If you want to meet the man who makes surfboards in the Philippines’ La Union province, turn away from the sea and instead, head towards the mountains. If you pass hand-painted trail signs and dirt bike jumps, you’re on the right track. Roosters, goats, and dogs will announce your arrival in the forest clearing where Larry Hufalar, 42, better known as Tikboy, shapes surfboards by hand.
Hufalar emerged from his workshop, a hut made from corrugated metal and tarpaulin banners from old surfing competitions, one afternoon in July. A lean man with gentle, downturned eyes and a patient manner of speaking, he apologized for the many animals that he cares for.
“I didn’t realize that taking care of chickens makes you no longer want to kill them,” he said in Filipino, with a little laugh.
If you’ve ever taken a surf lesson in San Juan, La Union, during a long weekend road trip with your friends, chances are you’ve already ridden one of his boards. He supplies most if not all of the surf schools with the foam-topped longboards he designs specifically for lessons—sturdy enough not to break, soft enough not to break you, and, for locals, always at a discounted rate.
Giving a tour of his workshop, Hufalar apologized again, this time for the mess: paint cans left open tracing the color requests of previous clients; fiberglass trimmings peeking out of plastic bags, saved for board repairs; surfboards of all shapes and states leaning against each other. Although his air was respectful, his gestures careful, he moved around the space with the confident familiarity of someone surrounded by things of his own making. These are his boards. This is his workshop. And there is a system to the seemingly haphazard array of materials, even if only Hufalar himself can make sense of it.
He brought out some of the boards he was working on, one of them a sunny yellow longboard wrapped in a gradient that goes from sea foam green to a deeper shade of ocean. As he checked the surface of the newly polished board for imperfections, Hufalar listed the many steps to achieve this particular effect. But you don’t need to remember all of them to appreciate the way its glossy surface shines in the afternoon light.
“For the last coat,” he said, “I use polyurethane paint, so that it doesn’t fade in the sun. Just like what they use for cars.”
Although Hufalar works on several boards simultaneously, he explained that each one is at different stages of the surfboard-making process. In this way, he can finish up to 10 boards a month.
In 1998, Hufalar moved from San Fernando, La Union’s capital city, to San Juan, where he met and married his wife. After he’d been surfing and teaching for a few years, he started tinkering around with broken boards, teaching himself how to make repairs. Soon, he found himself wanting to learn more.
“I’d peel the fiberglass off old boards, reshape them, and re-laminate them. One day, a Korean surfer saw my work and urged me to try to make one from scratch,” he told VICE, walking over to one tarpaulin wall and pulling out a board that has turned yellow with age. “Look here,” he said, running his hands over the rails where the weave of the fiberglass, supposed to be transparent, comes through. “I didn’t have a tool grinder back then, so I did this manually, sanding it down by hand. I got the idea of it, but the shape isn’t very good yet.”
As San Juan grew in popularity as a surf spot, surf lessons became a viable livelihood for its residents. Before that, many surfers worked as construction workers, including Hufalar himself. His experience in carpentry and masonry meant he was already familiar with the equipment used in making surfboards. He could sight a straight line, make a surface smooth, and balance the weight of an object. Like most craftsmen, he learns best with his hands.
For a year, possibly more, practice was all Hufalar did. If he wasn’t out in the water with a student, he was making boards for people to test out for free, or looking up techniques on YouTube.
“I had to be patient. I needed to perfect the shape before I could sell my boards,” he said.
He learned color theory from hanging around car shops, watching rusted public vehicles get a fresh coat of paint.
“I wouldn’t talk, I’d just observe how they mix the colors, how they apply the paint.”
Whenever he could get his hands on a surfboard brought in by a visitor, he’d quickly make a template out of scrap plywood, to use as an outline for his own boards.
So, by copying more expensive, branded models, he gradually mastered the art of shaping surfboards, whose surface, like that of all watercraft, is a subtle play of rises and valleys with only one intention: flow. After all, in principle, making surfboards is not far removed from building a boat.
It’s also a devotional practice in failure. The process is detailed, the details fickle. The chemical reaction involved in laminating or “glassing” surfboards isn’t just time sensitive, it also depends on the weather—that is, the temperature, humidity, and time of day. The surfboard maker needs to balance the ratio of the resin mixture in the moment, almost by feel—a skill made even more complicated by the fact that Hufalar’s workshop is an open-air hut in the middle of a forest.
