INTERVIEW BY TERRI CRAFT
PHOTOS BY TERRI CRAFT, JEFF HO AND CRAIG STECYK III
It only took three years to land this interview. After six different interview sessions, hours of transcribing and countless cups of coffee, we’re proud to present this rare interview with the elusive, Jeff Ho. Before the Z-Boys and the Zephyr shop days, Ho encouraged many to follow their dreams and went on to create one of the most honorable companies in the industry. Ho is a board building specialist in a world filled with monotonous mass production. His dedication and unwavering integrity should be awarded an honor. When a wise man speaks, listen.
Let’s start at the beginning. What’s your first memory?
The first thing I remember was my parents worked all the time, so the housekeeper used to walk me to school. I was five years old when I decided I was old enough to walk to school by myself.
“THE PEOPLE IN THE INDUSTRY THAT ACTUALLY DO THE WORK THEMSELVES WILL SURVIVE. THE CUSTOMER WILL RETURN TO THE SPECIALISTS FOR THE QUALITY.”
Where did you live at the time?
I lived in the heart of LA, south of the mid-Wilshire district.
Was that a safe place for a five-year-old to be walking around alone?
Back then, it was okay. We knew all our neighbors. If you didn’t belong, we would confront you. The reverse would happen to us if we were on someone else’s turf.
You had pre-school gang wars?
There were no pre-school gang wars, but I grew up in a gang-type environment. There were fights all the time. We ran the streets. There were street gangs and car clubs. I remember going to Queen Anne’s park for Halloween. They had set up a carnival and these two Mexicans were in the corner, stabbing each other. We were trick-or-treating with my friends, and someone was dying in the corner.
That had to make an impact on you.
That’s just the way it was. You knew when there was going to be a fight. It would start at school during recess and carry on after school. We never fought at school. Those street fights could go on for hours, days, and sometimes weeks. I don’t know where the cops were, but they never showed up.
The neighborhood policed itself?
Yeah, you really couldn’t come over and do something without someone knowing about it. At the time, even though there was violence, I always felt safe. I remember at age five, I knew what money was. I knew how to make it and how to save it and how to buy things. I also knew how to build things with my hands.
How did you learn that skill?
I just started doing it. I remember when I first started going to kindergarten, I thought school was fun. They had all this stuff to build with. They would give you the wood, and you could build boats and planes. I thought that was cool. Building stuff became one of my favorite things to do.
How did it occur to you to start building skateboards?
I always built everything for myself, so when I was a kid, I made my own skateboard to ride. We started out on rollerskates with metal wheels. We used to live on those rollerskates in the summer time. We rolled all over the LA area. Then I started finding old bikes in the alleys and I’d rebuild them. We used to build these chopper bikes with the banana seats and we would cut the fenders down. I had a good friend named Luke Abo. He was Japanese. They called him a ‘Buddahead’. Luke was really cool. He was two years older than I was and he knew all the guys. That’s how I hung out with the older guys when I was just a kid. By the time I was eight, I was riding around in the back of a lowrider. Luke’s dad had an auto body shop and a gas station. I learned how to do auto bodywork from his dad when I was eight years old. We used to get the metal-flake paint and go crazy. We used to build bikes and little cars that you could roll down the hill. Then we got into skateboarding.
How did that happen? Did you see other people skateboarding?
Well, we’d seen the show “Our Gang” on television. Spanky and those guys had the rollerskates nailed to the wood with the box on it. We built the same thing with the rollerskates and the scooter and then ripped the box off. Then we started nailing skates to 2x4s. We’d make them 24 inches long.
You were just making boards to ride?
Yeah, there was no plan. I was just building them to have some fun.
When did you get into surfing?
The first time I actually thought about surfing was at the Saturday matinee. There was a movie theatre on Fairfax. I went there in 1959 and saw “Gidget”. Sandra Dee was up there on the screen, and the only thing anyone cared about was the waves and the surfing in Malibu. It was an action movie. You really have to give the real Gidget, Kathy Kolner, a lot of respect though. There was a lot sexual discrimination at the time and she went into a man’s world and became part of a group of guys that surfed. She did what they did. She’s probably responsible for touching many people’s lives and starting them to think about surfing. It certainly did that for my life. That had a big impact on me. Surfing, at the time, was looked at as a beatnik thing. Surfers were drug heads and beach bums hanging around the beach and hustling tourists for money. That movie was responsible for the surf movement in the ’60s.
Did you start to surf after seeing the movie?
