Most evenings, Garrett Villanueva’s garage lights are glowing. The buzzing of power tools, handsaws and chisels slips through the quiet Glenwood neighborhood. As Villanueva works, a sleek form emerges.
Villanueva, an engineer for the U.S. Forest Service, produces hollow wooden stand-up paddleboards in his spare time under his company name, Sawyer Wooden Board Co. His finely tuned designs are unique and are more like artwork than recreational gear.
“I feel like every board has a personality or maybe a soul,” Villanueva said Thursday night in his shop. “People can tell they’re very different when they see them.”
Through every cut, Villanueva is deftly accurate. He measures down to hundredths of an inch and often hand chisels or planes each joint. This is part of the thrill, he said.
“I like the precision of it,” Villanueva said. “I like focusing on doing everything to the highest quality I can, and then seeing that evolve into the final board.”
But the tediousness and exactness of the work comes with a heavy price tag. Villanueva has only made 16 boards in five years. The boards cost thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours to make. The retail price reflects that, he said.
“I try to build my boards to meet my customers needs,” Villanueva said. “If I build a 14-foot board, it would be pretty easy to get in the $18,000 range. I can build them for less with sacrifices in materials.”
Villanueva focuses on using sustainably harvested or reclaimed wood. The varieties range from redwood and purple heart to black walnut and maple. Each board often has up to four different types of wood, some for decorative detail, others for planking and strength. The construction is far from the typical stand-up paddleboard, Villanueva said.
“I think it’s incredible artwork. They’re beautiful,” South Tahoe Stand-up Paddle owner Chris Brackett said. “There’s so much love that goes into them.”
Villanueva spent a lot of time developing the design using computer imaging. Once he decides on a length and shape, he builds the top and bottom decks. The rails or sides of the boards are constructed on the bottom deck, one strip of wood at a time. For added durability and sealing, he laminates the entire inside and outside of the board with fiberglass.
“It’s one of the things that make these really high-quality boards, taking those extra steps to make them perfect,” he said.
Because of the careful construction, the boards are extremely durable, Villanueva added.
“These boards just get better with age as long as you take care of them,” he said. “It’s an heirloom type of item that I hope will be around in 100 years in people’s families.”
As with any artist, there are certain limitations that make unique pieces so valuable.
“I definitely think I have a limited amount of boards I can build in a lifetime,” Villanueva said.
On the water, Villanueva’s wooden boards shine. The nose cuts sharply through surface chop as the hull glides along. Some of his hollow wooden designs are particularly suited to surfing the wake of the Tahoe Queen, but each is unique in its own way, Villanueva said.
“They’re like a giant musical instrument on the water,” he said. “They have their own personality, their behavior and their own resonance with the natural environment.”