Shaking hands with Chris Williams and Jeff Schroeder immediately made me feel not only very un-tan but also very un-rad. The two friends recently moved from California and have opened up Union Surfboards in their new neighborhood, Greenpoint. We met inside their studio that’s just big enough to sand off a board and drink a few beers in the process. The place is dusty, but in a clean beachy sort of way and is by no means a faddy showroom– it’s a real workshop. As we spoke, Williams, despite having a broken hand, would compulsively polish one of the boards propped up on a saw horse.
This winter was an unusually brutal one in New York, but living off the A train every now and then I’d see people bundled up weather appropriate while toting enormous surfboards. I couldn’t imagine they were actually heading out to Rockaway to surf. But then again, it didn’t look like they were schlepping those things around for the hell of it.
“The people who surf in New York and New Jersey are way more dedicated because the waves aren’t as consistent as California,” said Jeff, who’s originally from D.C. but moved to California for seven years, where he met Chris, a San Francisco native. “You really have to work for good waves out here. I mean, we’ll go out in the 8 mm wet suit in 30 degree water and you’ll be using gloves and all that. It’s relatively easy and consistent in places like California. So out here, it’s not like you’re a fair weather surfer.”
And this is exactly the market Union Surfboards is tapping into, people who want custom-made boards that perform well and look great. And there aren’t many people making and selling custom surfboards in either Brooklyn or Manhattan. Jeff, who handles the branding and design while Chris builds the product, picked up one of the custom boards, a handmade red board with a flamingo and piña colada print.
“We wanted it to be an Americana sort of industrial-style brand,” Chris explained. “We’re also trying to make performance surf boards as opposed to vintage surfboards that look great on your wall. It’s the type of board that’s going to make you look cool, basically. And they’re just really old school, and it’s difficult to find someone who’s selling performance surfboards, which is something every Californian has access to, every guy in Hawaii has access to, and aside from a few people out in Long Island, we’re the only people around here making surfboards you can rely on and trust.”
The two said they had already wanted to move to Brooklyn but the opportunity to make surfboards here was definitely a deciding factor.
“Starting a brand in California, the market is totally saturated whereas here there are 8 million people in Manhattan, 20 million people in the greater Metropolitan area– there’s a market for anything with that many millions of people and it’s definitely underserved and there’s definitely surf in NY and New Jersey,” Jeff explained. “And also I fucking hate LA., I never want to live there again and I’ve always wanted to live in New York full time. I’ve never been broker or happier.”
It’s pretty clear Union Surfboards is a pretty bare bones operation — for now, anyway — and has a sort of DIY feel. Chris first started making boards three years back out of necessity. “I had a tendency to break boards– they’re fragile in general– but I surfed a lot, so it was sort of an economic decision to start making them on my own but it was also because I’ve had so many surfboards and there were things about all of them that I liked and I wanted to bring all that together and unless you know how to do it yourself, there’s no real way of experimenting.”
And buying a boards at Union won’t be like walking into any surf shop, there are no $40 T-shirts, board shorts, or bucket hats with pot leaves on them, yet. For now the guys say the experience is highly personalized. “People will just bring a six pack and shoot the shit. Surfers love talking about surfing as much as they do surfing,” Jeff said.
“We usually do a Q+A with them basically to see how long they’ve been surfing, understand what their objectives are with surfing. The most important thing is to understand what they want the board to do and their style of surfing. Are they cruisey? Are they aggressive? Performance based? Or are they just trying to catch waves and cruise?” Chris explained. “So yeah, it’s just a dialogue.”
With summer just around the corner and the revival of the Rockaways through new construction and beach restoration, Chris and Jeff might be getting an edge on a sport that may only grow in popularity. Also, climate change. Ha!
But in a way, Hurricane Sandy initiated a new burst of surf culture in New York City. While new restaurants, bars, boardwalks, and beachside hangouts have emerged out of the rubble, the beaches have not just returned to normal but are better than they’ve ever been.
“With the dredging that happened after Sandy it just takes a year or two, or maybe more, for more storms to come in and push the sand back to where it needs to be in order to form the waves, so yeah it’ll be even a bigger destination for actual surfers instead of people just going to get drunk,” Jeff predicted. “Well, when it’s flat you gotta go to Rippers.”
He added, “I guess destruction paves a way for creation in a certain way.”
Union Surfboards is located at 117 Dobbins Street in Greenpoint, call or contact ahead.