When I started going to Louis Pasteur Junior High School, I met a guy named David Botchnik. He used to go surfing at Santa Monica Pier on the weekends. He took me surfing a few times and showed me how to wax the board and how to paddle out. I was only four feet tall at the time, so the board was too big and I couldn’t afford to have my own board yet.
You’re just a kid, but you’re making your own money building things?
Yeah, I was working for my money. I made model airplanes and model cars. I would buy model cars and enter competitions at the hobby shops. If I won, someone would want to buy the car, so I would make $10. Later on, after my family moved to Culver City, I met these guys that would go and race slot cars. I would subcontract out and build the cars for them. I met some interesting people at those races. There was a guy named Gene Vangeliskis and he was a hustler. He used to hustle surfboards for Weber, Larry Felker and Jacobs. He was a movie guy. He was in on making the Frankie Avalon beach movies with Johnny Fain. Gene could score surfboards. I would buy them or trade him these slot cars. That’s how I bought my first board. I got a Dewey Weber. It was a 9’6″ with red panels. Then I got a 9’8″ Larry Felker that was volan with a green competition stripe on it. I traded for that one.
You went from building model cars to making surfboards. How did that happen?
It was around the same time that I was making the cars. I would lock the door to my room and then I’d go out the window. My parents always thought I was home. I used to ditch school, go to Santa Monica, borrow boards and surf. I met these two guys at the beach, Dana Wolf and Rich White, and their parents would drive us around. When I was fourteen, I was surfing El Puerto, Santa Monica, Hermosa, Manhattan and all over. My next natural thought was, “What about surfboards?” I never planned to start building boards. It was just something that I wanted to do. I melted the first board that I tried to make. Then I started to experiment with the glassing process.
You melted the first one and you kept on trying?
Yeah, I wanted a board. Everyone kept telling me I couldn’t do it. I had never seen anyone make a surfboard. Then I tried working with resin and color and people would say, “You can’t put pigment on it!” I was doing ding repair first, and then I was modifying boards. The board that I made next was a combination of scraps and a board that I found in the trashcan at D and W. They were burning it in the fire ring, so I saved it and took it home. I got foam scraps from Dave Sweet for $5 and I made a board from all the scraps. Everyone kept telling me to stop trying. Then Bob Milner, the owner of Robert’s Surfboards, saw the board. He said, “Wow, man. You did this with no training?” He was interested in what I was doing. He invited me to come down and use his shop. He offered me $3 a board to do pre-shapes. I said, “Okay, but can I still shape my own boards?” He said, “Yes, but you have to get your own blanks.” I did all his pre-shapes, and then I could work on my own boards.
That’s a pretty good deal for a kid.
Yeah, it was. We were all young rat surfers.
Were you learning about board design working at Robert’s?
No, I had my own ideas about design. My board designs came from trial and error; building a board and surfing it. It’s the way that I still do it. Bob Milner was teaching me how to build a board from start to finish, shaping, glassing, sanding, glossing and polishing. He was a very good technician.
What kind of boards were you building, then?
I was making 9’4″s and 9’6″s. 9’8″ was the norm at the time, but I had my own theories. I was making them shorter, wider, thinner, lighter and flatter. Everyone was doing round bottoms, but those types of boards were outdated for the way that I wanted to surf. I was building flat bottoms and concaves and applying a lower rail line in the tail for speed. I was also cutting the fins down and making a low area fin for flexing out of a turn.
Did you have a following of people that wanted to ride your boards?
Yeah, I did. When Bob found out that I had sold one of my boards, he got really mad and fired me. That was the first job that I got fired from.
Tell me about the first time you surfed P.O.P.?
The first time I surfed P.O.P. I surfed the ‘Tees’ because I’m goofy foot. On the small days, you could paddle out from the jetty. On the bigger days, you had to paddle out through the pier. There were the local guys like Craig Praycon, Vincent Hollier and Jeff Bower, but I knew them and they were cool. No one threw rocks at me or broke into my car. I’d been surfing Santa Monica my whole life. It was no big deal. The P.O.P. pier was one of the best breaks there ever was. You were constantly getting waves on both sides of that pier and people didn’t even know about it. It was a secret spot right in the middle of LA. The reason people didn’t come down there was that you had to pass through Venice to get there. In the ’60s, Venice had the boardwalk and it was full of motorcycle clubs. You had the Satan’s Slaves, the Hell’s Angels and the Heathens. They all hung out at Rose Ave in the parking lot. It was not uncommon on a Sunday afternoon to see a fight, mugging, stabbing or shooting on the boardwalk. One of the most radical things I saw as a kid was this old lady stabbing her husband with an ice pick. Everyone was just standing around on the boardwalk, watching her do it. She was stabbing him repeatedly and he was just laying there. She was yelling at him for cheating on her with another lady. He didn’t die, but you could see the blood everywhere. To see an old woman doing that to an old man, it was something else.
