Interview with Lib Tech’s Mike Olsen

Interview with Lib Tech’s Mike Olsen

When we first started talking about doing interviews for the site, the first person that kept coming to mind was Mike Olsen. Mike's the man responsible for Lib Tech, GNU, and a host of other unique products all based out of the Northwest and a Cleanline Shop vet no less. We were stoked to get the opportunity to talk with Mike about the past, present, and future of all things Lib Tech. With a lot of in-depth responses and shared history, this is probably the most interesting (and longest) interview we've done this far, so enjoy!

Some people may not know that you actually worked at Cleanline back in the day. Do you have any fond or funny memories from working at the shop?

Eeeeyup! I actually worked at Cleanline in 1983 as the ding repair kid. I have so many fun memories that it would be impossible to tell them all without writing a novel.

But there are a few standouts. My first time ever surfing the North Coast, I came in super stoked to find all 4 tires on my $400 VW Beetle were deflated. I quickly learned that this was my welcome to Seaside and was tipped off as to which friendly local liked to relieve tires of their pressure. I immediately went to Josh at Cleanline the next day and became the ding repair kid and soon after repaired the board of the friendly local who didn’t like air in visitor’s tires. I was quickly accepted as the repair kid in the line-up. From then on, everyone was somewhat friendly (or at least less grumpy) to the new Cleanline ding repair kid.

Josh and Mike Olson

Another memory was a special day when Josh came back into the ding repair zone and asked me to help a customer for my first time ever. At this point, Cleanline was in the original clinic building and Josh was only using the front little section. Josh didn’t have any other staff, just himself, his dog Cody, myself in the back room, and sometimes Rick “Cede” would come in to build a board in the back room. Well……Josh came into the back room telling me that he really needed to take a break (which he never did), and that I had to help the customer that just walked in. Josh had a funny look on his poker face, and he mumbled something about a flaming beauty (which could’ve meant many different things back then). Josh darted out of the shop and left me with what turned out to be the Miss Clatsop County runner-up, who wanted to learn to surf. Josh returned a few minutes later and slyly arranged for me to be the teacher. I will be forever grateful to Josh for this and all the other great things that I learned from him.

If you wondered what a sunfish from the surface looks like..

One other highlight memory was a very early August morning when Josh took me to one of his “secret” sandbars that was lining up extra special. He told me a great white story on the way there. Ironically, out in the water, just as the sun was rising, Josh and I thought we saw 3 giant sunfish pop up just in front of us. It was a crazy warm El Nino summer in ‘83 with sunfish and other unusual creatures appearing more frequently. Well, the 3 sunfish were coming towards us too quickly to be sunfish. By the time we realized what was surfacing, Josh quickly caught the first available wave on the shoulder and I was in the pocket. We rode in together and I accidentally stood up. I was kind of slotted nicely. My sister was on the beach and knew we must have seen "something special” in the water because Josh was belly riding a shared wave all the way in (Josh was the standout and highly respected surfer of the NW).

After a lot of success in the snowboard world. What was the catalyst to start producing your own Surfboards?

An OG Lib Tech Snowboard at the Shop

What most people don’t know is that I actually started building surfboards in 1980. I had no money, so when I quit college in 1984 to try building snowboards full time, I survived in the short term by building surfboards. Long boards were basically non-existent in the early 80’s market, so I made a little niche shaping longboards and some early Gorge sailboards, even though I mainly surfed short twin fins. I was always obsessed with safer raw materials for health reasons, so I really tinkered with alternative constructions from the beginning. When I moved to Seaside in 1983, I brought with me a 5’10” twinny built with an XPS Dow core and epoxy resin, with a slippery silicone bottom coating.