Hufalar excused himself to retrieve a tiny shortboard standing in a corner to give to some kids who have shyly entered his workshop. He explained that the board originally belonged to Jay-R Esquivel, one of the Philippines’ surfing champions, born and raised in San Juan. One of the kids is Jay-R’s nephew—he calls Hufalar “kuya,” which means older brother in Filipino, and asked how much he owes for the repair job. “Kuya Tikboy” pretended to look stern, but eventually waved him off with a laugh.
“Sometimes I ask the kids to pay for the materials, but often I just give it for free. It’s good to support them, too,” he said.
In Hufalar’s mind, he’s still learning. He works with epoxy resin and polystyrene foam, a newer surfboard technology that is harder to perfect by hand. But his insatiable eagerness to get it right helped him to finally perfect one of the hardest parts of the process: color.
“The laminating and tinting, in particular, seemed off to me,” La Union-based artist Jerik Robleza told VICE about his experience working with Hufalar in 2018. “So I researched more… and convinced some friends to get boards done. [Kuya Tikboy and I] tried out some powder tints from my silkscreen stash. And, luckily, voila, it worked.”
Hufalar took it from there. “I even saw him [do a marbling job] with nine colors. It was crazy. I was so impressed. Really, it was all him,” Robleza said. “Kuya Tikboy is a good shaper and all-around board builder. Most of all, he’s a good person.”
“Kuya Tikboy is a good shaper and all-around board builder. Most of all, he’s a good person.”
Many members of the Philippine surfing team, including Esquivel and Daisy Valdez, have ridden Hufalar’s longboards. Valdez said she’s won local competitions with them many times. And yet, Hufalar doesn’t even put his logo on his boards unless his customer insists, nor does he promote his boards on social media.
“I don’t want to talk about my boards. Maybe if my boards were really perfect, then I could share my work. But I still want to make them better, get the glassing really clean,” he said.
When competition intensified between surf instructors over San Juan’s hordes of weekend tourists, it made sense that Hufalar diversified his livelihood from the surf school that he still runs. Since the the now-defunct custom surfboard company, Fiveforty Surf Co., was founded in 2001, surfboard shapers have been gradually emerging all over the Philippines, from AFRAME in Cebu to Km.69 in Cavite. Hufalar even teaches other locals how to shape boards if they ask him.
“Of course, I don’t show them everything,” he said with a smile.
But it’s more than that. Sometimes he forgets to eat, or works late into the night to finish an order. He surfs less these days. But the work suits him. He works when he likes to and when he needs to. He prefers the meditative cacophony of the forest more than the tourist hustle of the beach.
“I like making boards, especially when a customer is happy with their order,” he said simply. “Shaping has to come from the heart.”
“Shaping has to come from the heart.”
When the pandemic hit, tourism came to a screeching halt. Surf instructors found themselves without a job, and like them, Hufalar had to return to construction, as difficult and inconsistent as ever, although now he could find work painting cars and motorcycles. Still, Hufalar is happy he was able to keep his surfboard shaping business going, and send all three of his children to school. The eldest, his only son, also surfs, and is graduating from university soon.
“It’s their decision, what they want to do with their lives. Like I did,” he said. Hufalar shared his dream as the sky above the forest canopy became saturated with pinks and purples: to build a proper workshop, the kind with actual walls and a door. He said it would ensure the consistency of his boards, and maybe then he would be proud to show his surfboard company to the world.
As the cicadas started their raucous chorus, Hufalar explained the logo on his T-shirt. He traced the lines with his finger: a curl of a wave nestled in the heart of a mountain, with the sun rising over its summit, the silkscreen paint already fading.
“That’s this mountain, right here, because this is where I work.”
People come to La Union to see the sea, and all too easily forget the majesty of the Cordilleras right behind them.
“It isn’t very good, I just drew it myself,” he added, embarrassed, once more, for no reason.
From a hut across the forest clearing, his two daughters called to him, their faces illuminated by a single, naked bulb. Time to eat. They were having tinola, a soup made with chicken, green papaya, and malunggay, the vegetables grown and harvested on the property.
“But the chicken wasn’t one of mine,” Hufalar said, and everyone laughed into the damp, twilit air.