The first time I met the surfboard shaper Terry Martin, he was wearing frayed khaki shorts, a paint-splattered tee shirt, and fur-lined Ugg boots. His movements were loose and energetic. His voice and facial expression revealed a sort of “aww shucks” optimism. In short, he oozed that patented SoCal surf stoke that outsiders can never quite wrap their heads around; the Golden Retriever eagerness that East Coasters sometimes perceive as insincere, shallow, or even fake.
But the man I met was the opposite of those things. He was perhaps the most sincere person I’ve ever known — in love with the surfer’s quest for the perfect ride in a way that might read like a Hollywood cliché, if it weren’t so grounded in history. Because Terry Martin was not a copy of some extra on Gidget. He was a true original. The most genuine of genuine articles.
“I’m still as excited about your board as I was about the first one I made, when I was 14,” he told me that day. “I can’t wait for you to get out in the water, then you gotta come back and tell me how it went.”
Martin was 68-years-old when we had that conversation, at the tail end of a historic career. He’d made more surfboards than anyone in history, for just about every surfer on earth, and ridden out every rogue wave the industry could throw at him. He was the John Henry of the sport — making boards by hand when the big brands turned to cheap, machine-cut products, then outlasting those machines as the industry slowly pivoted back to its artisanal roots.
Estimates put Martin’s career output at 80,000 boards. For what it’s worth, everyone I know feels like that’s undershooting the number. Still, he maintained a certain energy — a passion for his craft that’s woefully rare after so long in any industry.
That first board Martin shaped for me was what surfers call a “magic board.” Surfboard creation is a beautiful alchemy — a dirty one, based on petroleum products and chemicals, but beautiful nonetheless. Sometimes, the elements come together just right and the board and the surfer form a perfect partnership. I remember giggling like a child at Orange County’s Salt Creek beach when I first discovered what the board I’d gotten from Terry could do.
I took that magic board to Namibia, South Africa, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Australia. If people asked about it, I sang Martin’s praises and told the story of his place in surf history.
“He’s literally the most stoked person I’ve ever met,” I told my friends, “and I swear the boards are better because of it.”
Over the course of six years, Martin and I worked on projects together for various magazines — trying to create the “greenest board on earth” using a product called bio foam and resin derived from pine tree milling. He was fascinated by didgeridoos and carved them out of yucca or bass wood, occasionally covering them with surfboard glass. When I went to into the Australian outback with an Aboriginal elder to cut authentic didjs (eucalyptus branches whose cores had been eaten by ants), I brought one home to Terry as a gift.
He was so stoked about making his first “real didj” — cut with a hand saw, dipped in beeswax, and carried through customs in the same bag as my magic board — that he pulled me into his shaping room to inspect it. He closed the door and turned off the lights, leaving us in a pitch black, windowless space roughly the size of a walk in closet. He shone a penlight through the middle of the didj a few times, then clicked the light off and sat in silence.
“Just listen to the vibrations it gives off, let it tell its story,” he said. But he didn’t play the instrument. We just sat there, soaking it all in. When Terry flipped the lights back on, he was beaming. “Wasn’t that incredible?”
Truth be told: It had been. I’m a sucker for that sort of excitement. That was Terry Martin, he was the essence of surf culture distilled into one body: joy and beauty and love for nature all tangled together. Which is why his death, the very next May, hit me on such a personal level.
Martin died of skin cancer. It was caught late and moved quickly. I was living in Amsterdam at the time, but was packing up to leave the city earlier than expected, after learning that my dad had discovered tumors in his bladder and kidneys. It felt like dual synchronicity: Terry’s death amplifying my fears about my father; my father’s illness leaving me more keenly tuned to the loss of Terry.
I reached out to one of Terry’s mentees, the pro surfer Tyler Warren, asking about memorials and honorary paddle outs, but by the time I was back in California from Amsterdam and a summer spent meeting with my dad’s doctors in Oregon, the dust had settled and people were grieving in private. Over the next two years, I talked about bringing a gift to Terry’s widow, or at least checking in with her, but the plan never quite congealed. I was absorbed by my dad’s illness and consumed by his death, which came almost exactly two years after Terry’s.
