One of the many benefits of ESM’s annual Surfboard Issue is the fact that it brings underground shapers pursuing a multitude of boardbuilding directions out of the woodwork. This March, New York native Kiernan Brtalik reached out to fill us in on what he’s doing out west with his innovative Haze Surfboards label. Read on for more…
ESM: What was life like growing up as a surfer in New York?
Kiernan Brtalik: When I was a kid, my family was really into boating along the South Shore from early spring into the late fall. Being around boats and the ocean had a big impression on me, teaching me the concepts of navigation, wave mechanics, hull design, tide and wind considerations, and how to read the water. When most people hear “New York,” they think of New York City and a metropolis filled with skyscrapers, Broadway, and Wall Street. But New York to me is marshlands, dunes, inlets, sandbars, clams, and mussel shoals.
The two characteristics that heavily influenced me growing up in New York were my distance to the beach and surfing in the winter. I grew up about 15 miles from the beach, which was too far for me to ride my bike, but I only lived about 2.5 miles from where my family docked a small center-console fishing boat. I had been piloting boats from an early age, so my dad let me use it to get to the beach. From late spring into the fall, my journey to the beach included a 20-minute bike ride with a board under my arm and then a 35-minute boat ride across the bay to Gilgo Beach and the surrounding areas.
The winter was a different story. I had to convince my dad to take his kayak out surfing with me or hang on the beach to watch me and a friend surf. He never liked the idea of me surfing alone, even into my late 20s and right up to the day he passed away. So I would typically downplay the fact that I was going surfing and would be “meeting” friends down at the beach. In any case, after a few failed attempts wearing doubled-up spring suits with boots, gloves, and a dive hood, I got my first winter wetsuit when I was probably 15 years old. In order to surf in the winter, you really had to work hard. It’s less “I’m going for a surf session” and more “I’m braving the elements and will have numb toes and fingers for the rest of the day.” I envy the kids learning how to surf in New York winters today because the wetsuit technologies have gotten so good — thick, warm suits are way more flexible now!
ESM: How did you get started shaping?
Kiernan Brtalik: During my final year at high school, a program called the “Senior Experience” was piloted in my district. The program allowed students to pursue an internship or independent project in a field or industry that interested them. I knew right away that I wanted to learn about making surfboards. I had ordered a couple boards from Mike Becker at Natures Shapes over the years, so I reached out to him and he was generous enough to take me on. He got me started right away, teaching me about hot coating, fin installation, sanding, and eventually glassing. My first project with him was a boat repair — he had me wet sand the entire inside gloss coat. It was mid-March, so I was freezing and my hands were covered with sores… But by June I had built my first surfboard.
The senior experience program included a final presentation at the high school’s main auditorium. I brought in surfboards from my friends’ and my own collection and talked about the history of surfing, shaping, composite materials, and all the details of making my first surfboard. A lot of students and friends interested in surfing heard about my project and came to check out my work, and many of them ordered their first Haze Surfboard.
By the following year, I had pitched my dad the idea of building an 8’ x 12’ shed next to my parents’ house, and that’s when my shaping business took flight. Over several years, my family and neighbors tolerated high decibels from my Hitachi power planer, plumes of dust bellowing into our back yard, and more than enough resin vapors. I’ve been reflecting on this a lot since losing my dad this past summer. He keyed into a young boy’s passion and let me run with it; after over 15 years of shaping, I think of him and his support every time I pick up my planer.
ESM: How did you transition from a young backyard shaper to actually running a business and selling your designs?
Kiernan Brtalik: I didn’t have the resources to build stock boards, and shops certainly weren’t about to buy boards from a 17-year-old shaper. So it was really thanks to word of mouth and a solid group of friends. They were integral to spreading the word about my designs, being game to ride the weird (and sometimes ugly) things that I experimented with — I literally can’t thank them enough. Since I really loved making new boards, I would chat about my new design concepts, art ideas, and so on with anyone who visited or called me. I’d listen to what they thought about my designs and about other boards they had tried, and then we’d develop a custom board. I’d be stoked to shape another board and get a little bit of cash to put toward my next R&D board, and they were excited to try out their custom creation. I was a sponge, just soaking in all of the feedback and ideas — I couldn’t get enough. Come to think of it, it must have been pretty annoying how much I talked about surfboards!
ESM: How did your experiences surfing in New York influence your shaping direction?
Kiernan Brtalik: Similar to how surfing in New York required so much attention to shifting conditions like winds, sandbars, and tides, my approach to shaping also became all-consuming. I would get rid of any obstacle that got in the way of me building the next board, which regularly meant little sleep. I developed an obsessive mentality towards trying new designs and experimenting with new materials. I would start from the typical outlines, foils, and concaves of the time, and would alter them until I started finding out what my friends and I liked in the board. If I had a design concept in my head, I would shape it right away, glass it immediately after, and take it to the beach that evening for a surf session, even if there were no waves, just to paddle it around.
