Design

Mike Tuten
Mike Tuten has shaped some 18,000 surfboards over three decades.
Image: Cassie Nichols

Ancient surf

The art of crafting surfboards out of 45,000-year-old wood
Comes with video

Mike Tuten / The workshop consists of two rooms, tucked away in Waialua’s Old Sugar Mill. This is where surfboard shaper Mike Tuten works. He’s standing under the strained whirring of a ventilation fan clogged with foam dust, which covers everything including the radio, presently pumping out Greatest Hits: The Police at top volume.

Tuten is 44, big and blond with the intense blue eyes and demeanor of the Teutonic German warriors from whom his name and lineage derive. His electric planer whines to a stop and he extends one of his big hands. These are the kind of hands only found attached to craftsmen and artists. Tuten is a bit of both.

Tuten has been a fixture of the North Shore shaping community for decades. Twenty-nine years ago, he shaped his first board out of balsa wood, which is light, strong and easy to manipulate. That board was followed by another and another and another.

“Mike is making more balsa boards than anyone in Hawaii with possibly one exception,” says Andre “Chispa” DeLaTorre, the main balsa supplier to Hawaii. As years passed, Tuten plied his craft for some of the biggest surf companies, progressive pros (Tom Curren and Jordy Smith to name-drop two) and, eventually, wealthy private collectors. Along the way, he formed about 18,000 surfboards out of the chunks of foam and wood that are his primary media, and amassed a dedicated and burgeoning client list.

As Tuten’s skills and client list grew, he began experimenting with more exotic lumber: Koa, redwood, African mahogany, curly makore and waterfall bubinga. He also expanded his approach to design, and began shaping olo and alaia boards. But his newest project is by far the most interesting.

“You ever see a piece of wood like this before?” he asks, motioning behind him to a dark plank of wood leaning in the corner of his shaping bay. The wood is dark and chunky but velvety to the touch. It looks a bit like the top of a grand piano for a cavemen.

Last year, Tuten bought several lengths of wood cut from an ancient kauri tree. Kauri are one of the largest trees in the world, can live for 2,000 years, grow to 200 feet and achieve a girth of 40 feet. With protected status, it’s now illegal to cut them down. The only source of kauri wood available today is ancient logs buried underground on the North Island of New Zealand, considered to be the world’s oldest workable timber. The raw boards Tuten has purchased are from a tree that splashed down into a peat swamp–legend says the tree fell when a tsunami flattened the island–where it lay encased in a cocoon of mud that prevented petrifaction and rotting until it was found and unearthed in perfect condition.

Similar in density to cherry and in texture to basswood, ancient kauri’s swirling grain pattern–called “curling”–shimmers in holographic tones of gold and cognac. There are eight known pieces of this grain pattern in the world and Tuten has three.

Tuten stumbled across the Kauri while working for a client who wanted something really special. After the client rejected a piece of $10,000 African cherry as not special enough, Tuten started to dig. Through conversations with local “wood guys” and hours of Internet research, he found kauri wood, which is sold though a single distributor in Los Angeles.

Not only are they rare and beautiful pieces of wood, but they are old. Really, really old. About 45,920 years old, and with carbon dating tests to prove it. Tuten is making surfboards from wood that was around at a time when Cro-Magnons walked the Earth. This wood predates the creation of the Great Lakes by 30,000 years, the concept of farming by about the same, and could have provided shade for wooly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers–if those creatures had lived in Aotearoa, of course.

“Everything about these boards is special,” says Tuten. “When you sand into the board, the ancient sap is released and will just hang in the air like a mist that smells like butterscotch and genesis.”

Tuten took the wood into his bay and hand-milled it into a seven-foot alaia, a traditional Hawaiian design that is in the midst of a modern resurgence. Tuten has made many of the alaias that are being ridden on the North Shore today.

Ancient Hawaiians made their boards out of local woods–‘ulu, koa and wiliwili–in four different sizes. The largest of the ancient surfboards, the 18-to-25-foot olo, was reserved for alii (royalty). Any commoner who rode an olo did so under penalty of death and drowning–perhaps proof that the hierarchy in the modern line-up (and the tendency for surfers to enforce it through violence) is not a contemporary social construct.

So far, Tuten has shaped two boards out of his kauri wood in the alaia style, and has enough wood left to do several more–but they aren’t cheap. The first of Tuten’s boards went for $38,000 to the private collector who commissioned it, while the other is on display at Island X Hawaii, a retail space at the sugar mill that sells locally made clothing and other products. Tuten has plans for more, and says he is always looking for new materials, designs and projects.

“I am trying to create boards that are really special, whether that means they are going into giant Sunset, knee-high New England, or a display case on a wall,” he says. “These kauri boards are truly unique, but a board doesn’t need to cost a million dollars to be special. As a shaper, it is my job to create a million-dollar board for everyone who walks through my door.”