At Outerknown, we were born to explore the unexplored, to celebrate the extraordinary in the every day, and to inspire adventure, no matter how big or small. This series shares stories from individuals based in the greater communities of our retail shop locations who embody our same endless passion for life and nature. Their work inspires our culture here at Outerknown, and we're excited to share it with you.
Outerknown is proud to have such strong roots in New England with partners at Project Vermont, Grain Surfboards and our new OK Boston shop, who share our values and passions for both putting people first and leaving our planet better than we found it.
When opening our Boston shop, we knew we had to leave a special back room where the incredibly talented Grain Surfboards could re-create their barn in York, Maine, to further share their story and bring some of that New England surf community to Newbury Street. We even got to display a few of their epic wooden boards inside our shop! Also inspired by their work, Lise Anne and the Project Vermont team collaborated with Grain to construct custom surfboard bags from upcycled Outerknown clothing scraps.
We had a chance to chat with the three LaVecchia Brothers behind Grain to learn more about their journey.
Where are you guys from, and where did you grow up?
Mike: We were born and raised in suburban NJ, just outside of NYC, but my father introduced all of us kids to New England at a young age, and I knew that was where I was headed. We’d spent summers playing in the ocean, hiking, canoeing rivers and xc skiing (and eventually snowboarding) in the Green Mountains. As soon I was old enough, I headed north. All my brothers, two of our sisters and our parents eventually would all call Vermont home.
Vince: We lived there through college, I came home during the summers and lived in the same room as Nick through college to work as caddies and enjoy summers around South Orange and the Jersey Shore. We all spent a ton of time in Vermont as kids and eventually, we migrated to Vermont during and after college as well as my parents having moved there full time.
What was it like growing up with 7 siblings?
Mike: Being one of seven kids meant there was rarely quiet time. My older brother taught me a love of classic rock and riding dirt bikes, while my younger brothers and I all shared common interests including skateboarding, BMX and eventually snowboarding. I’m not sure how my parents survived (my mom would say it was the whiskey, haha), but my mom would take care of us during the week, getting us to school each day and keeping us all busy and occupied in the summer months. Weekends were my dad's time, and he’d take us everywhere, from local trips to farms to pick fresh fruits and vegetables, to canoeing some of the famed rivers in Maine. He’d load us all up in the suburban family, throw in a few friends to keep us happy and would drive to Vermont for a xc ski weekend. Somehow, he’d manage all of us, our gear, food, etc and do all of the driving on his own. Our love for food and a good laugh came from my mom, our love for the outdoors came from our dad.
Vince: Well, we shared one bathroom connected to three small bedrooms. Nick and I shared a room and slept in the same beds for 20+ years. But we grew up with three sisters also, so privacy was not available, and everyone knew what everyone was doing or not doing at all times. We had every meal, every day together with Mom and Dad and all seven of us… until my older brother John and sister Emma moved out to start their lives in Boston and Vermont. Mike, Nick and I generally hung out together with a group of friends, despite the difference in our ages. We all got along; my friends were Mike’s friends. Nick’s friends were my friends. And all of us still count those people as our best and longest friends in life.
Nick: Honestly, it was the best. I'm the youngest of 7 so naturally I just picked up the scraps and followed along on the path my brothers were headed. Skateboarding, snowboarding and surfing.
You all seem to be very creative–photography, design, shaping, etc. Was that a result of your upbringing or avenues you pursued as you got older?
Vince: Somehow every one of the seven of us became independent business owners or entrepreneurs and avoided my father’s law career and lifelong partnership at a firm as a direction. I think through skateboarding, surfing and snowboarding, we began to appreciate the value of art and creativity. I certainly wasn’t taught this in Catholic school. We learned it from our community and began to become attracted to it. My direction took me from snowboarding to marketing and onto digital creativity and design. Eventually, the internet became the catalyst for the explosion of creativity, and marketing was the vehicle I believed I could influence our digital agency Instrument. I am a copywriter and writing was my creative contribution to Instrument over the years… in addition to running the operation and being the “people person”. I feel like we were encouraged and fortunate enough to follow some crazy dreams. Become a photographer? Build wooden surfboards? Start a digital agency? At the time, these were not conservative or conventional ideas for kids who grew up in NJ. But we broke from this through the love of board sports and the support of our parents and friends.
