The North Carolina’s Aplalachian Mountains isn’t exactly ground zero for custom surfboard production. But underground shaper/traveler Bill Pressly mows foam in his self-constructed workshop far from any ocean. People in the know hold Bill’s shapes in high regard, Thomas Campbell designed his logos and Ryan Tatar has spent lots of time photographing his endeavors. We were stoked to finally get a moment with Bill and learn more about his enviable life. While this interview took place in 2010, we still get a kick out of looking back on it and hope you do too.
Where did you grow up and how did you start surfing?
I grew up on the edge of the suburbs in maryland, about 45 minutes outside of washington dc and 3 hrs from the coast. In the spring of 1972 i saw the Duke Kananamoku Surfing Classic on Wide World of Sports and was blown away. I’d never seen surfing before, except maybe the Frankie and Annette Beach Blanket movies. So I got out the phonebook and found Bethesda Surf Shop and begged my dad to take me and he did. What a trip, I was 11 yrs old and here’s this funky surf shop in a bright yellow victorian house on a sidestreet in the city. There’s a crew hangin’ on the porch, the shop’s downstairs, repairs in the back, and I think some of the guys are living upstairs. In the front room there’s surf trunks, t-shirts, wetsuits, wax and mexican pullovers and crocheted bikinis. The next room was the board room. Polished, resin tint and pigmented 6′-7′ roundpins and swallowtails. They had 2 used boards, so I put $30 down on a $60 G&S and my dad let me work off the rest. 5’6 super wide diamondtail twin fin. 2 fin boxes hung way in the corners with big, raked fins. Our family spent 2 weeks at the beach in North Carolina every summer and maybe a couple weekends in Ocean City, MD so thats how I learned.
What inspired you to shape your first surfboard?
I actually stripped the glass off that 1st G&S in the late 70’s and reshaped it but I didn’t know how to glass it. It was on my mind for all those years though, something I always wanted was to surf a board I made and understand the process, and I knew that eventually I would. So about 25 yrs down the line I get out of the bike business and have some time. I put together some tools, ordered a few blanks, cloth, resin and the john carper shaping video and got to it. The 1st board I made was a 60’s con wingnose that I stripped and shaped completely by hand, no power tools, glassed it, surfed it once and hung it up. Then T moved on to some new foam, made a few boards for myself and friends, and you know they worked. The hook was set.
Describe your bike shop, why did you sell it?
I got into riding bikes in the early 80’s when the mountain bike was just starting out on an old Schwinn cruiser frame that my friend built up for me. Mountain biking was kinda on the fringe then, and we’d just go out and try to ride anything we could. From there it just evolved into a big part of my life and the mountains where I live were perfect, both on road and off and there wasn’t much traffic back then. In the early 90’s I had the chance to buy a small bikeshop in town and did. We did the whole deal, mtn, road, cyclocross, casual and fanatical. It was fun being in a business where your involved in helping people to have fun and be healthy. People are excited when they buy a bike, and I saw cycling change a lot of people’s lives. I had a good run, but it was starting to feel stagnant for me and I missed making things, which I’d kinda done all my life.
Tell us about building your house, did you have a background in carpentry and construction? Or did you learn on the fly?
When I built my 1st house I had a background in working with wood and making things, but I couldn’t say I was a carpenter yet. As a kid, my dad would start a lot of projects and I’d finish or fix them, and that just continued, if I needed something and it was anywhere near possible, I’d do it myself, or at least try to. So the 1st house I built, I quit my forestry job, which I’d spent all these years in school for, bought a cheap piece of land and found a log cabin, built in the 1800’s down the mountain. We took down the cabin and rebuilt it here in the mountains. after that I was a bit of a carpenter, so by the time I built the house I live in now I knew more of what i was doing. I was always pretty good with wood, the other stuff’s a challenge.
When most people think of surfboard shapers they think of California or Hawaii, what are some of the challenges of shaping so remotely? What are the advantages?
Yeah, it was kinda tough getting started. First off, no supplies were readily available, but the biggest issue was really never having seen a surfboard made in person and not having people around that I could go to for guidance. So it was a video, a lot of trial and error, and a lot of phone calls to George Howard, the one board builder I knew at the time. There’s a lot involved in building a board from start to finish, and if you’ve never seen it, it can be hard to picture all facets of the process. It would be nice to be able to walk down the street to someone else’s shop and see what they’re doing and throw some ideas around and get some feedback.
Now, having been at this for awhile, I really like being away from it all. Mostly I can get completely immersed in it and have very few distractions. I try and get most of my work done in the summer months, when the East Coast is generally flat, and I’m usually coming off of a ton of surf in the winter and spring, and I’ve got lots of ideas built up and not worried about running to the coast every time there’s a little bump. The weather here in the summer and fall is awesome and there’s beauty all around and my shop is across the driveway from my house and it’s just easy livin. So when fall rolls around and the tropics kick in, I’m ready and focus starts to shift to the surf and I’ve got some new boards to ride and there’s nothing like that 1st surf on a board you just made and that’s kinda what it all comes down to.
In your six years of making surfboards, what elements were easiest to refine? Which are hardest?
Shaping was pretty natural for me from working with wood and a life time of surfing and having had a lot of surfboards in my hands. And there’s a lot of sculpting and feel and just seeing it going on and I like that part of it. I also had a couple of very key boards in my surfing from other shapers in my quiver, and I could pull one out and feel the rails or look at the curves and incorporate some of that. They weren’t real refined but I could see where I was going, and every shape continues to get better and that’s also part of the draw, constantly changing.
The glassing process was another deal. I’d glassed a few skateboards in the 70’s and done plenty of ding repair but that was it. There are so many variables involved in each step of the whole glassing process, and temp and humidity and catalyst and color and sun all have an effect and each of those elements are constantly changing so there’s a lot to keep up with. It’s very rare that a complete glass job with color goes perfect, but it can get pretty close, and as my experience grows, I can foresee potential problems and do a better job. I also now know Greg Eavey, a fellow board builder who does some of the best glass work I’ve seen and I hit him with tons of questions and we exchange ideas all the time.
How do you think working on bikes prepare you or influence your surfboard building?
I don’t think they really relate that much, other than just doing it, taking care of business. riding a bike, on the other hand can definitely relate, like finding that perfect line through a turn on fresh pavement or a flow through the woods with trees and rocks just one mistake away, but it all going right. and seeing what guys are doing on bikes now compared to when i was really in it is amazing…they’re truly flying and flowing and drawing some surf lines i could only imagine on a bike.
Besides surfboards… what other things do you enjoy making?
Lately that’s been mostly it. I get so into it that it’s all I want to do with my time. but there’s always things to fix or something that I need and if at all possible I make it. Each year I make some new tool to refine my shaping or another set of racks. In the past I’ve made lot’s of skateboards, 1 snowboard in ’79, a bunch of tables and beds, let’s see, some skate ramps and whatever else I could.
Describe a typical year for you..
Lately it’s been summer in the mountains building boards, then in the fall I start to split my time between here and the North Carolina coast whenever there’s surf. As winter comes on I start prepping my camper and then in the new year head south to Mexico to camp on the beach and surf, hang out with friends and chill until late spring.
You seem to live life on your own terms, what advice would you have for the younger crew out there looking to achieve a similar freedom?
If there’s something that interests you and might bring you joy, do it. And if you fail, so what, you learned something so try it again or move on to something else. And if you dig it, stay at it and be stoked to be doing something that makes you happy. Maybe the freedom comes from letting go of everybody else’s expectations.
photos courtesy of Ryan Tatar and Katie Langley