Shaping the Strange with Ryan Burch

Jesse Faen

by on

Updated 14d ago

Ryan Burch has experimented with more designs than most have even considered, and expanded the concept of performance surfing on alternative craft.

His breakthrough section in Volcom’s Psychic Migrations blew minds around the world, plus gained a nomination for video part of the year in the 2015 Surfer Poll awards. Yet despite his main sponsors’ punk mantra Youth Against Establishment, he’s also revered as one of the finest traditional longboarders. Welcome to the anomaly of this prodigious surfer/shaper.

We enter Burch’s mind at Oceanside, California, where this nomadic artist has setup shop.

Filmed and edited by Kevin Smith.

MSW: Let’s start with the most rudimentary, surfing a foam block.
RB: The foam block was kind of the end of me riding finless, cause they were so much fun. Before this I was riding a bunch of Alaia’s in New Zealand and other places, and really enjoyed them, but they sucked to paddle. The foam block was just the best thing to float and slide around on.

It actually ended up being one of the best boards I ever got to ride, as far as involvement, 'cause it's got variable flex. You have to learn how to control the flex, so it taught me a lot about what shape did what, 'cause you could interactively change it.

Had to learn when you wanted a part of the board in the water to be fast, or spread your stance, so that the water hitting the middle of the board would flatten out the rocker to get you across sections. Then if the wave got real pockety, you could pull on the nose and it would bend the rocker in, and make it squishier, so you could hold in more.

The square rails are probably the most important design feature on this board, as crude as it seems. I had no idea how functional the blank already was, just the way it was, for surfing a finless board. It was such a trip.

Do you still ride them?
I tried to ride one again about 5-months-ago, and had a couple nice waves on it, but I used to be lighter when I rode them, and the flex is really sensitive to how much you weigh. I’m too heavy footed for them now, I think.

How about the fish, when did you start playing with those designs?
Around the same time, I was hanging out in La Jolla a lot with Richard Kenvin, Carl Ekstrom, and my friend Lucas Dirkse. A lot of the reefs around there have a history of kneeboarders riding fish designs there, so I was excited to have that stuff around and try to make my own little fishes. The fish became my more trustworthy board, of all the types I was riding It was great for me, 'cause I grew up riding a thruster, so I wanted a shortboard I could still rip on. I was trying all these different types of boards. I was really into longboards, and going logging a lot, then grabbing my shortboard thruster when the waves got better, and also riding the foam.

The fish became my more trustworthy board, of all the types I was riding. I was so used to being out of control on the foam, so the fish started to seem like a shortboard to me. It’s still got a lot of the traditional fish elements in it, with the glide and stuff, I’ve just foiled it out and minimized its size so you can control all that speed. To me, they are great for recreational ripping. I don’t know what you’d call it? Just flying down the line, they’re so fast.

The fish, built for recreational ripping according to Mr Burch.

The fish, built for recreational ripping according to Mr Burch.

© 2017 - Volcom/Tom Carey

Then came the asymmetric shapes?
The asymmetric boards replaced my thrusters. They were the most control-orientated board that I made. They have a lot of the fish influence in them, with the straight toe side, and the twin fin feel on that side, but has a lot more control built into the heel side, with a tighter curve and just more pulled in profile.

I built these into the step–up range, trying to make the boards narrower, as opposed to just the tails more pulled in. Having the size of the board small enough means you have a lot of engaged rail, but can still overpower them in some points. They’re real fast, down the line boards, good for point breaks.

The nose scoop on an asymmetric, when you have area with curve, it just pushes water. So this is to try and disrupt it, or actually pull that surface area of the board off the water and give it an air intake. It’s pretty much just for paddling, but it’s also nice when you’re surfing and engage the nose, or maybe you’re going to pearl, it seems that most of the time it slaps off the water and helps. Creates all that lift off the water, and comes from riding a lot of twin-tip noses.

I never really wanted to do that aesthetically, but I tried them, and there was no denying it for me. It took area off of the nose, and cut through the wind a little better, and fed into the concave so well.

You can tweak each individual tip like a technical shortboard nose, and just feels like the high-performance kind of thing to me. When you engage that part of the board, it just did all these cool things, and never did anything wrong. And knock on wood, I haven’t killed anyone with them, but they look pretty dangerous [laughs].

Twin tip noses help create lift off the water. As evidenced here by shaper and test pilot.

Twin tip noses help create lift off the water. As evidenced here by shaper and test pilot.