I have been experimenting with surfboard materials since those early days, but the catalyst that launched this adventure was when after many years I finally convinced a fairly large company to make a new lighter weight honeycomb skin than anything that existed, and a very large foam company to test a new foam formula (we had to order 3,400 blanks to get one to test), and a whole new resin chemistry had to be developed so we could infuse the boards to eliminate disposables like sandpaper, tape, paint brushes, and human exposure to resins. Thanks also to the long hours of Jeff Henderson, who is a Port Angeles native surf/skater/snowblaster/CAD design Guru that's been with us since the mid 90’s, we were able finally put together a construction and technique that really is feeling space age. Every piece of the puzzle had to come together just right for this production process to work.

When Lib Tech’s first batch of surfboards was released they looked pretty alien both in material and design with the beveled rails and concave decks. Where did you look to for inspiration when designing the first Lib Boards?

Well, in regards to the concave decks, I think I've only shaped 2 surfboards for myself ever that didn’t have concave decks starting back in 1980. I also built all of my own skateboards since 1977, and started a skateboard company called Dead Tree in the early eighties. So I couldn’t imagine why you wouldn’t want a concave deck on a surfboard also. I loved the skateboard feeling with extra grip and leverage, and really felt like concaves are an asset for airs, as in skateboarding. What we didn’t originally intend, is how well the concave decks fit your torso. It can be really comfortable.

My inspiration for the beveled grab rails came from a friend and Huntington Beach shaper named Blake Case. He was pushing these rails on his boards way ahead of Cole and Stretch. We always thought these were a great idea. Once Stretch made them super popular for a period, we thought it was the only way to go for the future, and launched all of our original surf models with grab rails and concave decks.

The Lib/Lost boards have been really popular at the shop for a few years. How has it been being able to work with Matt Biolos from ..LOST? How did that relationship come to fruition?

Mike with one of the LOST/Lib Collaborations

We always admired what Matt was doing in the surf world with a fun marketing feel that was similar to Lib Tech’s vibes. Matt understands that surfing is supposed to be fun and for everyone, and he designs surfboards with dimensions for every surfer, yet still stays very involved and supportive with pros at the highest level. Matt also is obsessed with snowboarding and lives at Mammoth part of the year. So we struck up a relationship over the years and saw each other at events and had good connections through shared team riders, etc. It’s been a really great relationship. If we could pick any shaper in the world to work with, it would be Matt. His partner Mike Reola is also a pleasure to work with. So we are very lucky to have this awesome partnership. Matt came up here last winter to hang out and test the NW snow at Alpental, and ride some of his new Lost/Lib snowboard shapes.

What’s your current favorite Lib Tech shape and why?

6'6 Pickup Stick

My current favorite Lib Tech shape is the 6’6” Pickup Stick (by Hendo) because it really is a Straits and NW quiver killer. I usually surf much shorter boards but this thing surfs like a short board off the tail in punchy waves yet allows you to hang five in little dribblers. I like riding it as a twin fin with small fins, keeping it fast, loose and slippery. The 7’0” PU Stick is also super fun in the same versatile way and actually handles pretty juicy surf with it’s pulled in tail. The 7’6” PU stick rides more like a really fun HP hotdog longboard.

We also have a new shape coming out in the next few months called the Funnelator, which is a super duper innovative bottom contour shaped by Hendo (Jeff H.). The shape is a short semi-wide groveler with a blunt tipped moon tail and what could be described as a triple concave bottom in the tail, in which the middle concave progressively narrows and compresses the water similar to a ramjet or a scramjet. This thing is magic and glides across the flats and turns on a dime. It’s pretty much a contradiction, super fast yet super quick turning. I’m riding this in a 5’10” length in the NW waters and 5’8” length in warm waters.

Are there any innovations from snowboarding that you’ve successfully or unsuccessfully applied to surfboards?

Most of the techniques that we use in our surfboards are very unique from our snowboard construction. About the only shared construction methods are our water-based sublimation graphics that eliminate hazardous byproducts or waste.

As a successful inventor and innovator I’m sure that comes with failures as well, what was an idea you had that didn’t pan out in the end?

