Josh Keogh Wants His Surfboards To Provoke An Emotional Reaction

by Stab December 16, 2019 5 min read

Surfing’s interaction with masculinity, especially in Australia where we encourage men to be practical but stoic, has always fascinated me. It would be cliché to throw in the Tim Winton quote about the sport being one of the few occasions it’s deemed suitable for men to perform something beautiful, but it’s an apt description from a don of the English written word. I’ve always felt the same about craftsmen, whose ability to turn thoughts into structures I truly admire.

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A diligent practitioner at work.

Building things with your hands is creativity in its purest form, and I’d slot shaping, handshaping in particular, straight into that category. Watching a talented and meticulous shaper take a crude piece of foam and whittle it into something beautiful (especially if it’s got your name on the bottom) is a touching experience. I was lucky enough to watch Josh Keogh plane out a fish for me over two years ago, and it’s since circled the world (fixed fins, stuffed in a boardbag) and been ridden more than I’ve ridden any other surfboard. Josh has become someone I consider a true friend, so when the editor threw his name out as someone worthy of interviewing I threw my hand up.

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Josh putting one of his designs to the test on a Hawaiian wall recently. (Photo by Chris Grundy).

Josh was born and raised in Merimbula on the far south cost of New South Wales. Despite it being a reasonably-sized town (swelling in summer with the influx of tourists), it’s a long way from anywhere notable north or south. As a friend and I discovered on our way to visit Josh for the weekend, when I filled his diesel Iload up with unleaded. The time and space that such a beautiful, remote stretch of coast allows informs a great part of Josh’s character. He’s a curious soul who reads widely and thinks deep. He’s also a great conversationalist, prone to impromptu, lengthy phone calls. I generally despise my phone ringing, but Josh calling is an exception.

 

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Jasson ‘Salsa’ Salisbury, blurred in perfect trim. (Photo by Raphael Beazley).

Josh is a talented surfer on an array of crafts. He grew up mainly riding longboards, but was also influenced by visionary South Coast shapers and surfers like Terry Glass and Mick Mackie. Their guidance, paired with an open-mind, meant that Josh was also riding twinnies, bonzers and all manner of crafts before the rest of us ditched the shooters and embraced a little foam under the chest. When Josh was 18 he suffered a debilitating back injury which led to a long stint out of the water. So, he started shaping.

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Josh blowing dust off another one-off piece.

“Up until that point my whole identity was wrapped up in the idea of being a surfer,” Josh says. “To suddenly have that taken away resulted in a pretty radical identity crisis.” Josh’s search for meaning lead him to the door of his shaper, Terry Glass. The elder granted him entry into the world of surfboard building by letting Josh shadow him, picking up the basics of shaping and design in the process. “Being around surfboards and learning how to make them allowed me to still feel close to it, so I guess that’s where my initial interest came from,” Josh says. When he went to University in Melbourne, Josh continued making boards for he and his friends. Living in Torquay allowed him to further sponge knowledge from such illustrious foam-mowers as Maurice Cole, Wayne Roach and Greg Brown. “I feel extremely fortunate to have been on the receiving end of small pearls of knowledge,” Josh says. “The shapers that have come before are in essence the keepers of the flame, and I think as a young shaper there is a responsibility to honour this knowledge.”

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Salsa searching for the edge on the original channel twin.

Josh handshapes all his boards and has strong opinions on design, borne out of countless experiments. In particular, on surfboards and their sweet spots. “Your average punter is going to have a lot more fun with a $50 tennis racket that has a large head, is softly strung and provides a large sweet spot, than a $300, carbon-frame Roger Federer model with elite string tension and a sweet spot the size of a 10 cent piece.” Josh says. “I think there was a certain time in surfing where boards were a lot easier to surf, and they gave the surfer a more fulfilling experience. Modern shortboards are incredible and the stuff that the top level surfers are doing on them is mind-blowing, but I don’t think the designs translate well to the everyday surfer.”

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Rasta putting his channel twin to the ultimate test in the Islands

Josh takes R&D seriously. Well, not entirely seriously, but he’s dedicated to furthering his knowledge of the craft, and more importantly, the experience of those riding his creations. Jason ‘Salsa’ Salisbury, the Sydney-turned-Northern Rivers surfer and Vedic meditation teacher is Josh’s longest-standing test pilot, and the two hang out and scheme at any given opportunity. I’ve been lucky enough to tag along on a few of these outings, and remember once being mesmerised by Salsa blowing the fins out at a windy beachbreak on a 5’5 keel fin fish Josh calls the “Monad.” It was the perfect marrying of a surfer’s ability with an elegant vessel. The latest design hole that Salsa and Josh have delved into has been longer twin fins with channels. “When I was growing up the best surfer in my local town always used to ride these long channel bottom thrusters made by my mentor Terry Glass,” Josh says of the thought process. “I used to watch him on big gnarly days and be totally infatuated with how beautifully functional they looked. I was making these really short fishes for Salsa and he wanted something longer for the big days, without losing that twin fin feeling. I shaped him a 5’9 round tail twinny, put some crude channels in it and it worked great. He rode that board to death, and I guess that was when I realised that there was a special relationship between channels with a twin fin configuration.”

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Twins and juice = perfect match (in the right hands).

Rasta’s recently started riding Josh’s channel twins, and for someone who makes surfboards, there isn’t much of a higher accolade. “To have him approach me out of the blue for a board, get his input on design and then feedback was an amazing experience,” Josh says. “I feel like of all the surfers in the world, Dave has probably experimented with more different equipment than anyone, and it’s a true testament to his ability to really decipher what he likes and dislikes in a surfboard.”

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Rasta engaging two fins and channels in perfect unison.

It’s interesting to hear Josh talk about making boards for David Rastovich, as the process sounds exactly the same as it was with a mediocre surfer like me. He’s just not a, “What you want, yeah no worries…” kind of guy. The thought that goes into his operation lands on the crux of what it’s about: custom, handmade surfboards that provoke an emotional reaction from those who ride them. “I’m not 100% convinced that a custom board is necessarily going to make you a better surfer than the stock one you purchased off the rack,” Josh tells me. “But sitting down with the shaper and talking it over, choosing the specifics and having something made to your particular tastes will no doubt give you a greater appreciation for that product on an emotional level. You could argue that a stronger connection to the item provides a more stimulating sensory feedback, and a greater surfing experience.”

Give the gift of going fast and feelin’ great this Xmas.

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