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Wave Master

His knowledge of Jersey waters and his unsurpassed craftsmanship make Brian Wynn the go-to guy for custom surfboards on the Shore.

Posted May 5, 2009 by Stan Parish

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Surfboard Maker Brian Wynn
Wynn produces about 300 hand-made surfboards a year, most of them custom tailored for individual customers.
Photo by Rob Cusick.

“New Jersey,” the man said with an approving nod, when I told him where I was from. “You learn to surf there, you can surf anywhere.”

We were standing on a rock outcrop overlooking a legendary California beach break north of Santa Barbara. “You live here,” he went on, gesturing toward the miles of rocky coastline, “and you get lazy. If it’s not perfect, you don’t even bother.”

I took his point, but he was forgetting something: New Jersey surf can be perfect, too. There are photos of waves at Point Pleasant that could, from their height and volume, be mistaken for Fiji or Pacific Mexico, except for the color of the water. But those waves usually roll in during late fall and winter, when you have to cover every inch of skin in neoprene or Vaseline, when you can suddenly find yourself surfing in a snowstorm.

Most of the year you find waves by marshalling resources like buoy reports, online surf cams, tips sent from an iPhone. But the most important resource is the sole piece of equipment required for surfing: a board. And in Jersey—where, more than most places, the right board can make the difference between a day of long, clean rides and a day of bobbing uselessly—Brian Wynn is the boardmaker’s boardmaker.

You hear a lot about the virtues of buying local, but tomatoes aren’t the only things worth picking up close to home. You want a board made by someone who has surfed your favorite breaks and understands their idiosyncrasies. Wynn, 37, spent his formative years in South Jersey, and has been surfing the Shore since he was 16. He has the uncanny ability to translate his deep knowledge of the Shore into subtleties of thickness, curvature, tail-and-fin structure, and other dimensions, that make his boards ride beautifully. 

Surfboards come in two broad size categories: long (8 feet or more) and short (up to about 7 feet). Short boards are thinner and narrower than long boards, which increases their maneuverability. A close cousin of the short board is the retro (1960s-style) fish, which has more volume in the nose and rails (sides) and a deep swallow tail, all to maximize wave catching. Wynn makes every size and style, but he it’s his retro fish that have won him particular esteem in New Jersey.

“If you’re riding around here and you want a year-round board,” he says, “you gotta have a fuller, thicker board.”

Wynn learned his trade in San Diego under innovative shaper Stu Kenson, who is his own brand today. “Most of the people I have taught have directly copied my work,” Kenson says. “Brian is the only person who did his own thing. He’s developed his own style, setting himself apart from the other board builders on the East Coast.”

The glossy, super-saturated colors of a Wynn surfboard are the result of virtuoso glassing. An art in itself, glassing refers to the application of layers of polyester or epoxy resin to the surface of a shaped, sanded board. The shaper begins with a slab of polyurethane foam, which he grooms, first with a handsaw to create the outline, then with a power planer, a door plane, and lastly sanding blocks of ever finer grit.

The result is covered in fiberglass cloth. For glassing, room temperature has to be a constant 70 degrees. Once the laminating resin is mixed, Wynn applies it over the fiberglass cloth with a squeegee, smoothing away excess to create a smooth, uniform layer that just covers the weave of the fiberglass. On top of that another resin, or “hot coat,” final seals the board.

In a field that is almost exclusively male, glassing separates the men from the boys. “The reason most guys around here don’t succeed is in the glassing,” Wynn explains. “You have to know your shit.” It’s a testament to his mastery that many New Jersey shapers bring their sculpted, sanded blanks to Wynn to be glassed. 

Wynn is so identified with the psychedelic swirls and rich monochromes that he applies to his retro-styled shapes that he is at pains to note that he also builds what are called “high-performance” short boards for New Jersey pro surfers like Ben McBrien and Gerry Matthews. “I get a little pigeonholed with that whole [glassing] thing,” he complains.

Wynn, with the help of one or two employees, produces about 300 boards a year. He spends his summers in a state of perpetual backlog as surfers and surf shops place orders for the fall, when Jersey surf is at its best. He can shape a board in as little as a day, but with a half-dozen shops around New Jersey carrying his work, and custom orders flowing in from the Carolinas, Florida, California, Costa Rica, and other far-flung places, he’s got his hands full.

Wynn keeps a deliberately low profile, perhaps surprising for someone who once studied marketing, however briefly. He doesn’t advertise, and there’s no sign outside his Egg Harbor Township workshop.
 
Though I’ve surfed Jersey waters for years, I hadn’t heard of Wynn until last summer, when I was browsing boards at the Eastern Lines surf shop in Belmar. Among the mostly standard-issue, off-white boards, one stood out like a showpiece. Its deck was coated in waves of orange, red, and yellow, and its fins, instead of the usual plastic, were made of polished wood with beautiful grain. The blond shop kid saw me admiring the board.

“He’s from Jersey,” the kid said. I looked down and studied the logo: “Surfboards by Brian Wynn.” That night I found his website (wynnsurfboards.com). It gave an e-mail but no phone number or land address. I e-mailed him about making me a board.