Where did you shape your boards after you left Robert’s?
I went to work for Dewey Weber. I learned glossing from Wayne Miyata at Webber’s. I was also making my own boards and taking them to Becker Surfboards in Redondo Beach to sell.
When did you become politically active?
Well, I was busy in my own college of board building and surfing, but I’d go to UCLA and sit in the classes for free. You didn’t get any credit, but you could listen and learn. I sat in at UCLA and UCSD, and I was hanging out with the college students who were doing these war protests. My friends were active and they were speaking out against the Viet Nam war. Back then, it was just a part of my life and what was going on. At that time, you felt that you could express yourself. The police could come and arrest you, but I wasn’t scared of that. I had no inhibitions. Some of my friends were very active in the Black Panther party and the black rights movement. I went to a lot of the meetings and began to believe in their cause. There was a lot of violence, but their philosophy was based on peaceful protests.
Do you look back on that as something you were proud of being involved with?
Yes. I stated my views and I supported my views. We have to voice our opinions. I think everyone should stand up for what they believe in. It may not seem to change things as it’s happening, but if you look back in history, it’s proven that it can. You have to make the choice to stand up for whatever you believe in. That’s the most important part.
What did you learn about board design when you were working at Dewey’s?
I was building boards and surfing during the day. I was learning about my designs by riding the boards. I saw the techniques Dewey used, but I didn’t feel that mass production was something I was into doing. I understood the more units you made, the more money you made, but I never looked at shaping boards that way. I wanted to be part of the surfboard industry and board building. I took the job as a clean-up boy at Dewey’s to get my foot in the door of the industry. I already had the skill. I didn’t see them doing anything progressive as far as design. To me, each board was an individual process. I thought I was making this big contribution, but they were just looking at me as labor. They didn’t care if I knew how to surf or build my own designs. Then there was a contest in Santa Cruz. It was the first semi-professional contest, which was a new category, and it was in the middle of the shortboard revolution. The guys at Dewey knew I was building my own boards. I tried to talk to them about it, but they didn’t really want to talk to me about it. I asked if I could go to this contest because it was the first contest that included shortboards and they said no. I didn’t think they were serious. The contest was revolutionary, so I went anyway. I rode a 7’10” and everyone else was riding 9’6″s. I went back to work the next day and they said, “You’re fired.” They taught me that this was a business deal. It wasn’t about having fun building boards and surfing. That was the second job that I got fired from. I’d been fired twice and I was just a kid.
Were you mad?
No, I didn’t care. It was just funny to me that I started out getting fired. I guess I shouldn’t have gone to the contest, but I saw it as a historical event. The shortboard revolution was happening and I wanted to be a part of it. I didn’t really think those guys would fire me for going to a surf contest, but it was okay. I kept doing what I was doing. I had places to build boards all over LA. I had a place down on Crenshaw in the projects. I became an underground board builder. I was building a board a day. I’d shape it and glass it and give it to the customer at the end of the night. Then I had to learn how to collect money for the boards. I learned how to chase my money around.
How old were you then?
I was 18. After I left Weber’s, I made enough money building boards to buy a ranch wagon. It cost me $75 and I put a new transmission in it for $145. I took that thing on so many surf trips up and down the coast from Rincon to San Diego. We used to sleep at the mortuary. One of the safe havens was the Encinitas Mortuary. If you were in a town after curfew, the cops would escort you out of town or to jail. We knew the chick that owned the mortuary, so we would park there and sleep. There are tons of stories about the North County sheriffs running us off.
What type of boards were you testing on these trips?
When I was working at Robert’s, I was working on performance longboards. I was experimenting with split-tail boards and stepdecks and concaves. At that time, no one made them. I called it a double pintail. I made square tail designs and swallow tail designs and performance flat bottom longboards. They had low rails to the tail. While I was working at Webber’s, I started making what was called a Pipeline pintail. I also met Bob McTavish at the Morey Pope factory in Ventura. He was a huge influence. While I was checking out other factories, I met this guy named Bing Copeland and he gave me a template for a pipeline pintail. I was working on these pintail designs and the v-bottom boards. The pintail designs were getting shorter. I was making 9′ pintails or what they call mini gun pintails. Then I was making 7’10” v-bottoms. After Dewey’s, my designs were a more soft v and I started working with smaller boards. I was doing 7’10” v-bottoms. Board design had advanced quickly in just a few years. I was working on 10’0s when I started at Dewey’s and then, all of a sudden, I’m working on 7’s. I was glassing the board lighter with 4-oz. cloth or 3-oz. cloth. I was using the lightest cloth possible. The boards that I did then were single layer, sanded boards, sand only, so they had no glossing weight. They were stringerless boards. To this day, the modern surfboard is glassed with 4-oz. cloth and sand finished only for lightness and I was doing that over 30 years ago.