Mike: Our dad was a lawyer and absolutely loved his profession. But we saw how hard he worked and none of us wanted that! I think each of us discovered our passions early on and knew from a young age that we wanted to do what we loved. Happiness was always a priority.
Nick: I think the creativity aspect comes from my parents always pushing us and supporting us to do what makes us happy.
It's really cool to see each of your talents working together. Can you tell us about how Grain Surfboards was created?
Nick: Grain was conceived from my brother Mike. At the time he was working with a local boat builder here in Southern Maine, building small wooden boats. One day after work we were going for a surf, I remember him saying "why am I surfing this piece of dead foam when I spend all day building these beautiful small wooden boats". From that moment on, the idea of Grain was born, and grew from the love of working with his hands and locally sourced northern White Cedar. From the creative and design side, my brother Vin and I quickly ran with the idea, the logo and the website.
Mike: Grain was born in a boatyard. I’ve been playing around in and on boats since I was little and eventually decided to pursue it more seriously. Over the course of 20 years, I worked as a boat builder, sailmaker, captain and eventually helped oversee the building of an 88’ wooden schooner. It was during that project that I got hooked on surfing. We were using Maine cedar for some hatch covers and I fell in love with the smell and look of the wood. It was right then that the idea of building my own board from wood came to be. Later that year, having grown tired of driving to Maine to surf, my brother Nick and I decided it was time to head to the coast. Before too long, we were living at the beach, and I was building my first board. The rest is history.
Vince: Mike was drawn to wooden boats and boat building for years. He started a business sailing wooden boats in Vermont and eventually helped build a massive traditional wooden boat for the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. After that, he got pretty into surfing and eventually he felt like he could combine the two loves and tried building their own boards in his garage in Maine, near the coast. It worked, and with the support of friends (working with your friends is “the way”), he was able to commercialize the production of wooden boards to grow the business to be real.
“To be honest, without the community of people who love Mike and love Grain Surfboards, I’m not sure it would exist. It’s about the love of people and the love of a craft and a feeling. It’s not just a product. People want to know what it feels to be part of Grain.” – Vince
Most people probably wouldn’t think of New England first when they think of surfing. What is the surfing community like there?
Mike: Most locals like to downplay the surfing here in Maine. Surfing in NH is much better! But in all honesty, surfing in New England is great, especially in the colder months when hurricanes march up the coast (and stay offshore hopefully) and nor-easters spin offshore. Southern California may be the epicenter of the surf industry, but there’s a beautiful budding community of surfers, shapers, fin makers, DIY types and shop owners here. It’s a very friendly and supportive scene for sure.
"It's the most hardcore, dedicated group of surfers who truly love the feeling, and will go out regardless of the conditions. There are many tourists to Maine and surfers from Canada, Mass, etc., but the locals are out every single day on any wave. They know each other and understand what that means and takes in terms of commitment." – Vince
Nick: The surf community here is exactly that, a community. Centered around having fun in the ocean. Thankfully it has always been far removed from the mainstream surf industry in CA, which I like to think is for the best.
Your surfboards are beautiful, can you tell us about the process of creating one of your unique boards?
Mike: Our boards are designed and built by hand from the ground up. Wood comes in the door in the form of rough planks. We cut and mill each piece of wood, then build, shape, sand, glass, sand again and polish by hand in our shop before they go out the front door ready for wax. By building our boards hollow and milling precise planks, rails strips and internal frames, we dramatically cut down on waste. Each piece we add to the board stays in the board vs. a chambered board for example where up to 70% of the insides of the board gets milled away and turned to dust and the final product is nearly as light as a foam board but much more durable.
