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A Master At Work John Amundson

May 26, 2010

Author: Chris Strong photos by Stephane Fournet

“I have surfed all my life and am obviously influenced by surfing, but I am not one of these guys who will preach how it should or shouldn’t be done. When I have a kite in my hand I am kite surfing and want to push myself into positions that I cannot reach surfing.”—John Amundson

I first became acquainted with John Amundson by admiring his custom kiteboards at a local kitesurfing spot six year ago. The designs were clearly rooted in state-of-art surfboards and beautifully constructed for kitesurfing. The craftsmanship really caught my eye.
     As a kid, John surfed the beaches of Southern California and worked his way up through a local surfboard manufacturer, learning every aspect of surfboard making. His desire and commitment to make the best possible surfboards led him to move to Hawaii more than 20 years ago. John’s move to make surfboards in Hawaii was risky as there was already a long list of established shapers making surfboards for the best surfers in the world. Luckily for the rest of the world John’s determination to create performance boards collided with a still formative kitesurfing industry. That, coupled with John’s amazing talents as a surfer and kitesurfer, has propelled him to recognition as one of the top kitesurfers in the world as well the most sought after kiteboard designer.
     Since my first encounter with John I have had the privilege of traveling to some of the world’s best wave-riding spots with him; his kitesurfing is mind-boggling and still improving. John’s mastery of his kite is so subtle that you often forget he is kiting at all. John is always a celebrity at whatever windy spot he shows up to, with photographers flocking to capture images of his deceptively smooth and lightning fast wave riding.

Give us a little background on your shaping history.
I was 16 when I shaped my first surfboard. I had always admired the local shapers, these guys were always held in high regard and were given the highest respect. I guess this was part of what attracted me along with my natural ability to put things together. I always loved working with my hands. The early years where great experience for me, the foam blanks where thick and rough. This taught me to visualize my design inside of a very rough piece of foam and slowly whittle my surfboard out of it. Over the years the blanks became closer to a finished board and then came computer-aided machines. But having that early shaping experience has been a huge benefit to my shaping skills.

Tell us about your first job in the surfboard industry at Magic Glass.

I was 17 years old when I got my first “formal” job in the surfboard industry with Steve Dempsey and Magic Glass. I remember getting the call from Demps, he was a craftsman that was considered the best in the industry. I was full on over the moon that he called me to come and work for him. Over the following two years I became  very good friends with Demps as he taught me many life lessons as well as instilling in me the pride of being a top craftsman. Most work days would carry over into some late night antics. During the day I would be honing my surfboard craft and by night we where mastering the art of laughter. I had some of my best times in that surf shop.

What about moving to Hawaii?

All through my school years I knew I was going to be on a plane as soon as I graduated high school. I felt as though I was in prison counting down my days until my release. I moved to Hawaii in 1989 and have been on the North Shore ever since. My early experiences on the North Shore where crazy. One afternoon I was going to surf my favourite surf spot, which is in a quiet little neighborhood. As I walked around the corner I see one of the local “heavies” jumping up and down on the top of this red Camero swinging a piece of wood, fending off a very pissed off and very big Green Beret looking guy. When the local guy made eye contact with me he instantly recruited me as back up and yelled “come on, come on.” Can you say conundrum? If I didn’t charge in to battle I would surely reap a long-term cold war with my local buddy and if I did charge in I would surely get mopped by this government-trained badass. For a split second the military man looked at me, at that moment the local guy jumped off and ran for cover. I was off the hook. That was my first experience with the dark side of the North Shore. Over the years the North Shore has become home. The place is so unpredictable and extreme both in and out of the water.

Over the years I often hear you separate the words shaper and designer. Why?
As a young “shaper” in my early years I thought I knew so much about the art of making boards that worked well. The fact was, I made boards that worked well or even great but also had my fair share of lemons. I was more of a “shaper” at that point as my designs where more luck than design knowledge. About 15 years ago I started designing on a computer program that allowed me to design with amazing accuracy and allowed me to make changes to any aspect of a board design that I previously tested. The progression was immediate and constant. I now have thousands of proven designs on file that include kitesurf, strapless, freestyle, speed, course, distance, traditional surfboards, standup paddle, tow-in surfboards. I feel that I am a much better “designer” now, the whole design is very calculated.

Explain the relation of your prototyping with the customer feedback that you get from all the people who ride your boards.
As I said before, I am always tweaking my designs for signs of improvement. When I get some improvement I am always keen to get the feedback from others. I always encourage my customers to give me feedback on their boards. My customers are one of the most important parts of the development of my designs. My customer feedback is also very important to help me to better understand the next customer. For example, I get an inquiry from a larger intermediate rider that is dealing with lighter winds and has a cruiser surf style, I talk with my customer extensively to understand all his or her needs and then design off of a proven design that had great feedback from a previous customer with their same needs. This method has proven to be 100 per cent effective in delivering a board that works insane for that customer.

