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A Paipo Interview with Joe Larkin

Surfboard craftsman from wood to foam

A Paipo Interview with Joe Larkin
Based on e-mails from November 2009 through December 2012. Cabarita (New South Wales), Australia
Questions by Bob Green

Born in 1933, Joe Larkin began making 16-foot hollow ply surfing boards in the family garage when he was 15-years-old (c.1948). Soon he was making boards for friends. Larkin's career in carpentry was swapped for the life of a beach inspector. Two years later, he started working for a board, boat and oar builder, Bill Clymer, in 1957. After balsa, came foam and Joe moved to Queensland, where in the 1960s, Joe Larkin Surfboards became an institution, a hot bed of innovation and progressive surfing. After the shop closed in 1978, Joe got out of the surfboard business. But in the 1990s, he returned to making old-style wooden boards and today, although retired, he still likes a beer and a bodysurf. Less well known are the bellyboards Joe Larkin built.
1. I've read that you worked for Bill Clymer who I believe made bellyboards in Victoria and possibly later in Sydney when he moved there in the late-1950s. Did you see any of these boards or become involved in their construction?
I worked for Bill Clymer and we made quite a few belly boards there as well as balsa boards. Bill did not make bellyboards in Victoria to my knowledge. We took a bellyboard to Torquay in 1958, and I think they were the first that were seen there. I remember taking them to Torquay in March, I think. I also remember how cold the water was. Bob Pike, Terry Fogarty, Tom Keogh (the brother of Danny) were on that trip with Bill Clymer.

We didn't see balsa boards until the Christmas of 1956, and then we didn't get balsa into Oz until about October 1957, after Bill moved to Manly. Balsa was imported in bulk for surfboards by Arthur Milner at Melbourne. Bill was a great tradesman and is not given much credit about this. I think because he was probably the best oar maker and focused on surf boat oars and then onto boats themselves. Bill was the best bloke anyone was fortunate to meet. His company was a gift that I will always cherish. Shirley, his wife, was a gem and I was fortunate enough to be in their company quite a lot. The world lost a great couple of people when they passed away.


Joe Larkin.
Photo by Mal Sutherland.
2. How did you come to meet Bill Clymer and work for him? When was this?
Bill Clymer was a member of Torquay's [Torquay Surf Life Saving Club] boat crew. They started the club after the Second World War. My mate, Brian O'Callagan, was sweep of the Freshwater Club [Freshwater Surf Life Saving Club] and had met Bill at the Olympic surf carnival at Torquay in 1956 (Brian knew your dad). Bill had links with the Manly club [Manly Surf Life Saving Club] as well and they had suggested to Bill he could make a good business making oars there. So in 1957, Bill came to Manly and set up at the back of the Manly Golf Club. I was a beach inspector with Manly then and I was making wood boards at this time. So balsa came on the market and I suggested to Bill that he buy some and I would be his shaper and glasser. Bill was also making ply racing boards and beautiful double and single racing skis for club members, their paddles, etc., as well. So I met Bill at end of 1957.

What was it like working at Bill Clymer's? Could you lay down your tools if the surf was good or was it more businesslike?

Bill was the easiest bloke to work for.. but your work had to be spot on. Near enough was not good enough. We would down tools if the surf was good enough but Bill always made sure he had orders finished on time (for boat crews).


Bill Clymer, sweep of the Ralph Dean II, 1955.
 
Pollard, Ken. (1996). History of Torquay Surf Life Saving Club: The first fifty years, 1945-1995. Torquay, Vic: Torquay Surf Life Saving Club.

What did a typical working day involve?

All very casual. When you got to work you carried on doing what was there or Bill would ask you to do something that was extra important. Very laid back and no stress.

You had already made a few boards - what did you learn working with Bill?

Bill was a great innovator and I learnt a hell of training from him that I still use. Stuff that a lot of people don't know to this day. I have the greatest respect and yes awe for this great bloke.

What is an example of something that you learnt from Bill?

To get lift in the nose of a board the Americans scarfed the lift and glued it. This left an unsightly glue line on the deck and bottom of a board. Bill would split through the balsa then open it up like jaws, glue then put in rafters and bend to the desired lift. A bit hard to describe. The outcome was a small glue line around the ends (edges at end front or back).


Joe Larkin putting years of experience to use on the blank for a 1930s Waikiki Duke board.

Photo courtesy Wooden Surfboards, at: Newby, Grant. (2011, February 5). Joe Larkin, still building boards [Web log post]. Retrieved May 24, 2013, from http://woodensurfboards.blogspot.com.au/2011/02/joe-larkin-still-building-boards.html.

