Austin Saunders Went From Shaping Surfboards to Crafting Pens

Jim Pile

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Austin Saunders is a ghost.

No one in Virginia Beach’s surf community seems to have a good phone number for him. The website for his new business doesn’t have one, either. And the email address for his old surf shop appears to be a black hole.

It’s intentional. Saunders doesn’t want to be bothered.

“My real excuse is I just don’t want to talk to anybody,” Saunders says at his home in rural Chesapeake. “I just wanted to be left alone.”

Saunders, 33, eventually did return an email. And when we finally met, he didn’t bear the markings of a recluse. He’s friendly, relaxed and comfortable.

But Saunders has done the unexpected—and he’s tired of talking about it. The young man who became one of the most prominent custom surfboard shapers in Virginia Beach walked away from his craft. The decision rocked surfers who expected to be buying his boards for decades.

Fatherhood, though, led Saunders to the decision that chemicals used to make surfboards wouldn’t be the death of him. While surfers mourned, Saunders reinvented himself by fashioning custom-made pens—out of shell casings. And things are going swimmingly.

“It was really sad when he decided to walk away from it,” says Virginia Beach surfer Parker Neff, who has bought at least 12 Austin boards over the years and—by the way—does have Saunders’ phone number. “I joke with him every time I talk to him how hurt I am.”

Plenty of surfers still don’t know that Saunders stopped making boards. Because he left with no announcement—no goodbye—the word has trickled out to wave riders like a massive game of telephone. By the time it reached this correspondent, the story was that Saunders quit after sneezing orange resin out of his nose. Close, but not exactly. 

In retrospect, it might have been easier to rip off the Band-Aid. “It was seriously like I was breaking up with girlfriends over and over and over,” Saunders says. “Super clingy girlfriends.”

Truth is, Saunders almost broke up with surfboard shaping years earlier. He just found a second wind.

His passion for building boards was once so magnetic that it held him captive in his shaping room on holidays, weekends and the middle of the night. Each board had to have its own style and personality. But the business side of it, and dismal profit margins, drained the pleasure from it.

Saunders devoted half his life to it. He was 32 when he quit. And he started at 16 in the garage of his parents’ home in the Strawbridge area, looking far too young to make boards that bold and beautiful. Grown men showed up to buy boards from Saunders and mistook him for his father, Troy.

A police cruiser pulled up to their home one day. We’re busted, Troy Saunders thought, figuring the visit had something to do with Austin using dangerous chemicals in the garage.

It did.

“Are you Austin Saunders?” the officer asked.

Yes, Austin replied.

“Oh cool, will you make a board for me?”

And so it went.

Saunders bought a surfboard glassing company at 24. It was the only surfboard factory in Virginia Beach at the time. Then, he opened up a surf shop at the Oceanfront in 2009. He was 25. At his peak, Saunders made as many as 1,500 boards a year. He made mostly longboards—larger boards that aren’t as fast but work better in small waves—and fetched about $1,200 apiece.

Saunders had a loyal following even 650 miles north, in the coastal town of Kennebunk, Maine.

Ron Aromando owned a surf shop there. For years, he sold nothing but Saunders’ boards, carrying as many as 75 at a time. While surfing, Aromando would sometimes look around and see everyone riding Saunders’ boards.

“Austin was off the charts for his skill level,” Aromando says. “We were all bummed out when he switched over to pens.”

Saunders hadn’t spent much time worrying about the health effects of polyester resin, used to coat surfboards. One of the ingredients in the resin Saunders used, styrene, is “reasonably anticipated” to be a chemical that can cause cancer, according to The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

But then his wife, Jamie, got pregnant. One night, while sitting in bed with her, Saunders began coughing. She could smell the resin coming from his lungs. It wasn’t the first time. Austin had worn a respirator all day while “glassing” surfboards—and this was hours later. But the chemical found a way into his lungs. And stayed there. And that scared him.

Then and there, he decided he was done. He did make two more boards, though—one for himself and one for his unborn son. The latter now hangs above the crib in his son Benjamin’s room.

“I’m not a person that lingers over a decision,” Saunders said. “I make a decision and go.”

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