Interview: Eye Symmetry Surfboards' Max Stewart
Octo-railery, fingerless gloves, and flabbergastingly well made surfboards
Max Stewart of Sydney’s Northern Suburbs is the founder of Eye Symmetry, and also its entire workforce: he shapes, glasses, and finishes every surfboard himself. After working for Hayden Shapes for three years, he left to start his own venture when he was twenty-two, and five years later now counts such surfers as Hector Santamaria and Tom Carroll among his team riders. Carroll recently said of Stewart that he “finishes the boards off exquisitely — I’m sort of flabbergasted how well they’re made".
He's also known for his unique approach to rails, often substituting a series of flat planes for the usual curve; his soft-spoken manner, which borders sometimes on ethereal; and the ongoing collaboration with Pukas that brings him to Europe once a year. Around October-November time, he can generally be found somewhere in the Basque Country, his knees poking out the holes in his black jeans, his fingers poking out the holes in his black fingerless gloves. He was back in Australia, however, at the time of this conversation.
SE: You’re probably sick of answering questions about octo-rails…
But they’re pretty out there. What’s the basic concept behind it?
So the whole idea is coming off the back of a hydrodynamic theory, which states that curved edges create drag whereas hard edges or flat surfaces reduce drag. Looking at a surfboard, we have the curved edge of the rail always in contact with the water, and I thought there’s actually a way to turn that curved surface into a series of hard edges. So we see more hold, reduced drag, and for the surfer it’s more response, more speed, and a better performing surfboard, in the right conditions.
What’s the feedback been like?
Yeah feedback's been good… although I’d like to test it really with more guys to be honest. Hector likes them, Hector thinks they’re next level. But I’d like a few more guys that have a bit more experience with different surfboards… Tom has ridden a few and he likes them, but I haven’t given him enough to really try, and he’s been so in and out of injury and travelling and whatnot. But there hasn’t been any negative feedback, which is always good, and I have a few customers who are super psyched.
Do the octo-rails actually have eight different flat planes, or is it called an octo-rail because it sounds better — as opposed to, say, a septo-rail or sexo-rail?
Most of them actually have five to six, sometimes seven, rarely eight. It just depends on the thickness of the rail, but I’m finding the majority of the time it’s actually five, so it’s like a pento-rail. But I just named it octo-rail ‘cause it sounds good.
Is that five including the deck and the bottom…?
No, five without the deck and the bottom.
So I guess even if you’ve only got five, it’s kind of seven anyway, in a sense?
Yeah, yeah it is.
How did the collaboration with Pukas come about? Does Adur just give you a call one day…?
That’s pretty much what happened, I got a call from this weird number one day when I was leaving work, at 8.30 at night, and thought, "this is strange…" I took the call and he introduced himself, told me what they were all about. I’d heard about Pukas before, and I knew they were legit, so I thought it was worth hearing this guy out and seeing what he had to offer. I think I first went out there in November 2016.
How was it being over here this most recent time, with Olatu out of action [there was a fire at the Pukas factory last June, though it's now operational again]? Where were you shaping most of the time?
It was pretty interesting, for the first month I didn’t actually… well, I shaped a little bit in the Pukas surf shop at Zarautz, but the problem with my boards is that I build them start to finish myself, and use epoxy, so I kind of need the facility to do that. I had to wait around to find a little spot to laminate and manufacture them. That took about a month. Then I was only in there for three weeks, and I think I built 25 boards or something from start to finish, including a couple of guns. It was a crazy three weeks. And it was winter, super cold, at a little factory in Bera, right on the border between France and Spain, so it was a bit of an extra drive from where I was staying in Zarautz. But it all worked out in the end.
What sort of working day does that entail?
Those days generally I was trying to get out the house before 8 o’clock, and I was getting home after 8 o’clock, between 8 and 10 o’clock. So you know, probably about 12 hours working and then a bit of transit time.
Weekends as well?
Yeah, in that little stint.
So working it out I guess that’s roughly 12 hours or say per board, if you did 25 boards in three weeks?
Yeah, probably something similar to that.
I don’t think I've ever seen you not wearing a pair of fingerless gloves… Do you shape in them too?
Haha. No I don’t shape in those, that’d be pretty awkward… and they’d leave the fluff all over the blanks. Any excuse for me to pull out the fingerless gloves and I’ll take it, because here in Australia you don’t get much opportunity, you know?
It is a good look. How does an Eye Symmetry surfboard come into existence?
The general board-building overview starts with design on the computer — I use a shaping program called Aku, which I’ve been working with for a number of years now. So I get the blank cut, and then take it into the shaping bay and clean it up — different machines spit them out different ways, and you just have to adapt to get it exactly how you want it every time. Generally if the board’s having a fin-removal system, that’s installed at this point. Then I tape up the deck and do a bottom lamination — always using epoxy resin, never polyester resin — and that usually involves a resin tint, so pigment’s added to the resin and then lapped over onto the deck. When that’s finally done I make sure there are no air-bubbles or creases or any irregularities in the lamination. That’s left to set, usually overnight. The following day is a light sand — sanding up the tape, or the lap-line — and then I repeat the process with the deck. After that comes another light sand, then I put the logos down and install a leash loop — like a handmade epoxy leash loop. After all that’s done there’s another pre-sand, and then it goes into a hot coat. During this process I also add a hard edge which is usually just around the tail of the board, however occasionally it can extend further up the board and sometimes right up to the nose! And after that it’s basically the finish-sand. There may be other things, like post-lam resin flames, which is a whole ‘nother deal, and different types of artwork throughout the board, but that’s the most basic little breakdown possible!
