From humble beginnings fixing dings on garage sale boards in the 60’s, Rusty has carved a path in the sport of surfing whose influence is immeasurable. While the masses may associate Rusty with a worldwide clothing brand, his achievements as a shaper cannot be overstated. The shortboard designs that Occy rode to victory in the 80’s are the basis for the modern thruster that we ride today.
Our relationship with Rusty began in our days at Clark Foam where he designed master molds for 25 years. We continue that relationship at US Blanks and are proud to have Rusty Preisendorfer as part of our design team.
We recently spent the afternoon with Rusty to hear his story, see what he’s currently working on, and hopefully glean some wisdom.
US Blanks: How’d you get involved in surf culture?
Rusty: My father worked for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and we moved to La Jolla when I was 14. Soon after, I was in the ocean a lot, surfing and bodysurfing. I really got the bug. That was the fall of 1967.
US Blanks: Did your dad surf?
Rusty: He didn’t surf. He was a mathematician. Even though he worked in Oceanography, he wasn’t a surfer. I think my parents worried about me spending too much time in the ocean sometimes.
US Blanks: How did you transition from just spending time in the ocean to board building?
Rusty: I always loved building things with my hands. The first board I bought was a $10 disaster that I just fixed the dings on, I never even surfed it. I just learned to work with the material. Then I bought a used Ekstrom asymmetrical and it needed some repair so I fixed it and surfed that board all the time. I was fixing and fooling around with boards since day one. That was an interesting time, ’67, ’68. Boards were going from long to short. Mitch’s Surf Shop opened and he carried Clark Foam and sold it to the public. A gallon of resin was $5. Cloth was a few bucks. We could build a shortboard for $20 and obsolete longboards were selling for $200 in stores.
US Blanks: Were your parents letting you make dust and spill resin in the garage?
Rusty: We actually built boards at a friend’s place that had a chicken coop in the back. We converted the chicken coop into a little workspace and there was about 4 or 5 guys making boards there.
US Blanks: So who were you making boards for? How did your brand grow?
Rusty: I just made boards at cost for friends just so I could gain the experience. I did that all through high-school. Then I went to UCSD my first year out of high-school and I was building a few boards and surfing way too much. I finished the year with a pretty unacceptable GPA. I lived in the dorms right near Blacks so I spent a lot of time surfing down there.
US Blanks: What did you study?
Rusty: I thought I was going to be a psychologist. I did the GE and then I took 3 years off and traveled a fair bit. My parents had moved to Hawai’i so I spent a lot of time over there surfing and shaping during the summers and winters, so I gained a lot of experience early on. That was in the glory days of Lightning Bolt and Brewer and the whole mini-gun revolution.
US Blanks: What did you do during the rest of the year, when you weren’t in Hawai’i?
Rusty: I had a job working retail for G&S for a little while and I eventually started shaping out at the factory there alongside Skip Frye and Mike Eaton, who had moved to San Diego to shape the Bing boards. So I got a lot of new experiences. Skip was influenced by the Aussies who were onto the short round direction. Eaton was shaping some guns for some of the best big wave surfers back then. I had my own ideas of design, but was also influenced by Hynson because he lived in La Jolla and I got a lot of boards from him.
US Blanks: As a shaper, did you ride a lot of other shaper’s boards?
Rusty: Oh yeah, just to get a chance to watch them shape and use their tools. Also to check out how their boards rode. Hynson was real open about letting me watch and we got to surf a lot together. I still have one of the original boards Brewer built for me. He wouldn’t let me watch him shape though. He reluctantly built me that board, once he caught wind that I was a shaper. I’ve gotten to know him since and we joke about that. He shaped a gun for me a couple years ago, in my mid-50s and he let me watch. I felt like a grom again! It was pretty cool.
US Blanks: When did you leave G&S?
Rusty: Rusty: Well I built a lot of boards in those 3 years. While on my first trip to Australia in spring of ’74 I decided that I wanted to go into business for myself. I called them Music! Surfboards. I walked away from my G&S job and a steady paycheck. That lasted about 6 months, and then I managed to get myself reinstated at UCSD that fall. Back in school I was still surfing a little but I wasn’t shaping much. I was so focused on graduating that I didn’t have much time for it. Although during the summer months I moonlighted for some local San Diego companies. I was still making a handful of Musics! Then in June ’78 I graduated with an Art degree from UCSD. That summer I agreed to work exclusively with a fellow named John Durward at Canyon Surfboards (he had been glassing my Music!s) and we really built that business. We got some really good surfers to ride our boards. I had PT (Peter Townend) on board and then he introduced me to Shaun Tomson. We had Wes Laine and Dave Parmenter. I started building Occy boards in ’83. He was a “tipping point” for my career. By ’84 I had half of the top 16 (pro surfers) riding my boards, but it was Canyon Surfboards and it wasn’t my business. It was fantastic to work with all these surfers, but I was interested in starting a family and I figured the only way to pull that off was to go into business for myself so in late ’85 I started the Rusty brand.
US Blanks: Before we get into the Rusty brand, can you tell me what it was like working with top level surfers and how that develops your craft as a shaper.
Rusty: They’re more demanding. I had to learn early on that I’m not going to get praise for every board. We used to call them “But Boards”. “The board works good, but . . . here’s how I think we can make it better?” Even if I made a good board, they’d only ride it for a short while because their surfing would evolve and they’d have a new need. And back then, with hand shaping it was pretty difficult to recreate a board, or to recreate that magic element in a specific board. So we were always trying to take a good board and make it better. Being younger I was able to spend a lot time with those guys in the water, which really helped. And I failed to mention that I was professional judge as well, from ’79-’84. I judged for the IPS which became the ASP. I judged some Pipe Master’s and OP Pro events in Huntington. So I had a lot of exposure to the best surfers and seeing their boards. I was super active in communicating with them and when they’d travel through California they’d order boards from me. That really accelerated my design ideas. I always placed a high premium on craftsmanship and on numbers and measuring. I meticulously took measurements and records and always took a lot of pride in specificity.