I know you have made boards for some of the best kiters in the world. Do they impact the designs that you make for your customers?

Professional kiters are so good that they can normally make anything work, so my answer would be not really for my normal customers. My customers that are professional level would benefit from the previous feedback I received from a professional but they are just a part of my business.

Tell me a little about your background as a waterman.

I grew up in southern California as a third-generation surfer. I have always loved the ocean whether I was surfing, bodysurfing, diving, fishing or paddling. A little over 10 years ago I started kiting. I am so grateful that this beautiful sport came into my life, it has opened my mind to other waveriding such as tow-in surfing and standup paddling. As important, kiting has broadened my board design palette. My understanding of surfboard design has improved from designing kiteboards, in fact, all my board designs benefit from my better understanding of the other. Sorry, off the subject. I now enjoy both freestyle and wave kiting, surfing, standup paddle, and tow-in surfing.

What is in the back of your van?

I always have a full quiver of Rebels and Fuses, I double up on my 7s and 9s as these kites are very vulnerable to the North Shores heavy waves. I carry three bars, if the surf is going off at my favourite spot I will surely swim in at least two times and have two balls of string that will be dismantled over a beer later that evening. I have my favorite 5’9’’, 6’, and a dedicated 6’ strapless board. During the winter months I have a couple 6’ tow-in boards as well as a couple of life vests. Most of the time I carry around a 9’6’’ SUP with a few paddles. I am pretty sure my van and its contents are covered on my home owners insurance.

As a kite waverider, describe your style of surfing waves.
I am into total progressive performance. I have surfed all my life and am obviously influenced by surfing but I am not one of these guys who will preach how it should or shouldn’t be done. When I have a kite in my hand I am kite surfing and want to push myself into positions that I cannot reach surfing. I want to be part of what is to come in the future and not just mill over what we have already done in the past.

What about your preferences? Hooked or unhooked? Strapped or strapless?
This question is like a stale fart! I am looking towards the future of kite surfing. All four of these styles are completely legit and I embrace them all in the appropriate conditions. I think in the next few years most kite surfers will be using all of these methods to elevate their performance levels, the rest will be left in the dust.

You mentioned “the right conditions.” What are the right conditions for hooked and unhooked?
I am still trying to figure that one out. The other day I went out at my local spot and my first 10 or so waves felt funky, let me clarify that, I was riding like crap. Those first 10 I was hooked in and the wind was, in my opinion, perfect for it. Wave number 11 I unhooked and surfed that wave unbelievable, the rest of the session was unhooked and perfect for it.
    My style of unhooked is a bit different than most. I like to unhook, do my bottom turn and top turn, and then hook in and de-power as I hit the bottom of the wave, this allows me to be deep in the wave and ready for the next section. If the wind is light, there may not be such a need to hook back in, if the wind is strong the hook-back-in method prevents the “hyper-extended arm syndrome.”

Today when we where on the water I saw you hooked in, as you went into your bottom turn you let go of the bar and executed your bottom turn and top turn. What the heck is this?

Ha. That is something I did for the first time the other day when I was totally in the zone and it felt so good I have been adding it to the repertoire. What I do is park the kite at around 10 o’clock as I go into the bottom turn I let go of the bar. The top turn is executed entirely hands free. As I finish the turn I grab the bar and regain control of the kite.

Who inspires you?
Anyone who rides for themselves and follows their own style. I think I am inspired most by all riders, be it with a smile on their face or just simply ripping.

Parting words?

Enjoy yourself and smile. Don’t be afraid to offer help to a fellow kiter. Who knows, he may have a cute sister.
Rapid Fire
Five things you couldn’t travel without?
North Kites, Amundson Boards, passport, bling, a bag of candy
Drink of choice?
Other interests?
I have a new challenge at any given time, the latest is building a new CNC surfboard shaping machine.
Your current ride/car?
Honda van
Favourite thing to cook?
Big steamy barrels
Dream trip?
My dream trip was to Indonesia this last August with my bros on the Discovery. The cuisine was decedent and the waves where insane.
One word your friends would use to describe you?
Predictably unpredictable. Sorry, that’s two words.

At home in: Oahu
Best surf break: Pipeline
Best Breakfast? Cafe Haleiwa
Best lunch?
Ted’s Bakery, shoyou chicken
Favourite place for dinner? Haleiwa Joe’s, prime rib
Place to chill with friends: Rockza
Your local riding crew: Reo Stevens, Dan Moore, Kevin Senns, Skip Wonderlick, Felix Pivec, Davey Blair, JB and Alexis Bilderback, Bo and Marigold Zoll, Jerry Bess, Lono Humphreys, Jesse Fergison, Scott Jones, Eric Emodt.

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