There are few factories left in Chinatown, and Manhattan is certainly not known for its export of surfboards, but in a studio loft on Centre Street, just north of Canal Street, there is Dirk Westphal's surfboard factory, possibly the only one in New York City.
The term “factory” may be a stretch. Westphal makes the boards himself, one at a time, and he has got production time down to roughly one board per week.
But his surfboards are more than just wave-riding vehicles; they are also vehicles for Westphal's art. Each board is as white as a SoHo gallery wall and bears large images of Westphal's photographs of fancy goldfish and colorful damselfish.
Fall is the season for serious surfing in New York, with faraway Atlantic storms sending large waves to nearby beaches. Westphal is taking advantage of the season by showing his inventory of dozens of surfboards as an art exhibition in a gallery called Mixed Greens.
The gallery describes the boards as installation photography and monolithic sculptures. During the month-long show, which opened earlier this week, he will continue to make his boards in the gallery as performance art. He has essentially moved his shop, including the plastic-draped booth where he makes the boards, to the gallery. To create an authentic atmosphere, he glued prefabricated resin drips on the gallery's floor and walls.
Westphal, 42, who has worked for years as a photographer and artist, began making custom surfboards two years ago. He test-rides his boards and also lends them to his surfing friends to try out. He is originally from the Midwest and took up surfing at age 35 at Rockaway Beach. He describes himself as a “Champagne surfer,” more interested in leisurely surfing with buddies in warm conditions than in obsessively squeezing into thick wet suits and braving winter waters.
“Some people treat surfing as a competition, but I've always thought it should be casual and gentlemanly,” he said.
For Westphal, who has worked as a freelance photographer for many publications, board making is partly a measure of how popular surfing has become in New York City, which now has an official city-designated surfing beach and a surf-themed restaurant in the middle of hipster Williamsburg in Brooklyn.
“I'm certainly not trying to promote surfing,” he said. “I don't want everyone in New York to buy a surfboard and go rushing into the water. The surf spots around here are crowded enough already. I'm trying to promote more of a do-it-yourself attitude.”
In fact, he sells a quirky how-to video on surfboard making, a process that is so difficult that the video serves more as a disincentive than as instruction.
The process is laborious. He starts with long foam slab and traces the new board shape from a prepared paper template, then cuts the slab to the shape. After that, he begins a delicate process of shaping the board and placing the fins so that the board can float and flow and be steered properly on a wave. Then there is a painstaking sequence of applying layers, including fiberglass cloth, a resin finish and the photographs.
Most boards sold in local shops are made in California and, increasingly, overseas. Any decent surfboard, even a leading brand, must be shaped by hand, so that even starter boards cost US$500 and up. Westphal will certainly not undercut that. His prices range from US$5,000 to US$8,000, depending on the size and photograph requests — too high, he admits, for the average surfer.