I learned to shape surfboards by having bought a beat-up secondhand board and fixing all the dings in it. By the early ’70s, I was making a little bit of a name for myself as a shaper. I worked for some brands and started a couple myself. I was signing my boards: R. Preisendorfer, and the Rusty logo came from that—it seems simple but took a lot of work, actually. I was playing around with the dot and eventually lifted it up a bit. And at first the R-dot was fairly small, but a friend of mine said, “Let me blow it up for you.” He did, up to eight or nine inches, and that’s what gave it those rough-textured edges.
I started working for Canyon Glass Shop in 1978—it wasn’t really a surfboard label but I blew it up. Toward the ’80s, my reputation as a shaper had led to me judging surf contests around the world. I started making boards for some pros I liked, and then other pros and their companies began asking me to make boards for them. That was a turning point for me, and I decided to start my own brand. I gave notice July 4th 1985. I wasn’t sure what to call my company, but Pete Townend, then the advertising director at Surfing magazine, was the one who suggested using my name—“That’s what everyone will call it anyway,” he said.
I had months worth of Canyon surfboard orders even before I began. In November ’85 I was off and running. At one point, at least half of the top surf pros were riding my boards. But I had art in my veins too—that was my major at UC San Diego, after I switched from psychology. So along with the shaping, I was doing graphic design work, airbrushing boards and making designs with the logo. When I started offering T-shirts along with board orders they just blew up, especially the first one—the logo over a blue/purple/red spectrum. The demand was daunting at first, but it was a great complement for the boards, the margins are far better, for example. Clothing really helped the company overall, once we figured out how to produce it at scale.
Once we got into clothing, though, that complicated matters a bit with the boards. Namely, the pros who rode Rusty boards had existing sponsorships from apparel companies, and it created a conflict of interest. That ultimately blew over, but it tested relationships for a while. Then, gradually, as the Rusty brand grew with more investors and licensees, I was slowly losing control over what was being made. This was especially hard because it was my name out there. It was me.
So, while it’s generally said not to be healthy to split a brand and ownership of a trademark, I think it was in my case. I split off the apparel side, and now I’m focused all on Rusty Surfboards—a lot like how it all began, actually. We even do our shaping right down the road from UC San Diego. In my lifetime, I’d have to say I’ve hand-shaped around 50,000 surfboards. I’ve loved all those years of shaping; I love the brand, too. It’s been an amazing journey altogether—to make surfboards and live a life I love, it’s a wonderful thing.
—Rusty Preisendorfer ’78 was an art major at UC San Diego before starting his eponymous surf brand. He still shapes surfboards along with his son in the Miramar area of San Diego.