Surfboard maker crafts works of art in El Segundo warehouse
Tyler Hatzikian emerged from a small El Segundo warehouse on a recent rain-soaked afternoon and greeted two visitors, reaching out to shake their hands with a smile and a nod.
The strong chemical smell of fiberglass resin hung in the air. Inside, handcrafted long boards, throwbacks to a different era, sat on racks waiting to be glassed. Others lined walls, polished and ready for local customers. Some would be shipped across the world - Australia, France, Italy, Japan.
Here, Hatzikian continues to turn a childhood fascination of surfing and classic cars into a lifelong profession, bucking mainstream trends and securing his place as a South Bay surfing icon along the way.
"I like to keep my hands busy," said
Hatzikian, 40, who has been building surfboards for close to three decades. "These boards are built by local surfers and people who have a passion for the craft."
Today, Tyler Surfboards consists of just three full-time employees who produce about five long boards a week. Corporate headquarters is a 3,000-square-foot warehouse on Eucalyptus Drive in El Segundo, the close-knit bedroom community where Hatzikian was born and raised.
Hatzikian has experimented with a larger staff, at one time employing as many as 12 people, turning out 20 boards a week. When he was 26, Tyler Surfboards was producing more than 350 boards a year. But Hatzikian has decided to keep his operation small so he can closely monitor each order from foam blank to polished board.
"We're lean and mean," he said. "We're a smaller operation so we can focus on quality and keep the brand tight."
Hatzikian shaped and sold his first surfboard when he was 12 years old. Today, his boards are shipped across the world, fetching as much as $2,000. About 50 percent of orders come from Japan.
He describes the design of his boards as "advanced traditional." They are based on the style of long boards that were popular during surfing's
golden era, when the sport's popularity began to swell in the mid-1960s. Hatzikian infuses his surfboard design with his love of refurbishing classic cars and hot rodding.
"When I was 16 I got into classic cars and started studying classic car design," Hatzikian said. "Once I started studying the history and design I started thinking, `Wait, I surf, yet I don't know much about the history of surfing or surfboard design.' It was a perfect fit."
Along with his board making, Hatzikian is renowned for his ability in the water. His status as a surfer has been propelled thanks to YouTube videos, surf film appearances and magazine photo spreads. Last summer he was profiled in The Surfer's Journal, considered to be the sport's most prestigious publication.
And while Hatzikian's celebrity grows, so does his Tyler Surfboards brand. He continues to hand-shape traditional, single-fin long boards, despite countering industry trends and the ever-increasing popularity of computer-design, factory-stamped short boards.
"With my own surfing and my board-building skills, I just tried to advance it beyond where that long board design ended in the mid-'60s," he said. "That has been my focus for more than 20 years."
Hatzikian's father shaped his first new surfboard, a six-foot single fin, when he was 10. Watching his father ignited Hatzikian's lifelong love affair with surfboard shaping. He began experimenting with board design in middle school by stripping
off the fiberglass shell of old boards and reshaping the foam interior.
"When my father got too busy, I started making them myself," Hatzikian said. "I never used to ditch school to go surfing, but I would pretend to be sick to finish up surfboard work. That's how sickening it was."
He sold the second board he made to an older high school friend for $80. He was 16 when he got his first business license.
"I kind of had my own identity and I knew what I wanted to do at a young age," he said.
Hatzikian's craftsmanship and finely tuned boards has sealed his brand's reputation, earning him legions of fans along with way. Among them is Adam Davenport, who walked into Hatzikian's El Segundo warehouse two years ago and asked for a job. A Manhattan Beach native, Davenport, 29, gave up opportunities to study law and coach football to craft surfboards alongside Hatzikian.
"It's a big thing, to look at a blank and see a surfboard," Davenport said. "I get to be a part of something very special here. There's not many shops that build the type of boards that we build, and build them successfully."
Hatzikian's boards are reflective of the South Bay's surfing heritage and offer a reminder of the region's role as the cradle of the modern surfboard industry, Davenport said.
"The South Bay is the hotbed of surfing," Davenport said. "A lot of people look down south and up north as being big surf centers. But really not so much. If you look back in the '60s, you had surfer's row on Pacific Coast Highway in Hermosa. That left in the '70s. Boards became lighter and shorter. Those old-school businesses weren't able to keep up with that type of stuff. Tyler bridged that gap."
While he has worked to develop his own shaping style through the years, Hatzikian has maintained close relationships with the South Bay's surfing pioneers.
"He has a certain idea of his boards, and what they should be," said legendary surfboard shaper Hap Jacobs. The two first met when Hatzikian was sanding short boards in Hermosa Beach. They became friends, often surfing together at San Onofre and Manhattan Beach.
"He's such a good surfer, he's from the old school and that's what he sticks with," Jacobs said. "Being a good surfer, he can sell a lot of boards. When you watch him surf, you can believe in what he makes."
Today, Hatzikian routinely logs six-day workweeks, often spending up to 12 hours each day in the shaping room. Married with a young daughter, Hatzikian starts each day like he has since he was kid, rising with the morning sun to check the surf, usually at El Porto, where he can often be found in the lineup.
On that recent afternoon, Hatzikian glided a power planer across a white foam blank. Foam dust rose into the air. After, Hatzikian spoke about his surfboards, industry demands and the future.
"My name is on each board. It's a heap of pressure," Hatzikian said. "But I've learned that I can chart my own course in surfboard design without any outside influence. It's a direction I can carve out myself."
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A big thanks to Douglas Morino and Sean Hiller for the story and video.
Original story available here.