AJW Surfboards on culture, waves, and why you should talk to your shaper

Adam Warden, the founder of AJW Surfboards, has crossed hemispheres, rethought shaping, and decidedly impacted the surfing industry through a thoughtful relational approach. Growing up on the East Coast of Virginia, he stumbled upon surfing through his older brother. In need of a new board and unable to hand over sufficient cash for a factory shape, Adam began shaping his own boards through a process of trial and error before holding a driver's license.

This early start catalyzed Adam's shaping abilities, but exploring the world provided a depth of knowledge unattainable from southeastern shaping bays. Trips to Oaxaca provided eye-opening experiences that later shaped his future before landing in San Diego. In elaborating on the impetus behind his decision, Adam explained:

"Before moving anywhere, I traveled all over to find waves while funding my early trips by shaping boards. Moving to California was neither a big transition nor even really a goal. I was always focused on going to different places and surfing new spots. I spent my summers designing small wave boards on the East Coast, and then my time during the winter was spent learning to shape for bigger waves while I ventured to Hawaii, mainland Mexico, and abroad.

I always tried to keep an open mind while experimenting with different curves and altering rockers for various styles of waves. As time went on, I ended up spending longer and longer stints in California between trips. It was always a great hub to use as a home base. When it comes to building surfboards, there's a long history of surfboard building here and plenty of skilled people to work alongside."


San Diego's surf history started in the early 1900s when cultural harbingers such as George Freeth, Duke Kahanamoku, Larry Gordon, and others carved the evolutionary path of style, design, and materials, forming the petri-dish of modern shaping evident today. The contemporary demand for high-performance shortboards, functional daily drivers, and speedy grovelers alike has encouraged a more utilitarian approach towards creating something fun to ride that can simultaneously perform in optimal conditions. The templates that top shapers use today have been based on years of refinement and are rarely shared freely.


"Throughout my career, I've always prided myself on working hard and collaborating with as many board builders as possible to soak up any knowledge they were willing to offer. Especially early on in my career, I would just learn as I worked with everyone. I would have to credit every single laminator, sander, and shaper I've ever worked alongside since they all play a small part in who I am today. 

The crew at Diamond Glassing was highly influential in teaching me how to build quality into boards. Regarding business and friendship, Marcio Zouvi of Sharpeye has been my trustworthy friend and solid mentor for many years. His crew took me under their wing and treated me as family. You never know who you're going to learn something new from. I always try to keep a broad perspective toward everyone, from total beginners to the most seasoned veterans. It's all just a never-ending learning process." 


Experience forms our approach; waves influence design. However, not everyone makes boards the same way or even uses the same tools. This becomes especially apparent across national borders. Referencing his time spent outside of the United States, Adam shared how his view of what could be used to shape a board has adapted while traveling. 


"I've picked up all sorts of unique tools while going to different breaks worldwide and seeing how things are done differently. Every culture has unique strengths and weaknesses, especially when it comes to manufacturing. Discovering alternative manufacturing tools and techniques outside of the US has not only expanded my understanding but fundamentally changed my perspective. Delivering a good product requires using all the good techniques and tools from all over the world. It's a big world, and there's lots to learn from all cultures and waves." 


Melding approaches should yield a better product; however, shaping with an idea in mind for how it will be surfed is only one side of the coin. The flip side, out in the water, can tell another story. Adam mentioned how some of his most memorable moments came when a board he shaped for someone resulted in something far beyond his expectations. 


"I remember the first time I saw Matt Meola on one of the boards we shaped. In his first session, he landed several Mctwist flips and was nominated for Maneuver of the Year. At the time, that was mind-boggling and pushed the concept of what's possible on a surfboard. That was pretty special. I also had the same feeling the first time I saw one of our boards getting 10-point barrels in a Pipeline event. Seeing the boards perform at top levels is always inspiring and fuels me to improve constantly." 


Consistent success when creating a custom board comes down to clear communication between the customer and the shaper. Considering not only one's anatomical features but also surfing style and personal objectives can drastically alter what shape the customer finds to be ideal. The holistic process that takes place between a rider and shaper is why machines will never fully replace those making boards in the surfing industry. Reflecting on his time collaborating with riders, Adam elucidated some of the things that he found meritable in rider-shaper dynamics.


"Every surfer has different experiences and goals in their surfing. So, forming a good relationship and watching them in the water is crucial to understanding what they truly want to get out of their surfing. Riders must take the time to explain to their shaper what they want to get out of a board, and the shaper has to observe how they surf to create a board well-suited for them. It's a two-way street. More speed, more flow, creating stiffness or responsiveness, it's all about interpretation and working together to form something that makes a difference out in the water." 


Working long hours and filling orders is commonplace for most shapers and, for some, displaces time that could be spent out in the water. In speaking with Adam, I questioned his approach towards looming deadlines that may be imposing on his personal surfing time and what kinds of boards are in his day-to-day quiver. 


"I told myself that the day I quit surfing will be the day I quit shaping. The passion has to be derived from surfing. I make sure to get in the water every week, no matter the conditions. San Diego is typically under head high and has pretty weak waves, so I prefer riding a twinfin. Recently, I've been riding a 5'6" Skinny/Classic Twin. If it's really small, I'll ride a Step-Rail PL3, and when the waves are good, I ride a 5'11" Speedy Shortboard or a 6'4 Cowbeak at the reefs." 


AJW Surfboards has recently partnered with Dark Arts to combine our approach to material innovation with his performance-driven designs to create a lighter, more sensitive board than the typical constructions offered today. Considering the rapid changes in the surfboard industry toward carbon-centric constructions, Adam explained why he decided that partnering with Dark Arts felt like a step forward in surfboard design. 


“I'm most excited about controlling flex patterns in poly boards with better materials. It's not just about changing the weight but also finding balance and flex control, which all play a crucial role in generating speed. Years back, we built a big wave poly board with carbon that Justin Ternes laminated, and that received great feedback.

I'm looking forward to collaborating on some other big-wave designs. Ultimately, I'm really excited to work with passionate people. JT is one of those guys I've always respected and enjoyed working with. I'm looking forward to collaborating with like-minded individuals who are passionate about building top-quality surfboards, and I'm stoked to offer this high level of quality to our customers.” 



You can order new AJW designs from our website or stop by our shop at 3106 Main Street, San Diego, CA 92113. Adam is on Instagram at @ajwsurfboards. Custom orders can be placed by emailing tony@darkartssurf.com.