Then, the summer after my dad passed, I was scrolling through Instagram and saw a board shaper using the handle “Martin Shapes.” The logo was almost exactly the same as the laminate decal that Terry put on his boards. I followed the account and discovered that it was run by Terry’s son, Josh.
It didn’t take much digging to see that Josh Martin was carrying on his dad’s legacy, while also carving his own path. He was a remix artist: Pulling from old school techniques while using social media to get the word out, and bringing the good vibrations of surfing’s first golden age to a whole new generation. He was also clearly a talented shaper — trained by the best and adding his own unique approach. Instantly, I knew I wanted a board from him.
I slid into Martin’s DMs one night after admiring a series of balsa boards that he was working on. I explained my relationship with his dad and how I thought it would be cool to have something from him too.
Almost instantly, I got a message back. “I’d be stoked to make you a board!” he wrote. In eight words, I knew that this man was his father’s son.
“Steve, right?” Josh said to me, when I pulled up outside of his house in Dana Point, California.
He came at me with a broad smile, a red beard, curly hair, and those same loose movements that I’d noticed the first time I met his dad. He’d inherited a certain twinkle in the eye that overly ego-driven men never seem to attain. Smiling and chatting, Josh led me down a hill and into his shaping bay.
The room was quiet and filled with both Josh’s tools and relics of his dad’s career. It was peaceful — with a few half finished projects on racks and plenty of inspiration lining the walls. A pyramid-shaped piece of multi-colored surf resin, cut from years and years of board drippings, sat on the workbench. Josh handled it often as we spoke: It was, quite literally, an accumulation of history.
“There are all these memories,” he said, “that I get to relieve every single day. Good times with my dad — not only shaping but just experimenting and trying cool stuff.”
Josh told the story of the first surfboard blank he’d ever played with, then showed me the last board that Terry had ever shaped for himself. Later, he spoke about a few of his side projects. He recently made a series of gear shifts, buttons, and chopsticks with the spilled resin. He’s been carving furniture, too.
As we chatted, Josh said that he never truly found his voice as a shaper until after his father died. It wasn’t until then that making surfboards turned into a full time gig. First, he had to learn to trust his own unique style — based much more on feel and improvisation than his dad, who leaned into the technical aspects of their shared art.
Still, there’s plenty of overlap. Their shapes share similar lines, and Josh makes every board by hand (and hand held electric tools) just like Terry did. He’s completely ignored the massive foam-carving machines that can dial boards in down to a micrometer.
“My dad always told me that a healthy human eye can perceive to 20 thousandths of an inch,” he said, grinning. “So you can make perfect surfboards without extra help.”
Legacy plays a big part in the current fascination with maker culture. There’s a certain sepia-toned romanticism in carrying the past forward. We love the idea of the craftsperson, toiling with worn out tools, to create objects worth truly caring about. You have to be process oriented to thrive in this lifestyle — there’s no faking anything, no shortcuts.
This is what I recognized in Terry and what I saw in Josh, years later. Their approaches are different but their output has shared DNA. Terry gave his life to trying to make the one sacred craft that a surfer would fall in love with and now Josh has committed himself to the same quest. As Josh started to pace around his shaping bay, asking me about my board, I saw faint echoes of his father in every move and gesture.
“There are so many tricks he taught me,” Josh said, lining out the rails of a board with my name on it. “So many times I came to him with little problems. There are rules to shaping surfboards and I was able to incorporate his rules in what I do.”
This is the point of surfboard shaping at its highest level: To take a rectangular foam core and whittle it down until it becomes something else completely. Then to cover it with glass, so that people can use it to walk on water. Each board is imbued with a certain history — the evolution of the sport, the utility of the shape, even the materials used have a story (there’s a piece of a tree running down the middle of every board, after all). In the case of Josh Martin, the boards also have rich bloodlines, the tales they tell are of family and tradition.
“I think you’re going to be excited about this board,” Josh said, as he walked me to my car. “It’s going to be a special one.”
“I’m sure it will be,” I said, “I’m sure it’ll be magic.”