hand-shaping and enjoying what I do again and cutting retail out of it, so to speak.
So you no longer stock your board in shops?
I don’t stock a single shop anywhere, I just work for myself. They’re all 100%, hand-made customs for people. Yeah, I don’t know…the retail situation for surfboards is pretty brutal and I just don’t wanna play that game. There’s a tangible difference between hand-made board and machine-made boards, so why do you think so many punters opt for the mass-produced option?
It’s a catch 22; I think a lot of the guys buy off the brand that’s on them. You know, the marketing obviously works, but they’re also paying a great deal more than if they walked into any small surfboard manufacturer anywhere in the country. You can walk directly into the factories, speak to the shaper and have one custom-made for you and buy it a few hundreds dollars cheaper than in retail stores. It’s just not many people are aware of that. And they want the board for instant satisfaction— they see it, they feel it and everything before they pay for it and off they go. Whether they care or not if they’re mass-produced, I’m unaware of. There are some people that really don’t care if they’re mass-produced and that’s fine. There are other people that want to speak to the person shaping it and you should. Back when I was a kid and growing up, you had the option of speaking the shaper every single time before you got a board shaped. This is a person you’re talking to about how you surf, how you wanna surf, how you wanna progress. Buy nowadays, it’s become an absolute privilege to talk to the shaper and there’s a total disconnection between the surfer and the people making their boards and I’m just trying to make a reconnection where it’s not a privilege, it should be expected. So where else do you source your inspiration from, besides dreams?
Um, art…or just people that view things differently. Like Derek Hynd, I love hearing Derek Hynd talk, or what he does. A lot of people think he’s far too ‘left of centre’, or the finless thing’s weird, but I don’t think any of that stuff. I think, here’s somebody who really doesn’t care about what’s popular. He enjoys it and it’s amazing how so many people are willing to cut somebody down because of something they personally enjoy, and they fear it. So, art and music, and a lot of different flows. A lot of the time if I’m shaping a short board, I’ll have really fast, aggressive music on and when I’m shaping a retro board, I’m listening to that era of music and it kinda gets you in a different mindset and different flow and reminds you to slow down, take your time. Also sculpture and just even things like seeing the shapes in some ceramics and I’m forever watching underwater or wildlife documentaries about the ocean because of the way fish and all different kinds of things move throughout the water and their streamlines and it gives me ideas for different things, so you get it from anywhere. So, yeah, I’ll follow anything that has form and function and flow, I can’t help looking at it.
So what are some of your other creative endeavours?
I’ve got a few. I’m working on the fin thing at the moment, but I just do that at home in my downtime. The idea came to me in a dream or something. That’s more of a labour of love, ‘cos I’ve thrown a heap of money at something that’s just not working to my expectations at the moment. Also, I’m doing a few other things like showing some love to my old skateboards and making some furniture, little tables and stuff out of them. And I draw a lot of inspiration from the early skate eras, because they were like, ‘fuck everybody…this is what we do’. Because there was no money, they did it for the love and that’s why I love looking at the early skate stuff as well. They’re a real source of inspiration, hence, why I like to do things with the old skateboards.
Have you ever shaped a skateboard?
Yeah, I’m actually trying to look for a blank where I can shape a full-sized surfboard skateboard. I’ve got my old favourite deck, I’ve scanned in the dimensions and the curves and everything and I’m gonna be hand-shaping a huge skateboard. So what would be one of your most memorable experiences as a shaper? That’s kind of hard for me, ‘cos I’ve grown up with the so-called ‘elite’ of shaping, y’know, Simon Anderson and Wayne Lynch and all these guys that have shaped for so long, so I’ve kind of been dulled off to the hype around them, where they’re just normal people to me. So shaping with those guys was fun, but I wouldn’t call it a standout. More of a standout moment is when I have my dreams and I do try to create something new that I haven’t seen before or nobody has. I get inspired by other inspired people and that’s kind of like a circle where I help inspire them in return. I’m really enjoying the amount of people turning back to this, the hand-shaping, that’s a thing that’s inspiring me at the moment to keep me on my toes, to not stop imagining. You gotta keep pushing the boundaries.
You get so many people saying that hand-shaping is a dying trade. Do you think you’ll be a rare species in years to come?
Well that’s what I figure, you know. I’m 33…I think, and I’m kinda the last of a generation that was taught to hand-shape. There are guys like me that have never picked up a planer or never drawn on the actual outline of a blank and I see them as the ones with the disadvantage, not me. They see me as the one with the disadvantage ‘cos it takes me so long to shape, it’s so hard on your body and all these things, but I mean, they don’t even know how to make what they’re creating. So, everybody says it’s dead, but if that’s the case, then why are people still making hand-made ceramics and why are there so many people still making things by hand? And I’ll keep doing it as long as I love it, I’ll do it if I’m not making a cent out of it, I’ll do it, ‘cos it’ll just be for me and I’ll just do it for my own pleasure. And if there’s no money in it, so what? Doesn’t mean I’ll stop loving doing it. I guess there are a lot of people these days just think, why would you do things if you’re not making money?
Yeah, yeah. But I love shaping. If I wasn’t shaping, God knows what I’d do with all my time, I don’t know what I’d do. I’d still be surfing heaps, but would I just decide, I’m gonna kill off my creativity and stop doing something because it’s not financially viable? Well that’s part of the problem I see at the moment for a lot of things, ‘cos now we’re finding out the whole computer, mass-produced thing isn’t viable.
Do you think you’ll pass on some of your craft to your son, Sonny?
Yeah, if he wants to, he can. I’d probably be in the same boat as my old man in telling him not to! People say you can’t move forward if you’re always looking back, but if you don’t look back and remind yourself of what’s happened before you, you’ve not no future to look forward to. So any kid that would want to show they wanted to pick up and learn the original ways to do it, I’d be more than happy to show. But if it’s just some kid that wants to have his name on the board eventually and mass-produce, well they’ll be sorted out soon enough and they’ll get sick of it. Dad made me go through 4 or 5 years of shaping before I was even allowed to approach a shop to put my boards in, because you gotta earn your stripes and know what you’re doing and that whole instant gratification doesn’t allow kids to learn that anymore.
So what would you say to a young grom who was keen to get into this profession?
Go into it for the right reasons. Don’t go into it because a) you want your name on a board or b) you wanna make a million bucks. You gotta do it because you enjoy creating and enjoy the spirit you can get from it. If you’re just getting into it for the wrong reasons, you’ll get sorted out soon enough.