Growing up in Southern California, Ashley Lloyd Thompson spent all her free time at the beach, straddling her first surfboard at age 8. "It took years of paddling around to even stand up," says Thompson, 32. "And once I did, people assumed I couldn't surf because I was a girl. But then suddenly I'd be the one catching all the waves." She started competing at age 15, eventually touring the world as a pro. Yet after trying out countless boards, she craved a custom one that felt like an extension of her body. "I didn't want to just ride the same boards as my heroes," she says. "I wanted to make them better suited for women, for the way we approach the wave with balance, flexibility, and grace."
Before Thompson begins work on a custom board in her Santa Cruz studio, she asks a lot of questions. "Every curve and measurement changes how the board rides," she says. "So learning if you're a beginner or more advanced, surfing mushy or strong waves, influences the design." Next, she draws a template onto a foam blank (a giant featureless surfboard), then breaks out the power tools. "You've got to be willing to get dirty," Thompson says. Fully face-masked, she saws, sculpts, and sands for hours, fine-tuning the board's dimensions. Over the next few weeks, the sculpted board gets dipped in fiberglass—to make it sturdy and waterproof—and laminated with resin, which Thompson tints with color pigments for her signature "stained-glass look."
Though she's been shaping for only about ten years, Thompson—one of the world's few female shapers—has gained a following among surfers in Japan, Australia, and Spain, and often crafts as many as 15 boards per month (they sell for about $1,000). "It takes years to understand the engineering aspects and also make the board look beautiful," she says. "A shaper used to seem like a real magician to me."
— Laura Birek