Red dust settles on everything here. It’s hot, dry and quiet. The rusted white corrugated tin buildings stand out against the Waianae mountain range, and yellow wildflowers sprout up between cement cracks. The century-old Waialua Sugar Mill is a landmark of Oahu, yet few have ever been.
After pulling into the nondescript entrance, I notice a shuttle bus outside of the North Shore Soap Factory and people in front of Island X Hawaii. My truck kicks up dust as I slowly round the corner to the far end of the property. It looks deserted back here and the buildings appear abandoned from the outside, but the pickups and cars parked along the cyclone fencing perimeters suggest otherwise.
Wooden signs are fixed to the exterior of the oxidized buildings, displaying familiar symbols; ‘JC Hawaii’ in yellow slanted text, ‘Haleiwa Surfboard Company’ branded into dark stained wood, Pyzel’s recognizable black and white star logo.
The quiet doesn’t last long. As I step out of the car my ears tune into the sound of a sander- high pitched and gnashing. Electric planers, vacuum machines and grinders also whir away in the near distance. It becomes obvious that life brews within the Waialua Sugar Mill. In fact, there’s much more happening behind these closed industrial doors. Design, innovation, creativity… masterpieces are being made here.
The Waialua Sugar Mill seems to have a multitude of connotations- coffee, sugar, soap- it just depends on who you ask. But probably the least publicized and most interesting part about the Mill is the co-op of shapers, glassers and fin makers that congregate here. They’re some of the worlds finest.
I wanted to find out who exactly is part of this co-op of talent and what makes this underground industrial center tick. The Mill is possibly the greatest congregation of shapers in the world, and just so happens to be neighbors with the North Shore, a.k.a. ‘The 7 Mile Miracle’- the most notorious stretch of waves on the planet. With the recent entrance of Poi Dog Distribution, it also now houses hundreds of foam blanks, walls of Futures fins and other surf hardware that would make any surfer’s eyes glitter with excitement.
The Waialua Sugar Mill is the epicenter for custom surfboard manufacturing on Oahu, yet it remains surprisingly covert. Larry Peterson of Seaside Glassing, one of Pyzel’s main glassers and one of the Mill’s first occupants, says that the co-op is really only known by word of mouth. Sure, most surfers that live on the North Shore probably have heard about the Mill. But few visitors, island neighbors and traveling pros are aware of the mecca that exists amongst the agriculture fields of Waialua. It’s a surfboard paradise.
The Sugar Mill closed its doors in 1996 after being open for 100 years. It was Oahu’s last working sugar mill and had provided a livelihood for many of Waialua’s residents. After the Mill shut down, other businesses closed too and schools suffered a large drop in enrollment. The community struggled and the corrugated tin buildings that once harbored a lively sugar industry now stood desolate. The dust began to settle on the sleepy town of Waialua.
It wasn’t until Larry Peterson and John Carper started sniffing around the property as a potential shaping location that new life sprang up at the Mill. Larry recalls that Erik Arakawa was the first one in, he was the second and John ‘JC’ Carper was the third. The three craftsmen paved the way for what the co-op would eventually become today- an industrial hub filled with local artisans who all share one thing in common, the love of surfing.
The Waialua Sugar Mill is undoubtedly a unique place for these board builders to work. “The best thing about working here is you never have to worry about anyone shutting you down,” Larry remarks. It’s no secret that board shaping is a toxic art, and many craftsmen have been pushed out of their backyard shaping rooms because of it. But at the Mill, the guys are allowed to work without any trouble. And for the most part, these board builders and industrialists all seem to work together.
I interviewed a handful of the co-op members during my visit to the Sugar Mill and each one had a different perspective on what makes the location unique. From the old school experiences of John Carper, Steve Mock and Greg Griffin, to the fun and free designs of Two Crows, to the newer energies of Derek Young and Chad Terrell with Poi Dog Distribution, the Waialua Sugar Mill blends astute skill with originality. High performance boards, artistic lady logs, vintage fins and custom glass jobs, you can find it all here at the Waialua Sugar Mill.