© 2017 - Volcom/Tom Carey

Asymmetric boards still aren’t very common in lineups. What feedback do you hear about them?
Generally the response is good, it's pretty much determined by how I’m surfing them at the time. I’ve taken them to Hawaii and just eaten shit the whole time I was there, but then sometimes in Indo, guys are just like, ‘fuck, you’ve got the fastest boards.’

It’s when the waves are clean and down the line like that, the narrow, parallel rails and asymmetric setup, makes for the fastest thing. They’re unstoppable [laughs]. You can sit so close to the face of the wave, and climb up the face so easily. These are like ice skates. Once you are engaged, you can really push off them. Like rail to rail, wave ice-skating If it’s a straight rail and one big fin on it, that whole zone is just all hold and drive, so it’s never sketchy. On a quick moving wave, I feel a lot more comfortable on those than thrusters, where you are trying to fight that curve of the rail line to keep the board engaged. These are like ice skates. Once you are engaged, you can really push off them. Like rail to rail, wave ice-skating.

Have you tried a variety of tails on them?
Heck yeah. I’ve tried a bunch of different tail shapes, changing up fin setups. I’ve tried symmetrical boards with asymmetrical fins setups, and vice versa, tried to experiment as much as possible. They have definitely fallen into a kind of standardized range now. Like I have a standard tail measurement, and the fin placement has pretty much been the same, for like a twin-quad setup.

But I experimented with it a lot, the whole board shape, one rail thinner than the other. It affects the overall balance of the board, kind of like a car with bad alignment, but I kind of like it. I’m heavier on my heels when I’m doing cutbacks and stuff, and I like a more forgiving, boxier rail. There is so much experimentation on asymmetrical boards.

I think of these boards with a fixed stance in mind, like shortboarding and that thruster kind of approach. One foot on the tail, and the other foot in front, and rip the shit out of the wave. Obviously there is a little shimmy here and there, but they are shortboard shredders.

© 2017 - Volcom/Tom Carey

Let’s shift gears and talk logs.
The opposite of that mentality is probably the log, or a mid-length single fin. They kind of spawn off of the same thing, and have a lot of nostalgia in it, for me. Trying to be in step with the traditional style of longboarding, with guys like David Nuuhiwa who were hanging 10, and doing weird, pigeon footed, chicken dance up to the nose [laughs], you know?

Cool, groovy shit, and showing their personality on a wave. I think there’s nothing more Californian than a good logging session at Malibu or Cardiff, or San O’, places like that.

I grew up surfing shortboards around here, so I hated all the longboarders who were fading people, and riding around us. We used to have surf P.E. at Cardiff, and I would see all the guys out there on longboards and they scared me, then they confused me, but then I realized I wasn’t catching any friggin' waves and it was a bummer, so I don’t know, I’ve turned into one [laughs].

When I shape logs, I’m still experimenting the same way I do with any boards, but logs and single fins have had such a long lineage of progression and people trying to push them to certain directions. That’s why I think they are so different from a fish. Guys were riding those on their knees, and I’m sure they were pushed on the kneeboard end, but it’s all about what guys can do on them standing up these days. I want to wear red board shorts and look cool at the beach when I’m surfing Malibu The idea of a nose-rider has rolled rails and it has lift. A nose you can walk up and stand on, which is the object of what you want to do for as long as you can. So knowing what you know about hydrodynamics, you make 'em the best you can. I’ve been reluctant to do side cuts in my longboards, but I know it’s something you could do and make water flow over the deck and hold the tail down better, which you need for nose-riding, but I’d rather try and ride something that looks traditional. That’s where the nostalgic part comes in for me. I want to wear red board shorts and look cool at the beach when I’m surfing Malibu [laughs].

There's no board that is off limits.

There's no board that is off limits.

© 2017 - Volcom/Tom Carey

How about gliders?
The furthest extension is the glider. Traditional with a glider is weird, 'cause if you look at one of Skip Frye’s, they are one of the most complex bottoms ever. They have double concave, single concave, roll, and pinched rails, and so many things going on over such a big distance.

I don’t think they have really been manipulated that much, but the premise of them is they are big boards, made for connecting sections. Riding from one power source of the wave to the next one, and doing that for as long as you can. They have definitely become one of my favorite ways to catch waves, and just have a fun session. Even if the waves are real piddly, or mushy. I mean, there is no way the waves I like for a glider would be really much fun on a fish.

