Surf Icon, Donald Takayama: The Talk Story


Surftech Grand Opening

I got a chance to interview the legendary Donald Takayama over the phone. At 65, Donald Takayama is still going strong. He started his career of making boards at age 11, became a shaper, surfer and still proves to be the master of style and technique. Takayama discusses his board designs, quality, and craftsmanship which led him to the aloha spirit of manufacturing. He muses over his innovations and high performance surfboards, and the reasons why he continues to create boards which he personally engineers from choice of wood on to the entire production process.

Donald discusses the quality, style and design of his boards which led him to the surfboard manufacturing industry with Surftech. Initially using redwood to build his own, Takayama now has engineered all the boards using his 56 years of surfboard building experience, with genuine shapes and designs. Takayama also touched his life, near death experience and how he re-surfaced to being the surf icon that he is.

Transcript: (Scroll down to listen to the interview)

Evan Leong: Did you initially come up with a design for [your stand up board] like a 10’3”? (00:05)

Donald Takayama: No, no as a whole I designed one and I felt based on the different lengths, they’re very comparable to one another. When I did design these boards, I made them on just regular Styrofoam with the thought in mind as far as how they’re going to work. The displacement, the width, the thickness has to be compatible with someone you know like 170 pounds and I scaled it up. What I also did in the design…I built these two boards…one for Noah [Shimabukuro] and one for Kai [Salas].

I’ve been building the boards for a long time and at one point in my life I used to stand up on my board and ride it down the Ala Wai Canal and let the trade winds blow me and then I see it to the 2×2 or 1×2 and it’s a paddle down in the yacht harbor that’s in between the boats and then I’d go out to Ala Moana and go surf. And with the design and the thought of standing up you know it’s probably displacement and first it’s based on your profile of the board with applying hydro dynamics to it you know how the boards and the floatation factor to where it’s going to pivot and where to put the width and everything so it’ll perform like a long board and surfboard. No pun intended, but I’ve seen these guys build these boards really super wide and that’s great for catching waves but not really getting parallel with the wave. I tried to design the boards to perform, for hanging ten, for doing cut backs and just doing power turns off the bottom. Just like high performance but not going overboard, and something that you can actually really ride the surf with. The width, I scaled it up from the 9’3” and with that thought in mind, the taller, heavier people and lanky people, really tall people, how to accommodate the design, one particular design but in different levels. One design can accommodate all the different heights to weight ratios of people, aside from that, using the 2+1 fin design concept for turning in and for really holding in and waves and stuff. (03:13)

Evan Leong: So you like that 2+1? Actually what I did recently is I changed out the 2+1 and I put 4 ½” True Ames [fins] on the side as well as the middle. And I kind of liked that better. 03:24

Donald Takayama: Well it kind of works okay but when you really want to hit off the bottom it turns good. But when you really want to get to that tip and really hang ten, you need a deeper center fin or if the tail just comes sliding out. And these guys, Noah and Kai, they’re coming off the bottom, blasting to the top getting air. 03:52

Evan Leong: You mean on the stand ups? 03:55

Donald Takayama: Well I chose the Surftech technology; it shows the lightness of the board and the durability. It’s a pretty expensive board. And you want it to last. The polyesters or the beaded foams stuff and the epoxy stuff, they fall apart really fast. And it was Surftech technology that I think has got performance plus durability and the boards really hold up well. Also I designed a new fin designs which is coming out. That really makes the boards perform well. It increases your turning radius where it really squares it off and shortens it up. 04:49

Evan Leong: You mean you got a new fin design, a center fin for these boards? 04:52

Donald Takayama: It’s center and side fins. Kai’s been using it and the boys have been using it. And it’s coming out really soon. And your turns…they’re so shortened. You don’t have to get these long drawn out turns it just snaps right back, you’re over the top.

Evan Leong: Is this 2+1?

Donald Takayama: It’s a 2+1 set up.

Evan Leong: Like 3 ½” on the side and like that 10” middle?

