Shaping Surfboards With a Sense of Place

February 25, 2016 (Updated December 15, 2023)

Ask anyone seduced by the foamy crash of the surf, and they’ll tell you that it’s hard to stay in one place — something about the ocean’s churning rhythm takes hold of your soul and won’t easily let it settle. But for many, this all seems to change when you find yourself on the Oregon Coast.

This is what Jason Tilley discovered more than a decade ago, as he and his wife drove across California’s northern border in an old Cadillac.


Tilley had spent much of his younger years as a seafaring vagabond, wandering from shipbuilding school in Washington to repairing wooden boats in Alaska to stints in Baja and Maui. For more than eight years, he lived aboard a 26-foot sailboat with his wife. And together they spent more than three of those years sailing and surfing down the West Coast, all the way to Panama. But a desire to start a family called them to Oregon.

“It was kind of the only place I knew in the Lower 48 that wasn’t overrun with people,” Tilley says. “It was wild and beautiful.”

Growing up in Oregon, Tilley became intimately acquainted with the untamed beauty of the state. He had built his first surfboard here, and had fallen in love with the sparsely populated beaches on the South Coast. But when he returned with his wife and crossed over from California into Oregon, he saw the craggy shoreline with fresh eyes: His years spent traveling gave him a greater appreciation for the place — its waves, its wood and its people.

Up to this point, there had been two constants in his life: surfing and shipbuilding. And something about his return to Oregon inspired him to combine his two passions — or addictions, as he calls them.

“Wooden boats are so beautiful. They are sculptures,” he says. “And I wanted to do the same thing with surfboards.”

He and his wife settled in the small South Coast town of Port Orford (pop. 1,137) and set up Tilley Surfboards, a woodworking shop where he crafts custom surfboards (as well as standup paddleboards and kiteboards), each one uniquely inspired by beauty of the Coast.

“The landscape definitely has an influence,” Tilley says. “I look around at places I love and think about the outline of that rock on a board,” he continues, explaining how his favorite surfing spots inspire each design. You can even see the South Coast represented in the wood-grain finish of his boards, which are handcrafted with locally sourced Port Orford cedar as well as salvaged wood he finds while beachcombing with his son.

And it’s here, on the Oregon Coast, where he thinks his boards reveal their true beauty.

“The most beautiful place for my boards to be seen is in the water,” he says. “It fits in there: You’re walking by Port Orford cedar or redwood or red cedar, and you have this board built out of that species. It’s perfect, really.”

Take Lessons and Learn to Surf

Inspired to test your skills and hit the surf? With surging wave energy pulsing down from the Gulf of Alaska, the Oregon Coast has dependable conditions year-round, and the soft sand beaches make this a prime spot for beginners to put boards in the water for the first time. Plus, fewer crowds mean you’ll have a wilder experience than you might find in warmer waters. Don’t worry, wet suits will provide a layer of artificial blubber to keep you warm and happy.

Newbies should take to the waves with an experienced instructor, and plenty of surf shops and schools offer one-on-one lessons and small-group classes, with popular ones including Oregon Surf Adventures in Seaside, Moment Surf Company in Pacific City.  As winter storms bring bigger waves, beginners should plan their first lesson during summer months — the rest of the year is best for sitting in the sand and admiring the pros.

About The

JD Shadel
JD Shadel is a queer writer, editor and producer whose work appears in The Washington Post, VICE, Fodor’s Travel, The Atlantic CityLab and many others. When not hunched over a keyboard in one of Portland’s many cocktail bars, they hit the road in search of Oregon’s emptiest trails.