Mpora Getting Lost: The Inside Secrets of America's Biggest Surfboard Factory - Mpora

Getting Lost: The Inside Secrets of America’s Biggest Surfboard Factory

Legendary brand Lost Surfboards have shaped thousands of boards down the years, for everyone from tiny groms to top pros. Leon Poultney took a trip round their factory to find out how the magic happens.

Turn off the Pacific Coast Bike Route and head down the dusty trail that leads to Trestles Beach in San Diego County, USA. You’ll find yourself ducking under the low railway tracks that carry the famous Surfliner Train and staring at the Pacific Ocean beyond.

Chances are there will be perfect-peeling waves ripping from left to right at Lowers as world-class surfers tear the face of the famous wave to shreds. And soaring through the air, there will be a surfboard with the words ‘Mayhem’ etched onto the underside.

That’s because San Clemente and its surrounding breaks are home to some of the most impressive rippers in the world and Lost Surfboards – one of the largest surfboard makers in the USA.

Matt Biolos, a name now synonymous with a kind of anarchic entrepreneurial spirit, started the business in the late 1980s when a group of friends began scribbling the ‘Lost’ logo onto t-shirts.

The art of board shaping can take a lifetime to perfect

Biolos’ first Mayhem branded board was unveiled in 1987 but it took a further five or six years for the ‘Lost’ trademark to take shape, with Biolos constantly improving his shaping process in the meantime and refining his board templates.

Now, the Lost business churns out hundreds of boards every week, running several shaping machines 24/7, employing a brace of craftsmen and delivering world class boards to surf shops and surfers across the globe.

But if you head to Calle De Los Molinos on the fringes of San Clemente, you won’t find a pristine corporate factory.

Instead, you’ll find a mini-megalopolis made up of shapers, resin houses, artists and power tool repair outfits that all help to keep the Lost enterprise running at full capacity.

Despite the area’s ‘cottage industry’ image, shapers and artists from all over the world flock to southern California in order to hone their craft, share ideas and receive constructive criticism from the best surfers.

An Englishman in San Clemente

One man who has found himself a part of this well-oiled machine is Chris Bugge, a Witterings-based surfer and shaper who stumbled upon a passion for board making while living on the south coast of the UK.

Chris, understandably sick of the feeble waves and drizzly weather of southern England and its surrounding coastline, decided to pack his bags and knock on the door of the Biolos Empire in search of work and shaping inspiration.

“I started surfing when a bunch of injuries and operations forced me to hang up the skateboard,” reveals Chris, who now shares his time between the sunny Californian coast and the visa-required trips back to home soil.

“There weren’t many people willing to show me the ropes back home, so I had to work out a lot for myself. I made my first board in the garden using a rasp and sandpaper. It was horrible but it worked, so I kept on carving out shapes until I had a few presentable boards. It’s a long and painful process but it pays off” he adds.

After a few ciders, I plucked up to courage to ask [pro surfer and board maker] Kasey Curtis for a job

A chance meeting with pro surfer and LokBox fin system owner Kasey Curtis at the tiny annual Fish Fry event in Crackington Haven kick-started a chain of events that would eventually see Chris work on a number of Lost projects.

“Kasey really liked a resin fin box system that I had created to cover empty LokBox units. He invited me to come hang with him and a few other influential faces in the industry. After a few ciders, I plucked up to courage to ask him for a job and he put me in touch with Matt Biolos a few days later,” explains Chris.

Humble Beginnings

The first day at a new job is pretty daunting, no matter what you do for a living, but when one of the most prolific board shapers in the world is your new boss, the nerve-wracking levels go through the roof.

 

Matt Biolos’ outfit is responsible for providing boards to some of the world’s greatest surfers, including Taj Burrow, Coco Ho and Kolohe Andino, as well as stocking surf shops and websites all over the globe with a range of shapes that cater for everyone from beginner to complete ripper.