Donald Takayama: It’s like 3 ½” on the sides…3 ¼” actually. 05:26

Evan Leong: The stocks set up on it I think has like a 9 ½” or so or 10” fin…

Donald Takayama: Based on the heights or the lengths of the boards. These boards have been used for Noah. I’ve used 8 ¼” and the new fin design with an 8 ¼” [middle] and the side fins. And you can pop them loose but you can take off right from the get go and hang ten and stick it out in the water and just to control it with your both feet up over the tip. I designed these things based on my past history of board building. And in comparing notes with all of the different manufacturers and with what they’re doing and I put this together and it’s a thought process versus performance in actual riding. And it worked out really well but of course it took me a few years to come up with what you call, from where you’re going to play from, how you want to perform; what you want to do with it. A lot of the boards that are made are so wide that’s why you just can’t just the wave and trim along. You got more straight up and ate up [06:57] in an angle. With these you can pull them up. You can ride them. You say stand up surfing but you’re limited. I mean to what limits do you want to go? So I try to incorporate everything I know. And as far as nose riding for me, cutting back and all that. And that’s how I came up with the fin design to really initiate these maneuvers. 07:24

Evan Leong: So what did you say in performance; what kind of difference would it make? Is it a big difference or you know…? 07:33

Donald Takayama: Oh yeah. There are a lot of boards that they’re building and I’ve noticed and take notes too. They just stand there in one spot and turn and carve up the bottom but they don’t walk the thing. It’s like you’re just riding a short board and you’re doing these maneuvers, right?

Evan Leong: Right.

Donald Takayama: But you want to take off, you want to trim, you want to hang 10, you want to do a full-on, [07:58] floaters and all this stuff. The other ones you can’t, you’re limited, and you’re stuck in one spot. You don’t have to travel on the board. You wouldn’t take off. You want a bottom turn. You want to walk up there and hang 10, boom, just like you’re riding a long board. That’s stand up surfing. 08:24

Evan Leong: So the fins though, the new fins that you designed, it’s a huge difference than the…?

Donald Takayama: Yeah. I call it the Halo fins. In Hawaiian Halo means fin. It’s a reverse fin. All the fins they trail back right? What I’ve done is I’ve shortened at the turning radius by reversing the fin.

Evan Leong: Oh you mean it looks like a backward fin?

Donald Takayama: Yeah.

Evan Leong: That’s sounds interesting.

Donald Takayama: And it looks like the World War I airplanes. No seriously, and they were really good. What it does is shorten up the radius then by moving the pivot. When you compare the regular side fins to these fins, you’ll actually see the pivoting point is 2 inches taller. So you won’t have to get way back to the tail to make a turn. You can turn from the middle back. You can do roundhouses and stuff.

Evan Leong: I’ve noticed that your boards turn really well too. Initially when I first looked at it, it looks like a big long board. And then I got on it and I said: wait a minute this thing is turning pretty good. 09:43

Donald Takayama: Oh yes, because from what I’ve done it’s based on the profile, your thickness flow, a third up from the tail is the thickest part of the whole board. And goes into a concave and with the extreme V in it because that’s where you pivot from, from rail to rail.

Evan Leong: Right. I mean you really feel that V when you’re standing on that tail.

Donald Takayama: Yeah because when you’re standing and you hit on that flat panel V, the board just accelerates and comes right around. And that is where the ball bearing of your pivoting point on the whole board is a third of the way up. That’s why you don’t have to get way up on the nose to get the board going. You just step up right on the middle, you’re off and running. While other people are making boards with thickness based right from the center, and when you do that it becomes a teeter totter. You’re like one of those teeter totter games.

Evan Leong: Like a seesaw.

Donald Takayama: A seesaw in the playground. You got to get way forward to get the corn and then when you turn you got to go way back.

Evan Leong: So you wouldn’t recommend moving the fin to thruster then, only unless you want to stand at the back the whole time. 11:03

Donald Takayama: The ones with the trails back you got to get [11:08] a little further back to pivot. But the ones or the new ones I designed have the middle back and that’s where you pivot from.

Evan Leong: When are those coming out?

Donald Takayama: I’ve moved the pivot points up forward.

