In Conversation: James Otter

“When you examine the inside of a surfboard, you’ll see there is so much more going on than you’d ever know from simply looking at the finished item,” says James Otter as he shows me his latest work in progress. 

Perched atop one of the benches of his workshop in the coastal village of Porthtowan, Cornwall, the 8-foot frame offers a fascinating insight into the engineering beneath the veneer – the skeleton and architecture needed to help someone ride a wave.

But then these are no ordinary surfboards. There’s no mass-produced foam or fibreglass here…just natural wood. And James, a graduate of the BA (Hons) 3D Design: Designer Maker degree at Plymouth (graduated 2009), is one of just a handful of people in the country who is able to make them for a living – and pretty much the only one who teaches others how to do it as well. 

Over the past eight years, James, an avid surfer himself, has slowly built up his business and achieved national recognition, not just for the standards of his craftsmanship, but also for the way he champions sustainability. He took time out to speak to Invenite about what he’s learned so far…

My dad always said that you should ‘stick to what you enjoy because you’ll end up doing what you love’.

With the freedom you were granted on the designer maker degree, I tried to figure out what I was enjoying the most, and that was making things with wood. I dabbled with other materials but I just always gravitated back to wood. And it was between my second and third years that I read a couple of magazine articles about wooden surfboards, and I thought 'hang on a minute…'. I mean, I enjoyed making furniture – I did some timber frame projects, which were exciting because you were part of a team, but surfboards became the focus of my final year. So it was the creativity that I really connected with in my degree. I wanted to solve a problem and go for it. 

I remember really clearly making that first surfboard, planing along its rail, and thinking about how it would be in the water. I loved making furniture, but this was something I was excited about because I knew and understood what someone was going to do with it. And I remember quite clearly stopping and saying ‘this stays in my life; whatever else is happening, I’m going to do this until I don’t enjoy it anymore’. And that is where it came from. I managed to win a couple of awards with the furniture I was making, which earned me around £2,000 worth of tool vouchers, and that gave me the ability to set myself up. Liz, my girlfriend at the time (and now wife), wanted to be in Cornwall, so with £50 to our name we headed down for the winter and found a place in Porthtowan. I was fortunate in that I was able to store my tools and machinery in a friend’s barn in St Agnes on the basis that we could both use them.

<p>James Otter</p>
<p>James Otter<br></p>
<p>James Otter</p>

It was probably at the end of 2010 when I sold my first board. I picked up carpentry work in the first year, and when that dried up, I obtained some funding through Unlocking Potential, and that gave me the chance to push the business and to try to get the message out there. At that point I was happy with the design – I’d spent 2009 really working on it. Whenever you make something, you worry about how it will perform, and once it is out there, people start to judge it. They see it as finished, while as a maker you’re still thinking about how you can refine and tweak it. The first bit of exposure was from the Cornwall Craft Association, who I’d approach to see if they would put some of my boards in their galleries. They invited us to help them with their reopening in the spring, and that brought us to the attention of the media. Out first board was sold soon after – to someone in Guernsey. And that is obviously a key part of running a business, to keep getting the message out there. 

I’d set up in business thinking I would be just making and selling boards, because that is the natural world of ‘making stuff’. 

But in the winter of 2011, I was approached by someone who said that while they wanted one of my surfboards, what they really, really wanted was to make one for themselves. That was quite a conundrum, as I’d spent two, three years working this out and getting to the point where I was happy with the boards – and now someone wanted to come in and learn it all. It was nerve-racking, but I told them I would do it if I could go away and break down the process so that I could deliver a course in five days. We trialled it over 12 afternoons, and that was how the workshops were born.

As the business has developed, James has taken on new staff: a photographer/writer/designer, who created the striking www.ottersurfboards.co.uk website

“We are a visual company, and that is so important – so many makers fail to present themselves online or in print, and that is such a missed opportunity.”

Two regular craftsmen, one of whom he met and interviewed while surfing, and two more who help during peak periods of activity; and wife Liz who has taken on much of the administrative responsibility.

After briefly relocating to Redruth in Cornwall, James moved the business back to Porthtowan in 2014, to the Mount Pleasant Ecological Park, a small but very picturesque enterprise hub and campsite. From there they produce around 30 boards per year, either custom-made-to-order or through the workshops. As wooden boards are around 30 per cent heavier than their foam equivalent, they tend to focus on those shapes that favour speed and momentum, such as shorter, twin-fin designs, and mid and longer length single fins. Each takes around 80 hours to create, and James estimates that there are 150 of them out in the wild – including Australia, New Zealand, California, and mainland Europe. And from those formative workshop sessions, more than 100 people have now enrolled on the week-long course. 

“You can see how the act of ‘making’ changes people,” James says. “Five days is quite an intense time, and it’s incredible to watch how they really open up and grow in confidence. I love people, and I don’t think I could be one man in a shed making stuff, despite that being what I thought I wanted.”

When I think about it, everyone in my family has either set up their own business, been a teacher, or done both! So it probably is in there, somewhere. 

In terms of running a business, it is the ambiguity that I find mentally the hardest. You can have a bad couple of months and you don’t know where the rent is coming from. And then you get to a point where you have some breathing space, but it can be compromised so quickly. I never went into this with the intention of building a money-making business; obviously it would be nice if it could keep a roof over our heads and that is pretty much still the case. What is tricky is that our lead time on purchases is so long. Almost all of our customers will tell us that they’ve been saving for years or waiting until their 40th birthday. At any one time, you know that there is someone out there with their finger hovering over the purchase button…but it would be nice if they told me!!! It’s easy to start losing faith in what you’re doing, and if you don’t believe in it, no one else will. 

Right now we’re looking at other ways to help bolster the business and make it more sustainable. So the business side of things is the more challenging – the making and the teaching comes naturally.

Culturally, there are so many things we ought to change to look after the planet, and the plastics issue is one of the elements. While there is noise around plastics in the ocean, let’s bang that drum as loudly as we can. Ten years ago, the environmentalists were talking about it, but it wasn’t in the public domain. Now that it is, we need to champion all the work that has gone before and make sure there is a continuation of that momentum. 

Is there anything you have learned that you would say to a graduate thinking of starting up a business? What advice would you pass on?

My advice for graduates thinking of starting up a business - I’m not sure I could distil it in one thing! You never know unless you give it a go. 

If you really want to start something, you have to put your neck on the line and do it.