Inside the Lost Factory

Leon Poultney takes us behind the doors of Lost Surfboards, one of the world's largest manufacturer of surfboards and gives us the inside story of what it takes to make Mayhem

Head down the dusty trail that leads to Trestles Beach in San Diego County, USA. Duck under the low railway tracks that carry the famous Surfliner Train and stare at the Pacific Ocean.

The chances are that perfect-peeling waves are ripping from left to right at Lowers as world-class surfers tear the wave face to shreds. Soaring through the air is a surfboard with the words ‘Mayhem’ etched onto the underside.

Matt Biolos, a name now synonymous with a kind of anarchic entrepreneurial spirit, started his business in the late 1980s when a group of friends began scribbling the ‘Lost’ logo onto T-shirts.

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Biolos’ first Mayhem branded board was unveiled in 1987 but it took a further five or six years for the ‘Lost’ trademark to take shape, with Biolos constantly improving his shaping process in the meantime and refining his board templates.

Now, the Lost business churns out hundreds of boards every week, running several shaping machines 24/7, employing a brace of craftsmen and delivering world class boards to surf shops across the globe. Yet, if you head to Calle De Los Molinos on the fringes of San Clemente, you won’t find a pristine corporate factory. Instead, you’ll find a mini-megalopolis made up of shapers, glass houses, artists and power tool repair outfits that all help to keep the Lost enterprise running at full capacity.

An Englishman in San Clemente

One man who has found himself a part of this well-oiled machine is Chris Bugge, a Wittering based surfer and shaper who stumbled upon a passion for board making while living on the south coast of the UK.

Chris, understandably sick of the feeble waves and drizzly weather of southern England and its surrounding coastline, decided to pack his bags and knock on the door of the Biolos Empire in search of work and shaping inspiration.

“I started surfing when a bunch of injuries and operations forced me to hang up the skateboard,” reveals Chris, who now shares his time between the sunny Californian coast and the visa-required trips back to home soil.

“There weren’t many people willing to show me the ropes back home, so I had to work out a lot for myself. I made my first board in the garden using a rasp and sandpaper. It was horrible but it worked, so I kept on carving out shapes until I had a few presentable boards,” he adds.

A chance meeting with pro surfer and LokBox fin system owner Kasey Curtis at the tiny annual Fish Fry event in Crackington Haven kick-started a chain of events that would eventually see Chris work on a number of Lost projects.

“Kasey really liked a resin fin box system that I had created to cover empty LokBox units. He invited me to come hang with him and a few other influential faces in the industry. After a few ciders, I plucked up to courage to ask him for a job and he put me in touch with Matt Biolos a few days later,” explains Chris.

Humble beginnings

The first day at a new job is pretty daunting, no matter what you do for a living, but when one of the most prolific board shapers in the world is your new boss, the nerve-wracking levels go through the roof.

“I turned up to the Lost factory at 10am like I was told but waited for hours to speak to Matt. In the end, I started moving blanks around the shop floor and swept up some of the mess. This grom work continued for quite a few days,” says Chris.

Chris’s break came when a Matt thrust a blank in his general direction – it had been cut wrong and Biolos wanted to see how well the Brit could resurrect a template with bummed rails.
“The machine had only carved one of the rails out, the other was completely flat so Matt let me use his shaping bay and tools to try and knock it back into shape. They liked what I did so told me to head over to a place called Ghetto House to glass it all.

“I put fins in it, glassed it, layered on a hot coat and then gave it someone to sand finish the thing. It was my first complete Lost board from start to finish and the guys seemed pretty happy with it, so they put me to work installing the fin systems in the boards that went through Ghetto House,” he adds.

Hanging around The Alley

It’s a Sunday, the sun is booming down onto San Clemente Pier and a few guys are out on the crumbling peaks of T-Street beach. I’ve just exited the warm water – most of it dripping out of my nose – after surfing a sweet new 6″0 fish from Chris Bugg’s Customs collection. It features a tiger print resin tint, Chris has covered his stubby quad in the same design. A passing kid stares at the boards and shouts, “What? Are you twins or something?”

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They’re pretty pissed at me for getting the multi-coloured resin from these tiger boards all over their floor.

The evening draws in and Chris reveals that he has to head down to The Alley – the affectionate name given to the Los Molinos area – to finish hot coating a load of Lost boards before he flies home to the UK.

“I promised the guys at Ghetto House that I would finish off a few boards before I leave this week. Plus, they’re pretty pissed at me for getting the multi-coloured resin from these tiger boards all over their floor,” says Chris.

So with that, we’re loading up the enormous Dodge Ram pick-up truck I rented and hitting the San Diego Freeway. There’s barely any traffic on the roads, it’s Sunday and the residents of San Clemente are enjoying an ice-cold beer, hitting the surf or if you’re really unlucky, working in the non-stop surf industry of Los Molinos.

We pull into the small industrial estate and park up down a back alley. The place isn’t anything special but on closer inspection, some pretty serious names adorn some of the small shop fronts.

