tofino surf culture - stefan aftanas, tofino's custom shaper

Tofino surfboards: Stefan Aftanas' Sculptural Life

by Malcolm Johnson, Tofino


Modern-day Tofino, when looked at with honesty, shows itself as a community of multiple social separations. There are the lifetime locals and the moneyed newcomers of the tourist industry; the First Nations and the whites; the drug-addled bongo freaks and the monstrously healthy yoga-surf set; the Friends of the Sound and the Rape-and-Ruin executives who gaze out, lustfully, over the tracts of untouched timber on the God-shaped mountains to the north. It’s a town that’s nothing if not varied, and while some of its inhabitants never stray from their social lines, yoked with blinders like beasts of the field, it’s the people who live at the borders and intersections of Tofino’s human territories who always seem to be the most interesting. And Stefan Aftanas, who shapes custom surfboards in his garage, is one of them.

For those unfamiliar with surf culture, surfboard designers as referred to as ‘shapers.’ The bodies of custom surfboards — styrofoam blanks reinforced with wood stringers for strength — are mass-produced in the United States, but the finished outlines are individually sculpted by shapers using a variety of electric planers and hand tools. It’s a labourious, unprofitable business, and often a thankless one, as the most minute imperfections can make the difference between a solid board and an unsurfable Dog. And though not always the best surfers, shapers are revered within the sport for their understanding of the physics and dynamics behind the sport, and often take the role of guardians and sage figures, of people who Know What’s Up.

Conversations with Aftanas, who has become the coast’s leading custom shaper, are unfailingly interesting experiences, touching on everything from board design to Indo horror stories and musings on the petrochemical dependency of the surf industry. He has the artist’s gift of self-reflection, and has the ability to convey a huge amount of amassed surf knowledge in language that surpasses the monosyllabic stoke-isms that consume wannabe surf culture.

“When I was 17,” he says, “I didn’t even know what surfing was. I was in a corner store at Woodlands, waiting for someone, and saw a surf magazine on the rack. The cover was a guy in a huge barrel, and I was just really drawn to the whole imagery of surfing. My dad told me that guys did it up in Tofino; so I went up there, and rented a board from Gold Coast back when it still existed.

“I think that summer, which was ’90, was a good south swell season. I got hammered a lot and got swept in the rip past the rock at Long Beach. The epiphany after that was ‘Point Break.’ I thought ‘o.k., the place to go is Australia,’ so I went there, met a guy in Ulladulla and started trading him guitar lessons for the chance to hang out and watch him shape. And that was the beginning of my interest in shaping, even though he warned me it was a dirty job, which it is.”

Later, Aftanas found himself in Tofino after a roundabout path that included the Sombrio scene, a van drive from Nanaimo to Central America, a near-death experience in Baja and a chance encounter with Adam Smallwood in Costa Rica.

“I came up, made my resume and ended up meeting Jack Gilley. He asked me the all-important question — whether I listened to the cbc—and I said yes, and he ended up teaching me almost everything I know about surfing in Canada. He has an incredible eye for lines. He taught me all the fundamentals, and I attribute a lot of my success to him.”

Since the early years, Aftanas has developed into a first-rate board craftsman and now shapes full-time, supplying performance shortboards to many in Tofino’s surf community. His products are a convergence of sculpture and marine technology – “the art form of it has always been appealing to me,” he says. “Grabbing a blank by the nose and looking down the three dimensions, all the curves and contours and how they come together into one function.

“Seeing people in the community surf your boards is the most rewarding part of it,” he continues; “I surf here every day, so I know how 90% of the people surf, and I know where they’re at and what they need. And I don’t want people coming to me because of advertising, but because they know I can deliver a top-line product. But watching someone like Sepp or Peter or Ollie Atkey take one of your boards and launch into the air on it, bringing your work to its full potential, that’s a really crazy thing for me.

“I’m not even close to mastery yet. But I’m at the point of knowing; there’s a purpose every time I touch the foam with a tool, every time I pull the dragonskin across the rails. I’m in control now. I’m not chasing mistakes anymore.”

And that seems to be a fine metaphor for the greater life; that every time an action is taken it’s for a reason, for an end result that’s a marriage of form and function, of art and utility. And it’s that type of philosophy, and that type of expertise, that will keep Aftanas’ boards at the vanguard of Canadian surfing long into the coming decades.

Visit Stefan's website at

Malcolm Johnson works as a kayak guide in Tofino, with the occassional foray into professional media life.

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Tofino business profile of Stefan Aftanas, surfboard shaper in Tofino. Written by Malcolm Johnson for Tofino Time magazine.

tofino time august 2005

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