Do you have any idea how many bellyboards Bill Clymer made and over what time period? I have seen photos of a twin-finned, three-stringer Clymer bellyboard with a wood handle. Was this the standard design or was there a range of shapes?

Bill and I made quite a few bellyboards. All were twin fins and all had wooden balsa front-rounded hand grips that followed the shape of the nose. Most were between 3 to 4 ft. long, odd one 5 ft. Most were made approximately over 2 years. When I got to Queensland, I made a few 3 ft. long, 18" wide bellyboards out of 3/16th plywood. We mainly surfed Snapper with them.

My father was an oar maker in Sydney and on the Gold Coast so I suspect he would have known Bill Clymer?

Bill knew your dad I heard Bill mention him.

3. When did Bill Clymer come to Sydney and who did he shape for?
Bill set up his factory in Manly in 1957. He didn't work for anyone else. I was a beach inspector and was the first to work for Bill and then he employed Bob Pike. He taught Bob everything as Bob was a beginner and wanted to learn the trade.

Were you making bellyboards or was it Bill? Any idea regarding who was buying these boards and where they were being ridden? How long were they made for?

I saw Bill make bellyboards and I also did them when we got orders. Mainly locals around the Northern Beaches. They were strong sellers for a while but started to drop off quickly. I think by the time I left we weren't doing very many.

What year did you leave Clymer's?

I left Clymer's beginning 1959, I think. Then to Barry Bennett's, under his house at South Curl Curl before the factory.

4. What intrigues me is where Bill Clymer got the shape from - in some ways it is very modern.
I think it was sort of copied from a Bud Browne movie, with Bill's own slant on them, but can't be sure.

The photo below from Geoff Cater's surfresearch website resembles a Clymer-style bellyboard. If the board was a Clymer, was it usual not to include a logo?

Early on Bill had no stickers -- it was a few months until he got them. I would bet my bottom dollar that is one of Bill's bellyboards. Definitely not a U.S.A. board. The Waverley sticker was regulation for all surf craft. That came in about 1959. Bondi Beach was part of Waverley Council. We did a few with stringers exactly like that. The decal I seem to remember -- the board rider one only. I don't recall the red one.


Clymer-style bellyboard made of balsa wood with redwood or cedar stringers, and fiberglassed. The board measures 45 x 20 x 1.5 inches with a tail 17 in. wide, and features a wood handle on the deck near the front. Origin of the board is unknown but the design resembles a Clymer bellyboard.


Photo by Bob Gumley. Source: Geoff Cater's surfing history website, pods for primates, at surfresearch.com.au.

Matt Clymer said the red wood was most likely cedar as Bill Clymer was something of a cedar fanatic. How were the balsa bellyboards made? What tools would you use?

Yes, Bill used mainly Australian red cedar in boards as he used it in boats and it really is much stronger and better color than California western red cedar. We used draw knives when doing balsa boards in the early days. Bill used adzes for blades on sweep oars and he also made up wood with a Try plane of about 20-inches-long with concave bottom for doing shafts of oars. It is a long-based plane that is used to get timber straight. Nowadays they use electric jointer machines. When I started my apprenticeship in 1948, on house building, all windows, doors, etc., were handmade. Every job had work benches and we built kitchens, etc., on-site. No electric tools. I still have my Stanley No.7 Try Plane. He had small wood planes, both concave and convex, to do the curved blades of boat oars and ski paddles. Spokeshaves of all sizes, flat and rolled, were also used. The glue used was Urea (Trade name Nightingale) and I still use it now.


Clymer bellyboard and logo.


Source: Surfworld Torquay.

5. Leigh Tingle reported having his balsa board made by Gordon Woods in early 1958 after watching a Bud Browne movie at Coogee Surf Life Saving Club in late 1957. He couldn't recall the name of the movie or the surfer, though it must have been The Big Surf.
Bud Browne brought out a surf movie in 1957, and it had American bellyboards and body surfers featured.

6. I have been reading Albie Thoms's book, Surfmovies, and you were described as an assistant to Bob Evans.
Albie was a little off the mark with me being Bob Evans's assistant. I had the camera since 1956, and I upgraded to a 16mm Bolex Pollard when Bud Browne came out. At that time film was very expensive and Bob came in to assist in buying film. From what we learnt from Bud we got top gear, tripod, telephoto lens, etc. Bob Evans and I had a partnership until 1962, when I moved to Queensland and I sold out to Bob.

