Words by: Cliff Kapono
Photos by: Cliff Kapono (@cliff_kapono) and Jake Marote (jake_of_all_trades)
Very distant from the hustle and bustle of O‘ahu’s North Shore lies the quaint working town of Hilo, Hawai‘i. A place where even time seems to take its time. The lush countryside and fertile soil has kept this tropical safehaven a valued resource to so many in Hawa‘i for so long. On the Easternmost shores of the Hawaiian islands also resides an eclectic community of creatives that have managed to carve their native upbringings into their everyday lives. Take case in point, Brandan Ahuna. Full time lifeguard, full time dad, full time surfer and most recently full time shaper. For over a decade now, we’ve been on countless adventures, scored amazing waves and experienced some of the most incredible places Polynesia has to offer. On a recent trip home and after riding one of his alai‘a surfboards, I had a chance to sit down and ask Brandan a few questions about his next chapter in life as a wood craftsman. It was just enough time to check out his shop, watch him finish a few boards and convince him to come with me on another mission.
CK: Bruddah Brans, you always seem to be on the go. Do you even sleep?
BA: Sleep what is that? Nah, average at least eight hours of sleep a day, but it all depends on the day. Most times, I feel I live life through a pattern. I wake up, get the kids ready for school, rush to work on projects or head into work. I finish, pick up the keiki [children] from school and take them to sports or to the beach. I end the day by making dinner and making sure homework is done. Overall, my day to day lately has been very busy.
CK: How do you fit time in for everything each day?
BA: You know I really don't know... I think it comes down to prioritizing what's most important I guess. Kuleana [responsibility]. Being raised most of my life by my grandparents, I was brought up old school. So yeah I would say being Hawaiian helps me balance everything I do in life. I was taught that ‘Ohana [family] is the most important, that comes first. Next hana [work], which for me is like the security to provide for my ‘Ohana. Everything else comes after. That is what makes me happy and I find that if you're happy with your life, it definitely makes things much easier.
CK: Tell me more about alai‘a. When did you first ride one and what was that feeling like?
BA: Me and a few friends back in high school decided to make ourselves alai‘a. We went to Home Depot and bought some shelving, went back home and without much knowledge started to cut out a template. Next we shaped the nose and rails. We didn't have much to tools. I think we had a jigsaw, orbital sander and a file. Anyways after it was all said and done we tested them out at Honoli‘i and ended up catching some waves on them. To be honest though, I wasn't really impressed with what we made.
CK: So how did you get back into it?
BA: It wasn't till my friend Doug Powdrell, really good craftsman, came up to me one day while I was at work and asked me if I've ever ridden an alai‘a. I told him I tried it once, and before I could tell him that it sucked, he asked me if I would like to sample one that he built. So I said sure why not. A few days later he brought down his alai‘a. My first look at it without a doubt was WOW! It looks so beautiful to the point that I didn't even want to ride it. I look nothing like the one I shaped years ago. He had concave, beveled rails and it definitely felt a lot lighter. He said he's built them before, but only as wall hangers for friends and has never ridden one. So he was curious to see if they really worked. Later that day I headed to Honoli‘i anxious to try it. As I pulled it out of the truck and made my way to the water people couldn't help but to gaze and complement it. when I finally jumped into the water, I was amazed how buoyant it was for a piece of wood. It felt good. It felt natural. It was tricky to paddle, but low and behold the first wave I stood up, the thing went so fast I could barely control it. This was on a knee high wave must you know. I rode that wave so far in that when I kicked out, an instant jolt of happiness hit me! All I did was go straight, but for some reason I felt so stoked like I was reborn or something. I was instantly hooked.
Over the next week, I rode that alai‘a. I was addicted. I rode it so much that it was starting to break. Splitting at the tail. I didn’t know that a friend of mine was taking pictures of me and took the board back with some of the pictures from my sessions.
Doug couldn't believe the pictures. He said he was blown away that I was actually surfing his alai‘a. I felt bad that the board was breaking because it was so beautiful, but he said "No, no, that's good, we can fix this. That's why I wanted you to ride it, so we can work out the bugs." He said don't worry and that he would take it home and bring it back when it's finished fixing it. I mentioned to him "eh Doug, maybe you should put a tail block on it to prevent it from splitting" he looked at me and said that's a great idea and he would do that. To make a long story short, he ended up giving me that board as a gift and a few more after too. I was very gracious, but something inside of me was trying to tell me something. I needed to make one for myself. I wanted to feel what it would be like to make one with my own hands and then to surf it. And so that's where it all started.
CK: Woah. I didn’t know Doug had such an influential role is resparking your fire to shape again. What is the process like of making these unique surfboards?
BA: Since I don't own a mill, I buy my blanks from businesses who sell them paulownia in particular. Then I choose one of my many designs that I have depending on what style and shape I want. Once the template is drawn out, I cut it with a jigsaw. Then I step back and take a look at it, reading the wood and determining what will be the top and what will be the bottom. Next I measure out the rails and the bevel in the nose, then carefully start carving away. I use block planes for shaping. When carving the contours on the bottom, I usually stick to a single concave out the back. Once that process is finished I start to sand. I'll start with 80 grit and work my way all the way to 260 grit. Then I rub on a coat of linseed oil, and it's pretty much finished. I also do custom work, which includes installing tail blocks and/or inlays depending on what the person wants. Typically I use gorilla glue for that stuff. My alai‘a can be 100% organic if I ship it out of one piece of wood and not apply anything to it.
CK: Wow. That seems like a lot of work.
BA: It is, but I really enjoy creating things for me and for other people. I love the whole process of moving from a vision to an idea, the process and all the way to the end result. It really makes me appreciate the craft. You gotta wanna do it with love and for all the right reasons. As craftsman we put a lot of positivity and aloha into what we build. We create a story behind everything we make. I highly encouraging people to build their own alai‘a and am always offering to help, or to share my experiences.
CK: That’s epic. Not many people can say when they are given something, they want to do the same thing for others.
BA: There's always a lesson to be learned. As Hawaiians we understand that if you take you have to give back. It's a healthy way of living. That's how I was taught and that's the way I will teach. Anybody can buy a craft, but to make one yourself... only then will you really appreciate it.
*Follow more of Brandan Ahuna on instagram @ahuna_hana