A few weeks ago I interviewed Shea for a story about Somma Special Designs to be featured on BUNCH Magazine. The link went live today and I'd love for you to read it! This is my first online published story and I'm really stoked the way it turned out. Mega thanks to Joe Johnston for the incredible photos, yewwww!
MAKERS // SOMMA SPECIAL DESIGNS
Shea Somma of Somma Special Designs is a surfboard shaper creating one-of-a-kind vehicles for watery exploration. Shea is a self-taught craftsman who can build just about anything: logs to fishes, handplanes to fins, and paipos - or, as he tenderly refers to them: “ISG” aka Instant Stoke Generators. He creates out of his garage in a makeshift station sandwiched between his workshop tools and washer/dryer. He has dreams that one day he will have a dedicated shaping bay with a separate space to glass, but in the meantime this hodgepodge situation is mighty fine. He mows, grinds, sands in the wee hours of the night after working - and surfing, of course. You can often find him scheming his next surf sesh as the finicky conditions on the Central Coast of California can turn on a dime. Surfing for Shea is a very grounding element in his life - it’s the way he gets his exercise, meditation, and thrills. With access to superior salty shores and beautiful barrels, what more could a grown-up grom ask for?!
What inspired you to start shaping your own boards?
Just the ability to create and experiment with different shapes and foils for all the different conditions we have here in Central California. I’ve always been enamored with surfboards, even as a kid. I thought that learning how to make your own was just another facet of the surfing life, and it turns out I really enjoy it.
When did you learn to shape? Who taught you?
I learned to shape by reading up on it on the design forums at swaylocks.com and then experimenting on my own. The archives there are a total treasure trove of information. After researching for a year or so I bit the bullet and bought a planer and some blanks, built some racks, and just started hacking away. I’ve been lucky to observe some older guys shaping some boards over the last few years and have been able to pick up a few tricks that way too. It’s a long process and I’m always learning.
What advice or resource recommendation would you give to someone interested in shaping their own boards?
Swaylocks is amazing if you have the patience to work your way through all the archives. Otherwise, watching people shape in person is a real eye-opener. Ask a lot of questions and reach out to those you look up to: you never know who might be willing to teach you a thing or two. Beyond that, there’s nothing like actually using some tools and making something. It may not be the most beautiful board in the world, but you’ll love it nonetheless because it came from your own hands.
Is it important to you to shape wooden fins so that each board is completely customized and handcrafted by you?
All aspects of board building interest me and fins are a whole world unto themselves. Specialization is less interesting to me than having a complete knowledge of all that goes into making a great board.
What inspired you to start shaping your own “Instant Stoke Generators”?
There are some spots around here that, when the waves are small and tide is right, are actually great for these little belly boards. I got into making them just from seeing that there were fun waves to be ridden that really lent themselves to this kind of surf-craft.
What are your favorite boards to ride?
My favorite board is whatever is most appropriate for the conditions. That’s what got me into shaping in the first place: the ability to create the right board for whatever types of waves are happening at any given moment.
The Central Coast (of California) can be a fickle place to surf but this challenging coastline exposes you to many different types of conditions and forces you to get creative in scouting the best break or experimenting with riding different boards. Can you shed some light on how you get your shred on in these parts?
I really love getting to know this place. It’s definitely more challenging to get “good” surf here than in Southern California, where I grew up, but after having been here for the last 11 years, I’ve found some nooks and crannies that light up every now and then. Knowing where you’ll be able to get some good waves with just you and a friend or two in the water is one of surfing’s great joys. The other side of that coin is, if you have the right equipment, then nearly every session can be an absolute joy. This is the best benefit of making your own boards, you can design for any kind of wave.
How often do you shape? How many boards have you made thus far? How many are typically produced in one batch?
I typically do a Winter batch and a Summer batch of boards of usually 5-10 boards each time. I glass my own personal boards but the boards I sell to customers are glassed by Nick Cooper of The Craft here in San Luis Obispo. I’ve made about 40 boards so far.
What board shapes, designs, and colors are you drawn to when creating your own?
Anything that seems to offer a sense of speed and control in terms of shapes. Logs are great for this when it’s small and there’s an amazing variety of boards that offer this for other conditions. In terms of colors: I really like stuff that “pops” out, but I tend to shy away from neon. Basic primary colors are great and earthtones are cool too. I love the look of resin tints and cut laps. Airbrush work is less appealing to me, though some people can make it look really great, notably: Pete St. Pierre at Moonlight Glassing in San Diego.
Can you tell me about some influential shapers over the different eras of surfing?
There’s way too many to list here. Surfer Magazine put out a “genealogy of shaping” (Shapers Tree) a few years ago that includes several hundred names, and it is absolutely fascinating to look over. Personally, Andreini is one of the biggest influences on my own shaping. He’s one of the few guys around and still shaping who have made boards in every major era of modern surfboard design and can shape nearly anything absolutely beautifully. He’s also based north of Santa Cruz, which can have similar conditions to San Luis Obispo County, so his shapes are conducive to the kinds of surf that we have here. Finally, just as a person he is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, in the water and out.
If you could sell your boards at any shop, what would be the pie-in-the-sky dream shops?
Mollusk Surfshop in San Francisco and Venice has an excellently curated collection of surfcraft. Surfy Surfy in Leucadia seems to really value boards made with a phenomenal degree of craftsmanship. I would be absolutely honored if my boards ever make it into either of those shops one day. Locally, Moondoggies Beach Club is a great shop that stocks boards by Shane Stoneman and Dave Parmenter, who both are phenomenal shapers with deep Central California roots.
Where do you see Somma Special Designs in 2 years? 5 years? 10 years?
As much as I love shaping, I’m not sure it could ever be a full-time career for me. It is an extremely difficult way to actually make money, given the tremendous amount of work and expense of materials to build a board from start to finish. I’m interested in exploring different building methods, such as hollow wood boards, as well as the use of laminates. Similarly I am interested in learning about more environmentally friendly materials than the traditional PU Foam and Polyresin construction I have been making so far. In the short term, though, I’m just planning on continuing to make small batches of boards twice a year. In the long run it would be great to be able to shape more regularly, especially in the context of a retirement job, provided I didn’t need to depend on surfboards to pay the mortgage. I joke with friends that SSD is on the 30 year track to becoming a well-known and respected label.