On Saturday mornings, when the conditions are just right, Tom Sterne is up by 5:15. He packs a thermos of coffee, loads a few of his custom-made surfboards into his pickup truck, and heads down to Padre Island to catch waves with the dolphins at sunrise. “Ever since I was a child, I have found it exhilarating to be in the ocean,” he says. Sterne started surfing in 1967, when he was twelve, but it wasn’t until 1997 that he made his first board, for his son Travis to ride in a Texas Gulf Surfing Association competition. He has made more than a thousand boards since then, working in a converted barn on his property along the Guadalupe River, just north of Victoria (Sterne’s great-grandfather Thomas Sterne started the town’s first newspaper, in 1846). He spends twenty to thirty hours on each board and doesn’t mind the tedious process. “It’s relaxing for me,” says Sterne, who maintains a full-time job in telecommunications and data networking. “I am digital by day and analog by night.” And Sterne says he’ll never give up his craft. “There is no better gratification than your friends’ having fun on a board you made.”
Q&A with Tom Sterne
How did you get started making surfboards?
I grew up in an outdoors-loving family, and I was always building things with my dad. Then, in the nineties, I decided to build my own boards, because the ones we were ordering from California weren’t right for the Gulf Coast.
What makes a board better suited to the Gulf Coast?
Our waves are slower, so the bottom curve of the board needs to be flatter.
What else sets your boards apart from the typical commercial boards?
Many of the boards in the industry are made in China by low-wage, unskilled labor with no connection to the true roots of surfing and surfboard craftsmanship, which date back to the ancient Polynesians.
What goes into shaping a surfboard?
I start with a raw billet of foam, which I cut into a curve using a “hot wire,” an electrified piece of wire that melts the foam when pulled through it. I have over forty templates that I use to get the right curvature. Then I cut the foam down the center lengthwise and glue a piece of wood, called a stringer, between the two halves, which adds strength as well as artistic appeal. Using another set of templates, I outline the final board, then I shape it using an electric planer and sanding blocks.
And how do you finish the board?
Once the board is shaped and sealed, artwork can be applied, in the form of acrylic spray paints. After that the board is hand-laminated by squeegeeing epoxy resin through layers of fiberglass cloth. The lamination process is critical, as it will determine the strength of the watertight shell that encapsulates the foam core and ultimately the quality of the board. Then the fins are installed. At the end there is a fine-sanding stage, and certain other types of art can be applied, like pin lines, hand-drawn ink lines, et cetera.
Where do you find inspiration for the art on your boards?
I look to the person ordering the board for direction. I’ve spent years learning some of the techniques used in the sixties and seventies, with resin abstracts and fabric inlays, and those are lots of fun.
What are your three favorite places to surf in Texas?
Port Isabel, at South Padre Island; Bob Hall Pier or Packery Channel, in Corpus Christi; and Port Aransas.
What’s your favorite surf memory?
Many of my best memories are from the days when we were young and fearless; when I was 15, a friend and I drove down to Mexico to spend the summer surfing there. But after surfing for over 47 years, now it’s about how many more rides I can get in.
For more information, go to thirdcoastsurf.com.