At the time, most of the surf shops in my area of New York didn’t carry the funky designs from the creative surfboard design hubs out in San Diego and Santa Barbara, but I’d hear about them from other surfers in the lineup and have a chance to check out the designs. As I’d look at and run my hands over the board, I’d break down the design elements to figure out the concepts behind the shape. Then I’d incorporate them into my own designs, constantly building from my past personal lessons. Also, since I spent a lot of time boating and fishing, I got inspiration from hull design and the different shapes of fish that we caught. Just a mash up of experimentation and inspiration, really.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve definitely paddled out on a lot of ugly boards (my own shapes!) over the years, but every time I’d surf, whether the board blended the design elements well or not, I would learn something new. When I’d surf these experimental boards, it didn’t matter if it ended up being a good board — I was simply trying to prove or develop design concepts. This was also true for when my friends and customers would report back. I’d listen with keen awareness to what was and was not working for them, building from our experiences. To date, I look forward to getting texts or calls from customers after they’ve had the chance to ride their board for the first time. While I’ve refined my experimentation methods over the years, I feel fortunate to have the freedom to express my design ideas and to have had very talented surfer friends on both coasts that put my boards to the test.
ESM: What prompted your move from New York to San Diego?
Kiernan Brtalik: The bottom line is that I didn’t as much leave New York as go to San Diego. Trust me, if I could be in both places, I would — every time there’s a swell back home, I get anxious and sweaty as I picture my favorite breaks heaving over the sandbars. I absolutely love collaboration and working with others to create something that neither of us could have done on our own. This is really why I first reached out to Tommy Bunger to work with him as a laminator and eventually ventured out to California. I wanted to work with other shapers and board manufacturers in a mecca for surfboard design.
I was 22 years old when I moved out to California, and got myself set up with a shaping room at Global Glassing. The owner, Jeff Morgan, gave me a great deal to use a room above the glass shop if I built and installed the light boxes, A/C system, racks, and such. I started to meet some of my shaping heroes around Global, and I wasn’t shy about seeming uncool or anything, so I’d ask all sorts of stupid questions and awkwardly introduce myself to shapers and glassers — I just really wanted to explore different design theories. I learned a lot by simply being around the factory, chatting with builders and surfers, and eyeing up all the boards in production.
I’ve been living and surfing coastal San Diego for the past 9 years. I get to test out designs almost immediately and ride all sorts of boards. Within a 20-mile radius there are legendary beachbreaks, reefs, pointbreaks, ledges, and wedges. At each break you’ll find someone riding something different, whether it’s a keel fish, thruster, mini-Simmons, asymmetric, glider, or a classic log. And because you can ride all these types of boards within the same week (or even in the same day), you can learn why certain design elements work and start to figure out which elements can be blended with others into your boards. But still, whenever a hurricane forms in the Atlantic, I start looking at plane tickets and asking my friends about the sandbars on Long Island.
ESM: What keeps you going as a shaper today?
Kiernan Brtalik: Custom surfboard shaping is really an art, which is probably why it’s so hard to make a living off it. For me, it’s all about spreading happiness. When you have the right equipment, surfing is one of the most freeing experiences in the world. As a custom board designer, my shaping has always been driven by each surfer, with the goal of creating a board that would allow them to have as much fun as possible. Life’s too short to ride a board that’s not fun. That’s really what it comes down to: having fun and being true to yourself. I think that’s also the source of the most stylish surfing.
I feel that we are in a golden age of surfboard design. There are so many people with access to designs and information, and people are surfing in all different kinds of ways. There are style masters finding trim at the same time others are riding finless, while aerials are becoming the norm of high-performance surfing. One of my favorite sayings is something along the lines of “we stand upon the shoulders of giants.” We are only able to reach new heights because of the hard work and discoveries of those who came before us. I think it is important to give respect where respect is due. It’s rare that we actually have our own unique discovery, and when it does occur it’s generally because we put old concepts and ideas together in a new way.
ESM: What are some of your favorite current designs?
Kiernan Brtalik: That’s a difficult question to answer. I’ll usually paddle out on a different board each session – I’m a huge advocate for experimentation. But I guess when it comes to designing, I’ve been most excited to shape logs and asymmetrical boards recently. There are so many subtleties to a good log. You can say, “50/50 rails and I’m set”, but that’s missing almost everything about the board that’s important. What does the belly look like, where are the transitions, how does the volume foil through the mid section into the nose and tail? There are so many considerations to making a log that can allow someone to surf elegantly and with style.
When I started seeing asymmetrical boards and fin set-ups in lineups about 4-5 years ago, I lost it. I started researching all about them, scouring the Internet for interviews, articles, and photos. I was a kid again, fully consumed by visualizing these concepts and integrating them with my own shapes for my clients and myself. As a shaper, asymmetric design makes the shaping process so much more natural. I feel like the planer can just flow, and the curves just blend seamlessly. I don’t even have to use templates for custom orders — it’s fantastic! I just wish I knew about these designs when I was younger, as a good asymmetric board will change your surfing for the better.
ESM: Any closing thoughts or words of wisdom?
Kiernan Brtalik: Try different boards often. Ride logs. Ride single fins. Ride twin fins. Even if it doesn’t end up being your favorite board of all time, you’ll likely get out of the water feeling good because you tried something new. It’s good to learn something new.