Let's face it, the surf isn't perfect every day. Flat and not-so-great conditions occur, which is why we sometimes find ourselves searching for alternative ways to enjoy the ocean. Our top pick is the handplane, a crafty little miniature “surfboard” for your hand that takes bodysurfing to the next level.
Here, we interview two handplane makers on opposite coasts to learn more about this fledgling wave-riding sport.
Meet the Subjects
Shaun Devine, one half of the dynamic duo that makes up Virginia Beach, Virginia-based Party Missile Handplanes (the other half is woodworker Eric Coulson).
Christine Brailsford, the creative force behind Whomp Handplanes, a wooden surf craft company that makes handplanes in Encinitas, California.
What inspired you to start making handplanes?
Shaun: A few summers ago, when I moved back to Virginia Beach, I asked my longtime friend Eric Coulson if he would shape me a handplane. I knew he was the man for the job because of his woodworking craftsmanship combined with his love for the ocean. About two weeks later, he came back with an amazing custom handplane that fit like a glove and sailed through the water. I spent most mornings, before teaching surf camp, testing the handplane in the notorious Little Island Pier shorebreak and instantly felt the connection that had always attracted me to the ocean.
On a two-month journey through New Zealand this past winter, I took my handplane along and was stoked to find so many others passionate about bodysurfing—and with handplanes no less! At least twice a week, a little group of us would meet up at St. Clair Beach in Dunedin and go for a bodysurf. I made a call back to Eric in the States and asked him if he wanted to go full-on making handplanes when I returned. He was pumped on the idea and we began the process of brainstorming ideas, shapes, materials, names, etc. Over the course of this past six months we've spent many of nights in his garage talking concept, design, and promotion.
Christine: Whomp actually started by making paipos, not handplanes. Paipos are ridden prone or on your belly and are the first surf craft that were used by the indigenous people of Hawaii. I was curious to try one of these boards, but couldn’t find one or even find a picture of what they looked like. From the written description and drawings, I designed and shaped my own. I became infatuated with the sport. I began developing and refining my boards, using better materials for flex and speed.
I first was introduced to a handplane when my friend Yuta left his handmade handplane a few years later at my house. I will have to admit, it sat in the corner for a good year before I ventured to give it a try.
One morning, I checked the surf before work. It was small and crumbly—one of those days when it’s better to go do something else other than surf. Wanting to just get wet, I grabbed Yuta’s handplane and my fins and ran down for a quick swim. I caught a wave—and that was it. I was hooked. I begin designing my own templates and shaped one for myself. Like my paipos, I wanted to create a handplane that was fast, would propel you down the line, make quick shore-break barrels, and have enough flex to give it a natural feel, giving you the feeling of bodysurfing without a handplane.
What makes the handplane an ideal bodysurfing tool?
Shaun: Handplanes are the ideal bodysurfing tool because they enable you to glide, plane, and project across the wave. With the extra speed it gives, you can use your momentum to get creative and pivot the plane to drive faster, stall and/or lock your entire body into the sweet spot of the wave.
Christine: It is ideal in so many ways! It is extremely portable and easy to travel with. You can stash it in your car for those short surf windows. Put it in your backpack and ride a bike to the beach.
Describe the East versus West Coast handplane bodysurfing scene.
Shaun: The East Coast bodysurfing scene seems pretty niche at the moment. A few months ago, Eastern Surf Magazine did an article in their March issue highlighting East Coast handplane shapers and they interviewed guys in Florida, New Jersey, and us in Virginia Beach. People who are into surfing are obviously interested, but people who are especially passionate about the ocean and extending their water time are really drawn to the handplanes.
Christine: Here in Encinitas, bodysurfing is small. I wouldn’t call it a “scene.” We have a growing group of bodysurfers who love the sport, though. A few friends started a group called The Leucadia United Bodysurfing League. They organize events and group bodysurfing sessions here in Leucadia and make trips to new spots. It’s always fun to swim around in a group of fellow whompers.
What have handplanes taught you about riding waves?
Shaun: Being surfers, handplanes have definitely given us a fresh perspective when riding waves and what we would consider “having fun.” Whether it be small, big, windy, out of control, clean—it always ends up being a great session on a handplane. I think we've been surfing for so long that we have built up an expectation of how big the surf should be or how good conditions should be to have fun. With the handplane, our expectations are completely thrown out the window and more often than not, we have a super fun, barrel-packed session that we can't believe just happened.
Christine: Because of the nature of bodysurfing, it is easy to get barreled. This has helped immensely with my confidence in surfing good waves. Bodysurfing has made my body and lungs much stronger, too. Swimming and using fins is great cross-training between surfing. That being said, handplane bodysurfing is just plain, simple, pure fun!
What goes into the design/build process of creating a handplane?
Shaun: At Party Missile Handplanes, our process of crafting and shaping handplanes is very detail-orientated, but at the end of the day we try to take a relaxed approach and sort of just let the creativity and ideas flow. We draw inspiration from classic surfboard designs—everything from deep single concave, single fins and alaia shapes. Years of working with wood for other projects have given Eric a great baseline to know how certain wood and materials will shape and what will work. There is definitely trial and error involved, but we've figured things out quickly and learn from every handplane we shape. Right now we are using wood only—poplar and paulownia. Paulownia is a fast growing, lightweight wood that grows on the East Coast.
Christine: I make them all by hand. Start to finish. A Whomp handplane starts out as a concept, drafted on paper, templated on wood, finished, varnished, tested in the water, then back to the drawing board. It is a continuous process of development and testing. Each Whomp handplane is a dusty labor of love!
Where can we find your handplanes?
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