Rideable Art

Photos by Patrick Wilkes
rideable art

Artisans’ masterpieces are usually displayed in a museum, home or business. But Garrett Villanueva’s masterpieces are displayed on the water.

That’s because he creates standup paddleboards made from wood. Most SUPs are constructed from fiberglass and epoxy.

It takes Villanueva more than 400 hours to make each paddleboard, so he produces a limited number each year in his South Lake Tahoe workshop. He crafts the boards out of sustainable wood, such as old growth redwood from the bottom of a decades’ old sawmill pond. He uses as little fiberglass as possible. The result? A $10,000 work of art.

Unlike conventional paddleboards, which have a fiberglass or carbon fiber foam core, wooden boards are hollow. If you don’t open the board’s vent, it can explode. That’s how Villanueva destroyed his first wooden surfboard. He’d been at the California coast 6,300 feet lower than South Lake Tahoe. Driving home, he heard a boom on top of his car.

“My heart sank,” he recalls. “I was able to repair the board, but it shortened its life. If you pull it out of a cold lake and let it bake in the sun, the same thing can happen.”

garrett villanueva

Wooden boards attract more attention than standard SUPs. Show up on a beach with one of these sleek creations and you’ll draw at least a glance or two. Plus wooden boards sound and feel different in the water. As waves lap against the bottom and sides, the boards “make their own music.”

“They give you a different type of feedback through your feet and they capture the energy of waves differently than a fiberglass foam core or even a carbon fiber foam core or wood laminated foam core does,” Villanueva says. “Wood has an ability to dampen vibrations effectively.”

Although the boards are works of art, they’re also utilitarian. His philosophy? Build boards that are rideable.

“I’m not interested in just building wall art, although I have done that for clients who want a beautiful piece that goes on their wall,” he says. “But even if it’s wall art, I like to make it so that it’s something you could take off the wall and go paddle someday.”

Villanueva had surfed since high school, but it wasn’t until 2005 that a buddy introduced him to standup paddleboarding. Three times paddling and he was hooked.

“Being able to experience the lake or the ocean on a paddleboard is really unique because you have a better perspective to see into the water,” he says. “When I’m surfing I rarely see any sea life unless it actually comes to the surface like a dolphin. It wasn’t until I started paddleboarding that I started to see all kinds of fish and even sharks, as well as more dolphins that weren’t breaching. I started to realize all the other things that were in the water with me, which is both kind of scary and invigorating at the same time.”

Villanueva’s love of woodworking in general evolved into making his own surfboards and then wooden paddleboards. Soon other people asked him to build one for them. In 2008, he started Sawyer Wooden Board Company, named after his now 14-year-old daughter. But building wooden SUPs and repairing other people’s conventional boards isn’t Villanueva’s primary job. A former civil engineer, he works as a landscape architect trail manager for the U.S. Forest Service. So Sawyer and her 10-year-old brother, Jace, sometimes help their busy dad with his paddleboard business. But mostly he builds boards on his own or with friends. He’s content at making just 10–12 wooden boards every year. It allows him to have a more personal connection to his creations.

“The boards are almost like children—I can’t really pick a favorite,” Villanueva says. “They all have individual meaning to me. I do go through this separation issue. Like, oh my gosh, I’m going to have to give this board to somebody eventually—I may never see it again. But I also enjoy the opportunity to be able to create something for someone else that I believe will give them a lot of joy.”

standup paddleboard

Standup Paddleboard Rentals and Lessons

• Kayak Tahoe—Offers beginning, intermediate, and advanced classes. Five locations on South Shore: Timber Cove Marina, Pope Beach, Vikingsholm Emerald Bay, Nevada Beach and Baldwin Beach, 530-544-2011, kayaktahoe.com.

• SUP Tahoe—Rent or buy paddleboards and learn about Tahoe SUP hotspots. 871 Emerald Bay Road, South Lake Tahoe, 530-545-6300, supsouthlaketahoe.com.

• Tahoe City Kayak— Intro to SUP lessons available at Tahoe City and Sand Harbor; also offers paddleboard yoga lessons. 521 North Lake Blvd., Tahoe City, and at Sand Harbor State Park near Incline Village, 530-581-4336, tahoecitykayak.com.

• Tahoe Paddle and Oar—Guided paddleboard tours for all levels at Crystal Bay and Sand Harbor. 8299 North Lake Blvd., Kings Beach, 530-581-3029, tahoepaddle.com.

Ta-Hoe Nalu Paddle Festival

Watch or participate in paddleboard races while enjoying food and exhibitions at the Ta-Hoe Nalu Paddle Festival, Aug. 10–11, at Kings Beach, tahoenalu.com.