Best to ride them without a big crowd [laughs], they’re a little hard to control. I have a 14’5". If I ride a log at Cardiff I can do a bunch of turns and walk up to the nose once or twice, but on the glider, it’s like a one turn wave. When I get enough speed to finally think about turning the thing, and do the turn, I’m already near the shorebreak. You’ve got to find the right waves to ride ‘em.

© 2017 - Kevin Smith

What about mid-lengths?
Mid-lengths kind of have the nostalgia of logs, and an evolution towards shortboard designs via V-bottoms. They have a nostalgic feel, but are also very nimble. I think what a mid-length really does, for a longboarder, is it really pushes your footwork 'cause they’re shorter and more sensitive, so you have to be a lot quicker and precise with where you place your feet.

For a shortboarder, the glide of an 8ft board is a tremendous leap from the tiny little board you’re used to riding, so they can be the funnest things for small waves, but you can still turn ‘em. A lot of times I get guys with a history of riding shortboards, saying logs are intimidating to control, whereas a mid-length is going to potentially be a lot more nimble and easier to control, and help catch more waves.

How do you choose boards when you travel these days?
Mainly depends on where I’m going and why? Like if I’m going to Indo, I’ll probably just take a quiver of asymmetrical shortboards, and throw one fish in the bag, 'cause I’m probably going to be surfing better waves more times than not.

I’ll throw in a bunch of subtle variations, so I can really feel out the differences. I try not to travel with logs very often, it’s just too much to have, but a lot of places I go, I’m stoked to borrow someone else’s. It’s always fun to ride other people’s boards too. But when I go to Australia, I’ve made myself a longboard there, and there are mid-lengths there, a glider I can ride, so that’s pretty much a quiver like here, somewhere else. I’ve been traveling and trying to do that everywhere I plan to return to.

No need to pack a quiver when you have boards stashed all over the world.

No need to pack a quiver when you have boards stashed all over the world.

© 2017 - Kevin Smith

You’ve made a lot of boards and left them with friends?
Yeah totally, I’ve been doing that on such funny terms. Like, "Yeah I’ll make you a board for free, but I’ve got to be able to ride it every time I’m here, no questions asked" (laughs).

No complaints, I’m sure.
No not at all. Those guys love my boards and ride them more than anyone else. Every board I leave in Australia, Bryce (Young) rides so much, but whenever I come back they’re usually patched up and ready, so it’s pretty good. Then in Europe I have a log, and mid-length, and a gun, plus a couple other boards. I’ve just been trying to pollinate the boards I like to ride to all these places I like to go. Yeah I’ll make you a board for free, but I’ve got to be able to ride it every time I’m here, no questions askedGiving them to the local people, and knowing what kind of waves they are trying to surf, it helps.

Once you surf with a good friend and watch them catch a bunch of waves, you know how they surf, and can kind of apply everything you know about the place into a super customized board. Those have probably been the most enjoyable interactions I’ve ever had shaping.

I love shaping in a place I want to visit, and surf a place with people I love to be with, making them boards that work for them too. Stokes me out, hearing they were able to do things they haven’t before, at their home especially. That’s one of my favorite things.

© 2017 - Volcom/Tom Carey

Who used to shape boards for you?
When I was a grom, I got a bunch of really good shortboards from Greg Sauritch, a local shaper who lived right down the street from me. I would go over there all the time and watch him airbrush in his garage, and it was really the introduction to how a surfboard was made.

I went through so many boards as a grom competing. Got me extra critical of stuff like that. Shortboard building, in the shortboard industry, is so different. Like, they’re so critical of the most minute changes, and they’re using the highest technology to make replicas of a board, so guys can stay on something they’re familiar with.

They’ve got a tight, lightweight glassing schedule on all of them, and it’s all really fascinating. I’m always around the shortboard builders here in Oceanside, and I see what they get excited on, and they’re so tuned in to the tiniest idiosyncrasies of the boards, that they know how to change and adjust, which is a really cool thing to know. Design-wise, to be able to keep something familiar, but progress it constantly, is pretty good.

What’s your mechanism for making changes?
It’s definitely off of feel. Immediately. So many times I’ve made a board and thought it looked good, and was sure I’d thought of everything possible in my head, but then I go out in the water and it doesn’t do what I expected at all. That’s the worst [laughs]. It’s almost always the prettiest ones are going to go the worst too. Not to say some of the good looking boards don’t work, but I almost always try and make a great looking board, but you can never quite nail it until you feel it in the water.