Nick: Very simply, the Grain process starts with raw planks of Northern White Cedar, and internal skeleton frame which is designed in CAD and cut on our CNC here. From there the pieces of wood come together with the help of some glue and lots of clamps. Shaping of the hollow board begins after the top and bottom planks are glued up and pressed onto the rocker table, encapsulating the frame of the board. From there, it's only traditional hand tools and a bit of time before the board starts taking shape and comes alive. The final steps of finish sanding, hardware and glassing are all that are left.
What excites you most about building surfboards?
Mike: 18 years in and each board we start is still as exciting as the first. Every set of planks is unique, each piece of wood bends differently and has different properties. This makes each board a new experience.
Most surfboards today are made from some form of epoxy or polyurethane foam, what made you guys want to construct your surfboards from wood?
Mike: Our backgrounds are in wood, and when we first started to think about building boards, wood was our only choice. Shaping a surfboard from foam felt overwhelming to me, reducing something to a shape you have in your mind. Also, living in an apartment at the time with zero access to a shop space, the idea of filling any space with foam dust was not an option. So we approached building boards from an additive vs. a subtractive mindset. Wood also forgives you when something goes wrong. It has memory and history and that makes each board unique and exciting to build.
“Working in wood also allows us to work in a cleaner healthier environment. The tools we use, after the milling is done, are age-old hand tools from simple clamps to block planes, chisels and spokeshaves. This means we can listen to music while we work, we can talk with each and share stories.”
It allows us to have a pretty social and casual work environment while still working efficiently. As we develop new processes, we’re also always thinking about home builders, so we’re always trying to embrace simpler more analog ways of doing things.
Vince: Grain believes they can do things better, and they’ve innovated new ways to deliver beautiful functional surfboards using completely sustainable materials and processes. This is their dedicated mission. Only in the past 10-15 years has the surf industry come to realize this is important, specifically based on the fact that surfing relies on a healthy nature to enjoy clean water and good waves.
Nick: Wood is alive and livelier in the water. And before the advent of plastic and foam, all boards were made from wood.
We’re so stoked to have a few of your boards on display at the Outerknown Boston shop and to share Lise Anne’s Project Vermont x Outerknown x Grain Surfboard bags! How did you guys first get connected with Outerknown?
Mike: We’ve been fans of Outerknown since the beginning, and we love your commitment to sustainability. My brother Nick has been fortunate to do some photography with the brand over the years, so I’m sure we were introduced through him. We built a new barn last fall to use as a warehouse and showroom for our boards and goods and Nick shared some images of the space. I think that was the official start of our relationship. Realizing our shared connection with Vermont solidified things. We’re thrilled to be working alongside such a dedicated crew of people who share so many of same core values.
Nick: I connected with John years back in 2010 when he was working with Quiksilver women's. He reached out about some imagery to accompany a campaign he was working on. Since then, we've kept in touch and always kept the creative conversation going from West to East.
Any favorite Outerknown pieces you just can’t live without?
Vince: I need the Blanket Shirt! I’ve been a fan of Kelly’s work in this regard since before Outerknown was launched. It’s exciting to see the dedication of the company to its ideals that cross over with Grain.
Nick: Blanket Shirts no doubt. Perfect for so many days in Maine.
Mike: Being here in New England, it’s safe to say we’re drawn to flannels and hoodies! The Ok Blanket Shirt is a shop favorite for sure.
Your mission statement says, “To design and build surfboards that have more impact on your surfing and less impact on the environment.” We LOVE that! How do you work to achieve this?
Nick: We are constantly tinkering, talking and researching ways to make our process and boards less impactful on the environment. It will forever be an ongoing evolution of the brand to be better.
