Having shaped boards for world champions like Andy Irons, Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson, James Cheal is regarded as one of the world’s most in-demand shapers. Vissla caught up with him following his appearance at the Vissla Sydney Surf Pro to talk about how he preferred using his hands as opposed to studying, his experience shaping boards for CT surfers and why he thinks machine shapes are the future.
Give us the black-and-white dot-point version about how you ended up starting to shape?
I used to go to school at Kirra right on top of the Kirra Hill where the eagle is and at the time I used to get my boards off Mt Woodgee and they had a shop at the bottom of the hill. I did work experience with them from the time I was 16 and basically I have been in a factory ever since then.
What was it that drew you to surfboard factories?
I think it was that I never went to school and was always better working with my hands instead of working in books. Plus I was into surfing, which helped too.
Coming from Kirra, there’s a pretty solid lineage of surfers and shapers who have emerged from the area. What was it like being surrounded by some of the world’s best surfers and shapers who all call the Gold Coast home?
Yeah, well I actually learnt to sand surfboards under Allen and Ian Byrne as well as Wayne McKewen. Gary Elkerton used to pop into the factory all the time and take me surfing. At the time we were all riding channel bottom boards and glass-on fins. It was a hardcore scene looking back. Then I moved to Sydney and I actually began shaping myself with Greg Clough who did Aloha surfboards.
What was different about shaping in Sydney as opposed to the Gold Coast?
The thing that happened around the same time was that FCS came in and shaping machines had just began to emerge. There were a lot changes around the time I began shaping.
Greg Clough seems to be one of those shapers who people don’t hear from much, but a lot of people recognize him as a bit of an influence. What sort of things did he teach you?
He had absolutely no ego, and he was one of the most approachable guys I’d met, so I felt I could always be myself around him. He really gave me the confidence to express myself through my shapes.
When you first moved to Sydney, were you purely working under him or, did you do a bunch of your own stuff around the same time?
I worked under him basically. I had a tiny little Chilli label while I was with Aloha and then in 1996, I went out on my own. I got a bay right next door to Brett Warner in Freshwater who I idolized both as a surfer and a shaper.
I know that shapers – especially in Sydney – can be quite protective and territorial when it comes to location and who rides their boards. Did you experience any of that when you first went out on your own?
Yeah 100 percent. Even with Simon Anderson, I’d feel like I was absolutely nothing whenever I’d see him. I avoided him and a few others just because of the stigma of those guys being so hardcore and you felt like you had a long way to go until you got to their stage.
When did you begin making solid inroads into the shaping world? Was it when you were in Freshwater near Brett, or when you moved up to Warriewood where you still are?
No, it was when I was in Freshwater. I was doing just a couple of boards a week, but then I slowly began shaping boards for Joel Parkinson and then Mick Fanning and eventually – and luckily – I got one under the feet of Andy Irons and it really began to steamroll from there. From there I moved to Warriewood into a factory that was way too big for what I was doing, which I thought was a silly move at the time, but it all ended up working itself out.
You also had Nathan Hedge who ended up riding your boards to great success for many years, did having such a high profile surfer help you take your own shapes and business to the next level also?
Totally. Hedgey was so good and was so mature for his age and he could really hold me accountable for not only the good boards I shaped him but also the bad ones. I couldn’t pull the wool over his eyes at any point as he kept me on my game so well.
Talk to us about your Mushies and Mince model that’s pretty obscure looking.
I can’t really claim that. That was a friend, Kain who made his first board and made a major stuff up. He wanted a 5’8, so I told him to find the rocker in the board and to look where he wants a lot of his curve. I left the bay and came back looked where he cut and it looked way too short to be 5’8”. I measured it and it came to 58 inches, which is about 4’10”, so he shortchanged himself about 10 inches. He was 90kg at the time, so he needed a wide nose also, and when were standing there looking at the board, the only thing on the board was the nose template, so we just flipped it from the 12-inch mark and cut it in on the tail. Anyway, we took it out and I was embarrassed to walk down the beach with him, but he kept screaming about how good it went. I didn’t believe it until I got on it myself and it went mental.
Fast forward to now, what are the biggest things you’ve learnt since shaping boards for people like Hedgey?
One of the biggest things was not to trust anyone with your business and do your best to get your head around the accounting side of your business. Also, the other thing I used to do was I would get unbelievably excited when boards would go really well for pros on tour and before I knew it, you’d get the opposite feedback from other guys. So as a result, you’d go through massive highs and then massive lows because you were so attached to a design. I learnt that when I got really good feedback that I need to strip it back and get that healthy median to keep things level.
Tying it back to the Vissla Sydney Surf Pro and the surfers/shapers comp and the shaping bay you participated in. Have you ever experienced anything like what happened at Manly?
Nup. I’m really surprised it’s taken this long for something like this to happen. I remember thinking about 10 or so years ago and thinking ‘could you imagine how good it would be to have a shaper / surfer competition at Snapper with Mick and DHD and Parko and JS. Then with the shaping bay, I’m just so flattered that someone actually thought of the shapers. It was unreal. It was weird, because historically shapers have been the people at the bottom of the food chain in the surfing industry, so to get that recognition was great. With the comp especially, it was great because we were given a good window to compete with a team rider and not just forced into the early morning or late in the afternoon when no one sees it. I’ve actually had kids who go to school with my son in Avalon come up to me and say ‘we watched you surf on the weekend.’ It was great that people could see that we actually love to surf also. It was amazing.
Final question. Tell us, where do you see the future of shaping?
Honestly, I think shapers are going to spend all their time designing and working on materials. We’re always going to be able to handshape to satisfy the customer, and ourselves, but personally I get so much satisfaction seeing a board come off the machine that’s really well done as you get such a good look at all those concaves and all those changes you’ve made. Sometimes, shaping them by hand can wash away those smaller details and changes. I’d love machines to be able to do 100 percent of the shape and then if you want a handshape then you can tell it to only do 50 percent of it and the shaper can do the rest by hand. I feel that’s the future –everything being more consistent for surfers and the people who buy your boards.
Words and Images: Ethan Smith