THE GHETTO RAT
Jerry O'Keefe makes world-class surfboards for his label... and everyone else's
Interview by Andrew Lewis
Surf Alley. Soul Alley. The Ghetto. Though there are multiple nicknames, most of you reading this probably already know what we're talking about. Truly there is no place on earth as rich in board-building history and talent as that patch of winding, dusty alleyways nestled in the hills of San Clemente, California. Names like Dale Velzy, Herbie Fletcher and Walker Foam got started there, and have since invited in on the action new faces like Timmy Patterson and Matt Biolos. Being on such a large production scale these days, the big names rely on the "glue" in the Ghetto - guys like Jerry O'Keefe who, along with producing his own line of surfboards called Soul Stix, have mastered the art of the APS3000 and providing honest-to-goodness American-made shapes for everyone. Though Jerry has become one of the top go-to guys in the Ghetto for his work on the computer, his prowess with the planer is nothing to scoff at: he's been Head Shaper at Dewey Weber Surfboards for 12 years now, and his Soul Stix label has become the brand of choice for top names like Neco Padaratz.
What's your specialty?
Jerry O'Keefe: Customizing surfboard designs that have been created and refined by myself and other seasoned shapers, tested and proven by the top pros, and providing surfboards that are viable to each unique individual. It is my priority that no matter the surfer's experience, the board I shape them allows them to take their surfing to its highest level.
What are your favorite boards to shape?
Custom - that's where the challenge is. This is what separates me and other shapers from a CNC shaping machine or a Chinese artisan. CNC machines, their software and Chinese artisans - none of whom have surfed - have been trained and programmed to mass produce a product they know little or nothing about. They simply can't do what I and others like me can do, which is to design boards for individuals using experience gained through years of surfing and being a surfer. It takes a surfer to understand a surfer.
How did you get into shaping?
My dad taught me how to surf practically before I knew how to swim at Dana Point, before the harbor was put in back in '68. He was also a championship sailor and respected by guys like Micki Munos and Phil Edwards, who were also world class sailors. I remember my dad, my brother Tom, and I would be up late fine sanding and applying a certain type of speed finish (the earlier version of the speed finish I apply to the boards I make today) to the bottom of the racing cats he modified on the side of our house. He would explain to my brother and I things like drag, lift and speed while shaping the foam into the dagger board slots, so that he could run them narrower, thinner and deeper than the way they came in the stock boat. With all of this going on, plus the smell of resin going off, is when I remember thinking, "this is the kind of thing I want to do!"
Around that time I lucked out when Rick James said my brother and I could watch him shape my brother's first custom board next to where Harold Walker was making foam down in what is now known as the San Clemente "Surf Ghetto". It was the summer of '71, I was only eight years old, and listening to Rick's stories. All the while I was thinking I could do this. Once I got a little older I tore the glass off some old boards we had in our garage and shaped and glassed smaller ones out of those. When I was 11 my parents told me they were friends with a guy named Gordon Clark, who they had told about my new found hobby. Clark invited me to take a tour of his factory and pick up a free surfboard blank. I almost crapped my pants! It was a great experience for me and after giving me a few shaping tips, he said "Now get out of here and go make a mess!"
How did you end up in the "Ghetto"?
Around 1986 I decided it was time I gave shaping my full attention. Obviously I knew the Ghetto was a good place to be if you were a serious board builder. Brad Basham, who I had been getting my glassing materials from since he set up shop down there a few years prior, told me he'd give me a shaping bay to work in if I gave him my glass work. By this point I had a really nice custom following: I was filling in for Timmy at Hobie's, and Jacks Surf Shop was selling a ton of my boards in Dana point and Huntington, as well as Zuma Jay surf shop in Malibu and the Surf Spot in San Clemente. So I felt It would make sense to have someone specialize in the glass work while I specialized in the shaping.
Describe the environment in the Ghetto.
It's really a special place that many insist is the birthplace of the modern surfboard. It started in the '50s when Dale Velzy and Harold Walker were making boards down here. There was also Clark foam ten minutes up the street from Hobie's. Herbie Fletcher, Dewey Weber, Hamish Graham, ...Lost, Timmy Patterson, myself and many other shapers have called this area home - as well as Lok Box, Official Fins, Rainbow Sandals, and a whole bunch of glass shops. Being a part of the movement down here is exciting because I never know who's going to walk through my front door. The other day I got a knock and there was Rory Russell and Herbie Fletcher standing there - they just happened to show up at the same time and hadn't seen each other in years. So I got to hear some epic tales from two of surfing's most colorful legends. Another day it was Joel Tudor checking out my spot when Neco Padaratz came in to pick up a board from me after just saying hello to Jordy Smith in the driveway. Another time I stepped out of my shaping room and there was Bob Hurley boxing with my Boxer!
You offer a cutting service. Who are you cutting boards for?
I cut boards for Dewey Weber - where I'm Head Shaper - Hurley, Hamish Graham, Michael Barron (Byrne Surfboards), Moss Research, Tommy Moore, Rick Rock, Greg and Jed Noll, Cole, ...Lost, Garth Day, and Soul Stix.
Those are some big names. So do you put more focus on your own boards, or keeping up with the demands of these clients?
My 16-year-old daughter Luki - who loves to surf - cuts for me and does an excellent job. Normally, I don't get bombarded by everyone at once, so when I receive an order of say ten or twenty boards I can usually get it done in three to five days. During the season things can heat up so when needed I put in the extra hours and take on more help. But do I put more focus on my own boards? Of course - and for some reason these guys just keep coming back!
What is the most popular design being requested at the moment?
I would say the squash tail thruster with different rocker variations and bottom contours as a daily driver is most popular, as well as the step downs which more and more people are finding to be a vital part of their quiver. As for longboards, I'd have to say traditional 50/50 rails with a low entry and plenty of tail rocker, like Jed Noll's 'Joe Aaron' model or the Dewey Weber 'Planer'.
You are seeing many different brands of foam come through your doors these days. Is it improving with each year and who is leading the charge?
The foam has definitely improved over the years and I would dare to say that just in the last six months it has become really consistent. Surfblanks America has really gotten their ultra-light formula to an excellent level of consistency and a very high strength-to-weight ratio. U.S. Blanks is right up there and has an excellent array of hand-shape blanks.
It seems like extreme overseas pressure has eased a bit in 2010. Is that because everyone is just tired of talking about it, or could it be that the American shaper is holding his ground?
Yeah, no doubt we're tired of talking about it, but nevertheless we definitely needed to. I don't know one shaper that has decided to stop shaping because the going got tough, so, to me, that is proof that to the American - or any true shaper for that matter - shaping is a labor of love. Also, I think word is out on the boards made overseas. Private board labels, SIMA and the surf media have made a good effort to educate the consumer, whom I believe is becoming more board savvy. As some guy who wore glasses explained to me: the Chinese "Pop Out" factories are subsidized by their government and need to produce X amount of units to justify use of their facilities. As the boards from overseas flooded the market - largely due to retailers fearing they wouldn't have enough boards to sell after Clark went out - the world economy became weak and the big factories in China weren't flexible enough to downsize, so many were forced to go back to making toilet seats and other types of products that will sell well in any economy... flooded or not!
Check out the Soul Stix website.