Tom Parrish has long existed as an elusive man of mystery among the surf industry gossip. Hardly any articles can be found about him online and nary a quote from the man himself. As with such things, silence only adds to the allure.
Alas, there is but a morsel of truth in the whimsical stories of this mystery man. Yes, it’s true; Tom made legendary boards for legendary surfers during a revolutionary period of Hawaiian surf history, but Tom has not disappeared. In fact, he is quite accessible and wonderfully charming in his willingness to discuss his life story.
I found him in Maui, living on the large property of long time friend and fellow shaper Charlie Smith. Tom has been busy hand-shaping 3 to 5 boards per week and still surfing. He had just finished shaping a board (although not glassed) that looked like the 70’s single-fin pin tails that made him famous. We sat in his shaping room (which he shares with Charlie) and he told me about his early life, his move to Hawaii and how he became friends with Gerry Lopez.
US Blanks: So where’d you grow up?
Tom Parrish: I grew up in Lake Arrowhead, which was really fun. There was hardly anyone there when I was a kid. It was waterskiing in the summer and snow skiing in the winter. Those were the two activities. And then at some point my parents bought a house in Newport (Beach, California). And that’s when I started surfing.
US Blanks: Where in Newport?
Tom Parrish: At the river jetties. I’d just let the whitewater bash into me. It was a nightmare. And then it was the influence of the surf movies. I’d see movies of Hawaii and the big waves and that really captivated me. And so the day after high school I moved to Hawaii.
US Blanks: Did you have any relationships in Hawaii? Or friends that could help you get grounded?
Tom Parrish: Yes, Art “Kammie” Kam and his family helped me a lot when I first arrived, but moving out to the North Shore and being on my own was still a big challenge. When you’re young, you don’t really consider all the consequences. When you see something that you feel strong about, you just feel like everything will work out.
US Blanks: Yeah. That’s kind of a good and bad thing. How did you get started building boards?
Tom Parrish: I was already making boards in California. I started by stripping the glass off old longboards and reshaping the foam. Then I went to Clark’s (Clark Foam) in Laguna Niguel and bought 10 reject blanks. I shaped those and gave them away to all the guys in the neighborhood. By the time I moved to Hawaii I had made about 50 boards. That first winter after high school I got set up on the North Shore and somehow got a job with Surfline Hawaii. I remember they, it was Fred Schwartz at the time, told me “We’ll start you out with 3 boards”. It cost about $65 to make a board from beginning to end. I set up a little shaping room in a shed and then cardboarded off a spare bedroom as a glassing room ! (laughs) And then outside, just out in the open was the sanding and polishing. So I tried my hardest and I brought him in the first three boards and he said, “I can’t believe you put our stickers on these! Get them out of here.” I was devastated. That was all the money I had, but he said, “I’ll give you one more chance. Bring 3 more next week and if those don’t work, then we can’t work together.”
US Blanks: That’s a lot of pressure. Were you able to scrounge up the money?
Tom Parrish: Yeah. I somehow got the money together and thankfully the next 3 boards were acceptable and so I was the bottom guy on the roster at Surfline Hawaii for a few years. And at the time, that was the biggest shop in town. It had Gerry (Lopez) and (Dick) Brewer and BK (Barry Kanaiaupuni) and Reno (Abellira). Everyone that later went to Lightning Bolt was at Surfline at that time, including Randy Rarick who stayed on with Surfline. I was stoked just to be the low guy on the totem pole. And then when Gerry and Jack started Lightning Bolt, there was an exodus. Everyone wanted to be with Lightning Bolt.
US Blanks: So you obviously transitioned to Lightning Bolt as well, right?
Tom Parrish: Well at first they didn’t have room for me. It took about a year. I stayed at Surfline Hawaii and continued to improve as a shaper, and then about a year later I talked to Jack Shipley, who was co-owner of Lightning Bolt with Gerry, and he made room for me at the bottom. But Gerry, Barry, and Reno were all such great surfers and shaping boards was just a way for them to spend more time in the water. So I saw it as my opportunity to work hard. I took making boards as seriously as they took surfing.
