Shea Somma is an award winning surfboard shaper based out of San Luis Obispo, Calif., where he operates his business, Somma Special Designs.
Before Somma ever reached for a hand planer, a tool used by shapers to carve foam blanks for surfboards, or contemplated board designs, he recalled memorable days spent at the beach with family and friends.
“Super long beach days in the summer, and getting Johnny Rockets, burgers and fries for lunch,” Somma said.
Growing up in Laguna Beach, Calif., Somma familiarized himself with riding waves through body surfing. The first time Somma became interested in board design was when he started hanging around surf shops. Being an avid body boarder, he was intrigued with the designs and subtle differences within each body board.
“I just remember looking at the crescent tails, and the bat tails,” Somma said. “I remember really obsessing about all the little details: what do the channels do, and what does this do and what does that do?”
When Somma was 12, a family friend introduced him to the world of stand up surfing at Doheny State Beach, located in Dana Point, Calif. Doheny is an iconic surf spot known for its gentle longboard waves, and warm water in the summer. Somma’s curiosity for board design carried into his surfing life as an adult.
While attending Cal Poly in the early 2000s, Somma attempted to register for a shaping class offered by Cal Poly’s Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) program. Due to the high volume of students registering for the class, Somma resorted to a self educated approach via a design forum known as SwayLocks. SwayLocks is a messaging board, like Reddit, but for surfboard shapers.
“You got used to recognizing people’s usernames,” Somma said. “Half the deal was trying to discern if the person actually knew what they were talking about.”
After a year and a half of communicating on the forums, and more failed attempts at registering for Cal Poly’s shaping class, Somma graduated from Cal Poly. He had some extra cash in his pocket due to a job Somma landed after college.
There was a shed in Somma’s backyard that served as his first shaping bay. He then bought a power planer from Home Depot, and began a 15 year obsession Somma eventually built a business around.
Somma operates his business, Somma Special Designs, out of his house thanks to a proper shaping bay he built in his backyard. Due to the pandemic, and surfing’s rise in popularity during the shelter in place protocol, he was able to work full time as a shaper since 2019.
“It’s just been a full roller coaster ride, no month is the same as the month previous,” Somma said, referencing the unpredictability of owning a business. “So I essentially tried to build a business around the idea of shaping 150 boards a year at minimum. If I can shape 150 a year, at the prices that I have, then I have something of a sustainable business.”
Somma works with a number of California surf shops that carry his boards: Central Coast Surfing (a local San Luis Obispo surf shop), Mollusk in Santa Barbara and Day Dream in Orange County.
Somma also works with House of Somos in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica. House of Somos is a resort for people looking to surf and explore the Costa Rican countryside. The resort has a shaping room, where Somma was invited to shape boards for their surf shop.
“It’s a neat setup,” Somma said. “It’s a hotel with a cafe attached, and then they have like a full surfboard factory built into the property. And so you’re shaping and you’re in this little glass box and people are coming up to the window to see what you’re doing.”
Somma Special Designs website provides a good look at the variety of shapes Somma puts together, including longboards, fishes, thrusters and more. Custom orders however, is where Somma likes to explore new ideas and work with surfers to get the most out of their experience. Shapers usually carry a holistic knowledge about wave riding and board design that is helpful to surfers looking for something specific when riding a wave.
“A lot of my job is listening to people, listening to their experiences and saying, ‘OK, I’ve been in that place, I’ve tried to do that same thing,’ and more often than not it translates, because I’ve surfed a lot of boards and I’ve made a lot of boards I love and haven’t loved, and I know the reasons why,” Somma said. “Different places break differently every year, if someone’s been around awhile they’ll understand what those nuances are, like what rockers will get you past the weird spot in that certain wave.”
Somma also understands surfing is an individual activity, and it’s meant to be fun.
“It’s a toy, like at the end of the day, I’m making a plastic toy for adults,” Somma said.
However, shaping surfboards is recognized by many as an art form as well. The Board Room, a yearly event held in Del Mar, Calif., showcases hand shaped surfboards from prominent shapers in the industry including Marc Andreini, Ryan Lovelace, Thatcher Unsworth and more.
Shapers compete in a best in show event focused on a specific design. This year was the Bonzer design known for its single fin and keeled on side fins, made famous by Malcom and Duncan Campbell out of Oxnard California in 1973. On October 8, Somma took home first prize for his Bonzer design.