School lets out for the summer today in Cherry Hill and middle school teacher Luke Alvarez will make the usual 50-mile trek to his Ocean County shore home.
But unlike a lot of teachers, he'll take almost no break. Instead, he'll be busy tonight, hunched over in his home shop with a series of tools he'll use to shape and sand, shape and sand, over and over until he gets it just right.
It's the zen of making a surfboard. And he's a master of the craft after four decades.
"I know it sounds cliché, but I do it because it's a ton of fun," said Alvarez.
Alvarez , 57, owns his own custom-made surfboard company, Generic Brand Surfboards, which he operates in two small shacks behind his home in Tuckerton Beach.
He shapes, glasses and sells his boards to locals and referrals, or anyone who is looking for an affordable and customized surfboard ready for paddling along the East Coast, or wherever the surfer prefers to "rip."
Alvarez's began making surfboards in 1971 in Red Bank, Monmouth County, where he experienced firsthand the "long-board to short-board revolution."
During this period from roughly the late '60s to early '70s, both pro and amateur surfers were looking toward riding shorter boards. Alvarez said this new design of surfboards brought along new techniques of surfing -- and more surfers.
At the time, he was just a "grom" or "young, inexperienced surfer," and he couldn't afford to buy a new surfboard.
Instead, Alvarez and his friends would go around town looking for longboards that had been left out for trash collection. They would then take the finished board and try to shorten it by cutting into the fiberglass.
"The brilliant teenagers we were didn't realize that all that fiberglass would become airborne," said Alvarez. "Our arms would itch for days, but once we got down to that blank that was underneath, we had a lot of material to work with."
This allowed the amateur shaper to get to the surfboard blank, allowing him to shape the long board into a short board by using simple tools he had from his grandfather's body shop.
Alvarez would buy fin boxes for the surfboards from a local boating supply store and, when he had enough money saved up from his paper route, fins from a surf shop in Monmouth Beach.
He was just getting his toes wet. Over the years, he has shaped hundreds of boards, and his self-taught skill has given him a "good eye for shaping."
Thinking this would be as far as he would go in terms of teaching, Alvarez obtained a bachelor's degree in business administration in 1980 and went on to work in the consumer packaging business, a field that relocated him several times in states nowhere near a coast.
However, the teaching gene runs in his family and he went back to earn a bachelor's degree in teacher education from Richard Stockton College, New Jersey, in 2005. He's been teaching full-time in Cherry Hill for three years.
"Now, I get to work with kids, and kids are way more fun than adults," said Alvarez.
Since Alvarez has summers off, it gives him more time for surfing and shaping boards. During the summer, he also teaches children how to ride the waves with a family-friendly surf camp, Aloha Surf Camps LBI in Beach Haven, which he started eight years ago.
"These kids get so pumped [to surf]," said Alvarez. "They're like baby turtles, ready for the water."
Alvarez not only has taught locals how to surf, but he has also immersed his three children in the sport. Having lived in a small bungalow miles from the beach for 11 years, Alvarez was able to teach them all to surf by age four.
"Their mother is an ER nurse so I ended up with the kids all day," said Alvarez, who is divorced. "I'd say, 'Let's go to the beach!' and they didn't have a choice."
Now grown, his son, Tyler, and daughter Samantha are both instructors at the surf camp, and Tyler is also a shaper at Generic Brand Surfboards. His eldest daughter, Jacquelyn, lives in Colorado and is a guest instructor when she visits.
Although he has help from his children, Alvarez does a majority of the work, making the customized boards right in his backyard.
He uses two shacks, one for sanding and the other for glassing the boards. In the "shape shack," he sands surfboard blanks to the specs of the customer, a job that requires practice so as to not sand too much of the board away or puncture holes in the blank.
Sanding takes about two and a half hours. Next is the glassing process, which takes anywhere from six to seven days and requires working in a moisture- and dust-free shack.
He said this process is more labor-intensive because one mistake could ruin the board, and resin, which is used to laminate the cloth of the surfboard, can get pricey.
During this time, the artwork for the board is done. Alvarez creates some artwork by hand, but he orders other specific graphics requested by customers from Headline Graphics in Cardiff, California. They provide high-quality fabrics with graphics that can be applied during the glassing process.
Frank Kowelowski, a Tuckerton Beach volunteer firefighter, said that Alvarez provides quality work and a customized board that you can't get anywhere. He is currently waiting for a longboard with an emblem of the Maltese cross, a symbol of the fire company. Kowelowski lost a lot in Hurricane Sandy, so having a customized board with symbolic meaning is important to him.
"This board will represent everything my family and I have gone through," said Kowelowski.
Alvarez said that the "Jersey surf-scene" has grown, and that it can change anyone's life, whether they are young or old, amateur or pro.
That is why his company's message is affordability and being "generic" instead of having a name-brand board with a price tag to match.
His shortboards start at $299, and longboards start at $499. Both include thruster fin set up and a matte finish. A name-brand surfboard can run anywhere from $1250 to $1800.
Alvarez doesn't discredit the high-end boards, but he knows the sport can get expensive. He tries to help anyone who wants to learn to surf, just so they can start to get experience.
Traci Tambussi, a Cherry Hill resident, has gotten both of her children custom boards from Alvarez. Both of her children had Alvarez as a teacher, and he even gave an old board to Tambussi's son, Shane.
"He's just so kind and a great teacher, too," said Tambussi. "The children adore him."
And because he wants others to fully experience surfing, he makes his boards affordable, which resonates with the company's message; the focus on affordability and instead of name brand, generic and customized.