Growing up a stones throw from the iconic Bells Beach, Shyama Buttonshaw has had an upbringing like no other. From his father who played pivotal roles in the inception of brands like Rip Curl and Quiksilver to learning how to understand boards from the likes of Simon Anderson and Maurice Cole, Shyama has already lived an intriguing life. Vissla caught up with him to discuss his transition from Junior Series ripper to shaper, his mentors and his goals for the future.
You came through the Australian Pro Junior Series and competed at a pretty high level. How did that serve as a foray into the shaping world?
I competed for a while and my results were hit or miss. I wasn’t that competitive, but I gained a lot of friends from that world. When I was really young though I worked on boards a lot with Simon Anderson and we worked really closely on designs. He would sit with me on the computer and discuss what I liked and didn’t like about my boards. I always found that interesting. I wasn’t really hands-on until I was about 18 or so and I was fixing dings for a bit of cash on the side. It was about then that Maurice Cole asked me if I wanted to do some dings and learn to make boards out of his factory.
Those two guys you just mentioned are two pretty solid mentors – I know your Dad is a person who has worked in the surfing industry for a long time – but did having those two guys teach you a lot ever take away from any competitive aspirations?
I don’t know if the aspirations were there to begin with. I enjoyed the process and enjoyed being surrounded by really good surfers, but I don’t think I had that drive. I think I’m more competitive with myself than anything. I think my transition into shaping evolved slowly, it wasn’t like it swamped me. I just slowly moved into it. It was really nice working with Simon and learning how to get the most out of a board, whereas you don’t do that as much when you’re not competing.
I know that a lot of surfers have trouble articulating what they like and don’t like about their board. Did you ever have that drama when talking to Simon?
The beauty about Simon, and he actually taught me this about my own customers, is that you can get them to talk about the feelings they’re liking and not liking as opposed to someone saying something like ‘it needs less edge.’ It’s more about the feelings the board gives you. When I’m dealing with custom shapes now, I’ll ask things like ‘is it giving you projection?’ or ‘is it loose off the top?’ Basically, he’d be able to find out why the board was giving you certain feelings.
A lot of shapers have a tendency to not take constructive criticism or less-than-favourable feedback too well. How was Simon when you did discuss these things with him?
Simon was amazing. It still spins me out when I reflect on it. You could tell him certain things that the board may be lacking and he was the king of refinement in those areas. It shits me when I’ve seen pro surfers get one or two boards and make up their mind, but Simon’s wealth of knowledge is massive, so by the time you get to the third or fourth board from him, he’s dialed everything in.
A lot of Victorians have always had an affinity for Simon’s boards. There’s yourself and Adam Robertson rode one when he came runner-up in Bells a few years back. What do you think it is about the area that allows for that attraction?
Umm, Kelly (Slater) rode one for several years in Bells also and it was one of the best boards he’d had at that time. I look at Simon’s boards and they’re so balanced. There’s nothing too extreme and they really suit the waves. A lot of the waves we have a good bullshit testers where you need to manufacture a lot of your own speed. I think you can almost get away with riding an average board in everyday conditions in some places, but down here you can spot a dud board from a mile away.
On your website it says ‘modern surfboards, traditional values’. I touched on your old man before and you’ve mentioned a lot of really reputable shapers – Simon, Maurice - who have helped you along the way. Do you think your upbringing helped develop that ethos?
So, I was with Maurice for around three and a half years or maybe a bit longer, but straight after that I started working with Corey Graham. I spent a few years with Corey and he really refined me. I was a bit punk and didn’t know what I was doing when I was coming out of Maurice’s and Corey and his Dad Russell were really hands on with me. Corey handshapes everything, so he taught me how to be handy with the planer, whereas Maurice was working a lot with pre-shapes and designing on the computer.
Often Maurice’s opinions have put him in the limelight. Was it daunting working under someone like him?
The beauty of Maurice that a lot of people don’t get to see is that he’s got quite an open mind. He’s not that dismissive. When he looks at other people’s board designs he’ll look at them and have quite a good understanding of why they’ve done certain things and how the board will go. I think there’s a bit of a façade that he believes that everything is shit when compared to what he’s making. When he was teaching me about design, he’d go through the fundamentals really well with me and it wasn’t just all extreme concaves and stuff like that. He would even break down the boards I was riding from Simon, so there was a really good balance between the foundations and the absolute extremes of shaping.