Mike: Wood doesn’t dent or ding like foam. While they can be damaged (and some damage can be harder to fix than foam), wood has memory and can handle stresses of surfing much better than foam. Clean the wax off one of our boards after 5 years or 10 years and they look almost as good as new. Even if a board may be retired, we don’t believe it will ever see the landfill. That’s what we mean about more impact on you and less impact on the environment.
“Surfing a hand-made wood board is like no other. Surfing a board you built with your own hands can be life changing. We also like to think of our boards as lifetime boards.”
In addition to using wood for your surfboards, what other sustainability practices are important to you?
Mike: Sustainability is at our core. We’re dedicated to using local sustainably managed wood from right here in Maine. In fact, we’ve worked closely with the same family-owned mill in Northern Maine since day one, so we’re intimately attached to where our material comes from. We also have a ‘Waste No Waste’ policy, which means each offcut from our milling process gets held aside and used to make other smaller and smaller parts. Long skinny strips with no other purpose get burned to heat our shop. Wood shavings from our dust collector gets sent to local farms for animal bedding.
A few years back, we created our new GreenRail construction process which utilizes 100% recycled PET plastic for rails of the board. This process pulls plastic from the waste stream and turns it into a useable material. The process allows us to build our boards more efficiently which gives us the ability to price our boards at a more competitive price.
“Sustainability is something we’re always thinking about, right down to the glassing process where we use a zero VOC, bio-based epoxy resin to glass our boards. Makes our shop more pleasant to work in and safer for our crew.”
Something unique that you guys do at Grain is your workshops. What inspired you guys to host workshops?
Mike: When we started building boards, not a lot of information was available. We spent several years scratching our heads, looking all the way back to the 30’s and 40’s at what Tom Blake was doing, then also checking out the few modern wood builders that came before us. We wanted to take all that we learned, combine it with our own experiences and come up with our own method that allowed us to work within our knowledge base and with the materials that were available to us locally. Once we felt comfortable with the building process we developed, we knew we wanted to share it.
“If wooden surfboards were good for the world, why not share it with everyone?”
So, we considered ourselves wood surfboard evangelicals since day one! Not only do we share our process with students in our multi-day workshops, but we offer a wide range of products for homebuilders from downloadable plans to full-on surfboard kits that include all of the materials you need to build a board at home.
Nick: First and foremost, we wanted to share the process of creating something from nothing, with your hands. Human interactions and relationships have become a huge part of the class experience. The finished beautiful wooden surfboard at the end of the week is just a bonus!
What other ways do you try to engage with your community?
Mike: Community has always been super important to us. Growing up in a family of nine, then being part of the early days of snowboarding while working at Burton, I quickly appreciated and thrived on the energy that comes when you gather a group of like-minded people. Once a year we hold an event at our shop called Surf Re-Evolution (held this year on September 16th at Grain Surfboards and Long Sands Beach), which is a gathering of surfers and shapers, product developers, thinkers and tinkerers, artists, speakers, musicians and foodies and we celebrate all the amazing things happening around the surf industry. It’s an inspiring moment when we all get to gather together and share new ways of working together to leave things a bit better than we found them. We’re also hosting a series of mini events all year long here in our shop, with speakers and historians, film makers, artists, biologists and more.
Are there any new projects on the horizon for you?
Mike: We’re working hard to dial in our board design process and make it so we can create new shapes a bit easier. We’re excited to dial in those efficiencies and see where it leads. We’re also looking at new opportunities to get more people working with their hands, specifically in schools. So we’re beginning to develop some new programs where we can pull in teachers and train them up to share the experiences with their students. Always something good on the horizon to keep us focused and moving forward.
Vince: I’ll just say that my involvement in Grain is really to see its horizon grow indefinitely. The project is to make sure the company is run and grows sustainably so it can continue to pursue its mission and continue to innovate as long as they’re able.
If you find yourself in Boston, pop into our shop to see the newest Community Collaborations featuring Grain Surfboards!