OCEANSIDE, California. — In the 128-square-foot Shaping Bay at Michael Surfboards, family history and lifelong passion collide for its owner, Michael Takayama.
“I remember my uncle saying to me, ‘Child, do me a favor when my time comes, make sure my tools get dusted right and not wrong,'” said Mr. Takayama, covered in flakes of sanding dust.
While hand-shaping a longboard surfboard, Takayama-san has stood barefoot on the worn carpet of the bay. In his hand he held a plane that once belonged to his uncle, who died in 2012, the celebrated water sportsman, surfboard shaper and world surfing champion Donald Takayama. And on its stand, a fresh piece of thick white foam, the core of the longboard.
“Surfing one of Michael’s boards is like riding a magic carpet built just for you,” said Sophia Culhane, 16, a professional surfer from Hawaii who competes in the World Surf League (WSL) International Women’s Longboard Tour third place.
Although Mr. Takayama describes himself as a shaper, which isn’t entirely true. From start to finish, no less than 15 steps are required to craft a Michael surfboard. And while some shapers simply focus on the first step and outsource the rest, Mr. Takayama, 55, completes each phase in the five areas of his 1,100-square-foot surfboard factory.
“I want to make the highest quality surfboards known to man or woman,” he said.
The construction of surfboards begins with raw pieces of foam, the blanks. And before Mr. Takayama even gets a plan to start shaping, asking clients to send photos or videos of themselves surfing. Better yet, he’ll meet her on the beach and they’ll paddle out and surf together.
“It’s important to understand a person’s style and ability,” Takayama-san said, “And then it’s about what they want to do and create a board that gets them there.”
Jessi Miley-Dyer, a former pro surfer who is now WSL’s senior vice president of tours and head of competition, said, “In surfing, your shaper is your translator. You make this journey with them and they connect the dots in your gear and progression.”
Once Mr. Assessing his client’s surfing skills, Takayama goes to his Shaping Bay, where he takes a blank and starts scraping off pieces of foam with a planer like a sculptor does with a piece of marble. He sometimes uses a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machine to shape the foam into a rough outline, but he always performs the molding process by hand.
Once the panel is formed, it is wrapped in several layers of fiberglass and laminated with polyester resin pigment (colour details are added at this stage). Tail patches – extra layers of fiberglass – are cut and strategically placed around the back end of the board.
Mister. Takayama then coats the board in hot resin and inserts a fin box, a narrow piece of plastic that slides into the blank toward the tail to hold the fin. The board is then sanded; Mister. Takayama’s spear-shaped logo is applied in resin; and so-called pin lines, lines that hide the fiberglass overlap, are added.
Mister. Takayama often uses inlays – pieces of fabric that are cut out and placed in specific locations on the board. These will be added next.
A glossy coat of another type of resin is applied, then there are three rounds of sanding with 600, 800 and 1200 grit sandpaper. The whole process finishes with a fiberglass surfboard polishing paste that is brushed on and then smoothed with a buffer.
“Some newer board shapers just make pop outs, copies of the same board,” said Ms. Culhane, the pro surfer from Hawaii who comes from a surfing family. But she noted, “Michael touches every board with every step. This is very special. And because he’s there throughout the process, he knows how to fix a board or customize a person. He knows exactly what he’s done and what he can do to make it better.”
Mister. Takayama can make any type of surfboard, but he specializes in longboards and has five models: Mana-T, Comp, Annihilator, PerPlexer, and WTF. They start at $2,200 and his most expensive to date was $5,000.
live and breathe
Right now I get a board from Takayama-san takes about 18 months from order date to delivery. About 140 cards—printouts of orders with dimensions like length and width, and details like color and inlay preferences—are affixed to the wall surrounding the forming hall.
“Michael lives and breathes surfing and surfboards,” said David Arganda, who ranks seventh on the WSL North America Men’s Longboard Tour and has been Mr. Takayama’s apprentice for the past 18 months. “He shows up on the beach to watch people ride his boards at contests.”
“It’s really cool to be a fly on the wall because he’s so obsessed with his craft and with being the best but also learning new things,” he said. “The people who know about Michael definitely know, and the other people who don’t know and aren’t patient are missing a lot.”
At the factory, Mr. Takayama’s younger son Kaimana, 24, who ranks eighth in the WSL International Men’s Longboard Tour, and grandson Noah (son of Takayama-san’s older son John) handle non-technical tasks such as taking orders and preparing boards for the Shipping, but it is Takayama-san, with the help of Arganda-san, who does the creative work.
Getting up between 2 and 3 am every day, Takayama-san drives the 15 miles from his house to the shop. “3 am is problem-solving class,” he said during a lunchtime interview, pulling his thick, shoulder-length, salt-and-pepper colored hair into a low ponytail. “My uncle used to go to his shop in the middle of the night and now I’m starting to understand why.”
Throughout the surfing world, the Takayama name has been associated with words like ‘royal’ and ‘iconic’, beginning with Donald Takayama’s distinguished career both in and out of the water.
“Donald was one of the first world famous board builders,” said LJ Richards, a former competitive surfer who now serves on the advisory board of the California Surf Museum in Oceanside. Mister. Richards, 82, added, “Michael sitting right next to me in Donald’s shop and watching him mold and build boards fits right into the next generation with that level of craftsmanship and craftsmanship.”
Born in Albuquerque to a German mother and Hawaiian-Japanese father, Michael Takayama was the youngest of four children. As a military family, they moved three times before settling in Southern California when Mr. Takayama was seven years old.
“That summer I discovered surfing and Uncle Donald who lived in Solana Beach, and from that point on it was the sea for me,” said Mr. Takayama.
He started competing when he was 10 years old and has never stopped. “Four years ago at Mexi Log Fest in Sayulita, I had the longest hang 10,” said the 55-year-old with a grin, referring to a competition in Mexico and the surfing position that requires all 10 toes to be wrapped around the nose of the board. “I smoked some of the kids and it felt good.”
Although he spent hours in his uncle’s shop during his school days, Takayama-san spent nearly four decades installing floors and bathrooms. “I absolutely loved going into someone’s house and taking something old and making something new,” he said.
But when his uncle started passing on his tools and then died, Takayama-san started messing around in his uncle’s shop in earnest and then built a mold room in his own garage.
Less than a year later, his life changed. “I woke up one morning 55 pounds heavier than I am now. After 30 years of partying and drinking, I looked in the mirror and it was a matter of life or death,” he said. “The clarity came. I got stopped smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol.”
Mister. Takayama officially founded Michael Surfboards in 2019. Three-time world champion Honolua Blomfield won two of her titles on Michael Surfboards. At the Surfing For Hope Longboard Classic in Pismo Beach, California in October, 17 out of 80 pros chose to surf his boards. In this competition, Ms. Culhane won the women’s event on one of Takayama-san’s boards.
“My boards are really, really special. All have rainbows; it represents my father, who committed suicide when I was six years old,” Ms. Culhane said. “Michael understood the reasoning and made it an art form and not just a detail.”
“I consider myself more than a perfectionist,” said Mr. Takayama. “I redid boards because the color is wrong. I’ve seen people tell me something can’t be done, I’ll do it and then they copy my design. This process in its entirety is becoming a lost art and I happily see myself as a surfboard tailor for many more years to come, hopefully.”