Boards to homes: Tim Bessell shapes his dreams


Luckily for Tim Bessell, the winter of 1958 was a particularly nasty one in the Midwest. Deciding they had enough, his parents moved the toddler and his older siblings to the more hospitable climate of La Jolla.

When Tim was 13, two pivotal events would determine his future. “I was enrolled in woodshop at Muirlands,” reminisces Tim. “Our assignment was to make a pump lamp.” Not only did Tim finish well ahead of his classmates, his peers dubbed his lamp best overall. “Because I won the contest, I got the lampshade,” laughs Tim.

For his birthday, Tim’s brother gave him a stripped-down longboard blank. “I reshaped it into a six-foot, round pin single fin, and gave it away,” he said. He knew then that working with his hands, a skill passed down from his grandfather, would be his life’s calling.

At age 14, Tim found another old board to re-shape. This one he was able to sell for $75. “My career began there,” says Tim. “I got my first job as a production shaper for Sunset Surfboards.” After a few years working in Encinitas, he had the opportunity to work in Hawaii with some of the best shapers of that time. Mentoring under the likes of Jack Shipley, Tom Parrish, Bill Barnfield and Tom Eberly, Tim was able to further develop his expertise as a shaper. He would work in Hawaii over the next 10 winters while continuing to build his own brand, Bessell Surfboards.

During this time Tim attended San Diego State, majoring in psychology, with a minor in art. It was there he met Eugene Ray, then head of the Architecture Department. Tim further developed his craftsmanship by helping build Mr. Ray’s distinctive La Jolla home off Nautilus. “My parents had grown tired of the fog, so for a brief time we lived in Poway,” says Tim. While this would seem a certain death sentence for a surfer living biking distance from the beach, Tim acknowledges one advantage gleaned from that era. “They had a program at Poway High where you could work with a developer and build a house, earning class credits. That experience gave me the confidence I needed to approach Mr. Ray.”

It is the mid ‘80s that Tim recalls most fondly, working with legendary shaper Billy Caster. “Working with various shapers has enhanced my abilities as a designer, but it was from Billy that I learned the most. He was an absolute genius, a wonderful, giving human being,” reflects Tim. “His untimely passing had a huge impact on me personally and professionally.” And while Tim has continued with private label shaping and specialty boards, after Billy’s death he began concentrating more on the Bessell brand.

Not surprisingly, Tim’s medium of choice in his artwork involves the use of fiberglass, resin and carbon composite materials. In 1989 his coffee table was featured at the Monterey Peninsula Museum. In 2003 there was an exhibition of his sculptures in New York. His latest project involves Giovanni Pagnotti, designer of the “Z” chair. Forming a partnership, Tim plans to sculpt three different designs of the ultra-modern chair. The exclusive pieces are currently selling in New York. The Quint Gallery in La Jolla has also expressed an interest in representing the artists.

His newest passion, however, is designing and building energy-efficient, low-cost homes from recycled shipping containers. Calling it Bessell Modular Living Systems, Tim got the inspiration one afternoon daydreaming at his office. “I was inspired by the industrial look of my surroundings,” said Tim. “Then I thought of all the excess shipping containers lying fallow in the desert. It occurred to me we could solve many problems with a little creativity.”

“These homes will be structured with solar panels built into the roof. We have a plan to attach windmill blades and utilize reclaimed water,” said Tim. “This is a wonderful win-win situation all around. We have an environmental problem and a desperate need for low-income homes. Prices range from $85,000 for an 1,800 sq. ft. fully equipped home up to whatever a person wants to imagine. Fully customized, the units are bolted together so the homes are actually portable. They are incredibly insulating and universal as far as size and shape worldwide.”

The final leg is the application process for a 5013c, which classifies his project as a legal non-profit. Working to have all paperwork completed by 2008, he hopes to build the first home here in San Diego. “My dream,” admits Tim, “is to be the Frank Lloyd Wright of the modular home. My whole life has prepared me for this moment. I envision designing totally customized homes from start to finish, right down to the furnishings.”