Ep. 1 - Floating Objects with Antoine Thys
Antoine Thys (30) hand-makes ‘wooden surfboards and other floating objects’.
Visit his studio Onda Nova Surfboards in Lisbon.
“Hi guys, who of you is Antoine?” I asked a group of men as I entered a large warehouse on Rua Dom Luis I in Lisbon.
“Antoine? Oh, he’s up there”, said one, pointing to a unstable looking ladder leading up to a closed attic hatch at the far end of the warehouse.
Thinking it was a joke, but one I was perfectly content to play along with, I started my ascent and as I awkwardly crawled my way through the small hole I was indeed greeted by Antoine.
As he toured me around his workshop - an adult playground filled with copious woodworking equipment and tools spread out over the room - we quickly bonded over our mutual interests of surfing and van conversions.
Planting the seed
Before committing himself to becoming a surfboard shaper, Antoine worked as a dredger on various boats in Belgium, with a schedule of one month on and one month off.
During one of his month-long vacations he met a surfboard shaper and followed him to Berlin to take one of his workshops. This first experience rekindled inside him the joy of working with his hands, a sensation he’d been missing since playing with Legos as a kid.
“I was always very keen on working with my hands, but growing up my parents maybe pushed me a bit in the direction of getting a classical education, like becoming an engineer or a doctor or whatever, and this made me think this should be the way I’ll have to take, because I also wasn’t mature enough to realize that there were other solutions. And then when the opportunity came to buy my own van and when I started building the interior for that ... I just found out that I was missing something.”
Not long afterwards Antoine went to visit the surfboard shaper in Cornwall (England), where he was taught the basics over the course of a few weeks and took that knowledge home to Brussels, working on his craft during his months off from work.
“Then little by little, and by trying and making mistakes, I figured out which direction I had to go in. And I think the most difficult thing in the beginning actually was to find the right equipment to work with. Because apart from the van conversion this really was my first project working with my hands.”
One of the things that struck me during our conversation was that it seems that the traditional apprenticeship model is being replaced by more of a hybrid model in which mentors (and peers) still play a valuable part but where more of the education takes place online instead of ‘on the job’.
I knew this was already the case for some of the ‘digital’ professions like design or photography but I hadn’t really considered that the same applied for the more artisanal, tangible crafts like woodworking. Antoine mentioned he frequently solved problems by just going on YouTube and finding relevant tutorials and figuring it out that way.
Making the leap
A defining moment in every creative’s life is the moment of making the leap; the moment you decide to burn some of your bridges and decide to start playing for keeps. For Antoine this moment came quite natural to him.
“I’d saved enough money so that quitting my job and becoming a shaper wasn’t scary, so that helped a lot. Now I don’t necessarily have this money anymore but now I have some customers and the hope that it’s gonna work out. I could’ve continued working on the ship and working on my boards during my months off, but I wanted to quit my job anyway, so it wasn’t necessarily the boards that pushed me out of my job, it was more the job itself. I didn’t want to do this anymore. So yeah, it was more of a natural process than anything else.”
“When I was still working I came for holidays in Ericeira (a coastal town in Portugal) and found a warehouse, and then when I went back to work I told my captain I would not come back. Then I put all my stuff in my van and drove out. It wasn’t a spontaneous decision, but it was a quick decision.”
“I was living inside the warehouse in my van, it was really cool. But Ericeira was isolated. There were a lot of old people living there, passing in front of the shop with their tractors and saying hello, and it’s really nice, but you feel a little isolated, so I moved to Lisbon.”
Elaborating on the added value of having a local community of creatives doing similar things, Antoine told me about his upcoming collaboration with Mircea Anghel, the master woodworker behind Cabana Studio, who allowed Antoine to set up shop in the attic of his warehouse.
