When Grant Miller chose a career in surfboard shaping, he never imagined it was a passion he could turn into a successful business. After 36 years, he has experienced the highs and lows of the industry and has become a master craftsman to be inspired by.
Miller began surfing at the age of 11 in Sydney’s picturesque Northern Beaches. He recalls his first time standing on a surfboard he had borrowed from one of the older kids on the beach as the moment he knew there was nothing else in life he wanted to do. “I was just totally hooked! I was catching waves for the rest of that afternoon and eventually, the boy who I’d borrowed the board off had to swim out and ask for it back,” says Miller.
Using any downtime between classes at school to catch some waves, Miller eventually started to compete professionally and was sponsored by Hot Buttered Surfboards and competed in international waters including Hawaii, England, France and New Zealand. “I learnt a bit about surfboard design during that time by watching various shapers in different surfboard factories within Australia and Hawaii and through this process, I knew that I would love to shape my own boards,” he explains.
Miller regularly surfed with the legendary surfer and shaper, Terry Fitzgerald, who had a surfboard factory in Brookvale. “I had gotten a couple of reject surfboard blanks, took them to the factory and told the guys I was going to try shaping. They asked me, “have you told Terry?” we were all afraid of Terry, he was one of the best surfboard shapers around at the time,” says Miller. Riding his finished work of art, Miller learned that his board worked almost as well as the boards he’d ridden previously. When Fitzgerald closely examined it, he immediately saw potential in the young 20-year-old Miller. “He said, ‘do you think you could get orders for these?’ and it was then that I realised I was at a major choice point in life. I had just shaped the board to ride it, I had never thought about making money from it. If I said no, that would be it, so I said yes,” says Miller.
Having just been accepted into Arts Law at the University of Sydney, you can imagine his parents’ hesitance in letting their son pursue an unstable career in surfboard shaping. However, Miller was on a mission and knew he was destined for this role. They eventually gave in and Miller became an apprentice shaper under the watchful eye of Fitzgerald and his other mentor, Frank Williams. “I just stood in the corner of the room everyday and took notes – I actually still have those notes – I was just in heaven,” Miller recalls.
Fast forward 36 years and Miller works in his shaping studio in Mona Vale where his colourful kombi is parked out the front, the smell of fresh resin fills the air and Joni Mitchell plays on the speakers – this is where Miller is at home.
While some things have never changed, there have been many changes to the surfboard industry. The main challenge Miller faces is with poor quality imports from overseas manufacturers – boards that often contain faults that the surfer won’t know about until after they have bought it. The introduction of surfboard shaping machines has also made waves (pun intended), cutting down shaping time from two and a half hours to 20 minutes. This has also meant many inexperienced shapers have come onto the scene. Miller perseveres by putting the same TLC into his boards as when he first began, taking up to four weeks to produce one start to finish. “It’s about matching the surfboard to the surfer. I want to build boards that people are really happy with…it’s also highly satisfying making something from scratch with my hands, I don’t think I’ll ever get over that feeling,” Miller says.
When it comes to parting with pearly wisdom accumulated from his experience, Miller has excellent advice for budding shapers. Firstly, it’s to learn as he did by finding a reputable craftsman to absorb information from. He also insists that a novice shaper should learn about design theory and how to use the tools, but above all, “only do it if you’re really interested in surfing and surfboards,” he says. “The better the surfer you are, the better the shaper, because you can test your ideas firsthand. If you’re just thinking about the money you can make, you’re in the wrong industry, it’s about producing something you love and being not only true to your customer, but being true to your craft.”
Miller Surfboards Australia
0410 770 374