Bill Pressly | North Carolina Surfboard Shaper
Bill Pressly | North Carolina Surfboard Shaper
Bill Pressly has been many things throughout his life, but through it all, he’s been a surfer. For years, Bill worked as a carpenter, gaining the skills he needed to build his own house in a lush valley in the mountains of North Carolina. After that, he bombed hills on some of the first mountain bikes ever made, fell in love with the sport, and started up a bike shop that he owned and operated for a number of years. Six years ago, he sold his business, and started shaping surfboards, and in turn, those boards have helped shaped him.
These days, when Bill Pressly heads out the door of his home in the mountains of North Carolina on his way to work, he doesn’t have far to go. His commute is short – a mere twenty paces to his workshop where he designs, shapes, and finishes all of his boards. Along the way, the morning sun angles through the fog in the valley, and the birds, deer, and other wildlife that share his backyard with him are there to greet him.
It’s a quiet life; simple, with few interruptions. That’s one of the main reasons Bill calls the small community of Valle Crucis his home and main headquarters for his signature line of hand-shaped surfboards known as BillBoards.
At the end of 2010, just before the ball dropped on another year, Pressly completed his 100th board for a good friend of his who he met in Mexico in 2005, the year he first started making surfboards. “I met Thomas on the beach in Mexico the year I started making surfboards,” Pressly explained recently. “After a few days, he invited me over to the shack on the beach that he was using as his studio, where he was preparing for a big art show. While we talked he drew me an awesome logo, and I was stoked! A few days later I offered to make him a board. He declined, saying he’d wait ’til I got a few more under my belt. ‘Like maybe 100,’ he said with a laugh.”
The 100th board is a five foot eleven inch bellyfish with a modified nose that is inspiring for all the right reasons. “The inspiration is pretty much coming from everything that’s come before,” Pressly said in a recent interview at his shop in the mountains of Western North Carolina. “What I’m doing combines [these different] elements of the past to go into the future. What has come around in popularity in the last 10 years are the types of boards that I’ve been making – which are really just updated versions of boards we’ve been surfing since the ’70s. They were the standard boards back then, and they just have a little more volume, [meaning] they’re a little more user-friendly, a little more fun.”
With his shaping work done for the season and his latest boards completed, Pressly packed up his ride, a tricked-out Shadow Cruiser, and headed Southwest toward Mexico for the winter.
Pressly has been surfing since 1972. He got his start catching waves on the coast of Maryland and North Carolina during family vacations. Since then, he’s been surfing as much as possible, every year, for 39 years. All that time, shaping his own board had always been something he’d really wanted to do. But, like most of us, life sometimes gets in the way.
For thirteen years, Pressly owned and operated a small bike shop located in the town of Boone, North Carolina – the heart of a thriving mountain sports community in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In the winters, he’d escape the long, snow-filled months by making an annual trip down to the tropics to get his fill of surfing for the year. “I started out going to Costa Rica,” Pressly said. “Then I went to Mexico. My first trip to Mexico was pretty much just a magical trip. This was 16 years ago. It was very uncrowded. Things weren’t so Americanized. The climate was absolutely perfect in the winter time and there were waves, great waves. At that time it started out as a couple of weeks. The next year I did two or three weeks and then each year I kept adding a little bit more. At the end, just before I sold the bike shop, I was going for two to two-and-a-half months. Then, as soon as I sold the business that’s when I spread it out. That first year after I sold the bike shop, I spent three to four months down there, just surfing, hanging out with friends.”
After coming back to Valle Crucis, Pressly knew exactly what he wanted to do with his free time – he wanted to start shaping his own boards. “That’s the very first thing that I decided to do: make some boards just for myself and a few friends. So I ordered up some blanks and a few tools and got to it. The first board I made was a reshape from a board I bought from the North Carolina coast in the late 70′s that was sitting in front of someone’s yard with a 25 dollar sign. So I bought that in the 70′s. I surfed it. Kept it around for friends to ride. It was a 9′ 8” Con Wing Nose. And it was a beast. It was very, very heavy, water logged, falling apart. So it sat under the house for years. But I lugged it around everywhere I went when I’d move. When I decided to make boards, I decided to start from that. That blank had a history. I’d surfed it. If I screwed it up then it wasn’t a big deal. So I stripped down the old board and started shaping. I used no power tools on that one. I just wanted to go through it slow and feel it all, learn to understand the rails and the foam and how it cuts and works. When I finished it up, I waxed it, surfed it once and put it on the wall. And then after that, I really got into making boards.”
He worked through the summer on his first boards before loading his truck with a quiver of fresh boards and pointing it West toward the setting sun and Mexico.
“When I went to Mexico that year I took about 4 boards with me and I surfed them, and I let my friends ride them. I really didn’t have any time on them before I left. I had no idea if they were going to work, but they did. It’s a pretty cool feeling to surf a board you made. That, that feeling, that was enough right there to pretty much at least guarantee that I was going to keep making boards for myself.”
So he did. He came back to the mountains of North Carolina to his small shop in the valley, and he kept right on where he left off. Slowly and surely he refined his technique, improved on his designs, learned what worked and what didn’t by how the boards felt in the water and he made boards that made him happy.
“It’s a great feeling to come up here [to my shop] or go surfing and decide on something that I want to change. A different style that I might want to try with my surfing, a different turn, and then come home and make a board that allows that to happen. Then, to go back down to the coast the next time and put it in the water and see that come to life and feel it – there’s just something about that that brings me satisfaction and joy. There’s no other way to describe it, really.”
Over time, his friends and their friends started asking if they could ride his boards, check them out, see what they were all about, and Bill obliged, learning that their stoke fuels his fire. “To me, being able to watch your friends surf them and have a good time on them – that’s almost as much fun as surfing it myself. I love watching how the boards make changes to their surfing. And, in turn, I come home and I make changes to the boards based on who’s going to surf them.”
Pressly’s shop is six hours from the nearest surf break, six hours from the sounds of waves peeling down an empty beech, six hours from friends stopping by to say hello, drink a beer, shoot the breeze. That bit of separation that he has from the surf break to the shop is an important aspect of his approach to shaping. Pressly gets his inspiration from the coast, but needs the serenity and the peace and the quiet that comes with living and working in the mountains to get things done. “The biggest thing about living at the coast and working is the problem with the waves. When there are waves, I want to be out surfing. So if I was there all the time, and the waves were good, I would be surfing. I wouldn’t get much work done. Up here at least I can choose to let those days that are very marginal go and save my energy and my time for the days that are really good. Don’t get me wrong,” Pressly explains, “I’m always checking surf reports and weather charts two or three times a day when there’s something happening. I’m always planning ahead so I can drop everything and go if a swell comes in – and I pretty much do. Most of the time, when there are waves, I go. I think if I lived 10 minutes from the beach, I’d be making that 10 minute drive to the beach 5 times a day checking it. Sometimes, living here in the mountains, it allows me to just get into it. Sometimes I’ll be in the shaping room and I’ll step outside and it’s dark and I have no idea where it went. I think it would be harder to have that at the coast. For me, it just works.”
For more information on Billboards Handshaped Surfboards, check out Bill’s blog at www.billboardssurfboards.blogspot.com/