Phil Becker: Surfing’s John Henry lays down his Rockwell planer
by Kevin Cody
Phil Becker was the most prolific and most under celebrated surfboard shaper in history, by his own design.
Becker used three Rockwell planers, all bought in 1965 and periodically rebuilt, to shape over 130,000 surfboards. The closest other person to shape that many boards was Hobie Surfboards’ Terry Martin, who shaped an estimated 80,000 surfboards before passing away in 2012, at age 75. Channel Islands’ Al Merrick is thought to have shaped 45,000 surfboards.
“Phil bicycled to the factory on Cypress from his duplex on 24th, carrying a peanut butter and banana sandwich in a brown paper bag, and shaped 11 boards a day, four days a week for four decades,” Becker’s longtime glasser Steve Mangiagli said. “During the Blue Crush years, in the early 2000s, he was doing 66 boards a week.” (Mangiagli began glassing Becker’s boards in 1970, making him the most prolific and most under celebrated glasser in surfing history.)
“Phil never missed a day of work. He worked the day his mother died,” recalled Becker’s longtime glosser and pinstriper, Dave Hollander. “When Nat Young came by the factory to visit Phil, Phil kept on shaping.” (Young is a former world surfing champion, from Australia). Hollander once calculated the number of steps Becker took mowing blanks with his planer, and concluded the distance equaled two circumnavigations of the globe.
But Becker was so publicity shy that if called for an interview, he’d tell Hollander to call back and pretend he was Becker.
“One summer, Tokyo Broadcasting came to the factory with a camera crew. Phil wouldn’t come out of his shaping bay. He told me, ‘Davey, get those Martians out of here.’ When they presented him with a Tokyo Broadcasting wrist watch, he said, ‘Here, Davey. I’ve never worn a watch in my life,’ and gave it to me.”
“Phil was so against calling our shop Becker Surf, that he misspelled the name when he drew the logo. ‘Davey, do you know how weird it is to see your name on people’s T-shirts,’ he once told me. At the time we were selling 10,000 Becker T-shirts a year,” Hollander said.
In 2003, Becker was an inaugural inductee in the Hermosa Beach Surfer Walk of Fame. He shaped boards that morning instead of attending the ceremony.
“It’s just my nature,” Becker told surf journalist Sam George in a 1993 Surfer Magazine interview. “I made the boards as the orders came in and didn’t worry much about the rest of it.”
Despite his aversion to attention, Becker’s death from bladder cancer last Thursday, Feb. 25, at age 81, elicited a worldwide outpouring of stories from surfers who rode his boards.
“Every day, I’d see Phil riding his bike to work. Every evening I’d see him ride home, covered in foam dust. He had an unbelievable work ethic that pushed him to keep going for many years after he was financially secure,” Hermosa surfer Chris Brown wrote on Facebook. Brown’s first surfboard was a Becker his parents bought him on his 10th birthday. “Phil was once asked what advice he would give to a kid in high school. After giving it some thought Phil replied, ‘Follow your stoke.’ To him, all those years weren’t work. He was just following his stoke.”
Becker was one of the few pioneer shapers from the ’50s balsa board era to transition to the polyurethane longboard era in the ‘60s. And one of the still fewer longboard era shapers to transition to the shortboard era in the ‘70s. Then, in the ’80s, he introduced the mid-size LC3 “fun board” for aging baby boomers. It became Becker’s best selling board and arguably surfing’s best selling board (not counting CostCo softops).
“It was a big market that wasn’t being targeted, and I kind of did it because I figured, well, it’s going to make a lot of guys a lot happier,” he told George in the 1993 Surfer interview.
That same year, he told a Los Angeles Times report, “I’m not in the business of getting anyone to ride a certain type of board. I’m in business to keep people happy riding surfboards.”
“If history treats him wrong,” Hollander said, “Phil will be remembered as a great production shaper who didn’t get design feedback from team riders, because he didn’t believe in having team riders.”
“On the other side,” Hollander said, “Phil did one shaping appointment every afternoon. They were magical. The surfer got to meet Phil and Phil got to know the kind of surfer he was making a board for. Instead of feedback from a few team surfers, he got feedback from a few hundred surfers, of all abilities.”
“Phil’s thousands of mid length boards brought more joy and stoke to more people than any of the hot young-gun shapers,” Encyclopedia of Surfing’s Matt Warshaw said, upon learning of Becker’s death.
Still, many of the world’s top surfers rode Becker boards, among them Hermosa Surfer Walk of Fame inductees Dru Harrison Improviser, and Tiger Makin, and Hawaiian big wave riders Jeff Hackman and Barry Kanaiaupuni.
“Phil’s workhorse production causes people to overlook his longboard innovations in the ‘60s. His Ronnie Garner UFO, his Dru Harrison Improviser, and his Barry Kanaipuni models for Rick have yet to be fully understood because they were so advanced for the time,” said Eddie Solt, founder of the Hermosa Beach Hotdogger Championship, a ‘60s-style longboard contest. “He followed these up in the early ’70s, with some of the shortboard revolution’s most functional and beautiful boards, with clean, resin tints and pin lines.”