US Blanks: What was your relationship like with those guys as fellow shapers? Were they mentoring you?
Tom Parrish: At that point, I hadn’t caught their attention. They weren’t able to fulfill all their demand as shapers. Because of them Lightning Bolt was in such demand and Jack was able to sell so many more boards than those three could make so I was able to cover some of that overflow. I was still glassing boards at that time and at some point, Jeff Hakman brought a Brewer by to get glassed. After that he let me try making him a board and over time a few more. He was so critical, not in a negative way, but he was just so intent on getting what he wanted that it forced me to improve fast. It made me more versatile and taught me to process and translate feedback. Once people saw him riding my boards, it shot me in into a whole ‘nother level and that was when Gerry, Barry, and Reno started to notice my boards Then we made a Hakman Model through Lightning Bolt, which further boosted my credibility.
US Blanks: What year was this?
Tom Parrish: Around 1975. That’s when I started working with and becoming friends with Gerry. He had a Lightning Bolt shop on Maui and we had an arrangement where for 10 days out of the month I would go to Maui and he could come to Oahu. He’d do his Oahu boards in my shop and I’d go do my Maui boards in his shop. We’d trade houses, cars, and shaping rooms. Imagine that! I was in heaven, living on Maui, driving Gerry Lopez’s car and working in his shaping room. It felt like being God’s right hand man, the very best of times.
US Blanks: Did you get to work directly together?
Tom Parrish: Yeah. There were times when we were at the same place at the same time and boards were being made. Gerry had a really different approach too. He learned from Brewer, but it didn’t take long before he developed his own style which was really nothing like Brewer’s. Because he was more interested in Pipeline whereas Brewer was more oriented towards Sunset; kind of a more all around board. And Jeff (Hakman) was always a Brewer guy, so I had two very different influences, but also the two that I liked the most. Through studying both designs I found what I thought was the middle ground. And in that middle ground I was able to find a solid client base of hot locals like Charlie (Smith) and great surfers from all over the world; most all of the South African and Australian guys that were coming over. I made Rabbit (Bartholomew) a few boards that he traveled with but for the most part, the boards I made stayed in Hawaii.
US Blanks: When did the “Parrish” label begin?
Tom Parrish: Well when Gerry ended Lightning Bolt, we all left out of loyalty to him. I really focused on custom work and also retained a clientele of local Hawaiian surfers. I’ve never been a production shaper. It was always just boards one-by-one, oftentimes for better surfers. When you’re working with better surfers, the work is more custom, and the boards take longer so I just took my time and built one board at a time.
US Blanks: You’re known for the single-fin pin tail that Lightning Bolt popularized in the ‘70s. Does that follow you to this day? Are people still ordering that same design?
Tom Parrish: There is some of that. A few surfers, who have full quivers of thrusters or quads, want to ride something different to feel the forward glide a single fin offers. For the most part, however, board design has changed so much since then and the narrow tails are not very conducive to how people want to surf today. Of course the collectors are interested in the single fins as wall-hangers.
US Blanks: What are your design interests currently?
Tom Parrish: I just do what people want. I don’t really look at my job as being the Messiah of design. I view my job as being an interpreter. I really enjoy the interaction between people and working with good surfers. I rarely try to influence people into what they should be riding. The small changes that happen every year, just sort of filter into designs. Working with Charlie (Smith) allows us to bounce ideas off of each other. Being able to see and feel each other’s shapes on a daily basis helps keep us from going too far off on any tangent. As an example, just in the last couple years we’re noticing the wide point coming back up a little and the noses filling out more like they were many years ago.The tails aren’t so narrow like it used to be, but for a while we had the opposite, right? Everything was back, everything was on the tail and the noses were super narrow; not so long ago, just 5 or 10 years ago. Now, look how far we’ve come. All those changes have just happened incrementally, slowly. But if you took a board from 10 years ago and a board from today, they look entirely different.
US Blanks: How can someone get a board from you?
Tom Parrish: I’m fairly accessible here on Maui. My website is TPSurf.com and I often post photos of friends and customers who are riding my boards. I like the process of working with surfers and making multiple boards to make adjustments to get them on equipment that works well for them.