Southern Thailand's Surfboard Shapers 2/3
by Gareth Sheehan
30 Jan 2022
In south Phuket, a grinning, shirtless man in blue Thai fisherman pants dances back and forth along the length of the room to a drum and bass track—the type of jungle beat popularised in the mid-90s by the likes of Goldie (who incidentally lives in Thailand). But I’m not at a rave; I’m in David Sautebin’s shaping bay in Nai Harn.
Tucked away at the end of an unpaved road not far from the beach, David’s workshop resembles what you might imagine a shaper’s space to have looked like on Oahu’s North Shore in the 70s. His home is shrouded in palms, banana trees, ginger and overgrown cane grass— the telltale signs of island life. I have a peek around his workshop, which is brimming with materials yet orderly and organised. The diffuse natural light reveals a technical drawing on the bench, a wing for a hydrofoil, one of the ocean crafts he recently began developing for a sector of the board industry that has seen rapid growth in the last couple of years. I then turn to witness the Swiss-native-cum-Thai-resident mechanically reduce a rectangular slab of EPS foam to the familiar curves of a surfboard. The board highlights David’s popular ‘Egginos’ shape and is a custom order for a Phuket local.
Trained as a watchmaker in his landlocked homeland of Switzerland, David first uncovered his obsession with the ocean while holidaying at the French coast as a child. Eventually, he acquired a van and the means to reach the Atlantic ocean and the waves he craved. Suffering from chronic knee pain unresolved by repeat operations, he soon came to discover the analgesic effects that tropical warmth afforded, leading the young surfer to islands in the Caribbean, Japan and Indonesia. He would return to Switzerland between stints to work and finance his impending surfing exploits until 2008, gently persuaded by his peers, he found himself in Phuket following the end of the surfing season in Indonesia. And as happens a series of serendipitous events led to David meeting his now wife, and an extended stay in Thailand.
This path led him to the decision to have a crack at building boards. He canvassed the local hardware stores and suppliers to figure out what was possible. With a loose plan in his head, he set up shop with a budget of US$1,500, initially building an annex off the side of his rented house.
The nascent shaper spent many late nights on the Swaylocks forum—the largest shaping community on the Internet—researching methods, successes, failures and other knowledge within the craft. His quest to source materials locally led to experimentation with various locally available wood veneers for the sandwich construction. One of his earliest iterations featured a bamboo weave that was designed for building purposes, not surfboards. The material was difficult to work with and just not suited to the task. He later discovered paulownia as the ideal timber veneer for his top deck, its benefits including lightweight, strength, resistance to salt water as well as being a fast-growing renewable resource.
David’s board construction is heavily influenced by the method which Bert Burger developed a few decades ago. Indeed, David attributes a significant part of his shaping genesis to Bert. “I wouldn’t have been able to do this without him,” referring to the forthcoming nature with which the Aussie shaper shared his trade methods to the then fresh shaper.
Now an established shaper for more than a decade, David says he is rarely bored. His diverse customer requests give him a large variety of work, each project quite different from the next. All considered, the shaping, laminating, vacuum bagging, sanding, woodworking and so on equate to around 30 individual steps necessary to complete a board. He currently produces around two boards per week and estimates that he is in the workshop for 60 hours or more, though he asserts that it can scarcely be considered work. David revels in the process. The joy he feels from his craft is evident and enviable.
David hand-shaping an EPS blank
Rocker (the curve of a surfboard from its nose to its tail) templates hang from the wall
The ethos of David’s Elleciel brand initiated by the acronym LSCL—Live Simply, Consume Less—certainly informs his use of materials. In addition to the extreme durability of the paulownia deck, he incorporates natural weaves like hemp and flax linen as well as specialist basalt weaves (glass fibres produced by heating and extruding volcanic basalt rock). Elleciel also employs the use of “bio resins”, or epoxy specifically formulated to significantly reduce their carbon footprint. Often when laminating with polyurethane, the glasser tends to overcompensate, mixing large amounts of excess resin, which simply ends up as waste that hardens on the floor. David, by comparison, is quite precise with his measurements knowing exactly how much epoxy he will need for each job, ensuring very little is wasted.
He’s quick to express caution when it comes to greenwashing in the industry. “Most of the certifications like ‘gold label blah blah’... it’s all bullshit.” The international brand of bio resin, which David uses exclusively, is produced domestically in Thailand. Although the product does go to considerable lengths to reduce its carbon footprint—up to 50 per cent compared to standard epoxies—the formula itself, he tells me, is at most a third bio-derived. He reminds me that the most environmentally-friendly board is the board with the longest lifespan. To give credence to statements like this, it is definitely true that the average PU shortboard is more or less a disposable product. Seldom do these boards make it through an entire season anywhere that features consistent overhead surf. David’s boards (and indeed Bert’s) are light and very impact resistant by comparison and have a lifespan that can typically be measured in years rather than months.
