You might not have heard of the late, great Russell Graham, but, as one Torquay local put it, “Russ has left fingerprints on every single surfboard in this town.” Russ, who got his shaping start with Midget Farrelly in the ‘60s, famously came to Torquay in a school bus he’d converted into a mobile shaping factory. In the 50-odd years since, he’s quietly worked behind the scenes on thousands of boards; an old school craftsman, true to detail, but free to design. Russ slipped away last week. He spent his final days talking with son Corey, who followed him into the shaping game with the same hardscrabble attitude and offbeat style. Corey listened to his dad’s story in his final days. He tells it here.
Corey: “I’m lucky enough to be one of those crew who thinks that my dad is a fucking legend. You know what I mean? I’ve honestly always thought, fuck, my dad’s a legend. But after he passed, and you learn that everybody else thought he was a legend too – that it wasn’t just me – it’s actually been quite overwhelming. I’m welling up a bit actually talking about it, mate. Hearing the love from so many people from around Australia, from other countries, getting messages from Wayne Lynch and Maurice Cole and so many legends of so many eras, all close friends of Dad’s. All these guys who have either been behind the scenes in the industry or A-graders like Simon Anderson. It’s been quite unbelievable.
“Dad grew up on the Northern Beaches. Born at Avalon, surfed at Dee Why and Warriewood, and surfed for Narrabeen Boardriders. He left school at 14 and got into the surf industry pretty early. When he started working with Midget Farrelly, he was amongst all those guys. Bob McTavish was there, sleeping in his car at Midget’s factory. Dad wrote this about Midget:
“Midget came in to observe me and give me a few tips, always showing and teaching me little things. Midget was a man of a few words, but I hung on every word when he did speak. I was like a sponge. If he told me to do something differently, I’d listen. Other guys had come in and try to do it their own way. I just thought, no, I’m listening to everything Midget says.’
“Dad always said to me, “You can’t be a surfboard shaper until you know how to sand a board.” He took that from Midget. You don’t actually know anything till you know all of it. You should be able to shape, glass, sand and polish your own board. Do it all by yourself with no one else holding your hand. Dad could do that, and he passed that onto me. Dad started as a polisher before Midget started him shaping. He was just this unknown kid who walked in and wanted a job, whereas other guys at Midget’s were already known for their surfing and shaping. Dad jumped the cue over a lot of guys at Midget’s because he was paying homage to him and doing everything Midget asked.
“Midget would go to Hawaii and take all these boards over, but when he found they weren’t quite cutting the mustard, or he’d take influence from the Hawaiian guys’ boards, he’d send Dad these air mail letters with detailed instructions on boards he wanted shaped. He’d draw bottom curves and write dimensions, and Dad would make the boards for him and ship them over. This was around 1970.
“Dad shaped for Midget, but then went out on his own. He had an idea. He and Gary McKenzie-Smith got a school bus and turned it into a mobile shaping bay. They gutted the bus and painted the name on the side of the bus – Change Surfboards – and headed south. It was loose. The most flammable bus ever, full of chemicals. They lived in it as well. I couldn’t even imagine the smell, but that’s what they did. They shaped boards and fixed dings, and whenever there was no money, they’d go abalone diving. Dad was an ab diver and would dive all around Eden, because they weren’t making huge money off the boards. Dad was an ab-diving, surfboard-shaping, bus-driving vagabond.
“There was no destination. That was the point. But then he was parked in Melbourne one day and this car smashed into the back of the bus. It was Mum. That’s how they met. She was this MLC private schoolgirl and Dad looked like Jesus. He had the full long hair and beard. They moved to Torquay and married.
“Dad arrived just as surfing blew up in Torquay. He ended up here right at the zenith of everything happening. Claw and Brian were just starting on their wetsuits and wanted to focus on those, so they just said to Dad, “Why don’t you take over the surfboards?” So, Dad took over the whole Rip Curl board program. Think about the names he was working with and glassing for – Patty Morgan, Don Allcroft, Wayne Lynch, Maurice Cole.
“Making surfboards was never that profitable though, even then. Dad was trying to bring up a family and had a mortgage and all that, and it wasn’t sustainable to just be a full-time boardmaker, so he started a laminating business on the side. He was moonlighting from Rip Curl, so he called it Moonlight Laminating, which he ran for the next 50 years from the old Watercooled factory on the Surf Coast Highway.
