By Nick White
Photo from mcdermottshapes.com
The state of Maine has 3,478 miles of winding and rocky tidal coastline. Each beach and cove is more different than the last, making surfing an unpredictable challenge. None understand the uniqueness of surfing in New England more than the McDermott brothers of McDermott Shapes. Andy and Ryan have been involved in the surfing community since 2004, and about two decades later, they are on the cutting edge of innovation and lean manufacturing. Surprisingly, Andy McDermott only found surfing when he was twenty. “We grew up in Maine, and I didn’t know that surfing was a thing. I only went on nice summer days, and there’s hardly ever waves on days like that in Maine,” Andy, McDermott Shapes’ head shaper, recounts. “I just didn’t realize surfing was a thing until my brother took a job on Nantucket with a friend, and I visited. He was like, ‘Yeah, we’re surfing out here.’ He invited me, and then that was it; I was hooked. Completely obsessed.” After getting home, the brothers soon realized how expensive longboards were.
Andy continues, “At the time, I was working in boatyards. My dad made boats when he was younger. He then moved on to making signs and wood artistry, but he was a shaper. So it wasn’t abstract to think that we could make these.” Andy tells me that he cut his teeth working in local marinas and boatyards. “I had second and third jobs where I was working on boats. Doing the awful grunt work. I progressed on to fiberglassing and then actually making small dinghy boats.” The brothers grew up on water and around woodworking, which gave them confidence enough to entertain the idea that they could make their own.
“I thought about making the surfboards and was like: This is the simplest boat. I could make a ‘simple’ surfboard?” Apparently, the sentiment of ease still amuses him. He begins to laugh. “I had no idea of all the little intricacies. Sure, it looks simple, it looks easy, but you do not realize just how much goes into making a surfboard.” Nonetheless, the McDermotts made their first boards.
What was born out of necessity quickly became something altogether different. “We didn’t start small; we started big. We ordered thirty blanks and just began working.” They started their custom work in their father’s woodworking shop. “That lasted about two boards until he told us we need a space of our own after seeing everything covered in white dust and smelling like poly.” The brothers then moved to an old contractor’s trailer in the Maine woods. They would eventually expand into a former boatbuilding facility with plenty of space to work their craft. After five years, Andy and Ryan had made nearly a hundred boards, all for friends and friends of friends. “At that point, it wasn’t a business; we were just making boards for fun.”
It is said that to be great, you must know what you don’t know. “We knew our work wasn’t anything compared to what was coming out of the West Coast,” Andy humbly says. At the time, the duo enjoyed making boards and began to toy around with the idea of starting their own manufacturing company. “We figured if we were going to do this [make surfboards], we would do it right. So we went out to California.”
The brothers spent some time surfing the Californian coast, all while learning the process of shaping boards. “We started in San Diego and went to Santa Cruz, where the water started getting cold. We went to about a dozen board shapers and anyone who would open their door to us.” Andy is sure that the fact they were Mainers and weren’t threatening lent to the success of this technique. “We got to see how a lot of people make boards.”
With a quick internet search, you’ll discover that there are giants in surfboard shaping and production; few cast a shadow as large as Terry Senate. “Terry was a standout. When you watch him make a surfboard, you can’t help but be like, ‘Oh, wow,’” Andy muses. “You have all these other people making boards with precise measurements and all these little holes, and they come out great. Then you watch Terry do it in about thirty minutes while just chatting about random stuff. The board is as good as any of these guys doing painstaking measurements. I was jaw-dropped and thought, ‘That’s how you do it.’” Andy laughs. “I looked at Terry and was like, ‘Can you teach me how to do that?’ He said yes, but that I had to move out there to do it. So I went back home, sold everything, and three months later, Ryan and I were looking for a place to live in San Clemente.”
