Like the stories of many artisans, Huntington Beach-based woodworker Keith Shelley unintentionally launched his handmade skateboard business when he handcrafted his first two boards as gifts for his twin sons on their first birthday. Party-goers marveled over the vintage oak design, and before the local skateboarder-surfer could sweep up the shavings, he was taking orders from friends. Since then, the party has yet to be over for Surf City Skateboards. In fact, it's just getting started.
An Arizona native and sworn desert hater, Shelley awaited summer every year—not for the scorching 100-plus degree temps, but for family vacations to Southern California. The Shelleys' westbound adventures often landed them in Surf City with relatives, which meant abundant surf and skate seshes. Having embraced skateboarding at the budding age of three, Shelley's affinity with HB boarding culture developed naturally. He told his skeptical father, "Dad, I'm going to buy a house at the beach," and at the ripe age of 18, he made the move to SoCal. While his plans of owning a beach house never quite panned out (yet), Shelley and his wife did buy a condo in HB—a rare accomplishment for residents of the Golden State. "It was a lot of work to get here," he says.
Skateboards and surfboards are still pillars of Shelley's life, only now three other pillars reign supreme: his wife of 10 years and his 4-year-old twin sons, Kale and Kai, who are named in honor of the couple's favorite vacation spot—Hawaii. His days are largely spent in retail management, but he steals away to his home shop every available second. His two blonde workshop elves usually accompany him on the job and excel in sanding. "They're getting good," says Shelley, adding, "We take skate breaks."
Using locally sourced scrap oak wood and his trusty board template, Shelley meticulously designs, saws, files, drills, cuts, sands and stains his boards by hand. Before the final sand, he brands each work with his Louisville Slugger-inspired logo. The process takes about a full day for a standard board. Custom boards can keep him busy for two to three days. "I'll make them just about anything they want," Shelley says of his customers. "Sometimes you have to improvise," he notes of his process, which lacks any cookie cutter techniques. His craft, while largely thanks to his own talents, was born while watching his "Jack of all trades" father transform wood in his garage shop.
Perhaps the most intriguing detail of Shelley's story is the company's self-sufficient funding model. Every penny spent on Surf City Skateboards came not from Shelley's own pockets, but his own recycling efforts. Without a startup pool, Shelley's thrifty gears turned him toward aluminum recycling, which gains him about $30 to $40 for a couple bags of cans. He admittedly scoops up lone cans on the street and tosses them into his truck from time to time, a habit which has resulted in this, according to Shelley: "My wife thinks I'm crazy."
She also supports him while he's crafting between three and 12 boards a week. "It's kind of relaxing for me," says Shelley of his craft, which has birthed a community-centric, family-run small business in HB. Curious neighbors wander into his shop every now and then and have yet to complain about his intermittent late work nights. Shelley has also amassed a "huge collection" of skateboards from "every era," including "steel wheels, clay wheels, old urethane, 50s and the original ski skate."
Surf City Skateboards score plenty of action here in HB, with Shelley and his crew riding in their 'hood near Talbert and Newland and at frequented local skate spots. Unsure of what the future will bring, Shelley hopes to gain more exposure for his work at local shops, Surf City Nights and other SoCal fairs and markets. "As far as on a larger scale, we'll see," he says. "I don't have any giant goals. One step at a time." His steps include raising his sons within a strong, loyal skate culture, teaching them the more advanced tricks of his trade and collaborating with local artists, like Chad "Chado" Masri. and Miky Munki.
With a little love from the local HB community, Surf City Skateboards certainly has the potential to roll into a full-time livelihood for Shelley, although money hardly pays into his motivation. "It's either sink or swim, and I'm going to follow my passion," he says. Here's to hoping the skateboarding community follows Shelley.