Against the Grain

Courtesy of Anthony Laney

Three years after graduating from UCSD, Muir College almunus Erik Maki owns and operates Maki Longboards. But Maki wasn’t transformed into a small-business owner in a UCSD economics course — rather, in a woodshop class he took his senior year at a local community college.

As a linguistics major without a clue what to do come graduation, Maki decided to try his hand at woodworking at Mesa Community College during Winter Quarter 2007.

“It started as a hobby, and the more I did it, I realized that I could do something that not many others can — and it’s making other people happy, too,” Maki said. “At least for me, I’m an experiential learner; so taking classes is one thing, but going out and experiencing the things that you’re learning have always been more important to me. So it wasn’t until I was immersed in woodworking that I started to put everything together.”

Immediately after graduating from UCSD, Maki was hired by a high-end home-decor company in San Diego, where he continued to learn more about woodworking, as well as interior design. However, he said he eventually became frustrated with what he considered to be his complete detachment from the creative process.

“I was working 60 hours a week at a cabinet shop, working for someone else — and I was making OK money, but I was not happy at all,” Maki said. “I was doing things for other people the way that they wanted, and felt that I wasn’t getting anything out of it. I decided that I was ready for something new.”

It was after his departure from Beme International that Maki decided to settle down in El Segundo, combine his experience as a guide for UCSD’s Outback Adventures with his new skills as a woodworker to create Maki Longboards, a company specializing in custom wood surf and skateboards.

Without the money to rent a private workspace, Maki converted the two-car garage in his El Segundo home into a 500-square-foot workshop. Stacks of tools along the walls and planks of wood stacked everywhere in between left almost no wiggle room for creating the boards. And aside from cramped quarters, Maki faced the more classic obstacles of working in a residential area: Within a week of setting up shop, Maki’s neighbors had already complained to the cops about noise.

Since the rocky start, Maki has hit his stride. The woodworker shapes an average of four to five boards a week, priced between $150 for the 23-inch Mini Longboard to $300 for the 46-inch Classic Cruiser, each taking around three days to perfect.

Maki first started skateboarding his freshman year as a way to get to class on time. As a longtime avid surfer, he eventually envisioned that the practical act of skateboarding could take on some of the more recreational qualities of surfing. He eventually got a personal feel for the intimate experience that comes with cruising around on a longboard across campus — a central feeling to his approach in shaping his boards.

“The more I just went from point A to point B and just learned how to ride, it was fun, — but that’s where eventually I wanted a board that reflected more of my personality and style,” Maki said. “And that’s where surfing came in.”

Maki said he shapes his on-land longboards to emulate the sensation of surfing a long, slow wave — an approach he believes many larger longboard companies have abandoned in prioritizing mass production over quality.

Courtesy of Nick Rotond

“I guess I’m going against the grain because most skateboard companies are about making a ton of boards that they can get out there,” Maki said. “Every board is made the same way, so the way they make them different is by adding colorful graphics or art. What I’m doing is kind of taking a different approach. I’m looking to cater to surfers who want a skateboard that looks as nice as their surfboard, feels like their surfboard and rides like it, too.”

As soon as his business was off the ground, Maki returned to his first love and began to shape surfboards as well. His models are made of Redwood Alaia, a wood that, according to Maki, was used by ancient Hawaiians to construct surfboards long before the Western world made contact in 1778. The Alaia boards start at roughly $300 each.

The UCSD graduate said his most important job at Maki Longboards is creating the individual design of each board.

“I want to be making boards with my own two hands that reflect the work and the thought that go into every board, and no two boards that I’ve ever made have been exactly alike,” he said. “With the different woods I use — the colors and the grain patterns — everything is always going to be different, and that’s what’s so exciting about it. You’ll get these grains that will almost give the boards a sense of movement. It’s like a skateboard that looks like a Ferrari just by the natural wood itself.”

Locally, he has sold his boards in Muir Surf and Skate in Pacific Beach (formerly located in Muir College) and the Outback Adventures Surf Shop in Price Center. Although he prefers to take local orders to because it allows more customer participation in the shaping process, Maki’s business is earning nationwide popularity. In the last year, Maki entered the world of high art by shaping boards for restaurant countertops and art galleries in Los Angeles. In addition, Maki recently received a bizarre request from a man in North Carolina who wanted a surfboard shaped for his English bulldog. According to the client, surfing is his dog’s No.1 passion in life.

“But apparently, he hasn’t been able to find a board that is durable enough for her, because she spends most of her time chewing through them,” Maki said.

Though he highly prizes the intimate feel of custom handiwork, Maki is not above seeking the corporate leg-up in a highly competitive market. Though individual orders are still his main source of income, he said he recently began making prototype longboards that he hopes to sell to major skate shops, along with crafting boards specifically for home decor. But until his big break, Maki said he’s more than happy carving out a living from a pastime he loves.

“I never know how any day is going to turn out, but I know that it’s going to surprise me in a good way,” he said. I’ve always known that there was no one perfect job for me, and what I was going to be doing had no job title — so I’m glad that I get to make up my job title as I go.”

Readers can contact Jake Blanc at [email protected].

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