People in Your La Jolla Neighborhood: Meet craftsman, artist and surfboard shaper Tim Bessell

Editor’s Note: Welcome to La Jolla Light’s “People in Your Neighborhood” series, which shines a spotlight on notable locals we all wish we knew more about! Light staff is out on the town talking to familiar, friendly faces to bring you their stories. If you know someone you’d like us to profile, send the lead via e-mail to editor@lajollalight.com or call us at (858) 875-5950.

Tim Bessell runs a worldwide surfboard business — Bessell Surf — out of studio space at 515 Westbourne St. He designs, hand shapes and paints surfboards that are sold from his website, but also welcomes retail purchases in his workshop. This 59-year-old artist, who wears the sun, the wind and the waves on his skin, has developed an empire from his two passions: surfing and crafting.

In 2014, Bessell obtained a license from the Andy Warhol Foundation to produce luxury surfboards with Warhol-inspired designs. In his shop, ride-able boards can be found featuring a portrait of Mao Zedong, the Dollar sign or Warhol’s gun.

Where are you from?

“I was born in Wichita, Kansas in 1957, and moved to La Jolla when I was 1 1/2 years old. I’ve been here ever since. Now, I live in WindanSea, as I have pretty much my whole life. I’ve been at on Westbourne Street making surfboards and art since 1987 ... long time!”

What do you do for a living?

“I’m an artist, a designer and a craftsman. I made my first surfboard three blocks away from here in 1971. My older brother and best friends gave me a blank, stripped-down longboard and I started shaping, and that was 50,000 boards ago.”

Did you ever think of doing anything else?

“My father, Harold Bessell, was a psychologist (the first one in La Jolla) and my mother was a great artist. She was an illustrator for print media when she was young, and then when she got married, she started doing fine art.

I grew up making art with her on Cabrillo Street. So I’ve always made art, but I didn’t really make surfboards until I was 13, so I was an artist long before I was a surfboard maker. But surfboard making has allowed me the great opportunity of embracing my art and paying for it, because it’s a good business to be in.”

What do you do for fun?

“I love hanging out with my family. I have two daughters and a wonderful girlfriend. I love surfing, I occasionally play golf, I travel the world surfing and having art shows. That’s super fun! I have a fun lifestyle.”

Where do you surf?

“Usually down the street at WindanSea because it’s easy and usually better than most places.”

How often many times a week do you surf?

“Depending on the quality of the surf and the water, I’d surf twice a day if I could. But on average, I probably surf five days a week.”

What are your routines?

“I get up and I walk to the beach with my dogs and my girlfriend, then have breakfast and get to work around 9 a.m. I work and then go home for lunch. Depending on the surf, I pick a time to go out. Incoming tide with low wind in a building swell, that’s the combo. I go surfing, come back. Robin (my girlfriend) is a great chef. She’s a real urban farmer, I’m super lucky. We have chickens and bees, and she uses almost everything out of our garden to cook.”

Do you take good care of yourself?

“Absolutely! Because I’m an artist and also an athlete, it’s important to keep your body in good shape. As a surfboard maker, your level of ability as a surfer enhances your ability as a craftsman, so you can market yourself much better if you can surf.”

How did you learn your craft?

“I made my first surfboard up the street, and then I sold one, and another, and another. I did everything from start to finish. And back then, there were surfboard factories in La Jolla. In the early 1970s, WindanSea was a hub for surfboard manufacturers, great designers … we had such a great lineage in advancing the world of surfing — both the sport, and the craft and design of a surfboard.

Then I worked in a factory in North County called Sunset Labels, which at that time was one of the premier labels in the world. But I loved Hawaii and I was so enamored with surfing the North Shore, that’s all I wanted to do when I graduated from high school. I also wanted to go to work for the best surfboard company in the world, which was also in Hawaii, so I did, and that was a real honor, and it launched my career.”

Do you have a favorite board for surfing?

“Over the years, you’re going to have these memories of certain days’ waves, and boards, and you don’t have that many. So I’d say the board I’m riding now, called the Barracuda, is the best surfboard I’ve ever rode.”

What do the different tails on surfboards mean?

“There’s basically two tails, the swallow and the pin. If you have a pin tail, the board is going to drift through the water really straight; it’s good for big waves, riding the barrel and if you want to go fast. But with the swallow tail, the wave is breaking off two points, which is making it much easier to turn. So as a designer, I want to make surfboards that are super fast, light, durable and responsive.”

How has the craft evolved?

“About 30 years ago, they invented the first machine for making surfboards. The machine scans one side, and then duplicates it. Which is great, for models and big production. But if you’re not in big production, and you’re more custom, it doesn’t lend itself to it. For part of my business, we do use machines for high-performance board production, but custom boards are all hand shaped by me. And I love that, I love shaping.”

How much does one of your surfboards cost?

“The high-performance riders go from $500 to $1,500, but the art-series boards range from $5,000 to $40,000.”

Looking back, How has La Jolla changed?

“When I was a kid, we would be able to walk every street and not see a car. We knew everybody in school. In my second grade class, there were 22 kids. It was a very small town. Today, there are very few vacant lots, and there were many when I was kid. I loved growing up here.

But some things are a lot better now, like our air. When I was in my early teens, the smog was so bad, and today the air quality is as good as I’ve ever seen it. The water quality is much better, too, because of Donna Fry (former San Diego City Council member) and all her work to make that happen. Thank you, Donna!

But we have a big problem with pollution and the seals. They’re polluting the water, and that needs to be addressed in a positive way.”

What’s your favorite food?

“I love all kinds of food, but I most love food that’s pure and organic and made with love.”

What’s your hope for the future?

“More of the same!”

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