AEG Shaper Series: Gunther Rohn - UP NOW
"The act of shaping, I love it."
Gunther Rohn speaks with only a hint of South African in his accent these days. Thoughtfully and slow, his words fall out of the phone speakers like they come from a man who has seen everything in shaping go by, that's probably ‘cause he has. He started shaping in the early 70s before moving to Australia where he worked under Geoff McCoy. He then moved to Lennox Head and became one of Australia’s best shapers. SW spoke to him while he was on his way to Indonesia.
SW: Can you tell me how you got into shaping?
GR: 1971 we all started making our own boards. Everyone was experimenting and stuff and it just went from there. We were pretty self taught. Just tried to figure it out as we went.
And was this in South Africa?
Yeah it was in South Africa. I came over in August 73.
So you've been in the trade a while then.
Yeah, I don't know much else really. In Cape Town I worked in a bank and for the Cape Town City Council fruit and vegetable market. I was what they called an assessor, which is basically a big word for the guy that counted up dockets for the wholesalers that sold the fruit. It used to be very good ‘cause I'd have to be at work at six in the morning and get at one in the afternoon and go surfing. The problem was there wasn't many people to go surfing with, you had to find someone.
And when did you move from there into shaping professionally?
I worked for Geoff McCoy in Brookvale when I first came over. I was finish coating and pin lining and just kept shaping my own boards and stuff. And just went from there.
What was it like working with McCoy?
Really good. I worked for him in the States five years later, 1978.
So shaping has taken you around the world?
Yeah, that's the good side of making surfboards and shaping. You get to travel a lot. It's getting harder and harder to make any sort of money out of. I talk people out of it these days. If they think they're going to make money out of surfboards they better think again. I mean, it's far worse than it used to be because it's such an oversupplied market. We used to complain 20 years ago how oversupplied it was and that's nothing compared to now.
What do you enjoy most about being a shaper?
Just shaping. It's like my refuge my shaping. I really enjoy it if it's a special project. Like the other day I shaoed a 9'6 for Brett Burcher which I really enjoyed because you don't do much of that, that long. That kind of thing, shaping for visiting pros and stuff. But I mean apart from that I just enjoy shaping. The business side of it is a nightmare, but the act of shaping, I love it.
Do you treat it like an art form, like an artist treats his painting?
Yeah I do a bit. I combine the tradesman like way you've got to be with shaping, you can't do one board a day, you've got to be pretty quick, but I try and combine the artistic side with the trade side of it.
Is it a big benefit for surfers visiting Australia to seek out a local shaper, is that something they should do?
Their boards are sometimes different but it's not necessarily that way. Spose there's benefits of going to an Australian shaper if you've come from Europe and you're on European boards. There's quite a lot of Australian shapers shaping overseas. Their waves aren't totally unlike ours so what works over there should work over here. These days you're doing a lot of hybrid surfboards to suit the occasion. People are realising that one size doesn't fit all and you have a horses for courses kind of thing. If you are riding small gutless waves well you're surfing a shorter wider board. Some of the pros have adopted that although the majority don't seem to have, I've still noticed that with the majority can't seem to get their heads around surfing just a more fishy kind of board except for people like Dane Reynolds and Kelly. Matt Wilkinson I noticed at the Quikky Pro was riding a semi fish type board. There's a lot that works these days. We've figured out a lot of things. We can surf shorter wider thicker boards in bigger surf as Matt Wilkinson proved. He was surfing quite a short stubby board.
And surfing really well.
Yeah. A lot works. It's all a matter of balance. If you add one thing you have tot take out something else.
And how have you seen shaping change over the years?
Well I guess the biggest change is shaping machines. It's more efficient and there's more consistency, although in our days we were sticklers for the blanks being glued up right and you'd get in a rhythm that way too. If you know how to u se a planer you get consistency, it's just some people didn't know how to use a planer. Now what's really added to the over supply of surfboards is there are a lot of guys out there making boards that if it wasn't for the machine, they'd be eating it, they really would.
So the machine has brought positive and negative aspects to the shaping industry.
Yes definitely. But it had to go that way. I've had my day and that, it's quite good having shaping machines, there's a lot of positives there ya know but the big negative is it's put the crap in the marketplace because there's guys making boards that wouldn't know otherwise. And it's decreased the price, we're making less from surfboards now than we ever have..
Right, but could you picture yourself doing anything different?
Umm, gee. Not at this stage no. I was going to be a lawyer, but I decided against it because I'm sure I wouldn't have sat through seven years of uni in South Africa, I hated school so much.
And what have been some of the stand out moments for you?
Living in Hawaii, surfing the waves, nearly drowning. I must say as far as perfect waves go G-Land and Desert Point have been the highlights of my life. As far as making surfboards goes I guess it's a big thrill being involved in the pro circuit and sponsoring surfers and them doing well.. There's always satisfaction when you sponsor someone when they're really young and you bring them through and they eventually make the world tour.
What have you learnt from being a shaper for over 30 years?
What have I learnt?
Yeah, what's shaping taught you?
It's taught me enjoy your lifestyle. It's given me a lifestyle and you know it takes a lot to beat that. To be able to go surfing when you want as long as you get the work done. It's taught me to be satisfied with that because it is a good lifestyle even though you do work long hours. It can take you all over the world and travelling teaches you a lot. So, it's given me that and in a normal job where some people make a fortune, they don't get to enjoy their fortune. They're just busy making more money. So what's the point. If that expains it, that's what it's done for me. – Brendan Feely