Was there ever a time when he would take on that old school approach and made it daunting for someone like yourself who was learning?
Funny you say that, he’s got a little bit of writing on his glassing bay door that says something like ‘if it’s not perfect then it’s f--king shit.’ So yeah, he did have a really high standard and his boards were quite hard to construct. It was challenging for sure. I actually remember this one time, a guy from a surf shop who worked on the retail floor bought one of Maurice’s boards down and said ‘this board is shit, the fins are out.’ He took it in the shaping bay and measured the fins up and they were spot on, so Maurice left the bay and picked up a tomahawk that was outside, came back in and put it through the board and then stormed outside and threw it about 30-feet in the air. He did that and looked back and said, ‘now, it’s a piece of shit.’ The dude from the shop was bright red and didn’t know what to do. It was crazy.
Speaking of all that crazy stuff – and I know your Dad was part of doing the artwork for this company - but Gash surfboards (shaped by Greg Brown), was reportedly a wild scene back in the day. Do you think having those guys - who had pretty wild reputations - helped shape you as surfer and a shaper?
I actually just did a collaboration with Browny, not that long ago, where we did an asymmetrical board and we shaped one side of the stringer each. We called the board the Butt Stabber, I got the dagger out of the Gash logo and stuck it into my button logo. I sent a photo to Greg and within 30 seconds he wrote back ‘Butt Stabber’. But nah, to get back to your question, my Dad has always been quite witty and I grew up in such a supportive environment, so I don’t think I got any hard edges or anything from those guys. Maybe I have a soft edge. I definitely love seeing what the Gash guys are doing though.
With all the guys who have surrounded you – Simon, Maurice, Corey, Gash and even Wayne Lynch – do you ever pinch yourself and say ‘Woah, these are some of the best teachers you can get’?
Oh, for sure. I couldn’t think of better people to learn from or to have as mentors. I really respect all their work and it’s great to pick their brains and get feedback on certain boards I show them. Also, the starting point was maybe a bit different where there was probably less stabbing in the dark where I could ask them what not to do rather than shape 100 boards and just figuring it out along the way. I’m very grateful to all those guys. Maurice was here the other day, I always catch up with Corey and Simon and I actually did a board swap a year or two back, where we shaped each other a board, which was pretty crazy. It was a real privilege to be able to do that.
Did he love it?
Yeah the feedback was really positive. There were a few little tweaks, where I had to compromise with the blank I had and I couldn’t get enough rocker, but overall the feedback was really good.
When did you start doing your own shapes, was it straight after you left Corey?
Maybe a year or two into it, I built my own shaping bay on my Mum’s property at Bells. I was still working with Corey, doing some of his sanding as well as a bunch of glassing and then I’d bring my own shapes in and glass in his factory. It all evolved from there.
Is there a bit of a different environment down in Torquay, where shapers are more embracing, as opposed to somewhere like Sydney or the Gold Coast?
I dunno. Torquay is a funny one. There’s a lot of people competing for a small piece of the pie. It’s not like anyone is doing massive numbers down here. It’s not funny by any means, but there isn’t that much work going around. That being said, it’s kicking into gear a bit more recently. We’re all friends and get along but there’s little bits of shit that go on every now and again. I just try and avoid it though.
What does the future entail for yourself and what sort of goals have you set for what you shape and what you ride?
I’m just trying to refine my boards and make them as good as I can. I’ve also been getting into cross-pollinating with silk screens and doing some resin work also. I just want to make shit people like. I want to keep trying to execute that message on my site you mentioned before and making modern surfboards with traditional values. I’m not trying to do too many big numbers, but just make quality boards.
I’ve asked this question to a few shapers who are pretty damn good surfers, but would you say you’re a surfer who shapes or a shaper who surfs?
I’m a shaper who surfs.
Why is that?
I’m not good enough of a surfer to say I’m a surfer who shapes. I think you’d need to be on Simon’s level to say it the other way.
Finally, where did you want to be in 20 years time?
Making boards and surfing heaps. I know life has it’s peaks and valleys but hopefully I keep on track and be happy doing what I’m doing.
Words and Images: Ethan Smith