Evan Leong: When are they coming out, the new fins?

Donald Takayama: I’m still waiting for it [11:22] and I think it will take a while I still have to get these fins patented. I designed all these finger fins and retro fins and everybody…all in the industry knocked them off. I designed the cutaways thirty something years ago. And they used it in windsurfing and everything and just whore me out and then I got lost in the shuffle. And then people started claiming it as their design which is bullshit. So I had these fins and it took quite a while and I didn’t sell the designs. I’ve worked on it for over three years. And then I have to finally get it all patented with the US patent office.

Evan Leong: So in your stand up line, which of the boards is your favorite?

Donald Takayama: I built a 10’3” for myself like I did for Noah and Kai. But I’m building another one, a 9’8”. I’m only 140 to 145 lbs. So weight to length to the thickness ratio, I scaled it down to a 9’8”. I got another one that I’m building for Surftech and this is for the younger kids and the women to get involved in. I’m building a little shorter one. But it will have the same characteristics as the other four I have.

Evan Leong: So would you say that on your boards that you’re really concentrating also on the ability to nose ride?

Donald Takayama: Oh yeah. You want something that’s really versatile. You don’t want to build something just for one thing- just for turning. And you call it longboard stand up surfing, what is that? In surfing you want to do everything. So I try to incorporate all the surfing skills into this design. 13:25

Evan Leong: Oh that’s pretty interesting.

Donald Takayama: There’s something where everyone can enjoy. Some people they like to turn, well the board will turn. Some people they like to walk, to walk up there and trim the boards, some people like to hang 10 on the darn thing. And with the Surftech technology you can actually just come off the bottom and catch air with the darn thing.

Evan Leong: So your guys are getting air with these stand ups?

Donald Takayama: Oh yeah, yeah Kai and them? They’re just chasing by [13:54]

Evan Leong: That’s crazy.

Donald Takayama: It’s something you can’t just pop out and say it’s going to do all these things, don’t, because you know it’s based on the outline and the form [14:15] and everything. But you know it’s been a long haul to come up with these things.

Evan Leong: So with the new fin set, would it feel like an entirely different board?

Donald Takayama: Oh yeah, it feels really loose and then all of a sudden you’ll think there’s no fin underneath there but there is.

Evan Leong: And then when you walk up to the nose it’s still no problem? 14:45

Donald Takayama: No problem. But if you want to break it and do side slips and stuff with 360’s? No problem. You can control it.

Evan Leong: So could you use that fin on other boards too?

Donald Takayama: Oh yeah. It’s all combinations. I got it made and designed for the thrusters, the fishes [15:04] and everything. Yeah and just the long boards, the single fins and the 2+1 combinations; I got all like the different variables and the combinations with the fin design.

Evan Leong: So you can put that on a thruster? Let’s say you have a smaller thruster, you put that on there too?

Donald Takayama: I got a medium size which is almost 4 ½”. I think it is 4 ½” but it’s all like the same sizes at the thruster or you can go to a little larger one. Like I have done the fishes [15:43], I have one with the trail is at the 4” and the front one is like 4 ¼”, something like that.

Evan Leong: So, on the short boards the dynamics of the new fins would be the same than you turning faster…you know you have to step all the way through?

Donald Takayama: Oh yeah. It’s unbelievable. And the way the fin designs flatter one side and stuff, it acts like a straight leading edge. It acts like as a hydro foil. That straight leading edge tapering back makes the board lift in the tail. It takes off; you go flying down that wave.

Evan Leong: So it increases speed, you can turn on tighter turns?

Donald Takayama: Oh yeah. It’s like faking on [16:35] the fishers. With the fishers you ride it flat and down and down the line. With this set-up you can go vertically straight up the face. You go straight up the face and normally, when you cutback you just do a full round house slow cutback but then you can’t pull the board up and back over the top of the wave. And the wave always slaps you down. You go more or less to the bottom and you turn. But if you try and pull it up and over the lift, you can’t do it because the xxxx [17:14] attracts too much where these fins releases it, you go and do a floater on the cutback and you just go right over the top with straight down and just pull it right back in the hook again. 17:28

Evan Leong: That’s cool. So you don’t know the date that’s going to be out? End of the summer something like that?

