Tanner's old shaping bay - a converted greenhouse. Photo: Tanner Bendheim

Tanner’s old shaping bay – a converted greenhouse. Photo: Tanner Bendheim

I first learned about Tanner Bendheim when I saw a video of a shaping bay he’d built out of a shipping container. It was one of those DIY videos that have come to populate my YouTube feed, delivered by an algorithm that understands me sometimes disturbingly well.

The video was simple. Over jaunty, royalty free music, Tanner went to work transforming a shipping container into a home shaping bay in a series of jump cuts. Unlike other YouTube videos, there was no monologue to camera, no catchphrases, no breaks for product placement. I figured it would be interesting to reach out and see what the process had been like to make the bay. I was particularly keen to know how he managed to install enough ventilation to not turn the thing into a resin-fueled death trap.

Then I saw the numbers on the video.

As of writing this article, Tanner’s YouTube channel, Bendheimboards, has 1.32 million subscribers. That’s more than Nathan Florence, Ben Gravy, Koa Rothman, Kai Lenny and pretty much every single major surfboard manufacturer combined. The only surfer on YouTube who comes close is Jamie O’Brien, with 1.21 million.

Tanner’s full-length videos net anywhere from thousands to hundreds of thousands of views, with some reaching into the millions (a video of him glassing a single-fin shortboard in his previous shaping bay has been watched by 9.5 million people). On the other hand, his minute-long vertically oriented videos, called “shorts” in YouTube parlance, do a lot better. One short, a progress update of the shaping bay, is currently sitting at 300 million views.

All this is to say that Tanner Bendheim might have a case for being the most popular shaper in the world, at least as far as the internet is concerned.

Even more remarkably, he’s done this from completely outside of the surf industry. He grew up surfing in Newport Beach, California and has a community of friends and family who take part in the sport, but his interaction with the world of wave riding has always been entirely as an enthusiast. Tanner never worked in a surf shop or apprenticed under a shaper. Most everything he knows is from reading online (particularly Swaylocks, the venerable forum that has long been a mecca for the home shaper). The closest he got to a formal education was one class he took at a local shop and some shaping DVDs he bought to watch at home. “I’m surrounded by others that enjoy surfing as well, but I’m on an island as far as the shaping community and glassing,” he says. “There’s not like a network that I have of guys that I learn from. It’s just like kind of a thing I did on my own.”

His interest was first piqued in high school, when his brother bought a discounted blank from Costa Mesa surfboard producer Pureglass. Later on, Tanner would shape his own blank that he had glassed at the same shop, but living in apartments in Costa Mesa never afforded him enough space to pursue it further. He didn’t end up making his own board from start to finish until around 2010, when he moved into a house in Tustin that had a garage to work in. Soon after, he began shaping out of a dedicated bay made from a converted greenhouse, inspired by a post on Swaylocks.

Even then, making videos of his process was never really part of the plan. “I started out with just shaping boards,” he explains. “I had no intention of starting my YouTube channel, (but) I was in video editing in high school and I followed Josh Martin on Instagram. He does a lot of really cool quick-clip videos, so I wanted to do a video of glassing a surfboard. I kind of adopted his style a little bit, where it’s just quick clips that are sped up.”

His very first video, one of him glassing a red fish, immediately got 1.5 million views. “That’s kind of what sparked the whole thing,” he says. “I posted this one video and it just was so popular that I might as well continue to feed that beast.”

At first it was exclusively shaping videos. In fact, he was actually apprehensive about posting a video on ding repair, because he feared it might be too far outside of his niche. However, true to form, that one also did extremely well. “I feel like I was kind of the first to the market on the surfboard stuff, on shaping and glassing,” he says, by way of explaining his early success. “There wasn’t really many other guys doing it. Now, I think there are a lot more.”

The exterior of the shipping container shaping bay. Photo: Tanner Bendheim

The exterior of the shipping container shaping bay. Photo: Tanner Bendheim

Then came the shipping container, which changed everything. Tanner and his wife moved out of that first house and into one with a large backyard – perfect for expanding his shaping setup. He began by looking into making a large shed for the bay, but at the size he wanted, it was proving to be more expensive than anticipated. It was actually his wife who came up with the idea to use a shipping container. After doing some research, they found that barely used “one trip” containers were actually cheaper than a shed, and Tanner immediately saw the potential. “I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to redo my shaping bay, and I’m going to [document] the whole process,’” he remembers. “I kind of had an inkling that it was going to do really well, making a shaping bay out of a shipping container, because I knew it was kind of a hot trend.”