“I turned up to the Lost factory at 10am like I was told but waited for hours to speak to Matt. In the end, I started moving blanks around the shop floor and swept up some of the mess. This grom work continued for quite a few days,” says Chris.

Chris’s break came when a Matt thrust a blank in his general direction – it had been cut wrong and Biolos wanted to see how well the Brit could resurrect a busted template.

“The machine had only carved one of the rails out, the other was completely flat so Matt let me use his shaping bay and tools to try and knock it back into shape. They liked what I did so told me to head over to a place called Ghetto House, which is responsible for adding a glass coat of resin to a bunch of Lost boards.

“I put fins in it, glassed it, layered on a final hot coat of resin and then gave it someone to sand finish the thing.

“It was my first complete Lost board from start to finish and the guys seemed pretty happy with it, so they put me to work installing the fin systems in the boards that went through Ghetto House, ” he adds.

Hanging Around The Alley

It’s a Sunday, the sun is booming down onto San Clemente Pier and a few guys are out on the crumbling peaks of T-Street beach.

I’ve just exited the warm water – most of it dripping out of my nose – after surfing a nice new 6″0 fish from Chris’s Bugg Customs collection. It features a tiger print resin tint, Chris has covered his stubby quad in the same design. A passing kid stares at the boards and shouts, “What? Are you twins or something?”

A passing kid stares at the boards and shouts, “What? Are you twins or something?”

The evening draws in and Chris reveals that he has to head down to The Alley – the affectionate name given to the Los Molinos area – to finish hot coating a load of Lost boards before he flies home to the UK.

“I promised the guys at Ghetto House that I would finish off a few boards before I leave this week. Plus, they’re pretty pissed at me for getting the multi-coloured resin from these tiger boards all over their floor,” says Chris.

So with that, we’re loading up the enormous Dodge Ram pick-up truck I rented and hitting the San Diego Freeway.

There’s barely any traffic on the roads, it’s Sunday and the residents of San Clemente are enjoying an ice-cold beer, hitting the surf or if you’re really unlucky, working in the non-stop surf industry of Los Molinos.

We pull into the small industrial estate and park up down a back alley. The place isn’t anything special but on closer inspection, some pretty serious names adorn some of the small shop fronts.

Drew Brophy’s surf art workshop sits next to Terry Senate’s shaping set-up and surf school, while several other major glass houses, including Catalyst, sit tucked up side roads.

“Lost uses most of the outfits here in some respect,” says Chris as we walk past Mulligan’s pub – a popular drinking hole for the dust-covered and resin-stained workers of the local area.

“The blanks are all shaped and processed in one big unit just behind the pub but Lost are pumping out so many boards that they need to enlist the help of local craftsmen to sort out the fin systems, glass, hot coat the boards and sand them before shipping out,” he adds.

We reach a large industrial unit with its metal shutter doors slightly open. The whirring sound of machinery relentlessly hammering out foam shapes can be heard emanating from inside.

The computer screen displays a blank that’s being shaped by machine but there are so many algorithms running that it’s impossible to decipher what’s going on.

“I have to make sure the machines are cutting correctly,” replies the bloke when quizzed about why he’s spending his Sunday night here.

He offers out some chips and adds: “These things are running pretty much constantly so we can keep up with the orders. Someone has to be here to oversee it all.”

Matt Biolos gave up hand-shaping every single board years ago, as he simply couldn’t meet the demand for his shapes.

Instead, like most large surfboard manufacturers, machines do the time consuming basic shaping work and then humans add all of the intricate finishing touches,

Hundreds of Arctic Foam blanks line the walls of the Lost factory, some resemble the basic shape of a surfboard but most are just crude starting points for the high-tech machinery to carve into the shapes that we will eventually see adorning shop racks.

I can see the basic outline of the pro-only Scorcher series, with its built-for-speed tail and rocker; some classic retro fish templates; the forgiving Couch Potato and the super popular V2 Rocket range, complete with plenty of float to cope with feeble waves.

