The Gunther Rohn Story
The term legend gets thrown around easily these days and when it comes to
the surf industry, it’s no different. When it comes to shapers in Australia, the
list of legends who ply their trade in the shaping bay is distinguished but there
is one name that must be near the top.
Walk into Richards Surf Shop on Hunter Street in Newcastle West in the mid 1980’s
and you would see a row or two of surfboards with the very famous Town & Country
label, which at the time had some of the hottest surfers on the planet riding them.
They were brightly sprayed and many had the signature of a man who quietly went
about his business of building boards that performed well and after still sort after by
collectors to this day.
Reading a list of professional surfers, who have ridden the waves with a Gunther Rohn
shaped board under their feet is long and distinguished however it would be easier to
make a list of surfers who haven’t ridden a board shaped by Gunther.
I recently made the journey north to meet the man himself and see the skills that have
made him a legend amongst the legends.
Watching Gunther in the shaping bay at his home in Ballina is similar to watching a
great artist paint a masterpiece. His hands work a block of foam like an artist, he could
close his eyes and shape a board purely by how his hands feel the foam.
Walking into the Ballina show room is a great experience as Gunther can advise you
on a surfboard based on your size and weight.
So what happens when you get a chance to jump in the bay with a legend?
After selecting a blank and deciding to go for more of a retro board, we headed into
the shaping bay. I went for a retro design as it reminds me of that iconic Town and
Country Surfboard I had from 1984.
After taking the skin off the blank drawing out a template and cutting the basic outline,
I am handed the planer and told, “There you go”.
Picasso may have just as well handed me a paint brush and asked me to finish my
I set about the task of sanding the remainder of the blank and planing out the nose
and tail. Every now and again Gunther would appear and offer a suggestion and once
again leave me to my devices.
When you shape as many boards a week as Rohn, there’s not a lot of time for a beginner
doing his best to impress the teacher. He had custom orders to complete and customers
walking through the door.
One guy who came in wanted a Gunther Rohn shaped board, as in his words, “It was
the best board I ever owned”.
After completing Day one and embarking on Day two Rohn took a look at my previous
days work. Hoping to see a nod of approval, it was negated by a simple, “Hmm lets see
if we can fix this”.
As with many people learning the art of hand shaping off the blank, I had made some
rookie errors. I had hoped I was a genius in the making and my errors would turn out
to be an industry revolution but it was not to be this time.
I had created the flat bottom vee to concave then back to flat bottom vee, which I still
think will one day catch on.
Not only did I get the chance to see a industry leading shaper shape, I got schooled on
how to fix problems and create a great board.
Gunther would simply run his hands down the foam, then pick up the board and let it
slide through foam encrusted hands, which was enough to identify the smallest bump
and a quick sand of the identified trouble spot and we were on our way.
Although a man of few words, when he speaks, people listen. When asked where the
industry is at, his reply is simple as it is informative. “It’s all about money which means
people aren’t riding boards to suit them, they are riding boards the shops need to sell”.
Coming to completion would see my blank etched with the words “GR for Craig”. To
Gunther it may have been another board but to me it was a masterpiece.
(Board on the left shaped at Gunthers)
This is the story of one of the gentleman of the surfboard shaping industry.
South Africa – The Early Days
Gunther started shaping his own boards back in 1972 in his hometown of Cape
Town. A lot of his friends in his surfing group started shaping their own boards.
His peer group of Piers Pittard, Johnny Paarman and Tich Paul were also shaping
and refining their skills.
“I remember Paul Joske was over in South Africa at the time surfing and shaping
and he commented on my first shaping attempt saying it wasn’t bad for a first
Upon shaping his second board Gunther came crashing back to earth, stating that
the board was an absolute piece of shit.
Gunther came over to Australia in August of 1973. This was long before Indonesia
was the top place for Aussie surfers. South Africa was the other ‘go to’ surf destination.
He’d been told so much about the Australian lifestyle and surf. The Unites States was
another option but in South Africa at the time, getting any job at will, was difficult.
In South Africa the black workers did the unqualified work, so for many white South
Africans, had to get more qualified type of work which wasn’t always that easy if you
left a job. Australia was a different prospect during this period as you could do
labouring or similar jobs.
He decided to start his travels by emigrating to Australia so he paid my own way
and therefore wasn’t obliged to stay if it didn’t work out.
