“I could probably shape a board blind,” Rich Luthringer says, as he feels for imperfections in the foam by rubbing his hands over its surface. Luthringer has been making surfboards for 40 years, and he is one of a breed that some might call dying, or at the very least, underappreciated. He still makes them the old-fashioned way; one at a time. If, like me, you find waiting three weeks for a custom board excruciating, Luthringer’s pace may drive you to SUP. However, if you’re willing to wait (and if he deems you worthy) you’ll be rewarded with a truly inimitable piece of usable art.
In a poorly ventilated garage–in the middle of a sticky summer–in Seaside Park, N.J., Luthringer pours a noxious resin mixture over what looks almost like a thick, plastic tablecloth (aka: fiberglass). The resin will saturate the fiberglass sheet and harden quickly, so he must work fast. He deftly smoothes it over nine feet of perfectly carved foam, dancing to and fro, as if he were actually riding one of these fine vehicles. He’s teaching people how to make a surfboard.
The class is Luthringer’s second in two years. His pupils vary in age, gender, and surfing experience, but they share a common goal: all want to learn his craft.
The Toms River, N.J. resident has shaped thousands of surfboards since his first in the late ‘60s. He stopped counting a few years back at 3,000. Two years ago, Seaside Park Recreation Director Jeff Potter created the class and invited Luthringer to teach it. It sold out immediately; there’s nothing else like it in the area.
Luthringer is a small but remarkably agile 60-year-old man. He’s also a great storyteller. He has the animated eyes of a child, framed by wise crinkles. He is a practicing architect as well as a respected surfboard builder. He is a bit of a mad scientist.
“Eyeballing it” is not a widely practiced architectural principle, but Luthringer makes it look appropriate. And beautiful. He glasses his boards with the imprecision of instinct, but the results are precise. With Luthringer, even if something looks haphazard, there’s a very good chance that it’s not.
Take his workspace, for example. On the unpainted walls hang dozens of templates for shapes, extra foam blanks, tools, headphones, and a long fluorescent tube–mounted about rib high, horizontally. It may look like a half-assed light installation, but it’s at exactly the right height so that Luthringer can see shadows on the board and spot any problem areas. And correct them. The man knows surfboards; not only has he been making them for four decades, he has been riding them for even longer.
When he was 15 years old, Luthringer learned to surf with his cousin in Sea Bright, N.J. “It was the first time that I got the rush of catching the wave,” he remembers. “There was fear, but the joy was overwhelming. I got addicted right away,” he told me. His first board was a Hobie longboard.
As a teenager, Luthringer joined the Casino Pier surf team in Seaside Heights.
On one memorable trip to the Carolinas, the team bailed on the contest and surfed isolated lefts all day. Driving home, there were 11 boards stacked on the roof of the van. It was “like a skyscraper going down the road,” he says.
Luthringer, Greg “Grog” Mesanko and Doug Nagel, a.k.a. “Toad,” made up what he calls the “Tracker Trio.” In 1967, Custom Surf Shop in Lavallette, N.J. began paying the Trio (about $60 a week) to surf and try out new boards. “All the kids were working on the boardwalk and we were surfing,” he says. The following year, he was ranked No. 1 in New Jersey. “Just before I went away to school, Greg and I used to surf six days a week, from 8 in the morning until 5 o’clock.”
In his single semester at Brevard Community College in Cocoa Beach, Fla. Luthringer managed to find his life’s calling. One of them, at least.
While Luthringer was in Florida, he met Gene Cottrell, who was the main shaper for Surfboards East, which went out of business around that time, in 1968. “As a surfboard builder, he was my idol,” Luthringer says. Cottrell took him into the factory and shaped two boards as he watched in awe. “I fell in love,” he says. “I was just waiting until I could build a surfboard.” He went home to Jersey, ripped the glass off an old surfboard and reshaped it into a “double V,” one of Cottrell’s cutting-edge designs.