US Blanks: There are a lot of good craftsmen who don’t have enough business savvy to profit from their craftsmanship. When you started Rusty in ’85 was your intention to simply make surfboards or did you envision a larger brand?
Rusty: I didn’t envision a larger brand and honestly, I was scared to death. When I left Canyon they had a 3 month backlog and I agreed to honor those orders and finish shaping them under the Canyon label. But once I finished, a lot of dealers switched over from Canyon to Rusty so that gave me a bit of comfort and reassurance. And I wasn’t just the shaper, now I was the owner so I would stand to benefit from any additional profit. But I just loved shaping and I only planned on shaping. There was no motivation to build a bigger brand because there was no previous model to follow.
US Blanks: So how did the clothing line come along?
Rusty: I did some t-shirts right away. I ended up graduating college with an art degree so I had a background in design and really enjoyed it. I made up a batch of t-shirts to go with the initial surfboard offering and all the shops took them and they sold really well. Before I knew it the shops were ordering another dozen, and another dozen. I got my first big order from Pacific Sunwear and they wanted 100 dozen! I wasn’t even sure I could finance 100 dozen so I had a heart-to-heart with them and asked if I could go C.O.D on that order and thankfully they made an exception.
US Blanks: Well that deal seemed to work out favorably for the both of you.
Rusty: Yeah, the t-shirt thing worked well. After a year it really grew and I had a friend who wanted to get involved. He and a partner bought 25% of the clothing side of the business and they continued to grow that for a while. They eventually brought on a full time designer to add some accessories and clothing and that’s when the whole thing changed, around ’88 or ’89. We grew so fast that we couldn’t really afford to support the growth.
US Blanks: How did you juggle the growth of the clothing brand with shaping?
Rusty: I was doing a lot of the marketing and try to keep a finger in the graphic design, but my whole intent was to spend as much time as possible in the shaping room. But as the clothing brand grew, so did the board business. I started out with just one ghost shaper, then I added another and before I knew it I had quite a few “ghost shapers”. Quality control was almost a full time job. I was still shaping for the team and boards for friends so it was really more than a full time job.
US Blanks: Were you still able to surf during those busy times?
Rusty: I was still surfing. I had a key to Blacks so I was able to surf a world-class wave without having to make the trek down the hill. And I was fortunate that as the company grew I was able to travel to nice destinations like Fiji and Costa Rica and do work/surf trips.
US Blanks: What is your current day-to-day routine?
Rusty: I spend the mornings surfing, paddling, swimming, working out, just trying to stay fit. Then I come in and do some programming and then finish the day in the shaping room and try to get some boards done.
US Blanks: How has your personal approach to building a board changed. Have you embraced the programming side of it?
Rusty: Oh yeah. I still do occasional hand shapes, but I do a lot with the machine. The software has become so sophisticated that you can do almost anything. A shaping appointment twenty years would take hours. A customer would come in and we’d measure the board and then skin the blank, cut it out, check the template, set the rocker, foil the rails, finish sand. Now, a shaping appointment takes 20 minutes. The computer has really streamlined our efficiency and consistency, and in a way, allowed me to focus more attention on my craft.
US Blanks: Currently, do customers have access to you directly? Can a customer order a board directly from Rusty Preisendorfer?
Rusty: Yeah. I like to think I’m accessible. I think that’s a fairly common misunderstanding, that I’m too busy. But that’s not the case. The computer has freed me up to take on more customers. In fact, I love working with new people, bringing me boards that they’ve been riding and talking with me about their likes and dislikes. I really like that challenge of trying to steer the person in the right direction and build them a board that’s going to fill their needs.
US Blanks: What are customers asking you for right now?
Rusty: We’ll it is funny; customers are very knowledgeable nowadays because of the internet. They can study up on design forums and they see a model of a surfboard that they like, but it might not be a great fit for them and their surfing. There’s always a delicate balance where I need to meet their needs but also make the board that will work best for them. I do like the current trend towards the shorter, wider boards. I think those boards are great and they’ve helped a lot of people’s surfing.
US Blanks: When I was a kid, Kalani Robb and Pat O’Connell were both synonymous with Rusty for me. I know you worked with Occy before that and now Josh Kerr. What’s it been like for you to work with such a variety of world-class surfers from the last 3 decades?
Rusty: I have such fond memories of working with all of those guys. Kalani was great to work with. Pat was always super energetic and stoked. When guys would spend time in the shaping room it would really benefit us both tremendously. Pat was one of those guys who really took an interest in what I was doing. Taylor Knox rode for me for a few years and he was really astute and I always enjoyed working with him. The Hobgoods I enjoyed a lot but they lived farther away so we’d talk on the phone and then we’d see each other in Hawai’i and discuss boards then.
US Blanks: It’s got to be nice now that Josh Kerr lives in San Diego.
Rusty: Yeah, he lives up in North County. He’s one of the top surfers in the world and he’s only twenty minutes away so we’ve spent a lot of time in the last year working on boards and zeroing in on what his needs are. The great thing about board design is that it’s ever evolving. As surfers continue to surf different waves and progress the sport, it requires me to craft new boards to help them meet their needs.
Learn more about Rusty’s board designs at RustySurf.com