Australia – A New Land
Arriving in a new country can be a daunting prospect for anyone. A visit to the
McCoy Surfboard Factory in Brookvale paid off. A young Gunther full of confidence
told them he wanted to shape, however Peter Lawrence, who was the head shaper
for McCoys at the time, gave him a shot and told him that there was no way he
could shape, but offered him a job pin lining and finish coating.
“This was a punt in itself on his part, but I thank him for placing some trust in me
and I took to it with gusto”.
Gunther loved doing multiple pin lines, a design where a few pin lines are placed
and painted next to each other. While there, Gunther started shaping a few of his
own boards and learnt more about the process and skills required. This was a
chance to begin and develop his own iconic style.
Rohn had the chance of moving to the Central Coast of New South Wales with
Geoff and his company, McCoy Surfboards, when they decided to move the factory
to Avoca but after having gone to Cactus Beach, located on the edge of the Nullarbor
in South Australia with friends soon after he arrived, he was too keen to travel up
the East Coast of Australia, also to see some South African mates of his who were
in Noosa at the time. With the opportunity to hang there for a while, he declined
the offer to McCoys.
After spending three months spending time with his friends from South Africa,
he decided that Noosa was not for him. After all he was still used to the surf of
Cape Town however the waves on the points at Noosa had great shape, and
although he considered the waves good, they were too soft and with Winter having
just arrived, they weren’t getting any decent swells.
While Gunther had some good days at Sunshine Beach, his friend Tony Cerff,
who came over on the same ship as Gunther, advised him there was a fairly
rapidly growing surf industry in Byron Bay. Cerff was working for Warren Cornish,
laminating Bob McTavish and Warren Cornish Surfboards, so Gunther headed
south and helped him with the fin and filler coatings.
“I remember Michael Petersen also shaped some boards for Warren Cornish but
at the time, I continued to shaping my own but there was some substantial names
in the surf industry there at the time”.
After a short while a shaping job came up at SOL Surfboards in Ballina,when a
Californian shaper, by the name of John Scott went back to Santa Cruz. SOL
Surfboards was owned by John “Keggsy” McKeag, a sign writer from Cronulla.
John looked at Gunthers board and figured it looked presentable enough to give
him a job. Once again he also helped finish coat and pin line the boards.
Around 1975 a local, by the name of Lindsey Grant, indicated to Gunther, that he
wanted to start making boards. Lindsey knew how to glass boards and ‘Keggsy’
wasn’t keen to continue his operation, so he started up and got Gunther to shape them.
“I named the boards ‘Free Flight’ after the company that sponsored me at one stage
back in South Africa. We got a bit of a production line going and the label was
becoming known as a legitimate brand”.
As a shaper, Gunther got a decent rhythm going and the boards were looking ok by
his own opinion. Phil Myers was sanding boards and starting to shape his own as
well. By 1978, Rohn started getting itchy feet again, and along with his future wife
Sue and 2 year old daughter Melanie in tow, set off to Bali enroute to England to see
his parents, who had moved from South Africa and ended up in Bournemouth.
Gunther had an idea, which was really a grand plan, the idea to end up in surfing’s
While Gunther and his young family were in Bali, the American Quicksilver crew
were also over there. This crew included the legendary Jeff Hakman, surfer and
Co-founder of Quicksilver USA, Bob McKnight and a surfing friend from South
Africa, John Winship, who was living in California. Something that immediately
stuck out for Rohn was the fact they were all surfing McCoys.
On a day surfing Padang Padang and it was loosely decided between the crew that
Geoff McCoy himself was going to approach Gunther to shape for him in California.
McCoy was at this stage the ‘go to man’ for boards. His designs were the most cutting
edge of the time, and at the infancy of pro surfing, most of professionals wanted to
be on one of his boards.
After seeing his parents in Bournemouth and arriving in California, sure enough
there was a job for on offer at McCoys. The job came just in time,as the Rohn’s were
almost broke. Gunther was working for a McCoy franchisee and shaper, a fellow
by the name of Greg Pautsh.
It was approaching Winter and things were a bit slow. The shop had only been
going for a few months, so luckily Gunther also found some extra work, shaping
for Rick James in San Clemente.
“Rick was a classic, a really great guy. He also manufactured Herbie Fletcher
surfboards and I got to know Herbie pretty well too and it’s interesting that the
building is now the main Lost showroom”.
By the time summer of 1979 was approaching, McCoy’s got really busy so Rohn
stopped working for Rick. This was around the time his own shaping was really
starting to take off.
