Behind an unassuming home in the Byrnes Down neighborhood in a detached garage among a busy clothes dryer, you can find Richard Prause at work. Under the name Grasshopper Surfboards, Prouse can take a blank hunk of nondescript foam and craft it into your next Saturday afternoon at the beach.
Although Prause was born on Maui, his parents both grew up in Charleston, and they moved back here when he was five. His dad always made his own boards. So did his godfather — it was part of the surfing lifestyle that Prause grew up with. He was 18 and a senior in high school when he made his first one.
Now, Prause is an engineer by day, and a husband and father of a 2-year-old daughter. But he comes out to the garage in his spare time. Today, 12 years after that first board, he makes a few a month and about 50 a year.
Making a surfboard is not as laborious as one would think. As Prause says, if you have basic woodworking tools, all you need is a couple hundred bucks for materials. You take a block of foam called a blank, shape it, lay fiberglass on it, sand it smooth, and set the fins. Actually, there's a lot more to the eight-to-10 hour process than that, but Prouse didn't want to get too technical.
On the aesthetic side, Prause admits to not being particularly artistic. Lately, he's been trying out bamboo veneers on boards, different spray jobs, and resin tints that make a marble swirl when they're combined. Whenever he tries to get especially creative with painting or colors, they usually don't turn out as well as he likes. Instead, his favorite part of the process is shaping. "You're taking raw foam and saying, 'All right, what do you want your surfboard to be?'" he says. "You can make it anything. So that's the most fun part for me."
For certain boards, he'll think about them for a really long time before he finally gets started. Others, he makes out of necessity, like if one of the boards in his personal collection of about 20 breaks. If that happens, he'll slap out a new one real quick so he can ride it.
When he makes someone a board, all he asks for in compensation is enough money to make another one. Buy two blanks; he'll make you one and then one for himself. Prause mostly makes the boards for himself and for friends, and sometimes for friends of friends. Some local shops have shown interest in his work, and he'd like to partner up with them, but he's not sure if he has the time or resources. Currently, surfers in Florida, California, New York, and even Japan are riding one of the Grasshopper boards that Prouse made in his garage.
A lot of people tell Prause they want one of his boards, but only a few actually give him the go ahead, and for the most part, he says they're really happy with the result. "A lot of times they'll come by and watch me shape it or give me a lot of input on exactly what they want," Prause says. "It'd be a board that they probably couldn't get from someone unless it was someone making it especially for them that they were talking to. People appreciate that."
I ask Prause if he's ever been displeased with how a board's turned out. He responds with a yes and then adds that it happens every single time.
"That's the thing about making surf boards: There's always something that you want to correct. You make it, you ride it, and you say, 'OK, this rides great, but I want it to do this a little differently.' So it's an ongoing process that you never reach the end."