Andy still chuckles when he tells the story of returning to Senate’s shop. “I never even called Terry when I got back; I just showed up and walked in the door. He looked up, handed me the planer, and said, ‘All right, let’s see what you got.’” The pair became close as Terry took McDermott under his wing and taught him everything he knew. “When shaping, I can’t only use the theories Terry taught me. The boards wouldn’t perform as well out here,” Andy explains. While Andy was working with Senate, Ryan shadowed at a factory across the street, learning the manufacturing process and the art of glassing. “Ryan was fiberglassing for us right across the street, and that’s how he learned to glass.” His respect and admiration for his brother’s skills are palpable. “Nobody does work like my brother, and it’s because Ryan is a complete composite nerd,” Andy jests. “His experience and knowledge of composite are part of why I don’t have anyone else glassing my boards.” With an air of fraternal gratitude, Andy continues, “Any time I have someone else glass my boards, they just don’t come out as good as my brother’s work.”
The brothers don’t count the boards they made while learning the craft toward the over sixteen hundred they’ve produced back home in Maine. However, the experience they gained while out there was invaluable. “When people would ask my dad how long it would take him to make one of his sculptures, he would always say, ‘Forty years.’ Even though it may have only taken him an hour to make that sculpture of whatever, it took him forty years to be able to make it within that hour,” Andy recalls. “I kind of feel the same way. Even though it may only take me forty-five minutes to shape a surfboard, it took me fifteen hundred boards to get to this point.” Andy beams with pride. The pride is duly earned. Each board is a labor of love and an example of a craft honed. A McDermott board is considered the gold standard in New England, known for its quality of construction and innovation. Speaking of innovation, the brothers were among those pioneering surf ski shaping and testing and continue to perfect their design over a decade later. “My brother and I were skiers before we were surfers,” Ryan begins. “We had always dreamed of skiing waves. One day a guy asked us if we could build him a pair of surf skis, and we obliged. Word somehow got out to the extreme adventure athlete Chuck Patterson, and we have been working on the design with him ever since.”
As far as surfboards are concerned, the brothers have all the custom work they can handle. Andy tells me that he currently has about sixty custom orders in the queue. “We haven’t made a board for the rack in just about six years.” One only needs to have a passing conversation to realize that though they are wildly successful, something still nags at them.
“There is a hole in our production,” Andy begins. “We want to produce beginner boards, Ryan and I, without spending our time working on each one; that’s where the expense comes in.” Andy elaborates, “For your first board, you don’t need it to be custom-built. I am more than happy to do it, but something surfable will be fine. Then, after a few years, when you find out what you like and don’t like, you can come in, and we’ll chat and design a board for you.”
To those ends, McDermott Shapes is streamlining manufacturing to save time and reduce waste. “We are working on tweaking the more traditional board-making process. Using modern materials and lean manufacturing to create the best quality boards we can, with as little a carbon footprint as possible.” Ryan goes further in explaining the ultimate goal. “About ten years ago, we got a grant through Maine Technical Institute [MTI] to research, source, and test the best surfboard and stand-up paddleboard construction materials. We found some interesting stuff.”
Six years later, a second grant was awarded based on their findings to build board molds and make and test them. “I could not get the boards light enough to where it was an acceptable weight for production.” However, Ryan says there is no doubt that the technique and materials will be perfected. “The ultimate goal is to get production dialed in. Then we can train people to produce high-quality, durable boards with molds that have a low chance of flaw or failure.” Currently, McDermott Shapes is one of the few board producers in the country that have recently produced molded surfboards. “As far as I know, Lib Tech is the only other US-based company currently making molded composite surfboards.” Ryan explains that though building molded boards isn’t a new methodology, it is difficult to do. “Nobody does it, because the processing and manufacturing technology just hasn’t been developed to a point where it can be cost-effectively put into play.”
The brothers can’t reveal too much until their process in development is brought to scale. However, they say it will allow more people to be safely involved. “I want to live. I don’t want to die, you know what I mean?” Andy’s tone turns serious. “I have to wear a full respirator when shaping because I don’t want to breathe in foam dust and styrene when I work. If there’s a way that I can do my job without having to worry about hurting my body, then I am all for it.” Andy continues, “If there are ways that companies can be producing stuff in any factory in a way that’s not harming the workers and has a smaller environmental impact, then that makes a lot of sense.”