Donald Takayama: No, no. we got a shipment that’s coming in. I think they’re having it all molded and everything in China, carbon fiber…

Evan Leong: Oh they’re carbon fiber fins?

Donald Takayama: In glass and this really light aerospace molded plastic, honeycomb and stuff. It’s pretty exciting.

Evan Leong: That’s cool. That would be another step up for the industry.

Donald Takayama: Well, everybody took knocks off and everything. I’m not one who would take somebody’s stuff and put my name on it and do it. I like to engineer things. And at this day, all these long boards and stuff, I design these things…I mean I’ve been building boards for 56 years.

Evan Leong: 56 years?

Donald Takayama: Yeah.

Evan Leong: How old are you?

Donald Takayama: Me? I’m 65.

Evan Leong: That’s a long time man.

Donald Takayama: I’ve been surfing for 60 years. [18:50]I haven’t known these guys. I haven’t been down in the beach with them all.

Evan Leong: Were you born and raised here in Hawaii?

Donald Takayama: Yeah, yeah. My last name is [19:01] and that’s my mom and dad’s and my grandparents’.

Evan Leong: So when did you move to the mainland?

Donald Takayama: I moved up here years ago in the ‘50s. But my family is in Hawaii so I go back and forth.

Evan Leong: So why did you move to the mainland?

Donald Takayama: Well just like the [19:22]. When I was 9 years old, he goes: “hey small kid who made that board?” And I said I did. It was all balsa wood and he goes: “bullshit”. And I said I made it. “If you come to the mainland I’d give you a job.” So at 11 years old, I was already making boards back then, that’s when I caught a plane and came to the mainland. I worked in the summer and go back to school come back in the summer and shaped surfboards.

Evan Leong: And then after high school you just moved up?

Donald Takayama: Yeah. I moved up here. And there were more surfers here and you could make a living building surf boards because it was a growing industry.

Evan Leong: So do you ever think of moving back here later on or what?

Donald Takayama: I just found my home [20:15] and my house just _____[20:17]. You know I never wanted to move back to Honolulu because when I left the only thing was the surf rider and the Moana Hotel. Yeah and I used to go back and forth and every time I go home, I come up working and all these hotels are just coming up. We used to live for a time in it [20:38]

Evan Leong: You mean on the Waikiki side or on the other side?

Donald Takayama: On the Waikiki side Konahoa Street. You go Kapahulu Avenue…Monsarrat and you take a left the first block is Konahoa Street, the second house I used to live up there.

Evan Leong: So what’s your favorite board to ride out of everything you make?

Donald Takayama: I have 68 different designs. From the late ‘40s all the way up.

Evan Leong: Which one is your favorite? Or do you ride a different one almost everyday?

Donald Takayama: I got this beach shaped ____? [21:35] which I really like. I like my in da pink nose riders. I love to ride the retros. It’s just that when I ride these things I just kind of reminisce. How they were back when I ride the hell out of them and it’s just really fun. I remember the days when I was building these things and you work so [21:57] and I take them out and reminisce and ride the thing, because every design is different from the other one. There are no two designs that ride the same. 22:13

Evan Leong: Are you finding that you’re doing a lot of stand up surfing or are you still doing the regular?

Donald Takayama: You know what? If I had the chance to do that, I engineered these things. And I got the whole line of them. Here, they are grabbing them, I do these demos, I come here and my paddle is gone. The boards are gone and they are all riding them. I say don’t take them home. It’s really something. But you know recently about 8 months ago, I had a heart attack.

Evan Leong: Oh…like major?

Donald Takayama: Yeah. And it was while I was surfing.

Evan Leong: Oh while you were surfing you had a heart attack?

Donald Takayama: Yeah and I never thought I was going to be here.

Evan Leong: How did you get in?

Donald Takayama: Well, the waves pushed me in to my board.