Over the next several weeks, we traded e-mails before he finally gave me his phone number so we could hammer out the details. When I called, I expected him to ask the usual opening questions about rider height and weight. Instead, he asked me what I wanted from my board.

What I wanted—what nearly every Jersey surfer wants—was a Swiss Army knife of a board, a shape that could be effective in the mushy, gutless surf of early summer and that could also handle the epic swells of late fall. The long board I had been riding was difficult to paddle out in large surf, and turned like a tanker. 
Wynn asked me where I like to surf (the beach between Spring Lake and Belmar), how I would describe my style (focused on long, clean rides rather than aerial acrobatics), and, finally, my height and weight. He didn’t speak much during the exchange, but listened thoughtfully. In the end, he told me my new board should be a retro fish.

The fish developed from kneeboard designs of the 1960s, and was resurrected after three-time world champion Tom Curren came out of retirement in 1993 and won a contest in France on a fish he bought second-hand in New Jersey. Because of the cutout in the tail, a fish typically has two fins instead of three, creating less drag and making the board feel looser in the water.

Mass-produced, injection-molded epoxy boards, many of them made in China, cost as little as $300—less than half what Wynn’s custom-made fish would cost me. It’s the difference between bespoke and off-the-rack clothing, or as Wynn reminded me, “We like to think we breathe some soul into the boards we shape by hand.”

During our phone conversation in early July, Wynn told me my board would be ready in late August. But August came and went. Wynn was apologetic each time we spoke. I settled in to wait.

Wynn grew up in Vineland, in Cumberland County. His father was a glass blower specializing in complex condenser units and scientific labware. A serious hunter in his spare time, Wayne Wynn built his own muzzle-loaders and bows, fletched his own arrows, and performed his own taxidermy in a well-stocked woodshop in the family garage. When Brian was 16, an older friend drove him to the shore and took him surfing for the first time. “That was it, man,” he recalls. “I was hooked.”

It’s a familiar refrain, but Wynn’s next move is less common—he decided to make his own boards, much as his father had made his own hunting gear. In 1993 he ordered some foam blanks, borrowed a door plane from his dad, and went to work. 

For his first three years, he was strictly self-taught, reading everything he could get his hands on, learning from his mistakes. He had left his hometown after graduating from Vineland High in 1990, and enrolled in Stockton College in Pomona, taking marketing classes with the idea that he would someday need to publicize Brian Wynn the brand. First he needed chops worth flaunting, and that meant apprenticing himself to an accomplished shaper. In 1996, there was no one in South Jersey who fit that description, so Wynn packed his truck and went west.

Wynn’s work from the early ’90s had impressed Dean Randazzo, the first pro surfer from New Jersey to qualify for the World Championship Tour. Thanks to a recommendation from Randazzo, Wynn arrived in California with a job waiting for him at a factory that did contract shaping and glassing for industry giants like Rusty and Channel Islands.

Wynn was given a shaping room next to Stu Kenson. “The first time I met Brian,” Kenson recalls, “he had just finished glassing a board for Rusty Surfboards.” The glassing was to be done in an opaque red to cover up some damage to the blank, and Kenson was curious to see whether the self-taught kid from Jersey could pull it off. “That board looked great,” Kenson recalls. “And I’m very picky when it comes to glass work.”

After two months in California, a friend introduced Wynn to Melissa Patragnoni, who had moved from Cherry Hill to study marriage, family, and child counseling at the University of California at San Diego. The two hit it off immediately, and in 1999 they decided that marriage, family, and children should be more than just an academic pursuit. Wynn was building a reputation in San Diego, but he was anxious to leave what he saw as an oversaturated market for the kind of custom boards he wanted to make. “I kind of gravitated to the high-end stuff,” he says. There was no one in New Jersey with his California pedigree to fill that niche.  He and his bride moved back east.
 
I n october my board was finally ready. I drove out to Wynn’s workshop to meet him in person for the first time and pick up my new treasure. Wynn greeted me with the firm handshake you expect from someone who makes his living with hand tools. A lifelong hockey player, he has a compact, muscular build, and his head is shaved to a smoothness reminiscent of the gloss on his boards. Inside his airy workshop were three shaping stands side by side. The cement floor was spattered with brilliantly colored resin.

The industrial disorder stood in contrast to the beautifully shaped long boards, short boards, and fish gleaming on racks under brilliant fluorescent lights. Wynn reached between two single-fins for a board sandwiched between them.

“Here it is, man,” he said.

The fish’s twin wooden fins were affixed with a thick coat of clear resin, and the underside was glassed with a bright blue “acid splash” that resembled the surface of tropical water. There was a fullness to the rails—a gentle swell that built from tail to nose like the hull of a racing yacht.

My new fish was 6’ 2’’ but, as I quickly discovered, it caught waves that slipped by surfers on much larger boards, and turned beautifully once I was up.

A few weeks later I was surfing in Long Beach, NY, when another surfer looked the fish up and down. “Nice board,” he said. “Where’d you get that?”

“New Jersey. I know a guy there.”

He cocked an eyebrow and scrutinized the logo. I got the feeling Brian Wynn could expect another e-mail.

Stan Parish is one of  New Jersey Monthly’s regular restaurant reviewers.

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