- Pam LeBlanc American-Statesman Staff
A sprinkling of sawdust on the back of a business suit started it all, in a way.
Tony Smith, who’d grown up building stuff with his brother — model rockets, remote-control cars, bows and arrows — had invested nearly a decade into a career in finance when he realized what he really wanted to do was create something with his hands.
“One day the office administrator said, ‘You have sawdust on the back of your suit.’ I knew it was time to make a decision,” Smith says, walking past a rack of paddleboards in various stages of construction at his Jarvis Boards workshop on Burleson Road, where sanders whir and the air smells of glue. “I didn’t make anything, and I missed making things.”
Smith, the 34-year-old son of a Houston construction company business owner, studied finance at Trinity University in San Antonio. He moved to Austin in 2005 because he liked the outdoor lifestyle here. Looking for something to balance out the hectic nature of his job, one day he ordered a how-to guide and set to work building a wooden canoe in the garage of his home in Barton Hills. He finished the boat, it floated, and he paddled it around Lady Bird Lake, reveling in early morning sunrises and evening quiet on the water.
But then he needed a new project to tackle. He’d noticed the flood of stand-up paddleboards gliding up and down the lake and decided to make one of those next, without a guidebook or instruction manual this time.
That first board came out heavy and awkward, so he made another. And another. And somewhere along the way, as he began to perfect his craft, people walking past his house on their way to the Barton Creek greenbelt took notice. They stopped to ask questions, and one even asked Smith to build him his own stand-up paddleboard.
Smith, 34, didn’t realize it then, but a company was born.
As orders stacked up, Smith rented a 3,200-square-foot workshop off Burleson Road. He spent time there after work, on weekends and during his lunch hour, when he’d slip away to shape, sand and polish his glossy boards.
In March 2016, a day after he returned from lunch wearing a smattering of sawdust, Smith quit his job in finance and made paddleboards his full-time business. Today, Jarvis Boards (the name comes from Smith’s middle name) employs four full-time workers and ships boards to customers as far away as Canada, Australia, Nicaragua and Singapore. They’ve turned out about 400 sleek, aerodynamic-looking boards, with wood grain that swirls like the foamed milk on a latte.
“We’re not making these en masse. It’s a unique niche,” Smith says. “They are works of art in the sense in that no two pieces are ever going to be the same; each piece of wood has its own grain and pattern, and each one is numbered and signed by the person who makes it. I don’t like to lean on that too heavily, though, because they are very much functional and meant to be used as paddleboards.”
Jarvis Boards are shaped by hand from sheets of paulownia wood, which is similar to bamboo but has a higher strength-to-weight ratio. A spine of darker mahogany bisects the top side of the board, which is laid over a core of recycled foam, and strips of cedar cap each end. It takes a month or so to piece, glue, cut, sand, buff, polish and customize each board, which weighs between 26 and 28 pounds. That’s heavier than some of the high-end carbon fiber boards available today, but not as heavy as many of the plastic models.
Only about 10 percent of the boards, which are sold online, stay in Austin. The rest are shipped around the world. They sell for between $1,700 and $2,300 — up to twice the cost of mass-produced plastic boards, most of which are made in Taiwan. The wooden boards, Smith says, are more environmentally friendly, because they’re built mostly of wood instead of plastic. Even the resin that coats the boards is made of recycled biomaterial.
“A lot of customers just want uniqueness,” Smith says. “Just the stoke of getting new people into the sport is exciting.”
In a back room, a cloud of sawdust rises around Ivan Scott and Rick Bragg, who wear protective masks as they sand a pair of boards.
It might seem odd that a paddleboard company is based in a city with no surf, and no waves other than the ones kicked out by passing boats on the nearby lakes. But the stand-up paddleboard scene in Austin is hot, thanks to a climate that makes paddling possible all year round.
“People assume it’s seasonal, but fall and winter are best because it’s cooler and there’s a lot less people out there,” Smith says.
He still paddleboards several times a week, heading out on Barton Creek or Lady Bird Lake as the sun rises, or in the evening, after the rental shops have closed. It helps him escape the buzz of life and plot what comes next for Jarvis Boards, which continues to grow.
In 2018, he plans to add surfboards to the lineup. He may eventually open dealerships, and he’s considering offering trips so people can share the experience of stand-up paddling. He’s also thinking of selling make-your-own wooden SUP kits.
Today, he says, it’s not just the satisfaction of creating a product from hand that inspires him. It’s getting to know the customers, and hearing the stories behind how they use the boards he makes.
With that, he brushes the sawdust off his shirt.