A conversation with Jon Pyzel, the North Shore’s most in-demand shaper.
by Andrew Oliver
The start of the Vans Triple Crown is a signal that winter has arrived on the North Shore. In the span of those six weeks, there is a confluence of talent and world-class surf unlike anything else in the world. The level of skill, coupled with the challenge of the waves, places an incredible demand on the surfboard shapers designing the equipment for these unparalleled proving grounds.
One of the most in-demand shapers when it comes to performance surfboards on the North Shore and around the world is Jon Pyzel. While his recent ascension to world-wide prominence has been in tandem with his lifelong team rider John John Florence’s meteoric rise, Pyzel has been refining and surfing his own craft, working with his dedicated team on the North Shore for years. We asked Pyzel what it’s like to shape for some of the world’s best surfers and the challenging surf of the North Shore.
Leading into the Vans Triple Crown season and the North Shore winter season in general, what are your production levels like for custom boards?
We usually start seeing a bump in custom orders in September, but what really gets orders coming in is the first real swell of the season. I think people start looking through their boards and realize what is missing, or they want fresh, new boards for the coming winter.
Who are the team riders you are making boards for?
My team is small, but they are pretty gnarly: John John, Nathan, and Ivan Florence; Koa Rothman; Jack Freestone; Alana Blanchard; Zoe McDougall; Wyatt McHale. Then there are guys that I just make some boards for, Tour guys like Willian Cardoso, or travelers like Koa and Alex Smith. I have a few really good amateur kids, too, like: Bronson Meydi, Afonso Antunes, Thatcher Johnson, Taro Watanabe, and Jai Glindman. I don’t like to be spread too thin, so we keep it tight.
What is the ordering and design process like with your team?
I am close with all my team riders, so they mostly just call me or text me what they need or want. Koa Rothman lives right next door so he will stop me on the way down the driveway and order boards, but I always try to get him to text me what he needs so that I don’t forget about them!
Around here I’d say my guys are pretty much going to order boards from me anytime we run into each other. Zoe and Wyatt both seem to like to come down to the factory and talk to me, especially if they are looking for a change in boards.
Are they coming to you looking to achieve certain things with their equipment? I’m guessing what Jack is looking to accomplish during his North Shore season is quite different from Nathan or Koa.
Everyone has a different path that they’re on, but everyone wants to be prepared for whatever they need to do. Jack wants to win heats and improve his ratings. Koa and Nathan are both on similar paths, trying to find the biggest, best waves they can and just go crazy, so they want a lot of boards to make sure that they aren’t stuck without the right equipment when that moment presents itself. John John is out of the water for now, but he’s basically a combo of these guys —wanting to win heats but also psyched to surf the biggest waves he can and push it pretty hard.
How does this translate into the type of boards you make them?
Jack is looking for boards for mostly three waves: Hale‘iwa, Sunset, and Pipeline/Backdoor. He’s focused on the Triple Crown and collecting points, plus just pushing his personal boundaries in freesurfs, so his whole quiver is focused there with boards between 6’0’’ and 7’0’’. Koa, John John, and Nathan have the same performance boards, but they also have a bunch of big wave boards between 8’6’’ and 10’6’’.
Any other interesting anecdotes, about working with your team?
I make sure that the people I work with are all people that I like, so it keeps my job really enjoyable. I guess one funny thing is that sometimes I will give someone a board from another team rider if there is some emergency situation. When Jack Freestone first got a few boards off me three or four years ago, he was here but his boards from Australia were stuck in customs. He came by our shop and ended up buying a few boards that I had shaped for someone else, just because they were around what he was looking for. Luckily he liked them and that was the start of our working relationship.
What are some of the challenges of shaping boards for pros you haven’t worked with very much?
I just tell them that I have boards that people tell me work well here and ask that they trust in me to make them good boards. I avoid the guys who want me to try to make a board from something they already have from another shaper because that’s not what I want to be doing. Not because other shapers aren’t making great boards, but because I want to give them something that I know is proven to work.
Do you feel any pressure knowing your boards are being put into situations that could have major consequences, whether it is a possible world title, CT qualification, or extreme surf where serious injury or even death is a possibility?
Absolutely. I have paced through so many heats in my life! Every heat that John John has surfed in his CT career has held a lot of meaning for me, lots of highs and a few big lows. We always hope to have everything worked out with boards ahead of time, but sometimes I’ll see where his boards aren’t working as well as I would like, or he breaks a magic board and it’s stressful.
With big waves where guys are putting their lives on the line, luckily, I usually don’t see what happens until after it’s over, but some of the Jaws events have been exciting. I just know those guys are as prepared as it gets and the boards that I make them don’t change much, so ideally they shouldn’t have to worry about things going wrong there.
Has there ever been a moment when you realized you made someone a board that didn’t quite work out, to the point where it affected their performance?
For sure. I’ve watched my guys struggle when they shouldn’t have to, but mostly that comes when they have made a bad board choice for the conditions. I remember watching John John lose to Keanu Asing in France in waist-high lefts. He was on the wrong board for those waves, but I knew he had a board I had made him for those same conditions. It was hard to watch that one.
How did you learn and grow from that experience?
I try to make sure my surfers understand the different designs and what conditions they will be best for. I have also worked with surfers that I just could not make a good board for, and in the end, you just have to walk away from those situations so that you both can feel okay.
On the flipside, what does it feel like to see someone accomplish incredible things on your equipment?
It’s a great feeling when someone is surfing to their highest potential on one of my boards. Whether it’s winning a world title, riding a huge wave, or some grom doing his first cutback; it all feels good. I’m so stoked to play a part in people having a good time and loving surfing.
How much does their performance influence your design?
Most shapers aren’t working with surfers of the same caliber as your team riders.
I am lucky to have such amazing surfers to help me learn how to make boards work better in specific waves and conditions. Their feedback drives refinement and sometimes their demands for performance force me into creating entirely new designs as well. About five years ago, Mark Healey told me his ideas for what a modern big wave board should do and I made him a 9’8’’ based off that info. Mark took that board and pushed it over every ledge he could and proved the design to be solid. He christened it the “Padillac”, and in the years following, John John won the Eddie and Billy Kemper won Jaws (three times) all riding a version of that board.
For those who are competing in Vans Triple Crown events, how specific are they getting with their equipment? Are they ordering boards customized for each venue?
That used to be the way of thinking, but these days I think the boards I build work well at all three spots, with a few small adjustments between them. Different widths and thicknesses are the main changes I make. JJF has won three Vans Triple Crowns while utilizing this plan, so it seems valid.
Are you making many boards for other pros, local or visiting, who aren’t on your team and are competing in the Vans Triple Crown?
I always do some for visitors, but not as much as some other Hawai‘i shapers do. I really want my team guys to be supported by us and if I am making boards for all these other surfers who they are competing against, then I am just working against their success. I have had a few heats where my boards are ridden by both guys and it sucks for me to watch that.
Can you break down what the ideal board is for the Vans Triple Crown?
Basically, you can ride everything from a shortboard to a 6’10’ step-up at every one of these waves, depending on the size of the swell. Round pins seem to work best for most step-ups, and you will usually want a little wider, thicker board for Sunset. We also usually go up in length in 2” increments so they aren’t overthinking which board to ride. I like to keep everything as clean and simple as possible.