Eric Arakawa Designs, shaper
17 years at the Mill
On 40 years of shaping: “I started building boards with the sole intent to make boards for myself to save money. Shortly after I started, I got requests to make boards from friends, and friends of friends. Before I knew it, I was in business.”
On the Mill: “Over the years it has evolved into a creative community of artisans. It is continuing to develop into the hub of the local surf industry.”
Seaside Glassing, glasser
15 years at the Mill
On the beginnings of the co-op: “The Sugar Mill had just closed down, so they were in the process of tearing buildings down. They were putting new roofs on and were getting things ready for rentals. I figured, if you want to make surfboards on the North Shore, where else are you going to go? This is the only industrial spot. You can’t do it in your backyard anymore.”
On working at the Mill: “It’s a great place to work. It’s close to home. But I’d like to see it grow more. It doesn’t get any exposure or advertising, so that’s been the drawback. It’s surprising that people don’t make an effort to come out here to buy surfboards on a discount.”
John ‘JC’ Carper
JC Hawaii, shaper
14+ years at the Mill
On the Mill’s history: “Tens of thousands of people worked here, and Waialua was a very busy town back then. Due to rising labor costs, the Mill finally went under and remained semi-abandoned for years. Larry Peterson and I started writing letters and pestering them to rent us space so we could build surfboard factories, and they finally allowed us to start building in 1996.”
Island Fin Design, custom fin maker
10 years at the Mill
On the co-op and the North Shore: “The surf industry is all around us at the Sugar Mill. We have the best board builders in the world here and it’s so close to the Mecca of world-class surfing. I think every pro surfer considers the North Shore to be the testing grounds of surfing, therefore the finest surfboards are best to be built here. The world comes to your door. It’s the place where people come to experience the surfing world.”
Greg Griffin Surfboards, shaper and custom fin maker
10 years at the Mill
On the North Shore: “I’ve been here since 1980 and lived at Sunset Point for 33 years. A lot of surfboard design came from the North Shore, so it’s a great place to be.”
Sparrow Surfboards, shaper
8 years at the Mill
On working at the Mill: “I’ve been at the Sugar Mill since I moved here, so it feels like home to me. There’s so many guys making boards here, and if you need anything it’s right around the corner. It makes it really nice and comfortable.”
Pyzel Surfboards, shaper
5 to 6 years at the Mill
On his beginnings: “I worked fixing dings first, then glassing for Ed Searfross at Country Surfboards, then shaping for Jeff Bushman. I really started shaping for myself in 1994.”
On the Mill: “There are lots of good craftsmen making all kinds of different and cool things. It’s the only industrial area on the North Shore and it’s full of a lot of different personalities. Everyone seems to get along well and help each other out when we can.”
Derek Young & Chad Terrell
Poi Dog Distribution and NOVA Traction, owner/operator & vice president
1+ years at the Mill
Derek, on the atmosphere: “It’s unique because you see all sorts of people here, from hobby shapers to people that shape thousands of boards a year. Pros, locals, everyone comes through and it’s got this industrial ‘up and coming’ kind of vibe. You don’t see it anywhere else.”
Chad, on the Sugar Mill: “It’s a small version of a business district in lower Manhattan… like the meat packing district. Only we’re the surf packing district. There’s a lot behind closed doors that people don’t realize.”
The iconic white dome of the Sugar Mill and its tall smoke stack stand as a symbol of history and culture on the North Shore, but it should also stand as a symbol of surf. With industrial and entrepreneurial spirit deeply imbedded in its red dirt, the Waialua Sugar Mill has developed into a community of true craftsmen.
Other members of the Waialua Sugar Mill co-op include:
Haleiwa Surfboard Company
Surflight Hawaii | Jim Richardson
Third Stone | Steve Matthews
Schaper Hawaii | Carl Schaper