The mandala, the symbol and moniker of Manuel C. Caro’s surfboard label, is a series of concentric circles coming together to represent a universe. The mandala is also a fitting symbol for Manuel himself. He is a multifaceted man whose interests coalesce into particular clarity at opportune points. Anthropologist by education and by avocation, he is keenly aware of his standing among his peers- surfboard builders and craftsmen of the highest caliber. Filmmaker by training, Manuel is engaged in viewing the world around him as imagery of layered depth, and is thusly inclined to craft shapes that engage surfing on it’s most superficial level- pure fun, and it’s most rich and nuanced levels- form, tradition, progression, emotion.
He envisions surfboards as true sculptures, beautiful in their own form, and even more beautiful in function. Mandala boards carry an understated grace in their line, foil, and immaculate glasswork. Careful thought and the fortune to be mentored by some of the finest shapers of recent times have earned him a fair measure of success as a surfboard shaper. To view or ride a Manuel C. Caro shape is to be in contact with the tradition of surfboard building culture while simultaneously leaning towards the future.
We met together behind Moonlight Glassing’s renowned confines in North County, San Diego, California to discuss the path that led him to a career as shaper of handcrafted surfboards and his trajectory as a craftsman for the future.
I earned a degree in anthropology and a degree in film production in college. I was in kind of post-grad limbo. That uncertainty was so daunting that I decided to just have a retail job and kind of float around for a while. Part of that was a chance to make surfboards. I lived in this old neighborhood in Oakland that you would not associate with someone who made surfboards. I made a shaping room in my basement. I finally had a place to build a shaping room and make a mess. I was so hesitant to begin a board that it took me three months. Just whittling away. My first board came out okay and I was kind of hooked. I realized, “Hey, I could do this.”
The Pavel and quad-fin fish period:
My six or seventh board was a red quad fish. I was on the way back from Baja and I stopped by the greenroom, Rich “Toby” Pavel’s shop. I had a board on order from Toby and I was just checking up on it. I was bugging him and finally I got into the shaping room and he shaped my board right there. In the meantime I was making my own boards. I brought one by and he was really impressed. He was like, “come here I made something for you.” It was a template for a 5’5 fish. It was an extended natural curve fish template. I was blown away. It’s like giving someone a camera. You’re not going to show them how to take photos but you’re giving them a tool to get to a certain place. It took me a long time to realize that the template was just a curve and with that curve you could build just about anything. He saw that I had potential because he saw that I was able to come to that conclusion on my own. He kept pointing the direction to the mountain but he didn’t tell me which trail to take. With Rich it’s never been about hard facts. He never goes down a list and tells you what to do. He points the direction and sees if you make it. It’s like the Choose Your Own Adventure of Rich Pavel.
I am now a shaper:
I had a crappy day job in Santa Cruz. I was getting stopped coming out of the water and people were asking me to make them boards. It got to the point where I realized I could make enough money shaping and so I quit the crappy job. That’s where there was a shift. I chose the path of shaping. Then I had to decide what to call this new adventure. It’s almost comically cliché how the name came about. I’m driving on the 5 freeway, listening to Robbie Shankar, and I’m just past the grapevine, and I’m buzzing on what I should do with my life. Then I distinctly hear this bell in my mind, “Ding!” And it came to me- Mandala. A lot of people make fun of the name, because it’s so from that era of psychedelics and so on. But really it’s fitting because in my life there are all these interests: making stuff with my hands, photography, music, and I finally found a vehicle that all those interests could get into with shaping, and that’s what a Mandala is, a series of concentric circles representing a universe.
You have to ask yourself, “Why do you shape?” Do you want to be someone who makes replicas or someone who makes originals? There was a point at which I was so slammed with orders that I tried the machine. I did it, but it was the most unsatisfying experience. It was utterly boring. It was kind of like getting handed a coloring book and being told, “This is what you make, so make it.” It didn’t provide any room for breakthroughs because if you wanted to change something you would have to go and talk with the computer guy and pay them to make a little change. Those types of changes are instantaneous and intuitive in the shaping room.
If you’re looking at the blank you envision the board first and adapt to whatever is happening with the foam. I am the machine. The handmade boards are special. It’s kind of unquantifiable. And you know, people can tell it was made by hand. I think it is a choice people make when they call me up. Just this morning I chatted with a customer who wants the board for a specific wave, his body type, his surfing, and what he wants the board to do. So I offered him a suggestion that would work. That’s the kind of thing I am really attracted to, being able to steer the ship wherever it needs to go at any moment. I take a great deal of pride in what I do. I want to make boards that become family heirlooms, not boards that have a planned obsolescence.
