Everyone who knows Vancouver a bit knows about East Van. Where houses are affordable and where mountains are still part of your landscape, East Van is a pretty cool place to be at. During my last trip to the city, I stopped by the shop of Switchblade Surfboards, probably one of the only shapers located directly in the city. There are surf shops in Vancouver, but nothing liken to what these guys do. While Chris Worgan shapes surfboards, Hamish Rennie is creating themselves a real business. Even if they are living their dream and are working in the surf industry in a location that seems absurd, they are not being stuck with illusions. ‘’You can’t make money at building surfboards, and everyone tells you that at the beginning,’’ as Chris said.
Not being an issue for them, Chris still shapes boards while Hamish takes care of the store where you can find all the surf gears you need for your next trip down to California or even further. Encouraging the local economy is an important task that we should remember as a citizen, but supporting our local shapers is something even more important. Maybe you are dreaming of a Channel Islands Surfboards, which is totally fine, but is there a better feeling than riding a board that is made by the hands of a single guy? That’s sounds pretty awesome to me, plus you can have a custom board and have the possibility to say something during the whole creating process.
Chris: The west coast is well represented by orcas, ocean, tall trees and waves. Which is awesome and that makes it rad up here. I think for a surf shop in the city, we are in a dirty East Van alley, and there is nothing beautiful about it. We just embrace the city vibe I think. We probably get more surfing days in Mexico than here!
NV: As you are not born in a surf culture environment, how did you start shaping?
Chris: I went on a trip to Argentina, and I found myself staying with a guy that was making boards there and he taught me a couple things. When I got back, we rented a garage, and we started making boards.
You searched on the internet how to do, and you tried?
Chris: Yea, it was pretty much self-taught. Originally, all our material was from the Island, but we found a cheaper supplier since then, and we now get a lot of our stuff from the state. When I was going to the Island, I was asking Stephane, the guy we were getting our materials from, a few questions while I was there, and he would teach me what he could while I was there to pick up blanks and stuff. There was also another guy, his name is Ryan, I was shaping with him, and we were learning from each other.
What about you Hamish, how did you get involved with the company?
Hamish: Before the shop, this was my garage. Chris and Ryan rented out my garage as a shop and Chris told me he built surfboards. I was already a surfer by then, and we became good friends, went on a bunch of surf trips to BC and Mexico, then Chris was shaping a lot of boards, and he was getting busier and busier and couldn’t just find the time to shape boards. He needed to sell some wetsuits, get some distribution and other marketing channels in touch. I had another job at the time, but he asked my help to grow the company, to go from hobby to business.
Chris: Yea, I told him I would give him half of the company, but I just need help haha. I was spending half of my time on the computer and not shaping boards; I was trying to keep up with emails, trying to embody the idea of being a real business. And also, we wanted to expand the storefront, where we sell retail and merchandise. Hamish came in, and he allowed me to shape boards while he does the business side of things. Since then, Ryan has stepped out because he’s got a kid, and he makes good money in films.
Is there other people shaping at the shop?
Chris: Yea, but mainly just friends. If I am not using the base, I will let them use it.
Is it both your full-time job now?
Chris: Yes, it is. Still alive, not dead yet haha!
I am sure people in Vancouver reacted pretty well to a surf shop, as there is a lot of surfers, no?
Chris: We got a lot of positive feedback! I think people are stoked to see a dedicated surf shop here because there are a lot of surfers in Vancouver, and if you go to some of the other surf shops, the surfboards are like a second thought. They would be in the back corner, or like the staff won’t know about the wetsuits, they will sell some just so they can say ‘’snow-skate-surf’’ in their store, but our whole name is ‘’as if we were right on the beach’’, surf only.
Hamish: No skateboard, no snowboard, just surfing.
Chris: Yes, because next thing you know, you are doing mountain bikes, bikinis, and jeans. We want to keep it just gear. Clothing wise, we may just have our shirts.
What are the brands that you carry for the wetsuits?
Chris: We carry Excel, Patagonia, and Rip Curl. We get a lot of calls about wetsuits. They are good for us, as boards take so much time to make!
How much time does it take?
Chris: Around 20 to 30 hours a board. As it gets better, it will go down, but sometimes when you try to build a board too fast, it’s just going to be a crappy board, it’s just a balance you need to find. The store supplement helps us to stay alive.
Any thoughts about opening a bigger store in the future?
Hamish: We are constantly having a lot of ideas about what we could do, and it would be a big jump from where we were before that. It’s progressing every couple of years!
Chris: We are doing it all without Kickstarter. We are trying to go for organic growth; we don’t want to go into debt doing this. I am sure if we wanted to we could probably get 60 000 dollars and put it towards a new store, or fill our inventory, or hire more people and stuff. But it’s better to be working because now you owe 60 000$. It’s not the way we want to take; we just slowly grow.
It’s hard these days to go organic, no?
Chris: Yea, but it seems like it’s working for us until now!
Hamish: We continue to grow every time, which is good. We are selling more than what we did six months ago, and we even have a list of ten boards that Chris have to build at the moment.
Surfing is getting bigger and bigger, how would it be in 5 years?
Chris: I think anything that has a big growth eventually see a dropout. You can’t have more people to surf every year because eventually you’re going to have millions up there, and it’s not cool.
Hamish: I think what helps is the surf competition they have on the Island, those are getting bigger each year, with more prizes money and sponsors. That’s how they raise awareness for sure! In Canada, you are still not going with your board under your arm and board short to look at the waves. Not everyone will bother to surf, especially in winter.
Chris: There are so many surf spots as well! Beginners will mainly play around in the wash, and you would be catching waves way out in the back - you don’t even cross path.
What’s the future of the company, any ideas of what’s coming next?
Hamish: Keep building boards, have the brands grow and more merchandise. The sky is the limit you know, haha.
Chris: Yes, just makes more boards. Everything seems to follow the boards. If the boards are there, opportunities will come. I don’t know; we are totally up with the idea of opening a warm water spot somewhere. I don’t know if could work, but it would be a dream to have a shop in Vancouver six months a year, then in Mexico or Nicaragua the next six months. That’s one thing we are working towards.
Why should people get one of Switchblade Surfboards instead of other brands?
Chris: I usually tell people when they are getting a custom board made that they can be involved in the process as much as they want, and generally when the boards are done, they already feel the connexion with it before it’s even in the water. It’s the fun part of making custom boards! Also, by supporting us, you are supporting the local economy, and you are supporting two jobs, right here.
Hamish: This is the only way you talk to a shaper in the city. In a major surf spot in the world, maybe you could, but they may not give you the time, and it’s probably not done by hands.
Anything else to say?
I don’t have any statement like, ‘’make sure you put this information in there’’. We are using the finest materials? Haha.