While we were out in Rockaway, Queens, we visited our dear friend Paul Schmidt, who has traveled with us on surf trips to Haiti, southern California, and Sayulita, Mexico.
Paul’s been shaping surfboards for a decade and launched his studio, Paul Surf, in 2014. His workshop is tucked away inside a repurposed shipping container in Marina 59. Initially a personal project, he decided to commit himself to it full-time when friends kept requesting his boards — boards that both the Faherty brothers love to ride.
Our CEO and co-founder, Alex Faherty, recently caught up with him to talk about all things surf.
Alex and Paul at our last live Sun Sessions event in Sayulita, Mexico.
AF: You been surfing recently?
PS: Surfing has been incredible — last Monday was the best I’ve seen it in Rockaway in like 3 years.
AF: So what’ve you been up to?
PS: Just working a lot. I’m in the shop now...it’s hurricane season, so people really want good boards, or their boards are getting messed up. The only thing keeping me from working 24/7 is surfing.
AF: With all these hurricane swells, it's been so fun to get out there. The board I got from you recently paddles in the waves so well, it’s awesome. Every time I’m out people tell me they love the colors. So is business good?
PS: Yeah, it’s definitely the busiest it’s ever been in the six years I’ve been running the business. I’ve been training a couple of guys to do repair and restoration; any time we get swell like this we get flooded with the repair work. So I have two or three guys downstairs in our ding repair shop working right now, and normally I’m up here in this space just working on the Paul Surf boards.
AF: What’s the wait time like right now for one of them?
PS: If you ordered a custom board, it would be the end of November 2020. We have two buying options though, the less expensive stock board would be ready in February or March 2021.
AF: And that’s just taking one of your favorite types of boards and cranking 'em out?
PS: Yeah, that’s stock boards — it’s a really limited dialogue about what people want, they can only choose the length and shape. Then I’m able to explore stuff that’s interesting to me aesthetically or from a design perspective in the finishing work; the glass work and color.
AF: What stock boards do you do? What are the different sizes and types?
PS: Every size and shape, right now...the shortest I’ll build is maybe 5’, and I’ll go up to 11’ gliders.
I’ve shaped and built almost five hundred boards — which isn’t that many compared to other people in the industry — but when you get to that point, you start to think “What do I really want to be building? What are the models that I’ve surfed or seen friends surf that we all agree are the most effective and compelling shapes?”
AF: Would you ever let one of your apprentices shape boards for you to sell?
PS: No, absolutely not. If they did, I wouldn’t sell it under the Paul Surf label. There are two directions you can go — lower volume and higher price, or higher volume and lower price; I want to go in the former: make fewer boards of better quality. Because there’s definitely a limit — I can build three boards start to finish myself in a week, working 12-hour days, but that’s me working six of the seven days, and not going out to surf (if I surf I surf all day, and I’ll be wrecked the next day)...so, yeah, that’s my goal. It sounds crazy, but I love it — it doesn’t feel like work, I love being here in the shop. But is it sustainable? I’m 34-years-old, how many years can you work 72 hours a week?
AF: Do you think you’re starting to get known for mid-length boards?
PS: Yeah, the egg shape I build is the most popular by far — of the five hundred boards I’ve built, probably half are eggs.
AF: When you say “egg,” what are the dimensions of that?
PS: They start around 7’, maybe 8’ — they’re known to have an eggy shape, round nose, round tail, forgiving rails, lower rockers, single fin.
AF: I got an egg!
PS: Yeah, you got an egg man. You’re an egg guy.
AF: Yeah boyyy! Good for my dad bod! When did you know you wanted to shape surfboards? What was the journey like — did you grow up surfing?
PS: No, I grew up skateboarding — I grew up in Richmond, VA so I was landlocked. But then I went to undergrad closer to Virginia Beach and got hooked on surfing at 19, fell in love with it. I was late to the surfing thing.
