Gear Feature

Making Waves – The Chris Christenson Story

A deep dive into the Jones Surf Series

Above: Forrest Shearer and surfboard shaper Chris Christenson testing a new surf rocker snowboard designed by Chris in Mowia backcountry, Japan. Photo: Andrew Miller.

When Jeremy Jones joined forces with renowned surf shaper Chris Christenson a few short summers back, it was the most authentic example yet of the recent cross-pollination in board design.

As the concept of powder-specific decks has taken hold, and carving has gone from a kooky retro activity to legit form of mountain expression, the market has been filled with ‘surf-inspired’ swallow-tails, but here was a collaboration that literally went back to the drawing board – taking genuine templates from cutting-edge watercraft, and an organic skillset honed over decades in the shaping bay, and applying them to the snow.

“If Jeremy Jones or Travis Rice had had the ability to change their board design every couple of weeks, I don’t think snowboards would look the way they do right now”

The result was pure alchemy. Witness the stunning curves of every model in the Surf Series, including the fish-like Storm Chaser, the hard-charging Lone Wolf and the binding-free Mountain Surfer. All these boards offer James Brown levels of soul, but the blunter-looking Mind Expander – which combines a proper surf rocker with 3D contours edge-to-edge – has proved perhaps the biggest game-changer in the range. Originally launched in 2017, there are now five versions of this popular all-rounder catering to kids, women, splitboarders and (with the new carbon-infused Ultra Mind Expander) gnarl-dogs.

The Storm Chaser, Lone Wolf and Mind Expander. Photo: Andrew Miller.

So how exactly did this prolific partnership start out? What’s next in the pipeline? And are there any limits to the collision of surf and snow design?

We caught up with Chris Christenson at his Southern Californian HQ to find out.

How long have you been surfing?
I’ve been surfing since 1985. I grew up in Long Beach, on the south side of Los Angeles. My neighbour was from Hawaii and he had a little backyard operation, building surfboards for a hobby. I’d always worked with my hands as a kid, so one day I decided to borrow some tools from him and have a crack at it myself. I started making my own boards – my friends would get them, my brothers would get them, then their friends started buying them – and next thing I know I had a full business in about a year and a half.

What appealed about shaping?
The challenge of it. It looked fun, and I wasn’t afraid to get dirty.

Photo: Andrew Miller.

You would think every shape in the world had been tried by now – how does board design always manage to evolve?
There are so many changes with surfboards because of the custom aspect of it. You have an advantage over guys that manufacture golf clubs, or snowboards, or skis, because we can adapt from swell to swell, and rider to rider – we’re building one-offs, we’re not relying on moulds or marketing budgets and stuff like that. We’re able to make the tweaks by hand, whereas with snowboards or skis it’s like, ‘Alright this is our model for this year, this is our 20,000 dollar aluminum or cement mould. Like it or don’t like it.’

“At the end of the day, if it wasn’t for Taro Tamai I wouldn’t be doing this shit”

With surfers, we’re used to coming back up after a swell and saying ‘Hey, it’s a little too thin, or it’s a little too fat, or wide’. The formula for progression is just better that way. With 3D printing that might become possible in snowboarding sooner or later, but the bummer is the margins are really low with all these sports, so the formula is based more around volume than creating a unique product. I always say that if Jeremy Jones or Travis Rice had had the ability over the last 15 years to change their board design every couple of weeks – while they’re on snow, in the heart of winter – I don’t think snowboards would look the way they do right now. There would’ve been a lot more progression. That’s the future of things.

But skateboarding’s the one that blows my mind – a skateboard still looks the same as it did 30 years ago but people’s balls are getting bigger, you know what I mean?!

Photo: Andrew Miller.

When and where did you start snowboarding?
I started snowboarding in the San Gabriel mountains, which is just outside LA, near Big Bear and all that. My grandparents had a mountain cabin. Every Monday through Thursday I’d ride my bike to the beach, then every Friday my grandpa would pick me up after I got out of school and we’d go to the mountains, so I spent most weekends of my childhood in the mountains.

“I can barely use a computer. Everything I do is just old school, with a tape measure and pencil, or by eyeball”

Where do the two sports cross over, aside from the basic idea of standing sideways?
Railwork is a big common denominator. Obviously snowboarding has a lot of skate influence in it too, but skate still came from surfing in its roots. Adventure, exploring, trying to get something all to yourself, which is really key in the backcountry – I find the backcountry more like surfing than I do resort riding.

But the differences are obvious, too – full blown Gore-Tex versus a pair of board shorts, you know. It’s like a different kind of music. A lot of surfers are able to snowboard because they know how to surf, and a lot of snowboarders are able to pick up surfing pretty easy. There are a lot of differences and congruences.

I get asked this question a lot, and there is no right or wrong answer, but the art of using the rail, and – when it comes to board design – the way the boards react, are similar.

Photo: Andrew Miller.

How did the collaboration with Jones come about?
Jeremy was camping in Cardiff, north of San Diego, where I was living. I was always a fan of his from the sidelines, watching the movies over and over again. That’s the kind of snowboarding I was trying to approach – I was doing the whole self-taught backcountry thing, the hard way.

