Out on the central Pacific beaches around Jacó it may be endless summer, but at Sr. Cartón’s surfboard factory just outside of town, the landscape is decidedly wintry. Fine white flakes of Styrofoam pad the floor of the carving room, and thick icicles of resin dry suspended from the newly fiberglassed boards.
A masked and earmuffed Edwin “Cartón” Villalobos enters the carving room with a handsaw in his grip, disturbing the snowy piles at his feet. Reaching around an empty Imperial can, he flicks on the stereo, and a heavy trance beat reverberates through the blue-walled room. He starts to work.
The relationship a surfer has with his or her board is a complex thing, as Cartón defines it. First, there is the surfer’s body to consider; a body matches its board, thickness for thickness, length for length.Wider in one section of the body means a wider section on the board.
Then there is the surfer’s temperament: does she thrash the waves in explosions of energy? Does he pick up a long, relaxing swell and ride it all the way to shore? Furthermore, Cartón says, the board matches the style of the wave. Does the board’s owner surf mainly on the Pacific or on the Caribbean? Beyond these factors the details get murky.
“It’s very deep,” he states with a shake of his head, and ceases to explain.
When a consumer hears it this way, a 100% handmade board would seem like the only option. But when one of those designs can set Cartón’s golden-limbed clients back $800, it’s also not surprising that aspiring riders look for an alternative: 100% machine-made boards, hecho en China and entirely plastic, available at places like Wal-Mart and Ron Jon stores in the United States.
“The closer you are to capitalism, the farther you are from the heart of surfing,” Cartón says.
The average time it takes to birth a board in Cartón’s factory is six hours from start to finish. First, the unshaped Styrofoam is cleaned and flattened. Second, Cartón designs a template, taking into account the various factors, from the surfer’s height and weight to those voodoo ingredients inherent in surf culture.
Then the actual carving takes place, first with an electric saw, then the fine-tuning of the handsaw. After a couple of hours, the board is ready to move on to room number two, where it is sheathed in a layer of fiberglass and sealed with a heavy resin coating.
The bubbles and other imperfections are sanded down in room number three, and, finally, the fins are attached.
After 20 years of experimentation, Cartón’s designs have come a long way from the boogie boards he made as a kid in the Pacific port city of Puntarenas to the professional boards he calls “smart” – polished pieces of work whose details express themselves on the wave.
With a father in the boat-making business, Cartón cut his teeth on his first surfboard designs in the 1980s, when he began recycling retro boards and reshaping them for his friends. Eventually he bought professional blanks and shaped new boards as well, and he opened a shop in the surf mecca of Jacó in 1998. When business got too big, he moved the board making from the shop to a factory inside his home and hired six employees to saw, sand and paint, and chill out on the wide porch.
Even though the site of the boards’ birth has been relocated, Cartón’s shop on the southern end of the beach remains a hive for surfers on a Saturday afternoon. A boy with golden locks and an easy drawl saunters by to enlist Cartón’s help in removing his fins, which are jammed a bit too firmly in place. A heavyset North American man and his wife pick up a short, jungle-green board they ordered for their 14-year-old daughter, who is nationally ranked in the United States.
“Damn,” says a Canadian who’s been hanging around the shop for the past couple of weeks, since she learned how to surf, “that’s one lucky girl.”
A luckier girl is indeed hard to imagine after taking a Cartón board – this one an orange and blue “retro funboard” – into the warm water just down the road. The lightness and flexibility are surprising; it has the stability of a longboard, but without the lumbering heaviness. Its nose eases to the right or left with barely a flexing of the toes. This isn’t your typical dinged-up, water-logged rental.
“You should be wild with that one,” advises Cartón from where he bobs nearby on his shortboard.
A new set of waves rolls in, and the first one breaks on the rocks that jut out in the distance. By the time it arrives in full strength, it has gathered to a height of eight feet, unusual for the Jacó area. Surfers everywhere do the “turtle” – rolling over beneath their boards until the force passes.
When the suds disperse, Cartón adds, “Chiquilla, it’s best to just have fun.”
Not a problem.