Back in 1993, Imperial Beach surfer Tim Townsley set up a surfboard factory, TNT Surfboards, in a big empty warehouse at the northern end of 13th Street next to San Diego Bay.
In the 1990s TNT was producing between eight to 10 surfboards a day.
Faced with an economic downturn, dramatic changes in the surfboard industry due to globalization and offshore production, and the development of the Bayshore Bike Village, Tim is closing the 13th Street factory down and looking for new space.
The TNT factory has employed some of San Diego County’s elite surfboard shapers including Dave Craig, Jay Novak and Brett Bender. Tim still runs the TNT Surfboard Shop at 206 Palm Ave. in Imperial Beach and is shaping boards through his own Townsley label.
Patch: How did you start TNT?
Tim Townsley: I started TNT Surfboards in the 1980s. My employer at the time Tony Daleo of Star Glassing ran one of the original San Diego surfboard factories and decided to call it quits. When Tony dropped out I started a small glass shop in my mother-in-law’s garage on Ebony Avenue in Imperial Beach. I built boards for locals but other shapers from throughout San Diego County started contracting me to build for them. Well things just kind of blew up from there.
Patch: Who influenced you to get into the surfboard industry and start shaping?
Townsley: I started at the Star factory. That was the starting point for many San Diego surfboard makers. Local shaper Brett Bender worked at the Star factory and he encouraged me to apply for an open position. A great deal of what I learned there is what made it possible to start my own shop.
Patch: Do you remember the first board you shaped?
Townsley: Over the years I’ve made thousands of surfboards for some of the world’s most well known shapers and some of the top surfing professionals. When I look back on it I’m astound by the numbers I’ve produced over the years. There were far too many to remember the first one I shaped.
Patch: How did the demise of Clark Foam in 2006 impact your business?
Townsley: TNT was producing thousands of surfboards a year when Grubby Clark quit. Man, what a blow that was. If you can imagine trying to build a car without tires, that is what we were up against. We made it through that hard time.
Surfboard building has never been the same since. Grubby Clark saw something coming the rest of us didn’t. It has been a tough go ever since that day.
Patch: How has the surfboard industry changed over the past few years?
Townsley: The industry has shrunk today compared to the heyday of the 80s.The bigger shops have all quit or sold out to larger corporations who quickly moved their operations offshore to China.
Patch: Why should surfers work with a local shaper?
Townsley: Buying local is important no matter what you purchase. Buying local stimulates the local economy. When it comes to surfboards, sure you can buy a pop-out brand, but in my experience cheaper price usually means lower quality. Buying from your local board maker is going to typically yield a higher quality surfboard that will last and will perform better than your typical mass-produced import model.
Board builders are not getting rich at this. It is hard work and you pour a lot of yourself into it both physically and mentally so when we see someone on a board made in China it is heartbreaking.
Patch: You are currently shaping under your own Townsley label. What types of boards are you shaping right now?
Townsley: I¹m going back to basics with the Townsley line–low entry rocker, flat bottom, with vee off the tail. This design is proven to be fast, responsive and it will hold in a tight spot. It worked for Tommy Curren in the 80s and it works now. I think there are a lot of progressive designs out there but also a lot of gimmicks. It is important for surfers to develop a relationship with their local shaper and work with them over the long term.
Serge Dedina is the Executive Director of WiLDCOAST and the author of Wild Sea: Eco-Wars and Surf Stories from the Coast of the Californias.