True to Your School: Mike LaVecchia of Grain Surfboards
By Woven Society Team
In the words of Alice Cooper, "School's out forever!" We say, "No way!" Not as long as Grain Surfboards is holding their DIY board-building classes.
Started in a basement of a home minutes away from the waves in York Beach, Maine, Grain Surfboards makes locally-harvested, sustainable-yield wood boards of the surf, skate, and hand variety. And they can teach you to make them, too.
(photo credit: Nick LaVecchia)
Wooden surfboards, you say? That's right. Most boards are made out of foam, but founder, co-owner (Brad Anderson joined as partner not long after the inception of Grain), and former Burton Snowboards veteran Mike LaVecchia utilized his background in boat-building and his passion for surfing as springboards to create a different kind of product – one that’s not only superior in an aesthetic sense, but also in a functional sense. Wood boards are built to last ten, twenty, even thirty years. They have a different buoyancy in the water, and feel more lively than foam boards. While wood boards are slightly heavier, that weight makes a difference when carrying through turns.
You can buy boards, both custom and stock, directly from Grain. But it’s definitely cool to make your own, shaping it to your specifications with sustainably grown cedar and zero volatile organic compound epoxy. Classes are held at Grain's shop in Maine, but if you can’t get to the east coast, it’s all good. Grain hosts a traveling class in Portland, OR and is expanding to new cities soon. “We're currently looking for a venue in Southern California to hold another west coast class this fall,” says Mike. “In our shop here in Maine, we're working on several new classes for later this summer including classes in shaping and finishing paipos and handplanes, fin foiling and glassing and more.”
We had a chance to catch up with Mike on a break from his crazy class schedules to chat about the origins of Grain, east coast surfing, and sustainability in everyday life.
(photo credit: Nick LaVecchia)
Can you tell us a bit more about your background and what inspired you to start Grain?
I grew up in New Jersey and spend summers at the shore. I observed surfing from the beach through the ‘70s and ‘80s but just wasn't attracted to it as an activity. I had two real passions growing up: snowboarding and boats, and I pursued both for as long as I could.
After graduating high school, I moved to Vermont and began working for Burton Snowboards. I spend nearly 15 years in different capacities, from manufacturing to warranty, customer service to sales to marketing. I had some really fun years there and I credit those years with really shaping who I am, where I live, who my friends are, etc. In the late ‘90s, I decided it was time to pursue my other passion, boats, so I studied and obtained a 100 ton USCG Captains License and began running charter boats, sailing, doing boat deliveries, sail making, boat building, and more. Anything related to boats, and mostly historic wooden boats, I wanted in on.
My interest in surfing and surfboard construction began around 2001. I had a lot of friends who surfed, and I knew that my time was coming. But I also knew that once I started, everything would change. Around 2003, a bunch of friends and I rented a house on Cape Cod for a week and that is where I bought my first board. I was a horrible surfer, but I was hooked. My friends, my brother and I would drive to the coast from Vermont almost every weekend to surf. By 2005, tired of driving every time there were waves, my brother and our girlfriends at the time found a great old house for rent by the beach and we decided to make the move. With not much going on in terms of work, I started building a wooden surfboard for myself and the rest is history.
When Grain first started, what was one of the biggest/most valuable lessons you learned while building the business?
Have your ducks in a row. I'm a firm believer in following your passion, but at the same time, it's critical to think through your plan a little bit. Be good at record keeping, put all of your expectations on the table and proceed knowing as many facts as possible. It's a delicate balance of passion and preparedness.
You just partnered with Fyne Boat Kits (a maker and supplier of wooden boat kits) for UK manufacturing - another example of how you've applied your boating experience to surfing. What other innovative partnerships and products are in the works?
We are really excited about our partnership with Fyne. These sorts of collaborations started a few years ago when we made a similar deal with Capeboat Works in Australia. Putting the experience of building your own surfboard back in the hands of surfers is really a big part of what we're trying to do. We'll be seeking out other similar arrangements in other parts of the world.
We're also constantly working on new shapes, like our new 9'6" noserider we call the Cutwater. Sometimes these new shapes are a result of a design that a customer has in mind. But similar to our arrangement with Channel Island Surfboards, we have several well-known shapers that we've been talking with about collaborations. We're excited to see where things will go.
(photo credit: Nick LaVecchia)
Grain boards are made from locally harvested, sustainable yield wood. In what other ways do you personally practice sustainability?
All of us at Grain try to do our part to lower our impact on the environment. Those who can, ride bikes to work. Most of us live less then eight miles from the shop. The rest of us carpool when possible. Reducing the amount of waste we create, supporting local business, surfing wooden boards, etc.
What are some of the challenges you face as an east coast surfer?
The limited waves. We rely on hurricanes, tropical storms, low-pressure systems, anything out in the Atlantic to send waves our way. When it's good, it's great, but when the weather is stable, the North Atlantic is like a millpond. While as surfers, we live and die by the wind and waves, as business people, the shifting weather can be a serious problem. Wind, snow, ice all work to shut us down. Power outages, impassable roads, freezing temps, all make running a business a challenge.
How did those challenges shape Grain?
The environment that we work in has definitely helped to create a vibe and give Grain a personality that many other surf manufacturers don't have. When you're surrounded by nature, by trees, cows and pigs, marshes and rivers, weather and the North Atlantic, I think it not only builds character, but it inspires people to live a thoughtful life.
What are some of your favorite surf spots?
My surf travels are limited to most of the east and west coasts and a few spots in Costa Rica. I really like surfing at home here in Maine the best. We have a great close-knit community of surfers here and when the waves are good, they are really good. I travel to Southern California a few times per year and I do enjoy some of the breaks out there, but I have to say, I'm a bit spoiled. I'll take cold water over crowds any day.
Don't have the bucks or time for a weeklong Grain class right now? No problem - pick up the Sea Sled Bodyboard and hie yourself to the beach.