Many people say that you changed the style of board design.
Well, there was a lot I couldn’t understand about how it was being done. Boards can be built in any different size or shape. It’s about how good that board rides for you at a certain point in your life. It’s what makes me feel good. That’s why I do what I do. At an early age, I realized that not everyone was going to like what I was doing. I was being put down a lot for the work I was trying to do, but some of the things I did back then are the norm today.
How does that make you feel?
It makes me think, “What am I going to do next?” I’m constantly looking for what’s next.
What designs were you riding at that point?
The v bottom was a big thing for me. I had a 7-foot v-bottom with a concave deck with a 12-inch wide nose with an 11-inch transom tail. That was one of my favorite boards. I also had a tri-plane bottom board with 4-oz. cloth that was really light and really wide.
What shapes did you focus on during the Jeff Ho/Zephyr shop days?
I was doing a mini gun shape with a low hard rail with an edge on the bottom. They’re like the rails that people make today, except now they’re even harder. One of our main selling points was the flat bottom with v in the tail, low rails, and a hard edge on the bottom. The shop allowed me to make whatever I wanted. I could put the boards in the shop and if it sold, it sold. If it didn’t sell, it didn’t, and that was okay. What I found out was that we could sell any board – it just had to be the right person for that board. We didn’t have to make a certain design and just sell that. We did focus on the low rail with a bevel on the bottom. We worked with the split tails and the tri-tails, and then I reverted to the tri-plane bottoms. I was working on flex tails and flex fins and keil fins, low profile keil fins, and some low area fins. Some of the fins had a 7-inch wide base and were four inches tall and some of the fins had 3-inch wide bases and were nine inches tall. There were a whole variety of tail and fin shapes. There were rounded pins and diamond tails and swallow tails and the swallow tail with wings, the pintail with wings, the rounded pin with wings and the tri tail with wings. I did all types of boards at the shop.
Having tried all these boards what works best?
It’s an individual thing. I enjoy riding boards that have three fins and sometimes I enjoy riding a board with one fin. There are certain designs that I use, like the three-fin on a diamond tail or a rounded squash.
What fin attachment technique do you use?
I prefer a glass on fin, a fin that is glassed onto the board with no box. I feel like the fin that is glassed on has the true fiberglass flex of the fin. You can’t beat it. I’ve never ridden another system that worked as well as the glassed on fins.
What other shapes do you suggest?
There is a certain place for the wingfish in your quiver. You can’t beat the wingfish for a shortboard shape. It’s a fun shape. The swallowtail or a fishtail is cool. The square tail is more versatile and timeless. The rounded pin is best in larger waves. Those are the classic tail shapes.
Who did you enjoy surfing with the most?
There were guys like Wayne Innouye, Ronnie Jay, Eric Martin, David Lansdowne, Dennis Bordenave, Vincent Hollier, Robert Sorita and Malcom Carr. There was Pat Kaiser and Adrian Reef. They were the groms at the time. I surfed a lot with Craig Freebairn, Craig Stecyk III, Mike Perry, Skip Engblom, Craig Praycon, Rudy Manheim, Larry Light, Kenny Schwartz, David Kenosha, Yugi Yoshikawa, Char, Rizal Tanjung and Bo Flemister. There was the Menewahine Kakai, which included Judy Monroe, Laura Powers, Elaine Davis and Linda Benish. Wayne Saunders lived on Bay Street right across the street from the shop. He was just a grom then. Jay Adams was another super grom kid. John Palfreyman, Nathan Pratt and Allen Sarlo were always around. J.P. was a forerunner in BMX. He and his dad were innovators of the sport. He was the first guy I ever saw riding a BMX bike in a pool.
A lot of people don’t realize that the Jeff Ho/Zephyr competition team continued after Del Mar. Who was on the Zephyr team throughout the years?
