Immersed is a series of profiles on millennials and their vocations. No profile is quite the same.
Ep. 1: Making the leap, with Antoine Thys
Shaper of wooden surfboards at his studio Onda Nova Surfboards.
Belgian, based 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 on hands and knees I was indeed greeted by Antoine.
As he toured me around his workshop - an adult playground filled with copious woodworking equipment and surfboards (in various states of production) spread out over the room - we quickly bonded over our mutual interests of surfing and van conversions.
I asked him if there'd ever been any alcohol-related ladder incidents. He told me there hadn't been any so far.
As I knocked on wood - of which there was plenty around - the conversation continued.
The temporary studio
From van conversion to surfboard shaping
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.
It was during one of these month-long work breaks that he met a surfboard shaper. Curious about the idea of building his own surfboard he later visited 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 told me 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 pushed me a bit in the direction of getting a classical education, like becoming an engineer or a doctor. This made me think this should be the way I’ll have to take, but that was also because I wasn’t mature enough to realize that there were alternative careers out there.
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 after the workshop Antoine went to visit the surfboard shaper in Cornwall (England), where he was taught the basics of shaping over the course of a few weeks. He took that knowledge home to Brussels where he continued learning the craft during his months off from work.
“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 this model mentors (and peers) still play a valuable part but 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.
Step by step, iteration by iteration.
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. Or, as Steven Pressfield would say, the moment you turn pro. With Antoine, this moment seemed like a natural progressions of things.
“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.”
moving to Portugal
Ericeira & Lisbon
“When I was still working in Belgium 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. 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 was 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 chief 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 he's a furniture maker 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.”
Getting your hands dirty
I asked Antoine about the appeal of building something tangible, something you could hold in your hands. A feeling I'm sure we’ve all felt in our lives at some point, whether that meant baking a pie or assembling a desk from IKEA. For Antoine, the pleasure comes from building more than the actual using of the finished product.
“You’re building something and you see it evolving physically with your eyes. I think in a way I’m still the same as when I was a child and I was building Lego’s. And when it’s finished, then it’s there and what do you do with it? Like say you build a plane with Lego for example, 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!”
I told Antoine of how I once heard either Rob Machado or Ryan Lovelace talk about how two exactly similar surfboards - 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 did 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.”