Mike Whisnant has been building surfboards since 1973 and shaping them since 1989, the latter of which is also when he opened Whisnant Surfboards in his hometown of Atlantic Beach.
“I started with a buddy of mine in his backyard garage, which is pretty much the way everybody starts,” Whisnant said. “I started shaping in ’89 and that business just took off, and now here we are 33 years later.”
However, even after 33 years it is Whisnant’s passion for surfing and his continued search to one day build the perfect board that continues to drive him.
He moved with his family from Virginia to Atlantic Beach when he was 3 years old and was first introduced to the world of surfing when he was 13.
According to Whisnant, he remembers a friend in seventh grade taking him to the library to show him a copy of Surfer Magazine, and right away he knew that was something he wanted to try.
As soon as he hit the water he was hooked, and it has been a major part of his life ever since.
“I picked it up, and literally two years later I was building my own boards,” Whisnant said.
One of the surfboards still in Whisnant’s collection is the first board he ever shaped, which he enjoys having around because it reminds him of how far he has come over the years.
“I go back and look at it every once-in-a-while and it’s just so sad,” Whisnant chuckled.
One of the things he has seen firsthand over the years is the advancement in boards and the characteristics people are looking for from their surfboard.
“The boards we were building back in ’73 were so different because they were basic in terms of the shape,” Whisnant said. “Usually, the special thing about it was the color. It was a very unique time, but we were just looking to build the best with what we had.”
According to Whisnant, the introduction of Instagram has given people from around the world a platform to show off their creative side when it comes to surfboard design.
“It changed everything and made it to where you really have to pay attention and be on it,” Whisnant said. “You can see stuff and if you understand it, you can recreate it even though that board just showed up in the world. It could be super cool looking, but it’s also important to know if it works.”
After all the years, he still finds himself in awe when he spots his logo or one of his boards out in public and his first urge is to pinch himself to make sure he’s not dreaming.
“Even this long into it, it’s such a hard feeling for me to describe,” Whisnant said.
One of the things Whisnant prides himself in is his ability to listen to the customer and hash out what they are looking for from their surfboard.
“I’m a local business owner, so I have to take care of people because I won’t be in this for much longer if I don’t,” Whisnant said. “Customer service is very high our list.”
The fact that people can have an idea and then see that idea come to fruition is what gives the authenticity to having a custom-built board.
“No board is the same,” Whisnant said.
His favorite part of the job is when he finishes a surfboard and presents it to its new owner for the first time and seeing the reaction on their face.
“When the board’s done and the person walks in, they just lose their mind, because I’ve taken what’s in their head and put it into foam and fiberglass,” Whisnant said.
Up until about three years ago Whisnant did the entire process himself, that included shaping, airbrushing, glassing, putting the fins in and sanding and finishing.
That is until he heard about his friend Derek Jackson, who had worked at some major surfboard labels in California, thinking of making the move to Florida to be close to family.
Whisnant offered for Jackson to take over his glass shop since it was already in place and functioning. The glass shop is now called Useless Toys Glassing.
“It’s so much nicer now, because if someone wants some crazy resin colors, he can do all that,” Whisnant said. “We do almost 20 boards a week here, which was about five when I was doing it myself. It’s a totally different animal now.”
Whisnant is a three-time Surf Expo shaping champion, having won the Florida Shape Off in 2011 and 2015, and the Master or Masters competition in 2016.
But despite all the accolades, being alone in the shaping room with just him, the board he’s working on and his music cranked up offers him a tranquil setting that can only be matched when he’s out on the water.
“It’s so different and yet so the same,” Whisnant said. “There are a lot of times when I know the waves are good, but I’ve got a shape in front of me that I’m really intrigued with and I’ll say to myself, ‘I’ll go surfing in a little bit, because I’ve got to get this done.’”
And just like that, the search to make the best surfboard continues.
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