In 2014, Chris Williams quit his finance job in California, moved to New York, and decided to start Union Surfboards, a surfboard shaping company. He’s obviously a cool guy, so that alone should be enough reason to read this interview.
Even better, he’s shared some pro tips—from how to navigate surfing in New York, to what jams to add to your playlist—so now you have a chance at being cool like Chris, too. You’re welcome.
You shape custom surfboards at your shop in Brooklyn…why New York? And how many times a day do you get asked that?
Constantly. I lived in California my entire life and was working in finance, sitting at a desk all day, burnt out and disinterested in what I was doing. I was coming out to New York for work and felt like I was meeting so many people doing weird things, artistically or in some other capacity. That’s what happens here in New York—so many people are trying to push towards bringing their dreams to life and doing what they really love and you can’t really find that in California.
If you wanted to start a surfboard company out there, first of all you’d have a hard time making a splash in such a saturated industry, and secondly, California is becoming so tech-oriented these days that it’s kind of displaced all other cultures. If you wanted to do something crazy like start a surfboard company, you weren’t really going to find the support on a personal level. New York acts as the incubator in a way.
So did you decide while you were in California that this is what you wanted to do, and New York was where you wanted to do it? Or did you get the idea after moving here?
I didn’t move here to do this. I actually had no idea I was going to do this. I knew more about surfboards than any of my surfer friends and I felt qualified to go into the industry, plus making surfboards was a healthy way to spend my time on the weekends—my mom supported my decision to do it because otherwise I’d be out day drinking on the weekends. So that’s how it unfolded.
Surfing here is so cool these days but the infrastructure that would actually cater to a surfer—business, transportation, whatever—doesn’t exist yet, it’s less developed. When you go to Saturdays, for example, you see the surfboards and wonder where to buy a reasonably priced board. So there’s just more opportunities to do something surf-related here.
What’s the typical workload like for you?
Usually I do about 6-8 custom boards per month, but recently I’ve been doing more bulk orders. We did 10 boards for Maderas Village in Nicaragua, so that they could have a selection of boards with their branding that guests could rent or buy on site, instead of bringing their own equipment down from New York.
I just worked on a collection for the Victoria’s Secret Spring/Summer catalogue, and I’m working on some boards for Coach’s North American stores. In New York, there’s regular surfers and then there’s surfing as a “stage prop” that some big brand is using…so that’s definitely allowed for more opportunities as well.
You obviously keep yourself busy then! Do you have a team of people helping you out?
I shape the surfboards, and there’s a few guys working on other aspects of the business—Charlie is our Brand Director, Mike is our Marketing Manager, and Patrick is our Photographer. We also have a menswear line coming out this summer, so Taylor is our Production Manager on that along with Ladd, our Designer.
Let’s say someone comes up to you in a bar and upon learning your profession, is shocked to hear that people do actually surf in New York City. What would you tell that person?
I would tell them that yes, people do surf in New York, it’s possible! The closest place is Rockaway Beach, so you or your best friend should definitely have a car, just easier that way. It’s really difficult to learn how to surf in New York because the waves here are less consistent than the waves in California. But when they do come, they can get really, really good.
Where can we find you?
117 Dobbin Street in Brooklyn, come hang!
We’ll only come hang if you play good music.
Thankfully, our brand director Charlie is a drummer in a band called Savants, and he curates the music that plays in the shop. So we’ve got the music covered.
What are your top 5 songs to listen to while you shape?
- “Dream Machine” by Savants. Because Charlie, obviously.
- “I’m Gonna Move Right In” by The Velvet Underground. Because I just like the song.
- “Not The Only One” by Bonnie Raitt. I heard it this weekend and it’s been on repeat since. It’s a little cheesy so I’ll own the responsibility of putting it on this list, I just think she has a really nice voice.
- “Todo Terminó” by Juan Wauters. Juan lives in Rockaway with Tall Juan and Mac DeMarco, and they’re just really chill dudes who make great music.
- “Nothing Ever Happened” by Deerhunter. It’s a super cruisy summertime jam that the whole team can agree on.