In 2008, Michael Hall moved to Portland, Oregon, and was promptly laid off. A geologist by training, the 28-year-old Washington native had spent the past five years zipping around the Alaskan tundra and other equally remote locales in a helicopter, looking for mineral deposits. But the Great Recession clobbered the mining industry and left Hall out of work, in a new town, with substantial free time to burn.
He enrolled in graduate school, at Lewis & Clark College, hoping to pivot into education. But he still had ample opportunities to surf, a hobby he’d taken up two years earlier. The problem was that “at the time,” Hall says, “surfboard designs were not very well geared for our waves, which tend to be flatter than, like, big barreling Hawaiian-reef waves.”
On a lark, Hall decided to build a board himself—one that was wider and had less rocker, or curvature, than traditional designs, to better suit it to Oregon’s surf. Hall doubted his technical prowess. But, to his surprise, his first attempt turned out fairly well. “This is great!” he recalls thinking. In short order, Hall began making surfboards for friends and taking ad-hoc orders through Craigslist. He was taken aback by the demand. “There was a need at the time,” he recalls. “No one locally was really doing what I did,” especially in terms of creating cut-rate custom boards online.
In 2011, Hall founded Blackfern Backyard Board Co., which specializes in eco-friendly boards built specifically for the Pacific Northwest. Now 39, Hall is the one-man force behind the operation. He collaborates with clients to tailor each board to their liking, then handles all the shaping and glassing in his backyard workshop: “People will come to me and say, ‘Hey, I like this look but I want these colors instead, and I want it to have this other feature,’ then we’ll riff on it.”
Despite Blackfern’s success, Hall followed through with his education pivot, and now divides his time between making surfboards and teaching middle-school science. Balancing these vocations, he believes, results in better surfboards. “I can’t devote all my energy to one thing,” he says. “I have to have diversity to be fresh and remain excited about it.”
Hall typically fills 30 to 50 orders a year, which allows him to take his time with each board yet stay plenty busy. “I’m sure this sounds strange,” he says, “but I have no desire to grow as a business. I’m super happy with what the company is.” He makes most of his boards in the summer when school is out, or in the winter, when surfing is no good. And when the surfing is good, he and his wife, Sarah, are usually out looking for waves.
Further distinguishing Hall from other board makers, two years ago he switched from using a traditional petroleum-based resin—harmful to human health and the environment—to a bio-based epoxy alternative. The latter is harder to work with and more expensive than traditional resin, but the extra cost and hassle don’t bother Hall. “We have to show the industry there’s an appetite for this stuff,” he says, “and send a signal to the marketplace that, ‘Hey, we want more eco stuff.’”
He has an affinity for other small surf companies that share his scrappy, renegade spirit. The day we visited Hall’s shop, he was sporting a pair of Beach Britches by Birdwell, a surf-apparel company founded in 1961 by California seamstress Carrie Birdwell Mann.
In sewing suits for her sons, Mann ended up designing iconic beachwear, still a favorite among surfers six decades later. Birdwell, like Blackfern, continues to produce its wares in a modest U.S. shop. “We appreciate the big surf companies,” says Brett Reynolds, Birdwell’s Chief Product Officer. “But we view ourselves differently because we create products differently.”
That sentiment jibes with Hall. He appreciates that his customers seem to share his values and appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into his boards. He often runs into clients while out surfing. When he does, “I don’t have to feel guilty,” he says, even if he has orders to fill. His customers understand that surfing is part of the process.
“We appreciate the big surf companies,” says Brett Reynolds, Birdwell’s Chief Product Officer. “But we view ourselves differently because we create products differently.”