“For example Mircea wants to make a board with me, and with Cabana Studio he’s making furniture so it’s a totally different approach to woodworking. I think that if I let him do the board his way, and only helping him a little bit when necessary, he will come out with a very interesting and very different board, and I’m sure I’ll learn a lot myself in the process.”
On working with your hands
I asked Antoine about the appeal of building something you could hold in your hands, a feeling we’ve all felt in our lives at some point, whether that meant baking a pie or assembling a desk from IKEA.
“You’re building something and you see it evolving physically with your eyes, I think I’m still the same as when I was a child and I was building lego’s for example, and when it’s finished, then it’s there and what do you do with it? Like you build a plane with Lego for example, but I never liked to run around the house with a plane in my hand. So I just took it apart and build another one. And it’s a similar process with my boards. You make one and then it’s finished and then you start thinking about the next one.”
“I think it’s genuinely the fact of working with your hands that attracts me. The fact that you can build something functional is really attractive to me. It’s a very egotistical process as well, I just really like doing it!”
When I asked Antoine whether he ever got bored while shaping, he told me that really only happened when he was mass-producing a certain surfboard.
“I sometimes got bored, but those were the moments where I was just making the same boards. I think if you always have this quest of trying to reach perfection. Perfection is a big word of course, but in trying to reach it the job just gets more interesting, because you’re just trying to become better and better. Each board should be seen as a challenge, because if you just copy-paste something you’ve already done it stops being a challenge. And on each new project you can find or challenge yourself to do something better. That’s why for example a carpenter making the same shelves or cabinets over and over would get bored at the end, right? At least that would happen to me.”
Start to finish
Instead of being a cog in the machine and specializing in a certain aspect of the production process, Antoine is focused on being able to build the product from start to finish. While most shapers send their board to a painter and a ‘glasser’ - someone who applies the fiberglass layer around the board - Antoine is focused on learning that skill himself as well.
“What I like a lot in what I’m doing is that I start from nearly the tree until the end product, the finished board. I wouldn’t like to only do part of the production process, for instance stopping after shaping the wood and letting someone else glass it. The fact that you yourself can put the finishing touches on your product is something I really like.”
Form vs function
“One thing I’m always wondering is why building furniture doesn’t interest me. I found out that only when an object is functional or when it actually moves that it becomes interesting to me. Like doing a van conversion or a surfboard. But things like a table, it is functional of course because we do use a table, but it doesn’t appeal to me right now. For the moment, I’d like to build something that’s very functional.”
“For example, the process between making a bench or a surfboard is totally different. When you’re making a surfboard you’re not thinking about making it beautiful. You’re just thinking about making it super functional and because it’s so functional it will be beautiful, while with a bench it is the opposite. You’ll first think about how you can make it beautiful, and then if it’s functional it’s even better, you know?”
“I think that if you try to make a surfboard beautiful it will not be beautiful. Because if you get stuck on the notion that it should be beautiful, then maybe it can be beautiful but it won’t perform as good as you'd like. While if you really try to make it hydrodynamic and take into account the future owner and the type of wave you want to surf and everything, it will end up being beautiful.”
Energy and texture
I told Antoine of how I once heard either Rob Machado or Ryan Lovelace talk about how two exactly similar boards - one designed by hand and one by computer - rode differently. Our conversation soon drifted off into notions of energy and metaphysics and we failed to come up with a clear answer, but we both intuitively felt that there’s something ‘different’ about handmade products.
“It’s something that we cannot yet explain with words but it’s obvious. Like when you see an analog photography, there’s a texture there that adds something more interesting to the picture and I think that’s a good metaphor for the difference between handmade and machine-made products.”
Over the course of the afternoon I’d found myself appreciating Antoine’s calm and thoughtful demeanor, qualities undoubtedly honed by a craft that necessitates patience and an eye for detail. As our time drew to an end I asked him about any potential regrets if it didn’t work out for him as a shaper.
“No, never. Never. And no matter what, I would find a solution to keep it running, even if I have to adapt or find a normal job to make money on the side.”