Evan Leong: Oh you mean you were paddling and then you had the heart attack and then…

Donald Takayama: No I dropped in on the wave and I had a heart attack. And I collapsed on my board. And the lights went out and I could feel the rails and like I was blinded in the middle of the day, like somebody put a blindfold on me. But I wave my hands I could feel the board. I hang on to it until the waves broke them back at me. And this thing was over head. And the broken board [23:00] pushed me all the way up to the beach and right there [23:08] in the sand.

Evan Leong: Oh man, you’re lucky the board didn’t tilt there; you know what I mean, if it broke right on you.

Donald Takayama: Oh yeah it was broken and just pushed me all the way in.

Evan Leong: You were just lying there on the beach and then lifeguards ran over or something?

Donald Takayama: No. there was no lifeguards there. Luckily I called my friend from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and Honolulu [23:30]. I called them up and said: “hello come down.” What are you doing? “I’m just working” and I said: “close the office and come down we’ll surf.” So he closed the office and came down. And we went surfing for a while and it just happened. Luckily he was there. My wife was there. And I thought I had heat frustrations. I walked up to this rooftop at the shower and I collapsed. (23:57)

Evan Leong: That’s in Hawaii you’re talking about?

Donald Takayama: Yeah, yeah.

Evan Leong: What beach was that at?

Donald Takayama: It was called Diksimaru. And that’s where an old Japanese boat had sunken during the war right at that beach. (24:12)

Evan Leong: Where is that? Is that at the south shore? (24:13)

Donald Takayama: Yeah the southwest end.

Evan Leong: And then what? Did they just rush you to the hospital? (24:24)

Donald Takayama: Well they took me to the emergency. Then they had to fly me from there to Honolulu. And then thanks to the staff of Kaiser, all the doctors and staff, they surf and everything. I guess they recognize me because I built boards for the majority of the doctors in there. They got the boards and stuff. They took me in; they had a stent put in me, (24:55).

Evan Leong: Well that’s major then.

Donald Takayama: Yeah and this is when my heart rate jumped to 120. They had to give me nitroglycerin and put me on this life support thing that kept my heart beating. They rushed me in and they took care of me and they put stents (25:17) and then I flew back to California here and I caught pneumonia. I thought I was going to die for sure. And then 7 hours later after I was released and these doctor friends from [26:06] took me in, checked my x-rays and put 2 more stents in; just like that. Now I’m fine. I’m surfing again.

Evan Leong: So they didn’t keep you out of the water then?

Donald Takayama: No, no I went back…I just got back from Molokai last week and some of my family and my wife’s family. My father in law just passed away. So we came back. But I have my home here in California also. I go back and forth. I also had one in Australia. I’m a resident of Australia too.

Evan Leong: Oh yeah? Were you living there for a while?

Donald Takayama: Yeah [mate in [??] (26:20). No worries.

Evan Leong: How many years were you there? (26:26)

Donald Takayama: Oh no, no. we got residency but my wife had an aneurysm so we came back because medically we didn’t qualify for socialized medicine. We have to be a resident there for over three years.

Evan Leong: Does your wife surf?

Donald Takayama: No, no, no. She knows the industry well. She enjoys it living with me…it’s a tough one.

Evan Leong: Are you still shaping custom boards? (26:58)

Donald Takayama: I do boards for the [27:04] and I I’m working on some redwood chambered [27:13] from the late ‘40s to early ‘50s. And these are all redwood ones and stuff. And I do the old, retro designs that people want to collect. (27:32)

Evan Leong: So these days are you still spending a lot of time shaping or taking it easy?

Donald Takayama: It’s my thing. I know what to shape and I find my peace of mind. It’s like a form of meditation. And I can just block the outside world and I go in there and I have fun. It’s really refreshing. I get struck out when I go in there and I start building some boards for the team riders and stuff (28:10). And I get a lot of enjoyment out of it. It’s my forte I guess or whatever you want to call it. It’s great.