When I was 19 or 20, a buddy of mine showed me Sprout and The Seedling, a couple of surfing films, and they changed how I thought of surfers. They had jazz, they were really artistic, this was a lifestyle I wanted to sign up for...the artist surfer. They show Skip Frye hand-shaping boards, and I thought “Oh, I can do that,” with no experience except for coming from a carpentry and construction background.
My dad owned a construction company, so growing up I learned that if you want something, you just make it with your own hands. I saw the level of freedom he had, the ability to walk away from work for what you really care about, and it was something I wanted...I only work here until the waves are good.
Paul working on a board in the Cloud Long-Sleeve Henley.
AF: And how did you come around to shaping your first board?
PS: My girlfriend’s grandfather was a master carpenter, and he had a woodshop — I asked him if he would help me make my first board, which we decided to make from wood. He had been in the military and had been stationed in Hawai’i in the 60s. He saw the modern surf boom happen there and had surfed himself in Waikiki, and he was as excited about the project as I was.
We built a 10’ longboard together using hand planes and spokeshaves, it was all wood construction. The board was really beautiful, but I hadn’t considered the weight — it was over 80 pounds. It was super beautiful woodwork, but not the most functional design, more of a coffee table. That planted the seed in my head that I could do this, though, so then I moved to New York City for grad school and found some studio space.
I was making art in half my studio and surfboards in the other half, hollow wooden boards — I was determined to make them as light as possible. Then I wound up moving to Rockaway and asked around about the local board builders, and it turned out no one was really producing a lot of boards out here. Once I found a studio space word spread real quick — it was word of mouth, a friend would order and mention it to someone else...that was six years ago, and I haven’t been able to catch up since.
AF: How would you want people to describe your boards?
PS: I’d want them to be able to put it up against any other board from any other builder in the world, and you couldn’t say anything bad about the craftsmanship or the way it surfs.
You could have the most beautifully glassed, perfectly finished board — but if the shape isn’t exquisite too, well...that’s what makes this an interesting art experiment for me, because it’s not just that it’s beautiful, but that it performs. You’re working against both of those parameters. It’s gotta work.
AF: Do you ever experiment with materials other than foam?
PS: There’s a reason foam is the dominant material — it’s so workable, it provides a lot of freedom in design. I’ve dreamt of making some kind of fully biodegradable blank...somebody will figure it out. Probably not me. Some scientist.
AF: If you look forward five years from now, what do you want to see?
PS: I’d like to be building 75 boards a year — right now I’m building like 150 — but the quality continues to go up. I’d love to get to the point where I feel as close to zero stress about completing a board as possible.
I have this quote on the wall in my workshop, “In pursuit of excellence, or completion?” That thing haunts me. That’s what I’m always shooting for: excellence. If you want the kind of boards built with soul, intention, purpose, and all that — then you can come to me.
AF: What’s the surf culture like here in NYC?
PS: I’ve traveled a lot, surfed in Australia, Puerto Rico, California, Central America...but there’s something special about surfing in a place that has a different history. It’s not so prominently part of the culture of the area...though it’s grown a lot since I moved here.
AF: Do you see yourself staying in Rockaway?
PS: Yeah, not full-time, but I think that Paul Surf will always have a foothold here. It’s such a unique community, I love NYC, I love that Manhattan’s right there, I love that the lineup here is drastically more diverse than any other lineup I’ve ever been in. It’s just such a unique place. But I imagine that I’ll be spending a lot more time in Puerto Rico, which is my other love...it’s so close and easy. I have a dream to own some land and a little house there, and maybe rent it out when I’m not there. Maybe 6 months here, 6 months there.
AF: Yeah, that’s the dream.
PS: Is it? What’s your dream? What do you wanna do?
AF: Hang out with you more, get some more of your boards.
PS: You can do both those things man, hit me up.
Alex and Paul at our last live Sun Sessions event in Sayulita, Mexico.