John McClure, Dan McClure, Mike Pakim, Craig Freebairn, John Baum, Carter Slade, Solo Scott, Randy Wright, Jimmy and Ricky Tarvarez, Wayne Saunders, Mike Davis, Jim Bahmer (Oso Barbos the Bear), Jay Adams, Shogo Kubo, Peggy Oki, Wentzle Ruml, Jim Muir, Chris Cahill, Tony Alva, Stacy Peralta, Bob Biniak, Paul Constantineau, Baby Paul Cullen, Cris Dawson, Dennis Harney, Donnie Ohem, Jose’ Gallan, Tom Waller, John Palfreyman, Nathan Pratt, Judy Monroe, Linda Benish, Paul Hoffman, Scott Dailey, Barney Noiwike, Tony McClelland, Gordon Solomon, Laura Powers, Glen Johnson, Dana Wolfe, Allen Sarlo, Roy Ballard, David Dahlin, Adrian Reef, Usen Gusman, Kyle Flemister, Barney Knowiki, Christian Budroe and Mika Budroe were on the team.
Who is currently on the Zephyr competition surf team?
David Landsdowne, David Dahlin, Dennis Bordenave, Craig Freebairn, Allen Sarlo, Usen Gusman, Kyle Flemister, Jim Muir, Jiro Hanaue, Kobe Yamauchi, Cris Dawson and Gary Giovanazzi.
Do you see another generation of the Z team happening in the Venice/Santa Monica area?
Yes, I do. I see kids with talent, riding and surfing in the area. The energy is still here in Venice. I’d like to provide a channel for that energy with these kids.
You’ve proven that you can take a group of very rowdy kids, give them something to be a part of and, in turn, change the way people think.
I learned certain things in life and I had a lot of dues to pay. I was never handed any special wand of knowledge. You have to find people that have the same ideas. If you want to further a project you need other people with the same dedication to a belief. Some things that I’ve learned, I like to share with other people.
What board designs are you working on now?
I’ve been doing a variety of designs. I’ve been working with old designs and new designs and combinations of both. I make a lot of custom boards. I make the classic longboards and I’m making a wing fish with double concave bottoms anywhere from 5’6″ to 8’0″. There are a variety of lengths and widths for that board. That’s been one of my mainstays throughout the years. Some of the fin placements have changed. I’ve been using the glass on fin and the removable single-fin and the removable three fin. I have this beach break fish that I’ve been working on. It’s a 5’10” double concave with a three-fin design and a metal flake paint job.
What are the strengths of that board?
It was designed for maneuverability and it’s wide range of surfer. A really proficient surfer could ride it as well as an average or beginning surfer. It’s a really forgiving type of board. It’s easy to ride and it’s really fast. It can ride small waves to medium range waves. It’s an all-around board. It works for a number of surfers with a variety of weight ranges. It was designed for maximum wave count. It has more planing area under the board so it’s easier to catch the wave.
What’s the retail on those boards?
The 5’10” beach break fish that’s shown is $1400.
How can someone order a custom-designed Jeff Ho surfboard?
You can go to www.JuiceMagazine.com to order one.
What else are you doing?
I made a limited run of fifty silver Zephyr medallions. I had the mold made a long time ago and we only made a few of them. I just ran into the jeweler, Steve Hanna, and he still had the mold so we just made a few. I also have a line of soft goods and skateboards.
You’ve had some large offers recently that you turned down. Why have you said no?
I just can’t see myself selling stuff to K-Mart. I just can’t see it. The surfing and skating business has gone crazy. Our industry has gone to mass production. They are using foreign labor and computers to mass-produce a cheaper product to resell in the U.S. for a higher profit. That’s crazy. That’s way the corporate America is going, but that’s just not the way I’m going.
Control of your product seems to be very important to you.
I like to put my name on a quality product. If I don’t feel good about it I don’t want to do it. I’m certainly not making a million dollars. I do all the work on my product and I oversee it all. I don’t have giant overhead. These other people have large factories and a lot of employees so they have to sell a lot of product or they go under or they merge with another giant company until there are only giant companies. Only the small companies with low overhead can afford to stay in business. The people in the industry that actually do the work themselves will survive. The customer will return to the specialists for the quality.
How have you continued to maintain your integrity all of these years?
It’s a difficult question. I don’t know what’s right and wrong. I just know what I feel and I try to put out a quality product as often as I can with my resources. I know as long as I stay alive I will be building boards and doing what I want to do. I don’t look at it as a job. I love to do what I’m doing. I have a passion for it and I enjoy it. I do it because it’s part of my life. It’s just the way I live.