Evan Leong: So are you looking at doing new designs on stand ups too later on or are you sticking with this one? (28:29)

Donald Takayama: I already have a bunch of new designs. But I don’t want to do one yet. And I can it’s easy. (28:38)

Evan Leong: But the other one just got released so…

Donald Takayama: It just got released but I made a commitment to Surftech to be the one that built these things. I’ve had various companies asking me if we had the ____[29:04] people> If I had the quicksilver____ (29:11) I can’t. But I could go to Surftech development if they want to do it but I don’t know if they want to do it. But if I’m working for somebody else that will be like jumping ship and I don’t do that. So I just stay. I got a fluid design.

Evan Leong: So you’ve been with Surftech for a while, huh? (29:39)

Donald Takayama: Well from the get go and it’s really been nice. It’s nice to really work with these people; with Randy French and those guys. They have a really nice crew. (29:52)

Evan Leong: And now the boards they’re really rock solid.

Donald Takayama: Yeah and the technology behind the boards you know which Randy developed as far as epoxy boards; they’re great. They were just awesome.

Evan Leong I was surprised because I’ve ridden probably about almost 40 boards so far because I like to try new stuff. I’m always trying different ones and when I looked at it initially I was like oh man I don’t know, it looks like a big long board. But when I got on it I was surprised. The first day we were at a demo day. There were no waves. But the next day it was head high on Kanaha on Maui. And it was just absolutely clean. And that board, it just lit up. It came alive. I was super surprised. So I got one.

Donald Takayama: The people making the tails really wide and stuff and the nose is really nard all it does is turn. But you cannot get parallel with the wave. You can only go in an angle. But as I was explaining to you the displacement; how thick the displacement is and where you put your V’s and how the profile is foiled out. It’s just not a guessing game. You just don’t go and whatever somebody makes_____31:16] you just don’t skin it and glass it. There’s a lot more to it. (31:23)

Evan Leong: So that board is good. I like it.

Donald Takayama: Well thanks. So far, people have really been happy even here in the mainland. They’re all stoked and they’ll take it out on anything. You have to come to certain degree hey cool_[31:52] take that thing out to this huge waves.

Evan Leong: Thanks so much Donald.

Donald Takayama: You’re welcome.

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8 Responses to “Surf Icon, Donald Takayama: The Talk Story”

  1. David 1David

    Great interview thanks Evan…and thanks Donald.

  2. Reid 2Reid

    Great Interview. Over the years I’ve owned several Takayama boards. Also when I used to live in San Diego, I used to stop by his shop and bug him with all kinds of questions he was nice enough to spend the time to explain things. He is such a cool and down to earth guy.

  3. Halona Kaopuiki 3Halona Kaopuiki




  4. Evan Leong 4evan

    Halona – Wow, that must have been unreal to be there. What was going through your head when you saw that? You’re right, Donald is a class act and awesome guy who by the way makes killer surf and SUP boards.

  5. Halona Kaopuiki 5Halona Kaopuiki

    u got to spell my name right! HALONA!!




  6. Evan Leong 6evan

    Halona – Fixed…typo.

  7. Stephen Koehne 7Stephen Koehne

    Thank you Evan for recording and posting this interview and audio that you did with Donald. I’ve just listened to it twice, back to back, and to hear and listen to Donald’s voice again has brought much peace into my heart.

    This past week, Surfings Ohana said farewell to a very special uncle, Donald Takayama. His skills and talent, both in and out of the water, were marked by flawless craftsmanship and by beautiful, ingenious and delicate execution. But Donald create more than just the most exquisite surfboards. He lived Aloha and gave from the heart in everything he did and he touched more lives than he could have ever imagined. And he touched mine and I am a better person for having known him. This will be his true ongoing legacy. It is a privilege to have shared his special friendship for over 20 years and I will miss him greatly.

    To share from “a cousin”, Cori Schumacher,

    “Donald. You wondered about your legacy. It is not made of balsa, redwood, or foam. `Anakala – Uncle, your legacy is made up of flesh and bone.”

    Mahalo nui loa Konala, A hui hou kakou, Kepano

  8. Evan Leong 8evan

    Thanks Stephen. Donald was a special person and will be missed.

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