That turned out to be an understatement. “Those videos just went crazy,” he says. It turned out that the series of shipping container videos, from receiving delivery of the container, to installing insulation and electrical wiring, to dismantling the old greenhouse, were able to appeal to not only surfers, but also the exponentially larger demographic of DIY enthusiasts on YouTube. His subscriber base quickly ballooned from roughly 100 thousand to over a million.

“I mean, there’s just so many people that follow me that aren’t even surfers,” he explains. “They’ll be like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve never surfed a day in my life, but I really enjoyed seeing how these boards were made.’” At this point, he estimates that those people make up the majority of his followers. Tanner’s videos now cast a wide net, with viewers all over the world, from Brazil, to India, to Australia.

Those fans also brought along something else – money. It’s been just five years since he made the first video, and now he’s able to make enough of a monthly income from YouTube that it totally funds his hobby. The entire shipping container was bought with his social media earnings, with money left over to put in the bank. At this point, Tanner might be the only shaper to earn more money from YouTube revenue than actually making boards. He only started selling boards recently, mostly to friends and family. When I asked how many boards he makes in a week, accustomed to the breakneck schedules of professionals, he laughed. “Oh, I don’t,” he replied. “I think I’ve only cranked out like 25 in my span of doing this. It’s very little.”

Not 25 a week or a month. Twenty-five total.

It’s impossible to say exactly what has made Tanner’s videos take off in the way they have. On one level, their simplicity seems to be part of it. The videos are direct and to the point, with very little dialogue and utilitarian editing. The quiet, workmanlike tone is a welcome reprieve from an ocean of monotonously hyper-enthusiastic influencers out there.

Another, perhaps more significant, factor is that he’s resisted the urge towards professionalism. Even as he’s developed an increasing fanbase, and with it the means to upgrade his production value, he’s always remained a true backyard shaper. “I try to say that in my video descriptions, like I’m no means the expert,” he explains. “This is not my profession. I’m just doing this as a hobby and it might not be the right way every time, but this is kind of what’s working for me. I’m just showing the process and sharing what I’m learning as I go. So I’m not trying to portray that I’m the expert in the field or anything, because I’m not.”

Tanner Bendheim shaping one of the 25 boards hes made over his career. Photo: Tanner Bendheim

Tanner Bendheim shaping one of the 25 boards he’s made over his career. Photo: Tanner Bendheim

He’s not looking to change that anytime soon, either. Tanner’s not interested in becoming a professional shaper, much less a full-time YouTuber. He and his brother run a water-heating company founded by his grandfather and that keeps him busy enough. “My day job – I love it, and it’s a family business,” he says “It’s nothing I’ll ever leave, so this is just a fun side gig, you know, my creative outlet.”

I asked him what’s next, if he’s not looking to parlay his success into a new career. “You know, it’s a good question. I haven’t really lined out my goals,” he tells me. “I love surfing and I get out in the water every week. I just want to do stuff that helps foster that. I love looking forward to surf trips and making myself a new board or boards for my friends.”

He says he’d be open to some sort of collaboration, if it made sense, but companies reach out to him every week and so far he’s turned them all down. Most of them aren’t part of the surf community, or don’t have products he’s interested in enough to make it worthwhile. Between his family, church, business and shaping, he has precious little free time and holds it dear.

“My one goal I just told myself is I only want to do stuff that allows me to have fun,” he says. “I don’t want to be pressured into making this a new job, where I don’t enjoy what I’m doing. Whatever I do with it just needs to stay as a creative outlet.”

So, for now at least, Tanner Bendheim is going to stay the backyard shaper. But with 1.32 million people watching, it’s a pretty big backyard.

Editor’s Note: The Inertia’s Cooper Gegan works with well-known shapers to tell the stories of the first boards they created. Read about Doc Lausch here, Stretch Riedel here, and Darren Handley here. 


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