Palisadian Rich Wilken to Join International Surfboard Builders Hall of Fame

By Laurel Busby
Staff Writer
Photos courtesy of Rich Wilken

At 19, Rich Wilken started his own surfboard company.

“I was young and brash and having a good time,” Wilken, 71, said. It was the mid-’60s, when the Beach Boys music was popular and surfing movies like Gidget had a big following. “That’s probably why I was able to come out and start my own company. Everything in California was cool.”

His business, Wilken Surfboards, was a boutique surfboard company that could design custom boards to surfers’ varying and ever-shifting specifications. This flexibility allowed Wilken, who is being inducted into the International Surfboard Builders Hall of Fame this month, to adjust to a marketplace that was changing from longboards to shorter and more agile ones while larger companies, such as Hobie, required months to shift their product line.

“I was not tied down to a fixed-design model like the big-name board makers were,” said Wilken, a 1964 Palisades High grad. “I could change to the latest technology week to week. That was my big advantage—custom shape and design.”

Rich Wilken surfing in Mexico in 1968.

Wilken’s interest and skill in surfboard design developed at a young age in part because he grew up in Pacific Palisades, where his dad, a former pastry chef for William Randolph Hearst, operated John’s Pastry Shop on Swarthmore.

The family, which included his older brothers, John and George, went to the beach frequently, and the boys first began to explore surfing on a plywood paddle board that John repaired in junior high wood shop. The board moved wildly and gave one splinters and was soon replaced by a “beat-up” hand-me-down that Rich began learning how to repair.

Rich bought his first board, a used and “very old ugly Dave Sweet board,” when he entered PaliHi in 1961, and his experience with that board improved not only his surfing, but also his repair skills.

Wilken shaping a nose rider in 1966 at age 19.

“I still remember the smell of melting paraffin wax in an old coffee can on my mom’s stove so I could hot-wax a base coat,” Wilken recalled. “Keeping this stick floating for another year or so gave me more practice at patching dings.”

In 1963, his father died, which meant money was tight, and Rich began repairing surfboards under the logo Wilken Pigment to earn spending money. First, he did it for friends and then he was hired by the Hobie shop in Santa Monica to repair boards, refurbish trade-ins and customize Hobie’s surf team riders’ boards. He earned enough mon- ey eventually to buy a new surfboard, which he decorated with some fancy color work.

The board turned out so nicely that it caught the attention of well-known surfer and surfboard factory owner Dewey Weber. Weber, who happened to be on the beach the first day Wilken walked across the sand to ride his new board, was so impressed with the color work that he immediately offered Wilken a job.

Some of Wilken’s shortboards.

Wilken accepted the offer and not only did color work, ranging from simple pinstripes to fancy custom decoration, but also learned new skills by watching the production experts, including noted craftsman and shaper Harold “Iggy” Ige, as they shaped, glossed and sanded the boards.

Simultaneously, Wilken built up his own side business that soon became too big and too messy to keep at home, so in 1966, he rented a small place near Santa Monica College, where he had enrolled to study art and architectural drawing. During this time, he built his first surfboard under his own label.

At first, Weber allowed Wilken to get good discounts on individual gallons of resin and acetone and also blank foam boards from the manufacturers, but eventually, Wilken’s side business was requiring 55-gallon drums of resin and a dozen foam board blanks at a time.

One day, Weber happened to spy 10-12 foam blanks with Wilken’s name on them in the back of a truck delivering to the Weber factory. The driver told Weber that these boards were headed to Wilken.

“That was the last day I worked for Dewey Weber,” Wilken said. Weber also told the manufacturer, “If you sell another blank to Rich Wilken, I won’t buy another from you.” This “cut me off from all the materials, but I opened up my own accounts, then got a new foam supplier with better quality and began to take my own Wilken line very seriously.”

At the time longboards, which ranged from perhaps 9 feet to over 10 feet, were standard, but Australian surfers began introducing shorter, more maneuverable boards, starting an era that became known as the Shortboard Revolution.

Surfers experimented with shorter and shorter boards, and Wilken was right there speedily turning around boards with smaller and smaller profiles.

Rich Wilken holds his “Good Vibrations” art board, which he designed and painted. It was signed by the Beach Boys.

“Three foot 11 inches is the smallest board I rode” and built, said Wilken, who also sponsored his own surfing team. “This was how far it went.”

His company on occasion even created innovative, rideable boards in less than 24 hours for his surfing team’s members. They might pop by his shaping room, talk directly to Wilken about the requested board, and then test ride it the next day.

“We were one of the cutting-edge guys around the whole world,” Wilken said.

Most boards, while still created quickly, didn’t get the 24-hour turn-around treatment. Wilken began to split the work with his brother George, who was attending Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. Rich would shape the boards, and then drive them to George, who would glass them (laminate the tops and bottoms with fiberglass), put a hot coat of resin on next, and then sand the boards, which Rich would later retrieve to do a final gloss coat and any color work.

In addition, Rich also took photos of his team riders and other surfers at competitions and sold them to Surfer magazine in exchange for advertising.

“We were getting a bigger and bigger share of the business,” said Rich, who noted that small overhead meant they could also sell boards for about 5-10 percent less than bigger companies. “I was the rainmaker, who did public relations, design work and acted as the front man. George provided engineering and productions skills, which was his background. He was an integral part of the partnership” and led the business beginning in 1971, when Rich reduced his role to focus on doing architectural design for restaurants, bars and eventually residences and other buildings like the Palisades Lutheran Church.

For 25 years, Rich stopped shaping surfboards and focused on his career, which included the design of Mort’s Deli, one of Barbra Streisand’s homes, and an art studio for Bob Dylan.

He also married his wife Deann, whom he had met when they were junior high youth counselors at the Lutheran Church, and they raised two children, Heather, 39, who directs the Marquez STAR program and the Lutheran preschool, and Matt, 35, a Santa Monica Mountains forest ranger.

However, in the mid-’90s, Rich, who now has three grandchildren, also began creating the occasional surfboard again, mostly for friends or as donations for art auctions and fundraisers, including events at PaliHi. One of his favorite stories stems from his son’s time at the high school when a new teacher learned that Matt’s father had created Wilken Surfboards.

The teacher got this far away look in his eyes, and told Matt that his favorite surfboard was a Wilken. When Matt recounted the story later, he said, “Hey dad, did you know you used to be somebody?”

Wilken recalled the tale with a laugh. “When I get inducted into the International Surfboard Builders Hall of Fame, I’ll be somebody again for a few days.”

He will be inducted at the Hall of Fame headquarters in Huntington Beach on October 21 at 9 a.m.

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