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How a Noe Valley Surfer Became Chairman of the Board
By Kathy Dalle-Molle
Xavier Lanier's decision to start a surfboard manufacturing business out of his garage was about as unexpected as an Ocean Beach surfer waking up to eight-foot swells with offshore winds on a summer day in San Francisco. That is, pretty darn unexpected.
Six years ago, the lifelong surfer was walking with a friend on the property Lanier owns near the Russian River. When they passed by the logs from a giant redwood tree which had been felled a century before, Lanier's friend suggested that he try to craft a surfboard from the wood.
Lanier, a carpenter for over 30 years, hesitated, but after more encouragement from his friend, he decided he might be up to the challenge. Not long after, he hired a portable lumber mill to come to his property and cut the redwood into slabs. Lanier then transported the wood back to his home on Whitney Street in Upper Noe Valley.
Apprehensive about cutting into and possibly damaging the beautiful redwood, Lanier decided to practice by building a board out of balsa wood. A couple of months later, he was grabbing waves at Ocean Beach on his custom-made balsa longboard -- and getting all sorts of questions and looks of intrigue from his fellow surfers.
In the months that followed, Lanier, 51, found himself smack-dab in the middle of a retro trend: Middle-aged surfers, nostalgic for the old days, were giving up their newer, lighter foam boards to surf on wooden boards, just like they did in their youth.
After receiving dozens of inquiries from people interested in purchasing a wooden board, Lanier founded Board Meeting Surfboards later that year. The name of the business, says Lanier, reflects his attitude about surfing.
"In your profession, you can't miss a board meeting," he explains, "and as any surfer knows, you can never miss a good day in the waves."
In fact, Lanier is known among his construction clients for sometimes sneaking out of a job midday, particularly when the winds are blowing offshore. The reason he gives them: "I've got a board meeting to go to."
Most of his surfboard buyers, which number around 50 to date, regard their purchase as an heirloom piece, which isn't surprising considering that the boards cost between $1,800 to $2,500, depending on the complexity of construction.
"It's a real nostalgic thing for longtime surfers," says Lanier, who notes that he's the only person in the Bay Area who builds balsa boards, although he knows of six builders in Hawaii. "Some young people like balsa, too, but the boards are a little pricey for them. A lot of them also don't want to surf with such a heavy board because they're more into the acrobatics of surfing. People like balsa because it's very functional, super-strong, and durable. My boards weigh anywhere from 17 to 35 pounds."
Although most of his clients use their boards for surfing, some consider the boards works of art and hang them on the ceilings or walls of their homes. After a manager of the Banana Republic clothing chain saw a board of Lanier's on display at a San Francisco Art Commission show on surfing and skateboarding, he convinced the chain to purchase two of Lanier's boards. They now adorn the walls of Banana Republic's flagship store in Oahu.
Lanier custom-builds every board to the client's length, shape, and width requirements, and it takes him about two weeks from start to finish. Operating out of a basement "factory" in his home, he first selects the color and grain of the balsa. Next, he works the wood by hand, using small, precision power tools. After extensive chambering, he shapes and sands the board.
While most of the board is made of balsa, which he purchases from Ecuador, Lanier uses redwood for stringers, nose blocks, and tail blocks. Lanier does all the work on each board himself, except for the final step -- fiberglassing -- which he subcontracts.
Lanier is a born-and-bred San Franciscan who has lived in Noe Valley since 1961, when his parents, architect Albert Lanier and well-known artist Ruth Asawa, moved into the home they still live in on Castro near 23rd Street. Amazingly, all six of the Lanier siblings -- four brothers (Xavier is the oldest of the six) and two sisters -- still reside in Noe Valley, within walking distance of their parents' home. Xavier and his wife Geri, also a San Francisco native, moved into their Whitney Street home 21 years ago.
Lanier's son Xavier Jr., who just graduated with a journalism degree from Cal-Poly in San Luis Obispo, is helping out with the marketing of his dad's business in his spare time. Eldest son Christopher is a police officer near Sacramento, where he lives with his wife and 1-year-old son Cameron.
When Lanier was attending the now-defunct Polytechnic High School in the 1960s, long before Ocean Beach became the happening surf scene it is today, he already was surfing there with friends.
"It was more playful then, just friends hanging out. We didn't even wear wetsuits," he recalls. "The number of people surfing at Ocean Beach now is incredible. Plus, the general public and families that go there. It's amazing, but it doesn't bother me as long as they don't make a mess."
By the late 1970s, his interest in surfing waned as he started a family and built up his residential construction business, much of which involved projects close to home. In fact, Lanier says he's built or remodeled more than 150 Noe Valley homes.
"I've worked on six buildings on 21st Street between Church and Sanchez alone," he says.
By the late 1980s, he was back to making daily trips to the beach to check out the surf before starting work each morning. In the past couple of years, with the dawn of Board Meeting Surfboards, he's given up his residential construction business and now does commercial work for Plant Construction, based in San Francisco.
"I wanted more time to devote to building surfboards," he explains, "and I wanted to have more time to surf."
And maybe even someday build that redwood board?
"The slabs are lying in my garage," he says. "The wood is just so beautiful and valuable that I can't bring myself to cut into it. Someday, maybe, when the urge hits, I'll make the board."
For more information about Board Meeting Surfboards, contact Xavier Lanier at 282-4791 or check out his web site at www.balsaboards.com.