Eeeeeyup! I was super obsessed over the years with trying to figure out how to build a surfboard that flexed like a snowboard, meaning huge noticeable flex. The problem is that a surfboard needs to be pretty darn thick for any noticeable flotation, while snowboards can be very thin, which makes snowboards easy to design flex into. Tom Morey used to live up here in the late 80’s and became a surf buddy and always was a philosopher of flexible surf craft theories. In the early 2000’s I also stirred up a relationship with shaper Jim Richardson on the North Shore who was chasing the properties of flexible surfboards with Surflight Hawaii. Eventually, Hendo and I concocted a construction that mimicked a fish or a mammal but with a wood/glass skeleton inside and a flexible outer skin using a skateboard wheel type of urethane that was nearly indestructible. The boards looked shiny like a new glossed polyester surfboard but flexed a macro amount like skis and snowboards. Now we could finally test real surfboard flex theories. Well………as fate would have it, these boards didn’t surf that well, even with their industry standard tri-fin squash tail shape. I quickly learned that a surfboard with a lot of measurable flex will surf/turn with a very stiff feel. Since you have 2 pressure points (feet) on the board, you press rocker out of the board when you weight your feet to turn. This means that the board’s rocker goes flat or maybe reverse rockered (camber) between your feet. The board accelerates and locks in straight when you try to cut back or execute any deliberate turn. This was a very enlightening set of experiments and is responsible for some very wacky maneuvers (not deliberate).

Recently we had a one-off Lib Tech step up prototype come through the shop, is that something you’re still working at or just a novelty?

This could be answered as yes and maybe. Hendo has been working at dialing in some nice step-up shapes. We’ve been contemplating doing a full size range of these step-up shapes but are really kind of waiting for the window where we have time in production to complete tooling for this full series. We’ve always been very entrenched in production of the more marketable shapes for standard sized waves worldwide. Luckily our French, Spanish, and Portuguese reps have been pleading for a line of step-ups. Hopefully it will happen soon so we can ride them!

Are there any other current shapers who have shown interest in releasing their designs in Lib’s Technology? Are there any shapers you would love to work with in the future?

Since our first public showing of Lib Tech surfboards 6 years ago, we’ve actually had almost all of the major surf brands approach us to build some boards for them. At one point, I received more emails and phone calls than I could return from some very impressive shapers. We really like our relationship with Lost and the constant progression Matt brings. It also allows us to work with some of the best pros in world such as the Ho family, Ian Crane, Yago Dora, Griffin Colapinto etc.

However, to really celebrate the heritage of the Pacific Northwest, if I were to work with a couple of my personal favorite all-time shapers, honestly it would be Seaside’s Lanny Shuler and his mid-80’s 5-fin shapes with his amazing color shifts and art, and Seaside’s Alan Gibbons with his early-80’s quads and his beautiful birthday suit art and Devo inspired artwork. I’ve been fortunate to have met many of the biggest worldwide legends of shaping, current and past, and these 2 guys with Seaside heritage still stand out in my opinion. Also, Seaside’s Bill Barnfield and Rick Cederstrom (with his self portrait knee-brace art) share a special shaper's admiration in my heart. And I can’t forget Seaside’s Florida Phil and his butterfly single fins, “white boards, black wetsuit, no leash, I didn’t sell this show down the road”.

If you could give advice to anyone interested in shaping or surfboard design what would it be?

First and foremost, do it. It’s really fun. Second, have fun with your art. It’s a white canvas waiting for color (unless you're Florida Phil). Squirt guns filled with water-based acrylic paints make really cool art. Finger flicks do wonders. Painters tape makes easy stripe patterns. Everyone can be a great artist even with no skills. Third, Tom Morey taught me that symmetry is not important. Don’t waste too much time making both sides of the board look the same. Fourth, wear safety equipment. Finally, I think Lanny Shuler would support channeling some David Bowie fashion into your shape. Don’t shape without music!

There you have it. Big thanks again to Mike for taking the time to answer our questions and Ryan at Lib Tech for setting it up. If you've never checked out a Lib Tech before, they're unlike anything else out there and have an excellent range of boards for any level of surfer and most waves.

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