I got lucky enough to meet him, and he kinda quizzed me, like ‘Well how passionate about snowboarding are you?’ I told him my goal each year has always been to try to get a hundred days in the water and a hundred days on snow, so I’m pretty serious about it, and he was like ‘Holy shit, yeah – I’ve always wanted to meet a surfboard shaper that actually puts in the time in the mountains.’

So from there, I said ‘Hey let’s go surf tomorrow – I’ve got some board designs that I think, if you incorporated some of these concepts into a snowboard, there’s a lot that could happen.’ I brought him by a little tiny surfboard and he loved it, and from there I gave him a piece of wood that I’d bent and shaped and more or less made into a bindingless pow surfer, and he waxed it like a surfboard on the deck, and waxed it like skis on the bottom, and waited for his backyard to open up with some fresh snow. Then he called me up and was like ‘Wow this thing really works!’ and I go, ‘Well let’s make a real snowboard now.’

Chris Christenson and Jimmy Goodman. Photo: Andrew Miller.

What do you think snowboarding can learn from surfing, in terms of design?
I can’t say that anything I’ve done has not been done before. A lot of it comes from the roots, from what Winterstick and Tom Sims were doing way back in the day. It’s coming full circle, adapting new materials [to old ideas].

But before I even met Jeremy I was really inspired by Taro Tamai. I got one of the Rocket Fish Gentemsticks from him in 2006. I’d been getting bored with snowboarding and the equipment at the time because I was tired of riding just park, and none of the boards worked that well in powder – the twin tip thing just seemed like a graphics game.

“The Ultra Mind Expander is like adding a little amplifier, for when you wanna go from fourth gear to fifth gear”

Then I was in Japan shaping surfboards, and at the end of my trip I went up to Niseko to go snowboarding and meet Taro Tamai. I got one of his boards and I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is surfing!’ That was the only board I rode for the next two years, even on groomers – those guys were so ahead of the game on the snowsurfing thing.

Even though I became good friends with Taro – and I still am – Jeremy was the only one that really showed an interest in working with me, but at the end of the day, if it wasn’t for Taro Tamai I wouldn’t be doing this shit.

Chris Christenson and Pow Surfer. Photo: Andrew Miller.

What was the process you used to design the Surf Series?
I’m sure you’re starting to figure out I can barely use a computer. Everything I do is just old school, with a tape measure and pencil, or by eyeball. I used some of the curve templates from my surfboards.

The first model I did, the Storm Chaser, I drew by scratch in Jeremy’s garage. I took some of my surfboard templates, and we took some of the current Jones designs of the time, and we had a lot of sidecut discussion. I took a fibreglass sail baton – basically the fibreglass pieces that are in a sail from a sailboat – and they really make clean curves. Jeremy would hold one end and I’d hold the other end, and we’d get the curve we wanted, and I’d trace it with a pencil and cut it out on wood.

We did it all analogue. All the curves were created by hand; all the rockers and cambers were created by hand; I made my own jigs and then basically set up the whole pre-mould concept for the manufacturers who’d take it from there.

How many prototypes did you get through?
Each model was nailed the first time. I’d literally cut them out in his garage, and we’d lay them on the ground and then we’d stand on them like we were riding them, and be like ‘Well it looks good!’

I’ve always been a big fan of trusting to a trained eye – if it looks good by eye, it’s probably gonna be good. Once you’ve got the basic shape, then you just clean it up and make sure the left side’s the same width as the right side and all that, you know?

“These contours are for shedding off friction so you get more glide out of the board, more response, more pop, more release – just better flow, whether it’s powder or a smooth groomer”

Tell us about the Mind Expander. It’s obviously been popular, and the range seems to keep growing.
It was kind of a missing link board. Everyone liked the Storm Chaser, but we wanted something with a little more tail, a little more length. The Jones range had the Hovercraft, which is still a popular board to this day, so Jeremy asked if I could take up the challenge of filling the gap between the Storm Chaser and the Hovercraft, whilst keeping the surf elements.

It was like taking a song and saying ‘Hey, I want more oomph and a little more power in it’. So that’s what we did. We used the surf rocker again, with a different template in it, and it worked amazing, but we found that with the surf rockers, as much as they’re good, when it comes to more chattery snow you need something stiffer. So then we came up with the Ultra Mind Expander, which is more of a carbon layup, with camber, so it’s a harder board to turn but it’s like supersizing it, adding a little amplifier to it for when you wanna go from fourth gear to fifth gear.

Photo: Andrew Miller.

The 3D Base Contour Tech is a pretty important factor, right?
That was one of my surf designs I originally got Jeremy to do. I was like ‘Hey why are these things all flat? Snow’s not perfectly flat.’ Some of these contours are for shedding off friction so you get more glide out of the board, more response, more pop, more release – just better flow, whether it’s powder or a smooth groomer. Everything had a purpose. And the convex of the nose will make a board a lot more forgiving as well, and that really did prove itself on snow as it does on water.

