By offering do-it-yourselfers a chance to build their own boards using locally grown wood, Grain Surfboards in York has carved a niche in the surfing industry.
By Rob Sneddon
Photographed by Nick Lavecchia
[L]ike many great business plans, it began as a scheme to spend a summer at the beach.
“My younger brother and a couple of friends and I were just sitting around one weekend,” says Mike LaVecchia, who was living in Vermont and working at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum at the time. “And we thought, ‘Why don’t we move to the coast and rent a house for the summer?’ I had no intention of starting a surfboard company.”
But he did. And that company, Grain Surfboards in York, begun essentially by accident in 2005, has planted a substantial footprint in the sand — not just in Maine but worldwide.
Surfing has always been about the elemental thrill of connecting with nature — of simultaneously surrendering to and harnessing the ocean’s awesome power in a kind of Zen master balancing act. Grain has taken that harmonious notion a step further by offering surfers a chance to build their own boards out of locally grown wood.
“Nothing’s cooler in surfing than riding your own board that you’ve made,” says Mark Anastas of Liquid Dreams, New England’s largest surf shop, with locations in Ogunquit and York. “A lot of surfers dream of building their own surfboard, but it’s really hard to do. So to be able to do it, and do it in a way that’s environmentally friendly, and get this beautiful product at the end — that’s really cool.”
In fact, for a few surfers the satisfaction of creating a board is its own reward. “Some people build them and don’t even ride them,” says Anastas. “They look nice over a fireplace.” (Or in a glossy magazine spread; Sports Illustrated’s 2014 swimsuit issue incorporated a Grain board into one of its photos.)
But for all their aesthetic value, do Grain surfboards actually work? A reviewer in the online British magazine Drift Surfing provided an answer: “Mike LaVecchia of Grain Surfboards has cornered the market in beautiful, sustainable wooden boards. And the best bit? They ride like a dream.”
Not bad for something that started as a novice’s daydream. “I had only been surfing for three or four years,” says LaVecchia, who was 38 when he launched the company. As a kid in New Jersey, he was interested in snowboards, not surfboards. That eventually led to a job at Burton Snowboards in Burlington, Vermont. While living in Vermont, he also honed an interest in building and sailing wooden boats. Later, at the maritime museum, he helped build a replica of the Lois McClure, an 1862-class canal schooner.
After making the move to York on a lark in 2005, LaVecchia melded his various influences — snowboarder culture, wooden boats, and surfing — to produce an inevitable result. “I built a [wooden] surfboard in my basement,” he says. “My sister saw it and she was, like, ‘Can you build one for my nephew?’ And then a friend in New Jersey that I grew up with asked me to build him one. Next thing we knew, we had a little website.”
The timing couldn’t have been better. In December 2005, California-based Clark Foam, the world’s leading supplier of polyurethane surfboard blanks, shut down in the face of ever-tougher EPA regulations. It marked a sea change in surf culture. Riding the waves, the iconic surfer Kelly Slater noted, “is almost like an obligation to be an environmentalist at the same time.”
The Associated Press had just prepared a story about a little company in Maine that was building surfboards out of wood. Under normal circumstances, the piece would have received little notice outside New England. But the Clark Foam shutdown created a powerful wake. “The story got picked up by people all over the world,” LaVecchia says. “And at that time Clark Foam was this monster corporation and we were just a couple of guys in a basement.”
Grain Surfboards soon migrated from that beach-house basement to a former winery at Side Hill Farm, about eight miles inland on a quiet rural road. Brad Anderson, whose official company bio describes him as “the most violent board-tester we could ever hope to have,” joined LaVecchia as co-owner. Along with experience on tall ships, and as a winter caretaker on an offshore island, Anderson’s background included CAD skills.
Making a wooden surfboard is a complicated, multi-step process. You don’t just turn a slab of lumber on a lathe. The boards, which are hollow, have computer-generated designs similar to airplane wings, with intricate frames. They’re constructed using tools and techniques common in boatbuilding.
A typical board, from concept to completion, takes a couple of months and costs about $1,800. That’s considerably more than a foam board, “but our boards are really durable,” LaVecchia says. “They don’t get beat up the way foam does. So you can pay for a cheap foam board that’s only going to last six months, or you can pay $1,800 for a board that will last 20 years.”
All boards are made from Maine-grown northern white cedar. “We could get wood from Canada pretty easily, and maybe even cheaper,” says LaVecchia, “but we want to use Maine-grown wood.”
One benefit of using all that Maine cedar is that Grain employees enjoy a pleasant-smelling workplace. The atmosphere in the shop, where John Hamblett and Nolan Collins are at work on a couple of custom boards on a relatively quiet morning, is exactly what you would expect in a company created by surfers for surfers.
“Where’s Gemini?” LaVecchia asks as he conducts a tour.
They don’t know.
Gemini — full name: Gemini Kestral Meeh — has a typically atypical Grain résumé. He grew up off the grid, on an organic farm in New Hampshire, where he made his own biodiesel. He’s traveled through South America and plays banjo in a bluegrass band called Pressure’s On! He’s a skilled machinist and tinkerer who runs the mill room. “We built a lot of our own machines,” LaVecchia says, “because our process is unique.”
Also on the Grain crew (they don’t use the word staff) is Courtney Strait. She’s a former member of the U.S. Ski Team, but as a student at the University of New Hampshire, she built her own skateboards out of locally sourced maple.
LaVecchia not only insists on using local wood for Grain products — he insists on using all of it. “We have this little project that we call the offcut initiative,” LaVecchia says. “It’s basically our goal to use every scrap of wood along the way. Most offcuts can be used to make something else within the same surfboard that you’re building.”
Especially thin offcuts are used as a veneer on skateboards. “And our [bodyboard]-type things are offcuts, too,” LaVecchia says.
Pieces that are too small to be used for any other purpose go to local farms, for use as either mulch or animal bedding. (The arrangement is reciprocal; when Grain discovered that some of the old clapboards pulled off the adjacent farmhouse were red cedar, they used them to provide colored accents in their surfboards.)
Some leftover Grain cedar even ended up in a special batch of Dogfish Head ale. (“It was really good,” LaVecchia reports. “They just used it for flavoring during the brewing process. It wasn’t like there was sawdust floating in the beer.”)
Although Grain started out building custom boards, what has really elevated the company is its willingness to work with do-it-yourselfers. Grain sells kits and also offers classes — locally and as far afield as California. Among the boards in progress this morning is one that a local high school kid is building as a class project. And this summer Grain is partnering with Chewonki, an environmental-education foundation in Wiscasset, on a “board-building expedition” for students ages 16 to 18. It concludes with a surfing trip to Nova Scotia.
But for LaVecchia, the most rewarding classes are the ones right there at the shop on Side Hill Farm. “We get people from all over the world, and they all camp out,” LaVecchia says. “We’ve had people from Singapore, Norway, Brazil, Japan, from all over Canada, from Mexico, and a lot of people from the West Coast and from New York.”
One class featured a group of Marines from Virginia Beach. “Another time,” says LaVecchia, “we had three dads bring their kids, who were all best friends, all around 12 years old.”
Along with board-building instruction, classes include a catered breakfast and lunch. But the best part? “We have all these demo boards,” LaVecchia says, “so at the end of the day everybody grabs a board and we go down to the beach.”
It’s basically a continuation of that late-winter daydream that Mike LaVecchia had nine years ago. He just shares it with a larger group of friends now.