Ehitu Keeling

CJ Kanuha

A Lifestyle of Tradition

Intro by Lauren Rolland

Interview by Shawn Pila

“The wood speaks,” the Hawaiian says as he runs a palm across the grain of a koa wood board. And truly for this man, this artist, this surfer, the process of board building breathes life back into the traditions of his ancestors. Touted not only for creating custom Hawaiian surfboards, but also as a progressive surfer and avid waterman, CJ Kanuha is a skilled individual. 

The Big Island native was raised with traditional Hawaiian values, like respect for the ocean, for nature and for all people. These morals are very apparent in CJ’s day-to-day life and have since been carried over into board building. Extremely passionate and talented in the ritual of shaping custom Hawaiian surfboards, CJ is the perfect introduction to Freesurf’s Board Buyer’s Guide. Here’s a glance into the man’s love affair with surfing and shaping.

When did you start shaping wood boards?

I started getting into shaping, working with wood, and doing the wa‘a (Hawaiian canoe) when I was around 12 or 13. My family has been around paddling, the ocean and Hawaiian culture since day one.

At that age though, pro amateur surfing took up a big part of your life. What influenced you to continue the tradition later in life?

When I was 16 years old we did a cultural event down in Kamoa and we had uncle Pohaku come over. He opened my eyes again to what board building was and how important it was to me.

I love everything that has to do with the ocean. I love that everything serves its own purpose. Surfing to me was always the number one thing when I was young, so it fit well. Until I realized the impact I could make with creating boards. I started making boards for charity because that’s what my dad was doing and that’s where it all began for him.

Describe a few of the traditions your carry out when building boards.

The first thing to do is get your wood. Getting koa here in Hawaii is not an easy thing. But I have friends and family members who have land, so first we look for fallen trees. The one thing I’ve never done is cut a live tree down. I’ll never cut a tree till the day I die because there’s so much wood that’s out there that has already fallen in the forest; you just need to find it.

Next, doing the pule (Hawaiian prayer). Basically it’s doing the protocols to get the wood, to ask permission to take the wood from the forest and bring it down to the house in order to get it into slabs. After that it’s letting it sit, trying to get all the moisture out of it. I take it down by the ocean so it will dry slowly where it’s not too hot and it’s not too moist, where water slowly evaporates out of it.

After that it’s all about shaping. But first knowing inside that it feels good to start doing it. I tell people all the time you can shape boards everyday if you wanted to. But for me, the board will tell you and the wood will tell you when it wants to be shaped and when it wants to be touched. I’ve had boards that I’ve cut, but mid way through cutting them something told me it wasn’t the right feeling or something wasn’t right. So I’ll stop until I get a good feeling, until it feels pono.

The final thing is blessing. Blessing the board, taking it out, making sure everything works and rides before I donate it to a charity or to a school, or give it to a client or even just keep it for myself. So it’s a long process from A to Z, and there are definitely no short cuts in between.

What is the most expensive board you’ve sold and why was it so valuable?

First, let me tell you this. Koa wood costs a lot of money, so that’s why the boards cost a lot of money. For reference, just a koa door costs around $10,000. So let’s put it this way, you could get a nice brand new Tacoma if you wanted to for one of the most expensive boards I’ve sold. But that’s not the reason why I got into shaping these boards. I’ve always donated or backed a charity every time I make money off boards.

Who have been some of your most noteworthy clients?

Clients from Paul Allen to Wilt Chamberlain, to some of the most famous computer technicians, to people who own some of the most famous clothing brands in the world, to our world champ Kelly. I’ve sold a few boards to a few famous famous famous people. So I’ll leave it this way, the cliental runs deep.

Are you more passionate about shaping or surfing?

I’m actually more passionate about surfing than I am shaping. But I think they both intertwine with each other. Because I really love to shape, and I’m really passionate about shaping. But when the waves are firing you’re not going to catch me making surfboards.

What is the most fulfilling part about shaping these surfboards? 

If I can pass down or at least influence some of the younger children about our culture and influence them with the right aspects, like shaping these boards, then I’m helping to keep the traditions alive. Also, helping out foundations and kids not only just here in Hawaii nei, but all over the world. For me it’s huge. For me that’s it.

Tell us about your hobbies outside of surfing.

I really love hunting, I love fishing, I love gathering my own food from the land and from the sea. Literally from the time I was walking I had some sort of weapon or fishing rod or spear in my hand to be able to catch food, so I really love that.

I love art, I love to paint, obviously I love making the wood boards, I love taking photos. I’ve been into photography since I was a kid. I’ve really been into martial arts from day one. I like boxing, I like kickboxing and muay thai and jui jitsu. In life if you don’t go, you don’t know. If I could pick up a new hobby every other day I would.

If you could teach the world one thing what would it be?

I would teach the world aloha. Aloha does not mean hello and goodbye, aloha means love. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you are, a smile goes a long way. If you can just learn a little aloha, it will take you a long way. So aloha to everyone.


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