Drew Brophy’s surf art workshop sits next to Terry Senate’s shaping set-up and surf school, while several other major glass houses, including Catalyst, sit tucked up side roads.

“Lost uses most of the outfits here in some respect,” says Chris as we walk past Mulligan’s pub – a popular drinking hole for the dust-covered and resin-stained workers of the local area. “The blanks are all shaped and processed in one big unit just behind the pub but Lost are pumping out so many boards that they need to enlist the help of local craftsmen to sort out the fin systems, glass, hot coat the boards and sand them before shipping out,” he adds.

We reach a large industrial unit with its metal shutter doors slightly open. The whirring sound of machinery relentlessly hammering out foam shapes can be heard emanating from inside.

There are two AKU Shaper machines running simultaneously, while a guy behind a plastic screen intermittently taps away at a keyboard. The computer screen displays a line drawing of the blank that’s being shaped by the high-tech machinery but there are so many algorithms with so much code running, that it’s almost impossible to decipher exactly what’s going on.

“I have to make sure the machines are cutting correctly,” replies the bloke when quizzed about why he’s spending his Sunday night here. He offers out some chips and adds: “These things are running pretty much constantly so we can keep up with the orders. Someone has to be here to oversee it all.”

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Hundreds of Arctic Foam blanks line the walls of the Lost factory, some resemble the basic shape of a surfboard but most are just crude starting points for the high-tech machinery to carve into the shapes we know and love: the V2 shortboard, the V3 Rocket, the Couch Potato, the Scorcher. They all start life here.

The site is huge, with eight or nine rooms set aside for hand shaping, refining and air brushing, plus the rooms that are set up with the laser guided machinery. But none of it is wasted because Biolos is putting his name to hundreds of boards every week.
It’s a non-stop operation.

In the Ghetto

“Once the boards have been shaped, they are shipped out to a number of glass houses in the local area to be finished off and that’s what I’ll be doing until about 2am,” Chris grumbles with a tone that suggests he’d rather be in Mulligan’s pub.

There are a few questionable characters hanging around at night.

The entrance to Ghetto House is unassuming, its frontage covered in stickers and the odd bit of graffiti. Inside, it’s much of the same, with various rooms housing stacks of blanks with their corresponding paperwork attached.

Chris starts to roll fresh masking tape around the board racks before placing shapes of varying sizes in a row. He stops and throws me an industrial-strength face mask.

Chemicals are mixed, the place starts to stink, the radio is switched on and Chris gets to work running up and down each rack, carefully applying a layer of hot coat to every board before smoothing out the liquid surface and neatly catching the excess in a little bucket.

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Those who have watched a shaper add the all-important resin to a new board, will have likely been impressed by the skill and speed on display but it’s even more striking when eight or nine boards are being worked on at once.

My eyes wander over some of the posters on the wall: Taj Burrow, Carissa Moore, Chris Ward and Coco Ho are just a few riders to have been snapped busting huge airs with a Mayhem-liveried board underneath their feet.

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“It’s pretty cool to think that I’ve worked on the fin systems and hot-coated some of the boards that these guys ride,” Chris mumbles through his massive face mask.

“In fact, I think this board I’m working on now is going to this guy”, he points at a poster of a tiny local ripper with fins busting free from the lip and then points to an equally tiny surfboard, barely big enough for a domestic cat.

Lessons learnt at Lost

Experience is vital to becoming a good shaper and working ten hour shifts on a daily basis at Ghetto House has certainly armed Chris with a shit ton of the stuff.

I didn’t really know anything when I first came here.

“I didn’t really know anything when I first came here,” he says. “I learnt so much in the few years and my own board shaping has come on so far. I’ve even been teaching others how to work on the fin systems this year.”

But the ride isn’t always easy, as the vibe down at Los Molinos is definitely one of gritty graft rather than corporate cleanliness. The whole area relies on one another to get the job of board making done.

Lost relies on the local glassing and shaping experience, the shapers rely on the local power tool repair man to keep them running and the power tool guys rely on Mulligan’s pub to keep everyone from having a nervous breakdown.

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“The place can be pretty raw,” says Chris when quizzed on what it’s like to work in the area. “There are a few questionable characters hanging around at night and by day, most of my colleagues refer to me as poodle. One guy called me a Pommie bastard and another guy asked if he meant Pomeranian, you know, like the f*cking poodle. So the name stuck.

“The banter can be pretty intense, too, and a lot of the time we’re up against really tight deadlines so things sometimes kick off on the shop floor. You’ve definitely got to be thick skinned to work in a place like this,” he adds.

But when asked if he’d prefer to be back in the world of ‘elf n safety and grey skies, there’s a resolute answer. “No way, I’ve got to go back out of necessity but I think I’ll go mad when the shaping facilities, the waves and the weather are taken away from me. This place is like a second home and as long as people keep buying Lost boards, I’ll keep coming back.”