La Jollan finds real success in fake surfboards

On the supercramped balcony of the two-bedroom condo his family rents in La Jolla Colony, Joe Avery unfolds his plastic Walmart table and places the two orange Home Depot buckets he uses as risers. It’s time to work on another surfboard.

“Watch out, Joey,” he tells his three-year-old son, “I don’t want to hit you with this.” Then he turns to this reporter and confides: “It’s hard for me to get anything done. I’m watching him and doing this all day every day. There are not enough hours in the day. It’s crazy.”

The second-floor balcony is as wide as Avery’s boards are long — sometimes it’s narrower — so he has learned to be careful not only of Joey but of the overspray from his varnish gun.

“It’s gnarly on the screen door when the wind blows it,” the 47-year-old says. “That’s why I put a tarp on the screen.”

Avery’s surfboards aren’t the kind that people ride. They just place them on their walls.

“I’ve done a few real boards,” Avery says, “but it’s so messy and expensive and it stinks. And the profit margin sucks. So I’m really happy to have found this different kind of niche.”

Avery began his love of woodworking growing up in Oahu, Hawaii, where his dad moved the family from Wisconsin when Avery was 10. Here, Avery whittled coffee tables from native Koa trees and gave and sold them to friends. It’s where he also fell in love with surfing.

“I would sit in grade school and draw surfboard shapes,” he says.

After serving in the U.S. Navy for eight years, Avery’s love of the beach drew him to San Diego to look for work. He found none. One day, he walked into Armando’s Green Flash restaurant in Pacific Beach looking for a restroom and walked out with a server position.

That was more than 20 years ago. Several attempts at entrepreneurship having failed, Joe thought he would be probably work as a server for the rest of his life.

“And that would have been fine,” Avery said. “I was grateful for the opportunity. It just wasn’t my dream.”

The noisy, more dangerous work on Avery’s wall-décor surfboards gets done at his father’s house in Fallbrook, where he cuts and shapes slabs of Home Depot birch veneer plywood. Here in La Jolla, the boards get stained, varnished, pinstriped and adorned with decals — whatever the client specifies.

“This one’s going to a guy in San Clemente,” he says of the board he begins to pinstripe. “It’s a 7-footer. I get a lot of custom orders — 8 feet, 9 feet, 10 feet. But this is my go-to size, the one I advertise on eBay, because it ships for the right price.”

Avery charges $300 to deliver a 7-footer locally, $350 to ship it. His 10-footers are $500. (Anything over 8 feet must ship American Airlines cargo.)

Avery got married in 2013, just as the Green Flash permanently shuttered. Avery’s wife, Gina, a special-education teacher at La Jolla Elementary, fully supported his dream. But that didn’t give him any job prospects. When the unemployment ran out, Avery accepted a sales position promising large commissions, but that itself was just an empty sales pitch.

Woodworking had been an eBay side business, but Avery was never confident enough to bring it front and center. His moment of truth was delivered right along with his child. Hours after Joey Jr. was born, Avery had to start a new part-time job.

“It was hauling these 300-pound bounce houses to these people’s houses, up and down hills, then setting them up and waiting for the birthday parties to end,” he says. “It was a 14-hour shift. That’s when I realized how much my fear of failure was holding me back.”

Three years later, Hawaii Joe’s Surfboards has sold hundreds of decorative boards to locals and in countries around the globe via Avery’s website,, and his eBay store.

“It feels really good to be doing something I love,” Avery says as he kisses Joey goodbye so Gina can drive him to school. “It’s just become scary, crazy busy.

“And that’s good.”