Control in the shaping room:
My shapes are episodes along a continuum of innovation of design. The shapes really reflect a personal evolution of understanding. This personal influence is so profoundly a part of what makes surfboard building special. And it is so different than the sterile work of a lot of shaping nowadays- especially with the shaping programs where you can download pre-formatted templates, rockers and rails, and you can alter them and call them your own, but you didn’t start at the beginning.
The influence of mentors:
I always hear voices in the shaping room, like something Rich or Marc (Andreini) said, especially when I’m doing one thing or another. They’ve had a strong hand in directing my thoughts on shaping. I’ve always been striving towards simplicity as a goal in everything. Marc’s approach is so simple, and so beautifully elegant that I was like, “I want to do that!” He doesn’t tell you what to do. It’s more like if you pick up on it then you’re in. I really respect Rich as a craftsman. If anyone doubts that Rich can do it without the machine, just give him any blank and he’ll make the most beautiful custom board out of it. The same thing goes for Marc. He comes from a time when all the blanks were horrible. He had to make his own glue-ups and correct rockers and that’s how he learned to see the sculpture in the foam. I think that may be a dying art because we’re so used to instant gratification and reproducible perfection as the measuring bar instead of a “nothing ventured, nothing gained” mindset. They invited me to their shaping rooms, and you don’t ask to watch someone shape, you get invited. It was like they were saying, “I need to hand off these skills and you’re qualified.” I remain honored.
My designs all followed what I was into in my surfing. When I began shaping it was because the fish was an insane platform. I got on a fish and it added like twenty years to my life. My first fish was a Freeline Design 5’4 twin that I rode at Waddel Creek. It’s funny, I was just there and I was remembering tripping out on feeling that first fish session. That feeling had me saying “This is what I wants to make.” Then, a bit ago, my friend Alex Kopps got me to try a hull. It was at a jetty on my backside and it just sucked, so I let that go. I didn’t touch that for a few years. Then I tried an Andreini and it knocked my socks off! I couldn’t believe how fun it was. I remember feeling it, doing a really big bottom turn and just grooving on the high line and then I realized that this is what they’re talking about. This sensation is great. I wasn’t even going very fast but it was just a feeling of fullness. Then I tried a really short hull, a little stubbie. I was just stoked. It felt like sliding on a finless surfboard down a hill that was covered with grass that was covered with oil. I felt like I finally got to a place where I could enjoy the feeling. It wasn’t like “These are hard to ride and they’re cool because they’re hard,” but it was cool because you’re accessing a new feeling, a new emotion or sensation.
I think it’s inherent in human nature to want to experience altered forms of consciousness. Kids are all sitting around holding their breath or spinning in a circle. I feel like that just continues on. People do drugs, drink, and also they surf. They develop tolerance for those sensations. Then they need to feed that fire. They feel like they’ve got to take bigger waves and try different designs. Those different designs are one way to get to that newness of feeling. I almost burned out on doing so many fish and so working on the hulls is so wonderful.
Connection to tradition:
The shaping of surfboards started in Polynesia but it has evolved here in California. This is an opportunity for me to be a part of that lineage and continue that history. There are a lot of cultures all over the world that have a defining interest in craftworks as a culture. For instance the Japanese, everything they have, it matters who made it and how. They have national living treasures. The government subsidizes them so they can continue doing what they do. There are families who go back for tens of generations who make cloth and dye it with indigo, people who make boxes, bells, swords, and they’ve perfected them. They’ve gotten so close to perfection in their craft that they define their culture. In a big way surfboards and the way surfboards are made define surfing. The part of me that cares about culture is sad to see hand shaped surfboards fade. Don’t let go of this, this is one of the last things we have that differentiates us from any other sport out there. Every time I give a customer a board I say thank you for supporting custom handmade surfboards. Maybe that’s important.
Future as a shaper:
As far as shaping goes, I’m in junior high. I’m learning things and applying them. For example, if you look at Terry Martin’s boards and feel his curves, these are things that are made by human hands that are so close to unspoken perfection. He’s a really humble guy. That’s the kind of person I want to be as I grow in shaping. People will email me and ask to get help with their shaping but I’m not there yet. I did have a moment with Rich once where every time I’d visit he’d give me one more piece of the quad fish puzzle. Once he visited Santa Cruz and he’s like, everything is looking good, I’m going to give you one last piece of the puzzle. He showed me and I did it and he put his hand on my shoulder and he said, “Okay, now you are one of a very few people who are making boards like this.” I was handed the torch, and you have a responsibility with that torch. I could keep people warm or I could burn houses down. I still have a long way to go. I have a lot to prove with my shapes. It motivates me.