The goal however was still Hawaii. At the end of August to the beginning of
September, Gunther was off. He was burnt out out and time to start the next
chapter in his life.
There was no master plan to speak of when Gunther Rohn landed in Hawaii,
he just knew that it was the place he needed to be and that he wanted to continue
shaping. After a while Jack Shipley of Lightning Bolt was good enough to give
him a start and he shaped a few ‘Bolts’ for the shop in Honolulu.
An opportunity to ghost a few surfboards for Randi Rarick eventuated. Ghosting
which basically means shaping under someone else’s name, wasn’t easy in those
days, as the boards had to be shaped ‘Rarick’ style off the blank.
“I’m stoked to say, he was pleased with my work”.
Gunther also worked with Mike McNeil, shaping the boards and then after he
completed the lamination process and they were sanded, Rohn would pin line
and finish coat them. The boards they did were called Star Bolts,with glitter thrown
in the resin pin lined bolts. Many of those boards were for surfers like Rory Russell
and Jackie Dunn, who Gunther stayed next to, when he was living with Mike and
Surfboards were made in a shed up Pukea Rd, a location that looked straight onto
the legendary surf break, Pipeline. The crew would be working and checking Pipe
and as soon as it came on. Gunther would be able to test some of his designs, as
he was surfing it together with a few of the aficionados of the day like Rory ,Jackie,
Bruce Hansel and Doug ‘the Roach’ Brown before the rest everyone caught on and
got onto it an hour or so later.
In what may seem funny for the time, the pipe master Gerry Lopez was somewhere
else for those months. After only four months on the ‘Rock’ that is Hawaii, he felt
that he had enough.
“It’s a bit small and closes in on you. There were so many things happening on
the land and I was very close to it. Sue and Mel were back in Australia and I
just wanted to get back”.
Gunther made a lot of good friends, absolutely surfed his brains out, sometimes
within an inch of his life and knew someday, he would be back. The time spent
in Hawaii would make Gunther a well rounded surfer and shaper. He got home
on Christmas Eve to a thriving shaping scene.
Back to Australia
Back in Australia there was big things happening, an amazing time. Free Flight
was full on into six channel Col Smith boards.
“It started soon after I had left Australia. Phil was doing a really good job and
the brand was growing. I did a few flat bottoms but all the shops and public seemed
to want off Free Flight at the time was channels”.
Paul Neilsen was good enough to give Gunther a job and he started shaping boards
for Brothers Neilsen. Going up to Burleigh Heads for three days at a time meant he
could do a few boards for Burleigh Heads Surf Co. whilst he was there.
Back to Byron
About a year or so later in 1981, Jet Surfboards started up in Byron Bay. Dennis
Anderson and Peter Dewar were at the helm. It really was a ‘state of the art factory’.
There were a fair few shapers at Jet which included the likes of Tony Cerff, Bruno
Buzzolan and Dennis Anderson himself. Luckily for Gunther he got a job shaping
at Jet too. This was a time where the multi-fin surfboards were becoming popular.
Frank Latta entered the picture a bit later to the Jet Surfboards family and made
the Simon Anderson Thrusters. Gunther shaped his own boards and also did
the Nat Young Models.
“Now while Nat’s designs looked a bit unrefined,they worked so well! They
were a double concave vee through the bottom and single fin with 2 outrigger
fins. I made myself one and I think to this day, it was one of the best boards I
ever owned. I still use a similar bottom on my wider short boards these days,
but make it a double concave running into a concave vee. The boards are
very fast and have immense drive”.
Town & Country
By 1983 things started to go a bit pear shaped at Jet Surfboards. Gunther found
himself in limbo for awhile, doing the odd shaping job but this would be the year
Nigel Perrow got the licence for the iconic Town & Country Surf in Australia.
Town & Country, based at Lennox Head on the north coast of New South Wales
was becoming a big label in surfboard manufacturing. Martin Potter was a big
name still associated with Town & Country even to this day, even though he left
3 years later to join Glen Minami at Blue Hawaii. His boards with the green and
yellow sprays were instantly recognisable.
“Town & Country’s Hawaiian contingent at the time consisted of legends in the
sport like Dane Kealoha, Larry Bertleman, Louis Ferreira and this was very
powerful crew. Nigel offered me a job. Nigel,Tony Cerff, Nev Hyman and myself
were the shapers. Bruno Buzzolan joined later and remains there to this day”.