Mangiagli said his first Becker surfboard was a 7-foot-2, rounded square tail with pinched rails.
“It was just pleasing to the eye. Phil’s boards flowed together so nicely. There were no sharp, crazy edges.”
Becker’s most important R and D was a month every winter on the North Shore and two weeks every summer exploring Baja, and then Costa Rica.
“Phil was from the school of pioneer surfers who were more interested in exploring new places to surf than winning contests,” Hollander said. He and Mangiagli accompanied Becker in his Datsun pick-up on countless, uncharted surf trips down Baja and to Matapalo, in Costa Rica, where Becker eventually built a house . Hollander treasures a faded photo taken near Guerrero Negro, of himself and Becker using surfboards and jerry cans to jack up the Datsun, which is wheel deep in Baja sand.
Mangiagli said Becker saved both of their lives when he fell asleep driving on a Baja trip, and Becker grabbed the wheel seconds before the Datsun would have plunged over a cliff.
Like a modern day John Henry, Becker never gave ground to the shaping machine.
“They’re great for doing 300 or 400 identical boards. But they stifle creativity and I don’t like to compromise. We do custom work,” he said in a 2005 Easy Reader interview.
“Because every surfer is different and every wave is different, every board should be different,” he said. “That’s why no one shape has prevailed. There are too many variables for a single solution. Not only are there differing styles and abilities, but no two waves are alike, even at the same beach.
“This is my third time around with fishes,” he said. “They were popular in the early ‘70s, and again in the early ‘90s, and now are making a resurgence among young surfers. I don’t like them. But maybe that’s just because I’m not quick enough anymore.”
Becker grew up in Palos Verdes, near Lunada Bay, “across from the garbanzo bean or wheat field, depending on the season,” recalls childhood surf buddy John Van Hamersveld.
“We met at a Cub Scout meeting. Phil’s dad was the Scout Master. Phil’s mom would drive us all over on surfing trips,” Van Hamersveld recalled. Van Hamersveld, became Surfer Magazine’s first art director and designed the iconic movie poster for Bruce Brown’s “Endless Summer.”
Becker’s first surfboard was a 14-foot, Tom Blake, redwood kookbox he and the Eaton Brothers paid $5 for when they were 10 years old. Blake was a swim instructor at the Palos Verdes Swim Club and taught Becker and Eaton to swim. Like Becker, Mike Eaton would become a shaper for Rick surfboards in Hermosa Beach, before opening his own shop in San Diego in 1978.
A rare, color photo from the early ‘50s shows Becker, looking like Huck Finn, in a straw hat, and cut-off jeans, with Jared Eaton, holding up their towering kookbox at Bluff Cove. Alongside them are other, young Palos Verdes surfers with new, modern balsa boards. Becker and the Eatons carried their boards down the Bluff Cove trail on an Army stretcher they had attached wagon wheels to. Rather than drag their boards up and down the trail every time they wanted to surf, early Palos Verdes surfers kept their boards in the bushes at the foot of the cliff.
Becker began shaping boards in his family’s garage during his teens, with guidance from Hap Jacobs and Dale Velzy.
“Hap and Dale had a shop,” Becker told George in the 1993 interview. “They were the only ones around who let you actually go and watch them work. I’d done some wood carving when I was younger, so I knew a little bit about wood. It was kind of a natural thing. We used to strip the glass off old boards and reshape them. That’s how we started. Take an old Simmons, strip it, chop it up into something new, that kind of thing. We made a lot of dud boards that way.”
Shortly after lifeguard Rick Stoner opened Rick’s Surfboards on Pacific Coast Highway in Hermosa Beach in 1961, he hired Becker as one of his shapers. In 1977, Stoner died from a brain tumor. Three years later, Becker, Mangiagli and Hollander bought Rick’s surfboard factory on Cypress Avenue, in Hermosa Beach and opened Becker Surf on Pier Avenue.
Mangiagli began glassing for Rick in 1967, while still in high school.
“I glassed a board at home, and took it to the Rick factory to be sanded. Mike Bright, who was Rick’s glasser, looked at it and said, ‘Do you want a job?’ Mike quit a short time later and Rick asked me to take over the glassing,” Mangiagli said.
Like Becker, Hollander also grew up in Palos Verdes and began making surfboards in his garage.
After his first day glossing and pinstriping boards at the Rick Surfboard factory, Hollander told his mom, “Someday, I’m going to own this factory.”
A few years later, he would call his mom and ask, ‘Do you remember what I said the day I came home from my first day at Rick’s?”
“‘A mother never forgets those things,’ she said to me. Then I told her, ‘Phil and Steve and I just signed the lease.’”
The three reached an agreement in the downstairs studio apartment on 24th Street that Becker lived in until he moved to Hawaii.
“The shower floor was wood slats and drained into the sand. There was foam dust everywhere and no TV. Phil’s only material indulgence was a 1937 Ford Woodie, that he restored himself, and rarely left his garage. He spent two years looking for the right wood for the paneling,” Hollander said,
“We each put up $8,000 and agreed if there was a dispute it would be resolved by majority vote.
