Good Story Paddle & Surf is not your typical board company. Tucked in the wooded hills of the historic maritime town of Port Townsend, Washington, founder Matthew Nienow constructs and array of wooden SUPs by hand in his shop. The business is not built for the short-term: prototype boards take anywhere between 60 and 100 hours to build and, once constructed, they’re intended to last 20-plus years. I raced one of Nienow’s wooden creations, a 17-foot prototype he later dubbed The Hunter, in the Seventy48 this summer (look for a digital feature on the experience in November).
I spoke with Nienow to talk roots, learning and what goes into making a Good Story board.
You have a canoe background, right?
I grew up in the Seattle area but my folks are from the Midwest. At ten years old I went to Camp Manito-Wish (a summer camp in Wisconsin) and that camp has a lot of traditional stuff but their biggest highlight is their wilderness tripping programs. They get up to almost two months and they’re self-supported expeditions. As a kid from 10-15, I did them, starting at three days long and building up until a 33-day trip in northern Saskatchewan. Then I worked at the camp for a couple years. I did a 55-day staff instructors course through northern Canada, ending up in Hudson Bay. The last one I led was a 45-day canoe expedition.
Wow, that’s serious. How did you get into boat building?
In junior year of college I got disillusioned with academics and took a canoe building course with a bunch of 60-year old men. A decade later, I went to the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding in Port Hadlock. From there I was building a handful of boats, trying to start my shop.
I happened into paddleboarding accidentally. I thought SUP would be better for taking my kids out on the water. I built my first one about seven years ago and that was my first paddling on a standup. I love canoeing, so the single blade made a lot of sense to me. I got hooked pretty quick.
I had some some distractions in between, taught at a high-school for a couple years, including canoe building but mostly teaching English classes. I went full time on board building three years ago. I still feel like I'm starting every day new.
How long does it take you to make a board?
Coming from a boat-building background, I did a lot of work by hand at first. A couple years ago, I taught myself computer design with a naval architect. Now I make the exact design online then get (the ribs) cut on a CNC machine. Basically, I cut myself a kit so I can do the same thing over and over with simplicity. It’s not like a traditional board, you’re basically putting panels over the (CNC-cut supports). Once you have the panels on, you shape it a lot like other boards We do our glassing with epoxy and then traditional spar varnish so the epoxy doesn't start breaking down. They can tolerate a lot more abuse than a standard board.
Prototypes can take 60-100 hours but once I've done it I'm usually able to put it into a process similar to other builds and it becomes a 40-50 hour process per board. Then we try to do several at a time.
For the most part, wood is where my heart is. You take this living element and give it a second life after it's been harvested. The other part is working in durability, the longevity of a project. We work primarily with Paulownia. Most of it is grown in China but I get all our stuff from the Southeast US and I'm working on planting our own trees. The idea is that we'd eventually be doing as much as we could locally. We’re really focusing more and more on sustainability. We already have Level One certification with Sustainable Surf and I'm working on bio resins (for glassing) to see how they hold up versus petroleum based (ones).
I also found out that canoeing or standup paddling on a wooden craft doubled the experience. You're more in congruence with nature itself and you're not distracted by anything. I want to make something durable enough that will last 20 years, if not longer.