Before things picked up, Gunther went back to South Africa for 3 months to work
for Lisle Coney at Country Rhythm Surfboards, located at Margate on the South Coast
of Durban. This would be a great opportunity after ten years to see all his old friends.
Along with wife Sue, Mel and new family addition Ollie, Gunther drove down to Cape
Town via great surf stops in East London, which included the odd stay in Jefferies
Bay with friends.
Country Rhythm at this time, were doing a lot of boards including the Simon Anderson
Thruster. Anderson who visited South Africa to surf the Gunston 500 contest, visited
Country Rhythm for a few days to overseeing things went surfing with Gunther, something
any shaper would dream of.
As Gunther remembers, “We got some great waves on the South Coast and I can tell you,
I surfed a lot during that 3 month stint”.
When a surfed out Rohn got back to Australia, things at Town & Country were in
full swing. The next 6 years were busy times. Town & Country had an assembled
an incredible team.
“Shaping boards for Martin Potter and Kingsley Looker was great opportunity
Gunther got David ‘Davo’ Davidson and Rod Kerr on board and in 1985, Nick Wood
and Kingsley Looker had joined his team of riders but the biggest moment was about
“My biggest moment in the industry to that stage, came when Nick Wood won Bells
1986, at the age of 16 on one of my boards. This was a defining moment for me as a
shaper and set me well on the way to shaping a lot of boards for other pro surfers
on the tour.”.
Town & Country was riding a wave of success and had surfers like Shaun Munro,
Rod Brimms as well as locals Craig Holley and Steve Smith.
Gunther also travelled to France in 1988 to produce Town & Country boards for
Maurice Cole in the Rip Curl factory.
”It was a great experience going to Hossegor, France so early in the piece. Great beach
break barrels, uncrowded waves and the area was totally unspoilt compared to today”.
Considering himself very fortunate in this regard, Gunther was one of the first shapers
in Hossegor to shape up to 8 boards a day, something that he did for 3 years and,
through circumstance, in 1991 ended up working for Pukas Surfboards across the
border in the Basque country.
“I got to know Miguel Aspiroz and Enigo Letamendia from their trips to Maurice
to get advice on manufacturing, and our relationship remains to this day”.
In 1992 after nine years at Town & Country, Gunther went out on his own. Carl Birch
of Cheetah swimwear had acquired the licence for Local Motion Surfboards, a brand
which was getting real powerful in the market place, and offered him the opportunity
to make the surfboards or give the brand to Allan Byrne. Gunther had a big decision
to make, either he went out on his own and start his own label or there would be two
new players in the game if he didn’t accept . It was a great opportunity and he appreciated
the offer and accepted it gracefully.
Sunny Garcia was on board as a Team Rider at Local Motion as well, which was great,
as Gunther had already been working with him at Town & Country, who gave him the
opportunity to go back to Hawaii and shape. He also got to go to Japan, working for CHP
and then exporting boards over there and there were others like Tony Moniz. Gunther had
assembled a very strong team in Australia too, with Shaun Munro sweeping all before
him in junior competitions. Included in this mix was Darren O’Rafferty, Tom Whitaker,
Trent Munro and Lee Winkler. Later he would get Shaun Cansdell, who was touted to
be the next big thing. Gunther was instrumental with Calvin Maeda of Local Motion,
to get John Shimooka on board as a team rider when he made his comeback to competitive
surfing and then qualified for the ASP World Tour. Vetea ‘Poto’ David also joined the team.
It’s quite astonishing the from 1992 till now Gunther put 8 surfers on the World
Championship Tour, including Jake Patterson.
“I recently spoke to Simon Anderson, who is one of my good friends in the industry
and he didn’t think anyone else in Australia had put that many surfers onto the pro tour”.
Gunther continued to go to Hawaii to shape in summers as well as most winters. He’d
make his Local Motion boards and then stay for the Haleiwa contest before heading
back to Australia for the Christmas rush.
Sunny and Gunther’s relationship extended past Local Motion with Garcia ending up
surfing for Pukas Surfboards for a long time. In 2000, Garcia became the ASP World
Champion and one can only think that a one Gunther Rohn had a big hand in that.
Gunther in fact stayed in Hawaii after the Pipe Pro that year to celebrate with him
nd the people from Pukas, as he worked for them just about every year.
With the 2000 Olympics in Australia that year, he figured the Xmas rush wouldn’t be
the same as previous years as some in the industry figured everyone would have spent
their money and sadly this proved to be right.