They all start life here.

The site is huge, with eight or nine rooms set aside for hand shaping, refining and air brushing, plus the rooms that are set up with the laser guided machinery. But none of it is wasted because Biolos is putting his name to hundreds of boards every week. It’s a non-stop operation.

In The Ghetto

“Once the boards have been shaped, they are shipped out to a number of glass houses in the local area to have a layers of resin added to give the boards strength, and that’s what I’ll be doing until about 2am,” Chris grumbles with a tone that suggests he’d rather be in Mulligan’s pub.

The entrance to Ghetto House is unassuming, its frontage covered in stickers and the odd bit of graffiti. Inside, it’s much of the same, with various rooms housing stacks of blanks with their corresponding paperwork attached.

Chris starts to roll fresh masking tape around the board racks before placing shapes of varying sizes in a row. He stops and throws me an industrial-strength facemask, saying that I’ll thank him for it later.

Chemicals are mixed, the place starts to stink, the radio is switched on and Chris gets to work running up and down each rack, carefully applying a layer of hot coat resin to every board before smoothing out the liquid surface and neatly catching the excess in a little bucket.

Those who have watched a board maker add the all-important resin to a new board will have likely been impressed by the skill and speed on display but it’s even more striking when eight or nine boards are being worked on at once.

It’s pretty cool to think that I’ve worked on the fin systems of boards that people like Taj Burrow, Carissa Moore and Chris Ward ride

My eyes wander over some of the posters on the wall: Taj Burrow, Carissa Moore, Chris Ward and Coco Ho are just a few riders to have been snapped busting huge airs with a Mayhem-liveried board underneath their feet.

“It’s pretty cool to think that I’ve worked on the fin systems and hot-coated some of the boards that these guys ride,” Chris blurts through his massive facemask.

“In fact, I think this board I’m working on now is going to this guy”, as he points at a poster of a tiny local ripper with fins busting free from the lip and then points to an equally tiny surfboard, barely big enough for a domestic cat.

“Just a few more hours, then we can go,” he adds.

Lessons Learnt at Lost

Experience is vital to becoming a good, reliable shaper and working ten hour shifts on a daily basis at Ghetto House has certainly armed Chris with a shit ton of the stuff.

“I didn’t really know anything when I first came here,” he says. “I learnt so much in the few years and my own board shaping has come on so far. I’ve even been teaching others how to work on the fin systems this year.”

But the ride isn’t always easy, as the vibe down at Los Molinos is definitely one of gritty graft rather than corporate cleanliness. The whole area relies on one another to get the job of board making done.

Lost relies on the local glassing and shaping experience, the shapers rely on the local power tool repair man to keep them running and the power tool guys rely on Mulligan’s pub to keep everyone from having a nervous breakdown.

“The place can be pretty raw,” says Chris when quizzed on what it’s like to work in the area.

“There are a few questionable characters hanging around at night and by day, most of my colleagues refer to me as poodle. One guy called me a Pommie bastard and another guy asked if he meant Pomeranian, you know, like the f*cking poodle. So the name stuck.

“The banter can be pretty intense, too, and a lot of the time we’re up against really tight deadlines so things sometimes kick off on the shop floor. You’ve definitely got to be thick skinned to work in a place like this,” he adds.

The banter can be pretty intense, too, and a lot of the time we’re up against really tight deadlines so things sometimes kick off on the shop floor.

But when asked if he’d prefer to be back in the world of ‘elf n safety and grey skies, there’s a resolute answer.

“No way, I’ve got to go back to the UK out of necessity but I think I’ll go mad when the shaping facilities, the waves and the weather are taken away from me.”

“This place is like a second home and as long as people keep buying Lost boards, I’ll keep coming back.”

Chris is currently back in the UK working with Spoke And Stringer in Bristol.

He’s still making his awesome Bugg Custom boards, including some with artwork by Drew Brophy. Check them out on his website. 

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