“Dad was also into cars and made a car for the Chinese in the backyard at home. He had a mate who was one of the clay modellers at Holden, and he and Dad were given the job to make this prototype car for China, designed for two adults and one child – China had the one-child policy. Dad had the job of making this car out of fibreglass. He worked at night, so I’d literally look out my bedroom window and he’d have spotlights on making this Chinese car in the backyard. So, it wasn’t just surfboards, he was a fibreglass fabricator as well and made all the panels to his race cars. Motor cars were his real passion. He won five Victorian Hillclimb Championships and would tear down the Great Ocean Road every Sunday morning in his Clubman, which was his prize possession.
“Surfboard manufacturing was starting to evolve in the late ‘90s. Pre-shaping was coming in. Dad never liked pre-shapes back then because he kind of didn’t get it, but nobody got it. Dad always said, “Corey, just say yes and figure it out after that.” And that’s what he did. These big guys came to him with big projects and he’d just go, yes. Then he’d just work his arse off.
“The factory was really small, and he didn’t have room for blanks, so we had to store them at home. I was in primary school, and I’d be unpacking trucks of blanks, 500 blanks and they’d just be lying around in the backyard because we had nowhere else to put them. When I was sick, neither Mum nor Dad could take the day off work, so I’d end up at the factory in a blanket. Dad would make me cut logos out and draw fins on tissue paper. They were my sick days home from school. One time he totally forgot about me and went home. I was locked in there for hours bashing on the doors, bawling my eyes out before Dad realised.
“So, it’s literally in my DNA, but he never wanted me to make boards for a living. He did everything to make me stay in school and learn something else. He said, “Look mate, the work’s too hard and there’s no money in it.” I remember he gave me this old ‘80s windsurfer blank and a plane, and he said literally plane it till there’s no blank left. Plane it into dust, with no mask or headphones. Dad threw me into the most horrible, noisy, dusty fucking job, thinking it’d put me off wanting to make surfboards, but it backfired. I just loved it. I loved it, mate. He said, “I’m not here to make you do anything. If you want to do it, you’ll do it.” The one thing was that I had to pay my dues in all aspects – sanding, glassing, polishing – before I could shape. That’s how Midget taught him.
“He was brilliant to work with. He was always kind with his time, often too kind. He would eat up hours of his day talking to people. He could talk and glass at the same time like it was nothing. You wouldn’t even know he was glassing a board. He could just chat away and all of a sudden, the board was glassed and in the hot box and the next one was started. It was amazing to watch.
“The boards he liked to shape for himself were the kind of boards you don’t see anywhere. That’s why he liked shaping them, because he spent so much of his time glassing standard surfboards, he would deliberately make himself these ridiculous boards. And again, that’s why I kind of went off on my journey in my shaping because Dad got uncomfortable when he kept seeing the same thing over and over. He had to shape things differently. He got a big stringless PU blank sent down and made himself this board. It was ridiculous. It didn’t work, but it didn’t matter, he just wanted something different. On another board, he put like eight or 10 fin boxes in it, all over the joint. He just liked playing around because he’d seen it all. He just thought, why not this?
“He surfed longer boards. They looked like longboards but had shortboard curves in them. He was never a noserider. He was a tail of the board surfer. I reckon they were 7’10”s by 23 by three-and-a-half inches thick. Big surfboards made out of windsurfer blanks. They were huge and he loved them because he just could take off deep at Bells and ride them through the Bowl. He was in the Bells contest one year. He scored an interference on his first wave and figured, fuck it, I’m not going to win so he spent the rest of the heat doing headstands to the beach. It made the front page of The Age.
“Now he’s gone, I’m just going to flow for a little while. It’s a strange relationship with me and shaping right now. You know what I mean? Because I spent three-quarters of my shaping life with him just outside my door. I’d regularly have my door open, and we’d chat from room to room. He was always there. I shaped a couple of days this week and even though it’s a dirty, dusty, noisy room, it felt too quiet for me. It was all a bit weird. So, for the next couple of weeks I’m just going to shape when I’m feeling it and try to spend as much time surfing as I can. But I’m all good, man.
“Talking to him before he died has given me time to reflect. Hearing how he started and then knowing how I started, and his reaction to the gentrification of surfboards and how he pushed against it, he and I are very much the same. I can’t thank him enough, because now I find myself teaching younger guys. There’s not too many guys starting now, but to have the opportunity to teach somebody all aspects of it, the traditional ways to all the modern ways, I’m just fucking fortunate, mate.
“It’s quite a legacy he’s left me. I’m thankful, because like I told Dad in his final days, all the knowledge he’s imparted on me, I’ve made a living from that. I’ve bought a house and had a family and lived my life, all because of the knowledge he imparted on me. What a fucking gift. I thanked him for it. I just wanted to live my life in bare feet. I wanted the choice to have to put shoes on, and he’s given me that life. I can choose to not wear shoes if I don’t want to now, and what a gift that is.”
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