How did you go about shaping those contours?
With the Mountain Surfer, I hand shaped it out of a surfboard blank. I put all the contours in it, and then made the fibreglass mould by hand on my own and dug out all the material so it was a raw piece of fibreglass, and then I mailed that out to Switzerland so they could base their aluminum and concrete moulds off my original.

We’re seeing more and more of this cross-pollination at the moment. Is there anything surfing can learn from snowboarding?
I wish surfers would be a little more humble! The guys in the mountains are a little more humble than the guys at the beach are [laughs]. In design terms, though, we both kind of feed off each other a little bit, but there’s not a whole lot I can learn from snowboarding manufacturing because it’s so different. Snowboards definitely have access to more and better materials, and better budgets. Most surf shapers don’t have the money or time to waste experimenting with the latest and greatest thing.

From the outside it seems like flex is not talked about much in surfing compared to snowboarding – apart from fins. Is that something with room for development?
With snowboards you’re dealing with a harder surface; surfing’s just water. Surfing’s more difficult too – there are very few people that can give good feedback on flex. So the flex game in skiing and snowboarding is one area where the progression is way higher than with surfboards.

“The flex game in skiing and snowboarding is one area where the progression is way higher than with surfboards”

Most companies that are using the whole flex thing in surfing right now, it’s all marketing. When you watch the pros, none of them are using any of the flex stuff they’re marketing – it baffles me. There is room for it, and a need for it – just like in a golf club, or skis or snowboards – but the materials that we’re still working with have so many limitations in that regard. And there are very few surfers that even have the ability to feel a difference in flex. It’s funny, you take 85 percent of surfers and give them 10 waves and see how many times they go further than 10 metres. It’s hilarious how horrible most surfers are!

Chris Christenson. Photo: Andrew Miller.

How about sidecut? This might sound like a stupid question but why is it that snowboards and surfboards have opposite curves?
Hard surface, soft surface. You could theoretically have a surf outline in powder, but surfboards also have fins to provide grip. Plus, you’re always going downhill on a snowboard, whereas surfboards you’re going up and down and into a pocket.

BUT the boards both react on that same radius. So more sidecut on a snowboard, the board is looser; more outline curve on a surfboard, the board is looser. Those curves work hand in hand. You bring the wide point further back on a surfboard, it’s gonna be looser; you bring the apex of a sidecut further back from the midpoint on a ski or snowboard, it’s gonna be looser rail to rail. Move it forward and turns are gonna draw out more. So that’s all congruent. The main reason the curves are opposite is just the surface.

There’s guys that mess with small sidecuts in surfboards – and I’ve done it too – and there are elements where it’s great. If you’re on a consistent line and you’re kind’ve planing and you’re always at a downhill angle, you can feel it. There’s less friction and you go faster. But as soon as you reach the bottom of the wave and you wanna project up the wave – and the wave is coming at you whereas a mountain is stationary – then it gets sticky and less forgiving, and that’s the big drawback.

Jeremy is doing a lot of work with Protect Our Winters. Is the environment a focus for you on the surf side?
I give back to environmental charities in both sports. There’s way more awareness today than 20 years ago, thanks to these organisations and the way politics is going. When I started doing what I’m doing – I’ve been making surfboards for 27 years – it never once occurred to me that the chemicals I was using were not so great for me. We weren’t really afraid of it. Now, most of the people that work in the surfboard industry, with these materials, we’re all old. I have a really hard time getting a younger workforce, because they’re programmed differently to we were. They’re like, ‘I’m not getting dirty and I’m not breathing that shit.’

“When I started, it never once occurred to me that the chemicals I was using were not so great for me”

That’s why so much stuff’s being built overseas now, because there’s less regulations and less awareness. It’s a catch-22, you know. Going back to being a steward of the environment, that’s why I take pride in building stuff in California, where it’s heavily regulated. I have to fill out X, Y and Z environmental standards for all my waste, and all these companies that are building stuff overseas are acting like they’re cleaner for doing it, but they’re just pushing it somewhere else where it’s less regulated.

Photo: Andrew Miller.

Ideally I guess we want to use less toxic materials?
Unfortunately the toxic ones still work better. And my three rules for an environmental product are: A it’s gotta work; B it’s gotta stand the test of time; and C it’s gotta look good. Ultimately it can be timeless. If you can do that and prevent your product from going into landfill then you’ve won the environmental debate. I’ve been approached so many times with blanks that are made out of algae, or resin that’s made out of tree sap, but then they don’t work, and they look like shit and no one wants to buy them, so they end up in landfill.

Looking to the future, are you gonna carry on collaborating with Jones?
I’m looking to work more into the freestyle realm of snowboarding. I can’t say what it is at this stage, but Jeremy and I have an old school handshake agreement and a good relationship, both friendship and business wise, so I hope to keep my finger on the pulse for a bit longer.

Thanks Chris, that sounds intriguing! Have a great winter.
Thank you.

Find out more on the Jones Website!

Newsletter Terms & Conditions

Please enter your email so we can keep you updated with news, features and the latest offers. If you are not interested you can unsubscribe at any time. We will never sell your data and you'll only get messages from us and our partners whose products and services we think you'll enjoy.

Read our full Privacy Policy as well as Terms & Conditions.