You do all the artwork as well?
Yeah. Pretty much I do resin tints all the time — I don’t really use many sprays. It’s kinda traditional-style resin tinting mixed with a modern, fresh mind, if that makes sense.
Why always epoxy resin?
I think epoxy is definitely a better material, no doubt about it — you pretty much ask any surfboard-builder. Epoxy resin’s superior to polyester, for me I find it brighter, more UV resistant and stronger with a much higher strength to weight ratio than polyester resin. It’s just polyester’s much easier and cheaper to use and so it's highly accepted and promoted in a larger-volume surfboard-manufacturing scenario.
And the blanks?
Most of them are traditional polyurethane, I do some EPS but probably 90% of them are traditional polyurethane.
How did you start working with Tom Carroll?
We actually live in the same area — the northern suburbs of Sydney — so I kind of knew him just from seeing him around and whatnot. And I just kinda offered one day to shape him a couple of boards. It took a while for him to get back to me but he eventually took me up on the offer, and since then we’ve just been making more and more stuff together.
Do his boards differ much from the others you shape?
They’re not too different to any other board in my range really. I do little tweaks here and there for him — he likes a really low rail profile in the tail: not too much area in the tail and not too much lift or kick, because he really surfs strong off the back foot. Too much lift in the back and the board’s too skatey, it doesn’t have enough hold, you know? So that’s a general characteristic of the boards I do for him.
On your website you say want “to pioneer the change where you see surfboard manufacturing needs to grow". What do you mean by that exactly?
Well, I’d seen a lot of sub-par stuff out there, and I was mainly inspired to start Eye Symmetry just to bring a really high quality product to the table. And you feel the quality all the time — when you first see the board, when you pick it up, when you ride it, after you’ve ridden it 100 times — it’s a more durable product, it just has more attention to detail and time and care put into it, really.
What are your thoughts on the current state of surfboard manufacturing generally?
Honestly, I don't have a strong-minded opinion, I’m not super out there — I don’t actually look at everything and talk to everyone and gauge what’s happening in the industry. There’s a lot of good boards and a lot of people doing a lot cool stuff but then there’s just all the average stuff. I mean, I’m sure it’s just like any other industry or product. People doing good stuff, people doing OK stuff, and there’s some crap out there. I’m pretty involved creatively with my own little brand and concept here that I kind of live in, and I don’t actually look outside that all that often.
So you started off at Hayden Shapes, which is pretty much the stereotype of mass surfboard production, and then you launched Eye Symmetry, which is the opposite of that whole approach. How much did that initial experience influence the model you’ve subsequently chosen to follow?
Yeah, I mean it definitely did have an effect on what I’m doing now, that’s for sure. But it was changing so rapidly in those years that it was already different by the time I left, and I'm sure it’s different now again.
How’s Hayden getting on in his attempts to steal your team?
Hahaha man, I try to pay to as little attention as possible...as you know Oscar is now riding for them but you know, it’s cool. He may have a good opportunity there that he will need to suss out and explore...its all a learning experience. I think it's best I leave it there.
What’s next for you and Eye Symmetry?
One of the projects I'm working on as we speak is a collaboration with Pukas, involving three unique Eye Symmetry models limited to Pukas only. We’re just going for three designs which are super user-friendly for a whole bunch of people, not doing anything too crazy. Actually I’ve just designed them. One’s gonna be a fish, but a quad performance fish similar to the Cali Quad — a little bit different though, kinda in between the Cali Quad and the Turtle…
Which is the twin-fin you do, right?
Yeah, The Turtle is our keel fish model, The Cali Quad is a more performance version of The Turtle with four fins. This new quad for Pukas is a little bit inspired by a board Tom Carroll brought in and showed me by Skip Frye. So this design is the first board in the collection... just a really clean quad fish which people can jump on in small surf and still perform on it. The next one’s similar to a board I was working on with Hector, which is a hybrid shortboard with a diamond tail and a double wing, so that’s also for small waves but a little bit more performance-oriented than the quad. And then the one I’m actually really excited about, which is the most minimal, is a round-tail shortboard, but it just has a really subtle hip from the leading fins back, and it’s got slightly fuller foils, kinda similar to the Channel Islands Red Beauty by Tom Curren. So it’s a bit of an old-school-new-school round-tail thruster, but it’s really really beautiful and minimal.
Yeah, I'm excited about it, however, it’s all in the early design phase at the moment, nothing’s really been approved, that’s just kind of what I’m pitching!