© 2017 - Kevin Smith

Are you still having other people make you boards? Or at least trying other guys' shapes?
I don’t ride that many other people’s boards, but when I do, I always really enjoy it. I don’t really order any, but there are so many good shapers.

Who would be some mentors worth mentioning?
The asymmetrical boards all came because of Carl Ekstrom, and I’ve spent a bunch of time with him. I’d love to ride some of his boards, but I’ve only ever gotten to ride one.

Ever?
Ever. I tried to order one, but he was like, “yeah, um, ok” [laughs] but never got a board from him. I told him I’d trade him a board, and asked what he’d want, but he doesn’t surf anymore, so he was like, "I feel fat, so just make one that you’re going to ride.”

My relationship with him is sort of like my relationship with Joel Tudor, as well. I surf with Joel almost everyday, and he always tells me what’s wrong with my boards, but never lets me try his boards [laughs]. He’s always just, “no, no, no, you’re doing fine, just keep building your own boards.” I get that a lot from people, which is great. In the end, it just means I have to keep making my own boards, and have stayed on my own path, riding mine most of the time. I surf with Joel Tudor almost everyday, and he always tells me what’s wrong with my boards, but never lets me try his boards I’ve tried some Takayama’s and really enjoyed those. I feel like he’s one of the great board builders in history.

I’ve ridden a couple of Skip Frye’s, like the fish you let me ride in Chile, and fish RK (Richard Kenvin) had which wasn’t the Derek Hynd template, plus I’ve ridden a glider of his too, which was a huge influence. He’s one of the most legendary surfers from where I am from, and surfs a glider everyday, loving life, so there has to be something in that.

I rented a room from Chemistry Surfboards and shaped out of there, with Jason Bennett. He’s a really good surfer and a really good shaper too, so he’s definitely been a big inspiration, just talking design.
Jake Moss was one of the first guys to get me into shaping and start teaching me things about it.

I used his room, and shaped my 4th through 28th board there, so a bunch of my early ones. Especially things like holding the planer, and stuff like that. With shaping, a lot of it comes down to just being around people doing it, and talking shop. Eventually you pick up on the right ways to do things and develop your own little system.

© 2017 - Volcom/Tom Carey

How many boards have you shaped now?
I’m around 950, so it’s going well. I’ve glassed a lot of 'em, and made a lot of the fins too. I love doing the complete process of a board, and have to do it every once in a while. But now that I’m doing custom orders for people, I’m sending those off to a glass shop so I have more time to shape and keep up.

My carbon rail asymmetrical boards, I don’t get glassed elsewhere cause they’re more difficult. The shape of a polyurethane blank can change after you shape it so much, that after you take it to a glass shop and it sits in the corner for even a day, it can change so much, maybe in a positive way, but I kind of know what I want with those things now and don’t want them to change too much.

What about Rich Pavel? I’ve heard you give him a lot of praise.
Sure, I’ve spent a lot of time hanging out with Rich. We’ve shaped a gun together, a log together, a mid-length, and I think that’s it? But I’ve shaped a few boards I couldn’t wait to show him, especially fishes, and was expecting him to tell me what’s up, but he came over and saw them in the rack.

I asked him what he thought, and he said they looked pretty nice. He did show me how to draw out a swallowtail, and that was it. He saved me some time there. His versatility is what I wanted to do. He’s making big wave guns for Derick Dorner, and longboards for Dylan Jones to surf Malibu, and he’s making him a single fin gun for Puerto, or a twin-fin fish for Blacks, just diverse quivers. Learning to control some of the variables, like from the repetition of using a planer, you start to know your cross-steps to do a certain blank All the boards were so different, and just all such good-looking boards. Getting some early advice from him saved me a lot of time. From how to order a blank, knowing what you want out of a blank before you go to order it even, so that your shaping job is easier.

Learning to control some of the variables, like from the repetition of using a planer, you start to know your cross-steps to do a certain blank, and how many passes it takes to get it to thickness. After a while, you really don’t even need to measure it, as you gain some consistencies by really paying attention to all those details.

Rich was huge is helping me learn about that, shaping techniques, design ideas, we shaped a 10’6” gun together, and the way he broke down how you should make the bottom of the board was so thoughtout. Everything was premeditated with him, which is an awesome design mind, and he has the ability to do it like no one else I’ve seen.

© 2017 - Volcom/Tom Carey

When you shaped my single fin years ago, you made a comment about not having to hit all the marks from a template. Is that still your methodology?
Yeah I remember, but no, it’s not. I’ve definitely gotten more systematic about the formula. My thing at first was to try and not replicate anything, even if I had a magic board.

