Ben McBrian|Farmhaus: From Professional Surfer to Woodworking Wizard
I used to be a professional surfer but now I toil daily in the bowels of the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia making anything I can think up out of anything I can find. My name is Ben McBrien.
Zappo: Tell about your early years as a child. Where are you originally from and what was growing up like for you?
McBrien: I grew up just inland from Long Beach Island, New Jersey in a town called Manahawkin, which is Native American for the land of good corn. The ocean was my obsession, and all I wanted was to ride to the beach every day. We would boogie board, body surf, surf and spearfish all summer with my dad and older brother who were my heroes and idols growing up. One of my favorite memories was sitting on the beach crying because I couldn’t make it out to see my dad get the sickest barrel on his late 80’s fun shape. Trips to the Outer Banks were epic back then. It was this secluded strip of sand and still a mystery to most of the east coast.
Zappo: How did you get introduced to surfing? What is the first memory you have of riding a wave?
McBrien: We were boogie boarders first and then we started standing up on our stomach shredding flexible foam biscuits. When we first found my dad’s Pig, a mid-seventies short board revolution gem, buried in the backyard leaves, we put chairs on top and pretended it was a spaceship. That was the first board I rode at age eight until I bought a 5’10” Infinity off my older brother. I still have the Infinity, but will never forgive my brother for trading in the “Pig” for a wafer thin 90’s blade while I was at summer camp.
Zappo: Where did you come up surfing and what was the surf scene like? Who were guys that inspired your approach to surfing both on the local and on the worldwide level?
McBrien: After my early influence from my dad and older brother, I started idolizing guys like Justin Citta and Greg Luker. Other great surfers who were around were Steve Jones and Bill Willem. They both still rip and are fellow LBI folks. We surfed 25th Street and Harvey Cedars. Greg used to drive us to skate parks and surf contests. He was like a mentor and guide to “what’s cool” for an uncool grom. Guys like Archy, who later in life I met and befriended, and Martin Potter were my early heroes from professional surfing. I wanted to surf for a living from middle school on.
Zappo: I remember seeing you at the local amateur contests when we were both younger and I was always impressed with your surfing. Eventually I phased out of competitive surfing and I didn’t see you much. Then you began to pop up in the magazines and it looked like you were making a go at professional surfing. Can you explain to people what being a “professional” surfer from New Jersey is like and about your own pro career?
McBrien: Competition started early at the local surf shop contests held by Body Language and Surf Unlimited. Then I was on the school surf team in high school. I went to every CNJ and SNJ ESA contest from the time I was 16, it was awesome to surf away from LBI for the first time. There was what seemed like a million new spots to check! I skipped college and started working full time for my dad and various other builders doing construction and worked at a surf shop at night, where I met the babe I married 10 years later. After working and saving an entire summer, at the age of 19, I spent my first winter on the North Shore of Oahu. Mind blown!
I got a couple lucky breaks and had some pictures that ran in magazines and it gave me the idea that I was actually capable of “being a pro”. I spent two more winters trying my luck. I was hanging with Archy and working on cars when the waves sucked. I thought I was the shit. Then I moved to California for a year and realized that I was a nobody. I hated it. The North Shore and NJ are small ponds, granted there are a ton of huge fish in Hawaii, but in California I was a grain of sand on a vast beach. I moved home a year later and spent five years working construction, playing music and surfing alone. I never left LBI and though I had some sponsors nothing was happening. On a trip to Virginia Beach for a contest, I met this rad guy Zeke Sanders who just “got” me. He hooked me up with Hurley but it was going nowhere. Hurley didn’t give a fart in the wind about some misfit wannabe goth kid from NJ, but they did pay for a plane ticket to Hawaii, and I charged as hard as I could that winter, making a few rounds at the pipe contest. I learned a lot about networking and how important it is to know people in this business. When I came home that year, a good friend introduced me to Tim Swart who was starting a surf team for Zoo York and looking for riders who were misfit turds from NJ. The next few years were my glory days as a professional surfer. I got to travel to Cuba, Canada, Alaska, Panama, Mexico and anywhere else my heart desired. They paid me enough that I paid some bills, but I always had to keep working to make enough to live. During that first year with Zoo, I re-met and married my wife Krystin and knocked her up. So it was over pretty quick after that! (laughs) But those were my glory days!
Zappo: When we get older and the conditions of our lives change, I found that our surfing tends to follow suit. As you became a family man and your professional surfing career came to an end, what new form did surfing take on for you?
McBrien: It’s been a hard transition from a “Pro” to a weekend warrior. I moved to Philadelphia in 2007, and for a while I was still making it work. Calling photographers for every swell, surfing and still getting my work done. But if you don’t use it, you lose it, and while I can still get a tube when the wind’s offshore, I noticed that my timing and level of fitness were going south. It was important for me to not overstay my welcome in the pro surfing world. When you define success at surfing as a good photograph or video clip it’s harder to enjoy surfing alone in less than epic conditions. I had to re-learn to surf for fun and now surfing is more fun than it was in all the years previous. I ride all sorts of interesting surf boards, and I have more fun on the days when most pros wouldn’t surf. Longboarding is the best. I barely need a wave at all and I promise you I’ll be the guy having the most fun. Then if I really want a challenge, I ride one of my alaia boards.
Zappo: You have your own company “Farmhaus” which has a variety of offerings in the realm of woodwork. From cabinets, to furniture, to larger carpentry work, along with custom skateboards, hand-planes and wooden surfboards. Tell us about “Farmhaus”, its inception, your day-to-day work, and the overall philosophy behind your unique creations?
McBrien: So I have been a builder/maker for as long as I’ve been a surfer. I was a wood shop nerd through high school and worked at absolutely every phase of home construction from setting/notching pilings to framing to roofing and interior trim. It was never something I consciously tried to excel at but I’ve always improved and challenged myself with trickier jobs. My friend Tim Swart, the same guy that helped me get paid to surf, helped point me in the direction I’m moving in now with my woodwork. I took a trip to California in 2007, to build out his brand UNIV’s flagship store in Encinitas and I went from there. I fell in love with modern and mid-century furniture. In 2010 I distilled my tastes for modern, rustic and industrial aesthetic into a brand called Farmhaus. I make furniture, housewares, cabinetry, surfboards, jewelry and anything else that interests me out of whatever I can find. A majority of the material I build with is reclaimed, repurposed or trash picked. I love what I’m doing now as much as I loved surfing when that was my job. Either way, the money is secondary, and lord knows I’m never going to get rich doing either.
Zappo: You are also a musician. What instrument(s) do you play and are you currently involved with any projects?
McBrien: Well I would hesitate to call myself a musician. I played guitar and screamed in a few bands back in the early part of the millennium. I just burned out one day and stopped. Talk about if you don’t use it you lose it, I can barely play an ‘e’ chord these days.
Zappo: What are your top 5 records at the moment?
1. Night Marchers
3. Althea and Donna
4. Harder They Come Soundtrack
5. Thee Oh Sees
Zappo: Describe your last surf session.
McBrian: Day after Thanksgiving, logging waist high peelers by the OG pier with my buddies, Greg and Evan. Bunch of fat old guys playing like kids in the freezing cold.
Zappo: Define surfing as it relates to your life?
McBrien: Surfing is what I do with my life. It’s one of the ways I express my art and identify with my clan. It can be aggressive, violent, calm, serene, playful and fun. Surfing is the best form of expression for me. I will continue to evolve and learn even as I age. I have adapted my life to surfing and my surfing to my life, but life wouldn’t be much at all without surfing.
Check out more of Ben’s work here: http://farmhausmodern.com
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