7. Do you recall a Tony Dawes who worked for Clymer at some stage? He was a carpenter with a broken wrist who made bellyboards.
Yes, I remember Tony. He was one of the rowers that Bill Clymer trained in Manly's boat crew. I don't remember if he did bellyboards as I was working for Barry Bennett at this time. I am sure Tony is still kicking and you might be able to get in touch by ringing Manly Surf Club [Manly Surf Life Saving Club].

Tony Dawes worked for Bill Clymer for a few months while he had an injured arm. He recalled the bellyboards being made from offcuts [see Note 1]. 

Yes, I did the very first glass jobs. All hit and miss and very frustrating. We could only get the resins and glass that boat builders were using. As board quality resins became available it got easier. After that I can't remember where we got boards glassed, someone took over from me. The belly boards were made with full length balsa, i.e., 3-foot, 3 ft. 6 in., 4 ft., etc. The hand grab on deck were offcuts. I glassed the first boards of Bill's at my house in Harboard.


Joe Larkin, enjoying the sunshine at Miles Street, 1963

Photo by Mal Sutherland.

8. When did you move to the Gold Coast?
I went to Coolangatta at the end of 1961, and rented half a factory on Miles Street, Kirra. I came back to Freshwater and got married to Alicia in February 1962, when we moved north and started in a factory making boards. I got the rest of the factory not long after and stayed there until 1975, when council would not let me continue working there any more. I built a factory near the old Kirra Zoo but over the border in N.S.W.


Joe Larkin: At back Brian Austen (Furry), Joe Larkin and Ken Alexander (R.I.P.), I think. The dog is Jim Spriggs ("the dog that created the biggest riot the Queensland Hotel had seen"). "The board in middle. We were board skiing behind boats and decided to try a smaller board. I cut down a perfectly good balsa board to make this. It worked quite well. We skied at Tweed with a Del Perriott ski boat.

Photo courtesy Joe Larkin.

Who was surfing the bellyboards with you on the coast?

They were mainly Kirra guys: Col Taylor, Kit Carson, Jeff Callaghan and a few others I can't remember their names. We also rode boards and often just body surfed at the same time. A crowd was four guys.


Below left are Kit Carson, Jeff Callaghan and Belllyboard Bob at Kirra, ca. 1965. Below right are Col Taylor and Kit Carson, ca. 2010.




Photos by Kerrie Carson.
9. I was in contact with Mal Sutherland who commented that he was only aware of Kirra being ridden on ply boards. I mentioned to him that you rode Snapper on ply and balsa bellyboards. Next time you see him he may ask you about this.
I made ply bellyboards for Kit Carson and Jeff Callaghan. They and the others were great water men. I remember when Kit went to Melbourne to work. I think he was in the wine industry. When I moved to Kirra the balsa was gone and I just used the plan shape from those early days for the plywood boards. I got four boards out of a sheet of 3/16 inch ply, 6 feet by 3 feet. Fins were three inches high and about 4-1/2 inches long, with a 3-inch chrome kitchen cupboard handle. I loved these little boards and we all had a great time surfing Snapper and Kirra.


Below left: Jeff Callaghan at Winkipop, ca. July 1969. Below right: Kit Carson at Winkipop, ca. Winter 1969.




Photos by Kerrie Carson.
10. I had thought both Kit Carson and Jeff Callaghan were still around Torquay but Mal Sutherland said Jeff Callaghan lives in Kirra.
Yes, Jeff Callaghan is still in Queensland. Another guy who rode ply bellyboards was Col Taylor -- he still lives on Gold Coast. I believe he has a taxi business. Col was a good friend of mine. I knew him when a group of West OZ guys came across and took up residence on the northern beaches in 1958. Keith Hollingsworth was a shipwright and a bloody good one. He did a lot of work on boats of any kind that were in Tweed Heads. I helped Keith a lot when board sales were slack and we did houses, cabinets, etc. Anything that made a dollar.

11. How did the ply and balsa bellyboards compare to ride?
I rode both. Like all surf gear horses for courses. Some surf like Snapper lent themselves to ply board, i.e., ply were a lot easier to get through the surf. Also a lot smaller and easier to carry around. Less hassles. A lot of guys played with bellyboards in ply and we all used to have a go now and then. I had some of the best tube rides of my life at Snapper. Kit Carson was right -- you could get right behind the rocks and the take off was unreal!!

How were these boards surfed - just straight lines or could they be easily turned? I've spoken to a few of the plywood board riders who described a cross-over with bodysurfing technique.