Customers are encouraged to touch the boards at David's shop
Beyond custom orders, the price of which begins at 20,000 baht, David stocks a range of boards and surf accessories at his Green Room store in Rawai. Departing from the standard “do not touch” signs one invariably finds on a rack of PU boards, customers at David’s store are encouraged to touch the boards on display. Elleciel’s popularity has David’s order capacity spoken for several months in advance and you can find his creations appearing in a number of surf shops internationally. Still a dedicated slave to the wave and with the benefit of being his own boss, David can be found surfing or kite-foiling around Nai Harn virtually every day.
Find the article on koktailmagazine.com
The art of living
by Anthony S. Cameron
What I love the most about Phuket is the eclectic bunch of humans that find their way here from other parts of the world and decide to call it home. We have all sorts of reasons for coming here: some are running from an unsatisfactory life; some are enamoured by the closest thing to paradise they have found so far; some of us come here exhausted from the pressure of being someone we don’t, or never did, want to be. Some of us come with pockets full of money, others come with pockets full of dreams. Nearly all of us have decided to jump off the treadmill and live cheaply and easily, for a while at least.
You know you’ve come across a unique human being when he shares his dream with you and infects you with its intoxicating rhythm, a rhythm driven by the ocean currents and a love of dancing with the energy hidden in those currents. Without doubt the most talented and prolific sculptor I have come across on this mad island is a former landlocked Swiss watchmaker who is sculpting objects of beauty out of EPS foam, fibreglass and resin. And not only do you get to stare in awe at his work as it sits on the wall above your dining room table, you get to use it to find the art trapped deep inside you.
David “Mousset” Sautebin started making surfboards only a handful of years ago, and this makes his body of work even more amazing. I have had the pleasure of watching him at work and trying to fathom the effortless precision and joy he brings to his designs, the innate understanding of the ocean inside each custom design and the freedom he gives to each lucky owner to explore themselves.
When an artist can awaken the creativity in others and then encourage them to explore it, I think that is the most successful art you could hope for. It seems to make a lot of the stuff that passes for art in the gallery scene look very static, and dare I say, unimaginative at best.
Not only does this guy humbly go about the business of exploring his inner creativity, he has a credo that he actually lives by: live simple, consume less.
Most of the manifestos about art practice I have read are so fake and lofty in their intentions, but this one rings true. You won’t find David waxing (excuse the pun) lyrical about his philosophy of life and art to a bunch of nodding cronies over a cheap glass of red in an over-lit gallery. He just lives it.
As you well know, I have trouble with the lines that exist between artist and artisan, and if it wasn’t for David, I would still be floundering and seething with the injustice of it all. But this guy personifies the living, breathing, interactive art that so-called career artists can only dream of. For some reason, if an art form, such as surfing, is all about fun and has a kind of beautiful pointlessness about it, then it is not considered ‘serious’ art. To that I would say, I wish looking at ‘serious’ art put the kind of smile on my face that surfing a wave does, and that it could help me feel so happy to be alive.
Every wave is a completely unique experience to be involved in, and lasts the briefest of moments. David’s art celebrates the beauty of those moments in a way no other art form can. He gives you the tools to find in it something you didn’t even know was there. I am hard pushed to find another art form that could make this claim, nor could I find one that has such universal appeal. And the overriding beauty of it all is that anyone can have a go, anyone can paddle into a wave and look for the stuff a mirror cannot see. It doesn’t matter how many times you get pounded or thrust onto the sea floor, it doesn’t matter how many times you fall off as the wave has its way with you. If you keep at it, soon you will find the rhythm that we search for in the rest of our lives and rarely find.
One of Australia’s great singer/songwriters, Broderick Smith, for whom I had the pleasure to manage sound many years ago, would say of his favourite musicians: you could lock them in an empty room and eventually you will hear music.
This is David’s great art. He helps you find the music we all have in us. On his website home page, you will find this quote:
“The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labour and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him, he is always doing both.”
Sarongs from all over Sth East Asia adorn his boards, fitting snugly over the custom designs he and the new owner collaborate over. Arresting veneers of sustainable Paulownia wood cover the decks, stunning testimonies to the eternal and sublime beauty of the forest. So, not only do you get to ride a work of art on a wave that is a work of nature, but you get to be involved in the design process. There’s no cloak and dagger stuff going on here, no hidden method that has to be protected lest it is stolen by people with less vision. It’s an organic free-for-all. The only constraints are the need for the sculpture to glide through the water like it is a part of it.
With this guy, it couldn’t be any other way.
You can find David’s work at: elleciel.com
Anthony S. Cameron is an Australian ex-pat living in Phuket, Thailand, and the author of two novels, Driftwood (2014) and Butterfly on Bangla (2015). Born in Melbourne, he escaped in his early twenties to central Victoria, where he designed and built a sustainable house and raised two sustainable children. His books are available on Amazon here.
Photos by Roxy Cameron
2013 Le Paris-Phuket, interview by Régis Roué
in french/en français
2011 By Tom Fekete from the late "Thai Surfrider Magazine"
Sadly the magazine stopped just before this issue...