“Local Motion in Hawaii basically dropped the ball, yet I still do the label on
Surfboards shaped with the Gunther Rohn signature are now mainly GR Shapes
and Designs or Gunther Rohn Surfboards, located in Ballina on the North Coast of NSW.
Gunther Rohn looks back at his time shaping and can pinpoint some of the biggest
moments in surfing’s history, which you can do this if you were there.
“Besides the short board revolution of 1967 and 1968, the biggest design breakthrough
was Simon’s thruster. Like a lot of us, Simon found it hard to surf twin fins.
He took Geoff McCoy’s Lazor Zap and basically put three fins in it and the rest
they say is history. It worked a treat. Lots of speed, drive and very manouvreable.
Everything you’d want in a board. What I liked about it too, was the credit Simon
gave to the people around him who also had input, unlike some others who tended
to take all the credit for themselves”.
When asked how he’d like to be remembered when he hangs up the planer, he sums
it up without hesitation, “That I did everything with integrity and honesty”.
Q & A with Gunther Rohn
Craig Tonks:: What’s the biggest change with shaping since you started and how
do you approach design?
Gunther Rohn:: My ideas and concepts come from everything I’ve learnt since I
started shaping surfboards back in 1972. I use the old concepts with the new all the
time depending what I shape. I mix and match. We have a Retro model, like the
Town & Country the author has, and all I change is make the roll through the
bottom a concave Vee to make it faster. I use vees a lot in wider boards. One thing
that will never come back,is the ‘S’ deck. Goes totally against the foil. Totally flawed
in my mind. Heavy vee and low entry like the Tracker model won’t be back either as
I don’t think it actually tracked. Fin systems were a big breakthrough as you can
change fins and get a different feel.
CT:: Is there one surfer who could convey the riding aspects of a board to assist design?
GR:: Kelly Slater is very good at conveying the riding aspects of a board and so is Shane Wehner.
They understand the different design concepts of a board and what makes a surfboard tick.
Shane helped a lot there, surfing for me for years as a team rider.You can add Matt Griggs
to that list, he could really articulate how a board performed.
CT:: Do you have anyone you’d think of as a mentor?
GR:: As far as a mentor goes, I’ve got to be honest,but I don’t really have one. I am mainly
self taught. Tony Cerff,who worked with me at Town & Country, then came over to me at
Local Motion, knows a hell of a lot about board design and theory and really knows how to
use a planer, but I never really hung in a shaping bay with anyone for hours on end.
Brian Ingham,whose worked with me for years,and I are a lot rougher with a planer and
we rely a lot more on the surform, but we get the job done. I would have to count Geoff
McCoy as a mentor. He helped me so much in my formative years, giving me the opportunity
and teaching me about his board designs and shaping them. He taught me a hell of a lot, but
after California and the advent of the Lazor Zap in 1980,we went in different directions.
CT::How important is junior development to surfing in Australia?
GR:: Junior development is of the utmost importance. They are our future professional
surfers to carry the flag. It sounds like we might be lagging, because a year or two ago
Surfing Australia went to Brazil and they were blown away how far ahead Brazil was in
their training methods. This has to be addressed and we need sponsors for a better
junior circuit, so this has to be looked at without further delay, as this is the country’s
professional surfing future at steak. It’s very difficult to get a rating for the WQS tour
CT:: Many collectors are after Gunther Rohn boards from the 80’s, do you have many?
GR:: I don’t even have any decent ones, but I’m starting to collect some of my history
now. I sold off way too many to get money for the next board or team board I’d have
to make. I keep a fair few of my own boards these days and have a few old team
boards of Sunny’s and others.
Gunta is a great bloke and a valued and highly skilled member of the board making industry in Australia. He has worked with many of the top surfers locally and from around the world and continues to offer custom made quality shapes with a personal touch. He has the ability to produce boards for the individual whether at pro level on down to average ability surfers, from grommets just starting out to older guys at the end of their surfing days who need help in a different way. There is not a lot of board makers with the skill level, experience and knowledge of board performance to cover the broad spectrum of surfer needs in a variety of surf conditions. Gunta is definitely a shaper ranked highly amongst the best in our industry. Gunta is one of my board making heroes.
Gunta is such a great bloke and makes awesome boards.
Gunther is passionate and hard working, which people really don’t appreciate. Not only that, he is a great shaper.