In 1993, it came to the attention of the SURFER Magazine editorial staff that venerable South Bay shaper Phil Becker had shaped his 85,000th surfboard. A benchmark extraordinary not only for the sheer amount of work it implied, but for the fact that he had produced this mind-boggling number of surfboards, contributed this vastly to the experience of so many surfers, for so many years, completely under the radar.
Combing the back issues, we couldn’t find a single magazine interview or profile, despite the fact that Becker’s pedigree extended back to the early 1960s, when the Palos Verdes local first started shaping for Rick Surfboards in Hermosa Beach. In the mid-‘70s his image appeared in a couple of Rick ads, but all this revealed was that he was slightly balding and wore a bushy beard. That was it.
Particularly ironic, seeing as how back in 1993 Becker the brand was blowing up, with three busy SoCal retail stores and the eponymous logo seen in lineups everywhere, gracing the decks of the company’s widely popular modern longboard and ‘fun” shapes. But of Phil Becker the man, we knew next to nothing. So the assignment fell to me, to call Phil Becker and conduct the first, and as far as I can tell, the only interview of this enigmatic, hugely influential figure to ever appear in a surf magazine.
I thought back on that ’93 interview when I learned that on February 26, Phil Becker, 81, succumbed to cancer at his home on the Big Island, in Hawaii, where he lived during the last years of his life with his wife Linda. One short exchange in particular which, when viewed today, could very well serve to articulate that which he otherwise never publicly spoke about in regards to his amazing, unprecedented career in the shaping room — especially after shaping 85,000 boards and still getting a thrill when someone’s stoked.
Oh, yeah, yeah. Especially if you get a call in a month…’Hey, this thing really works really good. It does just what you said it was going to do and it’s definitely improved my surfing.’ You made somebody happy.”
“That’s what people who didn’t know him, didn’t know about him,” says Tim Dion, 61, who first started riding Becker shapes in 1974, and later worked in Becker Surfboard retail shops for over 20 years, eventually managing the Malibu store. “He had this incredible work ethic, but underneath that it was all about the stoke. And he had the stoke forever.”
Dion, having spent countless hours in the shaping room with Becker, offers an illuminating perspective on the very private man he knew well.
“He was a good person to watch, to have as a mentor,” says Dion, today a successful contractor. “Phil was focused on his task, taking advantage of every minute of his work day. But he was also a funny guy. We used to ride bikes together, through Malibu Canyon, and then back around through Santa Monica. He loved his road bikes. And he loved surfing Lower Trestles, well into his 50s. I remember him always dropping by the Mission Viejo shop after dawn patrolling Lowers, just to check in and give us a surf report. But you can bet a lot of the surfers out there at Lowers had no idea who he was.”
Though it’s clear that recognition hardly concerned Becker throughout his life, we can assume his anonymity occasionally amused. From that ’93 interview:
What’s interesting about Becker Surfboards is that everyone knows the name, but not many people know the shaper. They have no idea who you are. Was that a conscious choice on your part, to stay out of the limelight?
I think it’s just my nature. It wasn’t a choice, exactly. Or at least not a conscious choice. I just made the boards as the orders came in and didn’t much worry about the rest of it.
Have you ever been dropped in on by someone riding a Becker?
“Oh, sure. They don’t know. A lot of the people who have the boards don’t know me.”
Renowned North Shore shaper Pat Rawson, who points to Becker as an important mentor, once quipped, “Phil was a shaping machine before they had shaping machines.” He worked in the same shaping room his entire life, the one he first switched the lights on in the Rick Surfboards factory back in 1962. Used the same three Rockwell planers he bought in 1965, rebuilding them every couple of years. Cranked out an average of 2500 boards annually; when inducted into the International Surfboard Builders Hall of Fame in 2009, they reported that by 2004 Becker had shaped 130,000 boards. Al Merrick was next with 45,000.
Unassuming or not, it’s probably his remarkable work ethic that Phil Becker will be most remembered for. Trouble with this, however, is that it reduces his contribution to the sport he so obviously loved to mere figures in a column. In fact, the mark Phil Becker left on surfing and surf culture during his remarkable career can’t be found on any spreadsheet—the numbers are there, sure, but they lie. Or at least don’t tell the whole truth. Just ask José Barahona, today Becker Surfboard’s primary shaper.
“Phil was one of a kind,” says Barahona, who immigrated from El Salvador in 1981 to join his brother Oscar, who happened to work as a sander at the Rick factory. “I was sweeping floors in the factory when I first met Phil, and I guess he saw some potential in me. I started doing more, sanding, airbrushing, and eventually shaping. That he saw something in a 15 year-old kid who couldn’t even speak English, to give him a chance to be part of the Becker team, that says a lot about the kind of man he was.”
Becker apparently saw enough in Barahona to give him more than just a job.
“When Phil retired to the Big Island about ten years ago he handed the name Becker Surfboards to me, and I’m proud to be representing his legacy,” says Barahona, who today still dances around blanks in Becker’s original shaping room. “I take that responsibility very seriously. He was so dedicated to shaping surfboards. I mean, he didn’t even get married until after he retired. I think he was afraid marriage might jeopardize his work.”
“Phil was a shaping machine before they had shaping machines.” – Pat Rawson
A tough act to follow, certainly?
“Yeah, it’s hard right now,” says Barahona. “Working in his room, with so many memories. But there’s one, I remember him saying, “José, never forget that you’re not just making surfboards, you’re making toys for grownups. There’s nothing more satisfying that seeing the smile on a grownup’s face when they come in to pick up their board. It’s easy to make a kid smile, just give them a candy bar. But if you can make a grownup smile like a kid getting a candy bar, well, that’s really rewarding.”
Forget how many boards he shaped—that’s all you need to know about Phil Becker.