Bellyboards would do anything you wanted. All up to the nut on top. Ha Ha.

If you were to make someone a bellyboard today, wood or foam? What would it be like?

If for myself I would make the ply board. 3-foot long by 18 inches wide with 2 fins. Simple light manoverable and very basic.

12. Some good waves can run through Queenscliff. Did you surf many of those monsters?
Yes. There is a great photo from back in 1961, of Dave Jackman riding a bombora. Dave and I and I think Mick McMahon were working for Barry Bennett at the time. While there I made a gun and other boards that were for the hell of it. The gun was made for Dave Jackman but owned by Barry Bennett as were quite a few of the other boards on the rack, so if Barry thought you were worthy to try the board you got a go at them. We drove to Fresshie Surf Club [Freshwater Surf Life Saving Club] and Dave and others paddled out from there. There was a few blokes looking on and a few were on Queenscliff headland looking on. Bob Evans and I were doing the filming on top of the headland as at lower level the swell was too big to capture the shots. Being that high the size of waves was quite diminished. It was much bigger than the film gives credit for.

David Jackman on a mighty Queenscliff bombora, ca. June 1961.

Author unknown. (1961, September 20). Teenage Weekly Supplement. Australian Womens Weekly, 5. Via Trove, the National Library of Australia's flagship discovery service for the public.


13. Any surfing memories particularly stand out for you?
My memory is all about the fun we had. Nearly every surf was full of laughter and horsing around. One trip to Angoure we had a great surf then put boards away and had a great body surf. John Cunningham was one of the guys surfing on that day. We were not top surfers, just average, so we had great days at Currumbin, Snapper, Kirra, Crescent Head, etc. Every surf was just so much fun and joy. We were truly blessed as no CROWDS and no hassles.


Joe Larkin bodysurfing Greenmount 1965.

Photo by Mal Sutherland.


Joe having fun

Photo by Mal Sutherland.


Note 1:  An offcut is chiefly British, and means something that is cut off (as a waste piece of lumber). The first known use of offcut is circa 1664. [Source: Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved May 25, 2013, from www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/offcut.]
 
For other interviews and information, see:

Baker, Tim. (2012, Winter). The Timber of the Times. The Surfers Journal, 21(6), 56-65.

Clymer, Bill. Biographical information on Bill Clymer, is available in his own words. Source: Bill Clymer [sound recording] / interviewed by Frances Harpur. Dee Why - Local Studies LS CD 994.41 Interview date: 18 May 1996. Warringah Library Service oral history interview project.


Green, B. (2010, May 5). A Paipo Interview with Bob "Kit" Carson: Kirra Point, 6-8’ and inside out on a piece of ply. MyPaipoBoards.org. Retrieved from http://mypaipoboards.org/interviews/KitCarson/KitCarson_2010-0505.shtml [link]

Green, B. (2010, May 16). A Paipo Interview with Jeff Callaghan: Surfer and meteorologist. MyPaipoBoards.org. Retrieved from http://mypaipoboards.org/interviews/JeffCallaghan/JeffCallaghan_2010-0516.shtml [link].

Green, B. (2010, October 25). A Paipo Interview with Tony Dawes: Chestboards at Manly. MyPaipoBoards.org. Retrieved from http://mypaipoboards.org/interviews/TonyDawes/TonyDawes_2010-1026.shtml [link]

Green, Bob. (2013, May 13). A Paipo Interview with William "Bill" Clymer: Excerpts from an Interview by Frances Harpur, May 18, 1996, Sydney, Australia. MyPaipoBoards.org.
Retrieved from  http://mypaipoboards.org/interviews/BillClymer/BillClymer_2013-0513.shtml [link]. Harpur interview courtesy of Warringbah Council Library and with the approval of his son, Matt Clymer and daughter, Elizabeth Lewis. Excerpts of the Frances Harpur interview summarized by Bob Green.

Joe Larkin Surfboards, web page at: http://www.joelarkinsurfboards.com

McKinnon, A. (1999, Summer). King of the Okanui. Deep, 17, 16-17. [Deep was an Australian surfing magazine published September 1985 through Spring 2000.]

Pollard, Ken. (1996). History of Torquay Surf Life Saving Club: The first fifty years, 1945-1995. Torquay, Vic: Torquay Surf Life Saving Club.


Sutherland, M. (2003). Joe Larkin. Legend Larrikin. Pacific Longboarder, 7(1), 36-45.


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Last updated on: 06/12/13