If there’s a key to making a good surfboard, says Mike Wellman, it’s experience.
Considering he was a teenager in California when he made his first, and he’s a 66-year-old pastor on Kauai today and still making them, he estimates he’s made between 12,000 and 20,000 surfboards.
Wellman figures he’s been making boards for 40 of his years on God’s green Earth.
The point of these numbers is this: Wellman makes darn good surfboards. Some of the best, because he’s put the time into this craft.
“I heard it said, you really get competent at something when you put about 10,000 hours into it,” he said. “I probably have double that.”
It is at his Lawai shop where the surfboards come to life.
The US Blanks of polyurethane foam arrive from California and are arranged on the back shelves. In another room, are the tools of the trade. This is where the detailed, meticulous process begins.
There’s shaping and laminating, profiling, marking and measurements, cutting fiberglass cloth to fit, polyester resin, drying and sanding or polishing. A vacuum system sucks out the dust as he works, a facemask filters each breath.
The planer is the main tool, the truest tool, of a surfboard maker.
“The planer has an adjustable shoe on the front, as you’re shaping you can take a deeper cut, or you can back off on the cut,” he explains.
Wellman makes about 300 boards a year. There is no set schedule. Some weeks, he finishes 10 boards, then sends them to his factory in Waimea, run by Lance Ebert. It is there they’re completed, the skin, essentially, is put on.
In the front of his shop, there are surfing accessories, hats and shirts with MW, the Wellman logo.
There are personal items, too, if you look.
There are black and white pictures of a younger Wellman riding the waves. A poster of a movie that starred his father is displayed in the hallway. There’s a globe (“Surfers are travelers,”) and a guitar (“I’m not much of a musician. Some people actually play the guitar. I play with it.”).
There is a brilliant, bright picture of son Kyle cutting across a wave.
“This little surfboard, look how small it is,” the proud father says. “He just kills on that thing. To see him go out and ride something like this is just phenomenal.”
Clearly, he loves the freedom of his surf shop. It’s there he shares his passion and his faith, too.
This is not about money. He’s fine, financially. He doesn’t need to sell surfboards.
“I’m doing this more because I love it. It will take awhile to filter out of it and not do it anymore,” he said. “Sometimes, I live surfing through the construction of surf boards.”
Retirement isn’t in his plans. As busy as he is, he hasn’t given it a thought.
“It would be really hard for me to go cold turkey and just walk out the door because of the emotional ties to surfing and building surfboards. I really enjoy that. It’s not a struggle to come to work. Believe me.”
Wellman grew up in west Los Angeles, a middle child of a family of four sisters and two brothers. He was surfing by 14, and made his first board at 16, something his older brother, Tim, taught him.
He later lived on Oahu for a few years, early and mid-70s, the days before the crowds arrived.
“Back then on Oahu, there was a little small surfboard factory in everybody’s backyard. It was crazy,” he said.
He honed his skills there, before moving to Kauai in 1977.
“I like making something that somebody actually uses, that’s handmade and that they appreciate, and to watch them excel with it,” he says.
The best part, he adds with a grin, is that when he moved to Kauai and started making surfboards, he had a built-in reason for not reporting to his day job.
“Once I moved to Kauai and started making boards here, nobody really expected me to be at work because the surf was up, so, it worked perfect,” he says.
His work speaks for itself on Kauai. You’ll see his MW logo on boards around the island. The price of Wellman’s work, depending on materials and board size, can range from the $400s to several thousand dollars.
“I like the challenge of making something that’s totally different, that’s not the norm. That’s what I like,” Wellman says.
Short boards in the 5-foot to 5-10 range, are for the experienced. They’re tougher to handle, timing has to be spot on.
“The type of maneuvers the guys are doing on those boards, if I was to try and do a maneuver like that, I would have to spend a month in the chiropractic office,” he said, smiling.
Boards in the 6-and-a-half foot range, hot dog boards, are popular Wellman sellers.
“They’re a little wider and a little thicker,” he said. “I just can’t make enough of those.”
The long boards, more for beginners.
“This gun right here, this is made for riding huge waves,” he said, pointing to a surfboard in his shop.
Wellman still surfs, too. He can’t imagine not surfing.
“That’s my board,” he says, pointing to a nine-footer.
“This slows things down a little more, it’s more stable, and they’re easier to catch waves with.”
He grins a bit and adds, “I’m an old guy.”
Wellman is a traveler.
He’s spent time in Europe, North Africa, Mexico, Central America, South Pacific, Canary Island, Indonesia, with one common purpose: “All looking for surf,” he said.
When he’s not surfing or making boards, Wellman races — on a motorcycle. He’s earned a slew of second-place trophies, has reached a top speed of 139 mph, and hasn’t crashed. God’s grace, perhaps.
“I have yet to get a first place,” he said.
The motorcycle crowd, he said, is a bit different than the surfing one.
“Sometimes when you’re surfing, guys aren’t real happy that you’re paddling out there, you know, the crowd factors,” he said. “But even from the very first time I went to the drag strip, the people there are so nice, so supportive, I couldn’t believe it.
“Surfing has this lonesome thing about it, it’s so individualistic sometime. It gets in the way of people getting along.”
Wellman knows how to get along.
He and wife Susie have been married 26 years. They have two sons and both surf.
He’s been a pastor for 21 years at Kauai Christian Fellowship, where he works with youth. Surfing and faith, he said, are intertwined.
“This is a tremendous bridge for kids,” he said.
Among his favorite verses for surfers is Psalm 93:4: “Mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea — the Lord on high is mighty.”
“That’s a good one for surf guys,” he says.
And for Mike Wellman, too.