“Over the next 30 years, we had two votes and Phil lost both of them. One was about the name. The other was about whether or not to buy a new shop van. Phil didn’t think we needed one,” Hollander said.
“He was so frugal, he wouldn’t flip you for a nickel, and paid cash for everything.”
During their three decade partnership, Becker Surf expanded to seven stores and over 150 employees. In 2007, its online holiday sales were second in the surf industry to Pacific Sunwear, a billion dollar company with 800 retail stores.
“The three were a perfect team,” recalled longtime employee Fred Williams. “If you asked Phil how the future looks, he’d say, ‘I don’t know. We might be out of business tomorrow.’ Ask Dave, and he’d say, “We’re going to conquer the world.’ Steve would tell it the way it was.”
“All three were workhorses. Phil would arrive at the factory at 7 a.m. and not leave ‘til 7 p.m. And Steve arrived ahead of Phil. Dave would have sold his house to save the business,” Williams said.
In 2005, Becker told his two partners he was moving in a year, to the home he had built on Oahu’s North Shore.
“I want more time to surf, before I become too dilapidated,” he said. Becker never smoked or drank and some years earlier had switched from peanut butter and banana sandwiches to tofu and banana as a health measure.
Williams was an ocean swimmer. One warm summer day, Becker asked to swim with him.
“We met in front of his duplex on 24th Street and swam to the pier and back, a mile swim. I had just swam the Surf Festival Pier to Pier Swim and was in good shape. It’s a two mile race and I finished in under an hour. Phil biked, but the only swimming he did was when he lost his board. I had trouble keeping up with him,” Williams recalled.
Hollander said he was at the factory when Becker told him he was moving to Hawaii.
“Phil put a measuring tape on a longboard and measured out 65 inches. He said, ‘This is where I am. The average life expectancy is 67.'”
“Phil was very black and white. I once asked him why he never married. He said, ‘Davey, there are two types of women: spinners and checked out. Spinners are fun, but crazy, and the checked out ones, the ones you want to marry, want children. I don’t want children.’”
Becker eventually did marry, at age 77, to Linda Midgett, whom he met in Hawaii and shared his enthusiasm for cycling. Williams said he and his wife Diane visited the couple after their marriage and he had never seen Becker happier.
One of the last of Becker’s friends to speak to him before his death was Jose Barahona, the shaper he mentored and presented his Rockwell planers to when he retired.
Barahona came to the U.S. from El Salvador in 1981, when he was 15, speaking no English, and never having seen the ocean until he visited his brother Oscar at the Becker factory. His brother was a sander.
“I started sweeping the floor. One day, Dave said to me, ‘Do you want to learn to airbrush?’ He’d gotten too busy running the business to keep up on the airbrushing. After about three years a guy came in with a broken board, It couldn’t be repaired. So I stripped it down and reshaped it and showed it to Phil. He was not impressed. So I bought a blank and shaped a 7-foot-6 board, with hand tools, and showed that to Phil.
“He said, meet me here in the morning. I’ll teach you some tricks. I was so excited, I couldn’t sleep that night. I was going to learn from the master.
“In the morning, he handed me his planer. I said I don’t know how to use it. He said, press the button and pretend you’re mowing the lawn. Afterwards, he said, ‘What do you mean, you don’t know how to use a planer?’”
‘I started doing three boards a week, then five, then 10. And I was still airbrushing. The people in the shop didn’t think the boards would sell if they had my name on the stringer. So for a year, Phil signed my boards. Finally, he said, ‘This is B.S. His boards are as good as mine. He’s signing his boards.’”
In early January of this year, Barahona tested positive for COVID-19. That same day, the county coroner took away his next door neighbor. He was 55, the same age as Barahona, and had died of COVID.
“Over the next few days, I got so sick, I didn’t know if I was going to make it. I was drenched in sweat and felt like there was a 500 pound ball on my chest. On Jan. 3, at 10 at night, my phone rang. It was Phil, but it didn’t sound like him. He wasn’t making any sense. Then he’d sound like the old Phil. He was weaving in and out and I was weaving in and out.”
Mangiagli and Hollander, who spoke with Becker frequently during his year-long battle with cancer, said he was accepting of death and did not want extraordinary medical measures taken to extend his life.
“Unfortunately, he didn’t get his wish. The doctors kept him in the hospital for 10 weeks, until the end. And, because of COVID, Linda couldn’t visit him,” Hollander said.
Hollander and Mangiagli plan to celebrate their partner’s life with a simple toast of their wine glasses the next time they meet for dinner. Hollander lives in Palm Springs and Mangiagli in Hermosa.
“That’s what Phil said he wanted. He’d roll over in his grave if a big bunch of people gathered in his memory to talk story,” Hollander said.
But that’s another of Becker’s final wishes that may not come to be.
Mangiagli and Barahona say people locally, in Hawaii and in Matapalo, Costa Rica, have been calling non stop for news about a paddleout in Becker’s memory, at all three locations, on the same day.
Matt Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing (EOS.surf) was a source for some of the material in this story. ER
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