Although it’s a real technical thing shaping, to be able to replicate a board by hand is a really, really hard thing to do. I was always excited to just try and make something new, maybe even better. Who knows?
I’m still definitely trying to do a bunch of that, and the asymmetric boards are the ultimate. Such a free form, with each side being different. I’m not stopped by my inability to reproduce the same thing. You can make them be whatever you want Those boards have been evolving super fast, as I’m not stopped by my inability to reproduce the same thing. You can make them be whatever you want. They can be pinchy on one side and real foiled, then real bulky or bulbous on the other side, and have a different rocker flip to it, or whatever. Symmetry is the workingman’s art, cause he’s in there trying to get both sides the same [laughs].

Guns?
I don’t really know a lot about guns and big wave boards.

Single fins?
That’s the realm I think I know the least about. I’ve made logs that I’ve really liked, so I understand single fins on them, but I’m still trying to learn more about those boards. Single fin mid-lengths, like, wider profile, 8ft or 7-and-a-half-foot range boards, I’ve been really psyched on those.

Trying to make them more like mini nose riders, and riding more like a longboard, not really turning them like a shortboard too much. I think if you ride a Gerry Lopez style Pipeline gun, that’s very nostalgic, but I think a lot of the waves these days are too crowded to really ride them at. It’s so hard to get a good, clean perfect wave to yourself at Pipeline.

That’s kind of the single fin to me. I haven’t really pushed my learning too much on those yet, but I hope I get to soon. Start going to some hollow beachbreaks, where you can really feel out some tube riding on them, and have enough push.

The outlines on single fins look so elegant to me, and to shape them, they are full of little idiosyncrasies I see in those Master's boards. They’re super interesting and would be great to shape, but I haven’t really done too much, or know much more about them. If I try and ride one at Cardiff, they just feel like a dog, so I’d rather use a glider [laughs]. Single fins go too slow.

Ryan Burch, the purveyor of strange shapes, all in the name of pushing limits.

Ryan Burch, the purveyor of strange shapes, all in the name of pushing limits.

© 2017 - Volcom/Tom Carey

When did you decide to start your business, and open a shop?
It’s because I love building boards so much. I just wanted to build more and more. I’ve always wanted to have a draw full of fins, and now that I have a business, I get to have that [laughs]. My favorite thing to do is just pull boards off the rack and tell Scott (Innes, his business manager) I’m going to ride it [laughs].

It’s just cool to try and make the best boards you can. I love surfing and I love building boards, and I’m most proud of my ability to build one I think is really good. So I want to be able to share that with people, like I have with traveling. I’ve been able to share my boards with people in other places, so I want to share them with people who are interested and want to try, and hopefully it lights up their surfing too, like it did mine.

How about your artwork, both on canvases and surfboards?
When I was in high school I was lucky enough to have some really good art teachers, who got me psyched on just grabbing a piece of wood and throwing some color on it, to see what happens, you know?

I was always into making stuff. Like building Lego as a kid, and I was getting power tools when I was like 10-years-old [laughs]. So I think when I actually realized I could get a blank and shape a surfboard, I was fucken hooked on it. I just like drawing them on there, and pencils are cheaper than laminates All my creative energy, anything else I used to try and get out of me into art, now went into surfboards. To me, it was just the most connected, best thing ever. Surfing was what I was doing the most of anyway, so it all worked out like that.

The drawings on the boards, to me, are just an extension of that. I like to draw something unique on each board when I finish shaping it. The drawings kind of directly reflect the end of a board. Sometimes they are real elaborate, 'cause a lot of thought went into the board. Or maybe they are basic cause it’s a simpler board. They can change, but I just like drawing them on there, and pencils are cheaper than laminates [laughs].

Sometimes you write things too, which aren’t always easy to understand…
Yeah, they are like codes [laughs]. What it’s intended for, and stuff like that. Usually it’s the first thing that comes to mind when I’m done with shaping the board. A lot of times, I can’t figure out what they say either [more laughs], just some gibberish.

I’m so bad at spelling, I just put down letters as they sound coming to me. It keeps it fun. I see people holding the boards like they’re super precious, 'cause they’ve been waiting for it a long time, and then they see it says ‘ripperdipperfucker’ or something like that on it [laughs]. They’re like "what the hell?" Makes me laugh.

© 2017 - Volcom/Tom Carey


Jesse Faen

USA Brand Manager @jessefaen