Currently, the brothers use mostly foam core blanks. In fact, more than half are poly-based boards. Even so, they are “playing around” with different base materials and manufacturing techniques. “We’ve worked with algae-based boards,” Andy says, “and someone is growing a mushroom board for us.” A chortle of intrigue. “Yeah. Someone asked us if we could shape a mushroom blank; c’mon, of course, who wouldn’t want to try something like that?”
Ryan says, “These alternative blanks are more novelty than anything else at this point.” McDermott continues by saying that while he is excited about the future of alternative materials, the technology for creating the blanks still has a ways to go. “There are plenty of exciting innovations, and we will definitely adapt them when there is no chance of compromising the quality of our boards.”
The McDermott duo has also started incorporating innovative products such as traction pads and changing mats made of sustainable algae-based foam and is currently exploring options for recycling foam used in packaging and production waste. While they are continuously looking toward the future to improve their skills and make their manufacturing healthier for themselves, their employees, and the environment, they are still building some of the highest-performing boards in New England. “I don’t want to import cheap materials that will fall apart in a few years,” Ryan begins. “I would rather see someone use locally built equipment that will last them a long time.”
Most of their clients are from Maine, looking for custom shapes to navigate the tricky New England surf. That being said, their boards can be found throughout the world. “Ninety percent of our boards are staying in Maine. That other ten percent, I have no clue where they are now. New Zealand, Australia.” Andy recounts the story of one of the first McDermott boards. “It was stolen from a friend, and we are pretty sure the guy went straight to Australia. I mean, it’s cool thinking that a McDermott board is in Australia now.” He further commented on the nomadic tendencies of surfers and their gear. How different boards often end up on opposite sides of the planet from where they were developed. “When people from other parts of the world see our logo, which has the state of Maine, to them, it is just a blob of color. For me, it’s where I live, and where you live, you surf.”
When all is said and done, at the end of the day, the brothers are still passionate surfers at heart, “When it starts to slow down, we definitely try to get out there to surf. In fact, I am calling my brother up to go out after this,” Andy adds with a laugh. While the McDermotts often travel elsewhere to surf, they just can’t seem to kick the unique surf that Maine provides. “Every time I come home, I’m greeted with this awesome surf that is better than anywhere I have gone, and I’m just like, ‘That’s nice. That’s why I live here.’”
Andy further explains, “You’ve got wind coming from all directions, points that jut out into the ocean, and coves, but then again, you also have places like Higgins Beach where it is pretty straightforward.”
With wavering sheepishness, Andy tells me, “I mean, I don’t exactly advertise the surf in Maine, but it has its good and bad like anywhere else.”
He then tries to illustrate the satisfaction of being in the-middle-of-nowhere Maine and not having to worry about “dropping in on someone” and gives the merits of finding those secluded spots, along with praising the technically challenging waves where the surf comes in from all over the place onto the coast’s short shores. “I love going somewhere secluded to chase a certain type of wave. There’s a chance you get nothing, but when there are waves, those are the ones you will remember as opposed to a random day at some beach.” I ask if there is a thrill in the hunt.
“For sure,” he answers without a trace of hesitation in his voice.
Ryan echoes Andy’s words, stating that you can get skunked for days on end, but when it’s good, it is good. “If you aren’t surfing for the fun of the sport, you are probably doing it for the wrong reasons.” Ryan continues his parting words. “Just be a good person, be respectful of the land, the ocean, people’s property, and most importantly of others.”
For more information on the brothers and their work, visit their website, mcdermottshapes.com. Or go to the Black Point Surf Shop at 134 Black Point Road, Scarborough, Maine.
Nick White is an adventure athlete and freelance author, sharing some of the most interesting bits and pieces that he comes across during his travels. You can follow Nick as he challenges himself with uniquely wild adventures: nkvadventures.com