Sometimes, you find what you’re meant to be doing when you aren’t exactly looking for it. All puns intended, that’s what happened to Sk8 Shades’ Dave de Witt.
He’s a master craftsman and builder of skateboard ramps who simply set out to repair a broken pair of Aviator sunglasses. Today he turns out hundreds of pairs of his own branded eyewear, ingeniously made from used skateboard decks. Each is handmade in his wooden workshop in the garden of his Pinetown home.
“I had more time than cash,” he says of a quiet period during which he wasn’t either building ramps or furniture. When his attempts to fix his broken glasses failed, he googled the best way to make new wooden frames to accommodate the lenses. The most obvious thing for the job was one of the many used skateboards that he’d accumulated over the years.
De Witt says the first pair of glasses that he created – which he still has in a box in his workshop along with the broken frames from his original Aviators – weren’t exactly successful. He made them the full thickness of the skateboard – 10mm – and glued in the lenses from his original glasses. They were too heavy and cumbersome.
But he persevered to the point where he has engineered all the intricate jigs, shaping templates and custom router bits needed to create designer eyewear that is turning heads in fashion circles. Today, his handcrafted shades find their way to the likes of Germany, Australia, Brazil and America.
If the truth be told, the laid back de Witt is neither fashionista nor inventor. He started out maintaining machinery in a factory, working long hours in the weaving mill of the now defunct Frame Textiles. During that time, he says that he realised two important things – that he had a natural technical ability and that he hated night shift!
His love of skate boarding took him to his next job at the Wavehouse at Gateway which opened in 2001. There he helped repair the skate park as well as run skate park events. He also learnt about flow riders, equipping him for his next move.
He signed up to work aboard the Freedom of the Seas, the first cruise liner to have its own on board flow rider. During the year that he spent on the ocean, he says he did everything from dancing in stage shows to organizing doge ball and ping pong tournaments.
When he found himself back on dry land, he took to building ramps for skate parks. An impulsive decision to submit a quote to build a 250 sq/m skate bowl for Quicksilver in Jeffrey’s Bay saw him heading to the surfing mecca in his car accompanied by “two friends and a drill.”
An upfront cash payment enabled him to both fund his stay and buy tools.
What de Witt did discover, though, was that the South African skateboarding market was not big enough to make a living out of what he enjoyed most. To plug the gaps, he found himself making furniture and built-in cupboards – hard work with the added stress of long waits between jobs.
It was one of these lulls that started him on the road to designing eyewear.
After a final stint building ramps for Red Bull and for a friend in Pretoria, he returned to the puzzle of creating the perfect frame. “I took the cash and told everyone to leave me alone for two months while I figured out how to make sunglasses.”
Now it was a case of “sitting down and staring at things for a day or two.” His advice to anyone in a similar quandary is to never be afraid to experiment. “There was a lot of trial and error. There were a lot of things I had to figure out. I tried to keep it simple and not to over think things,” he says.
His objective was not just to arrive at a great design but to create a quality product. He explains that often people see something handmade as an excuse for imperfection. He was determined that everything would be “exact”.
He finally turned out what he believed was his first pair of successful, saleable glasses in June 2012 and put them on Facebook a month later. The response was good.
Now, he faced the dilemma of how to price his glasses. Again, he went on line, comparing his possible prices with those of similar products. “I settled on a price even if it was not what I really wanted to get. I had to go in low,” he explains.
He then went on to selling at the I Heart Market and was euphoric when he made his first sale to a Chinese tourist. “That was my big test. All my friends and family were saying that my glasses were so rad – but that’s their job. You need to go out to people that you don’t know. A stranger doesn’t mind hurting your feelings. You can take what you want form it.”
He took a great deal and continued improving. He began selling what were now called his Sk8 Shades online.
He says everything “snowballed” from there. “I expected to make a few a month and fill in the gaps making cupboards. But before I knew it, I was doing this full time.”
During his early days, de Witt sourced regular UV 400 tinted lenses from optometrists. However, as he ramped up production, he began souring them via the internet. He now buys his lenses from Wales. These are not only optically correct but also polarised, scratch resistant and shock absorbent.
He also needed a reliable source of used decks. The most obvious thing to do was to head off to the Durban beachfront. Since then, de Witt has continued to source boards from youngsters and has developed a points system that allows skaters to accumulate points to earn either a new deck or a pair of glasses.
Although the boards are used and abused and come with cracks and hardly any tails, his choice of boards for up cycling is specific – they have to be professional quality boards made from the likes of Canadian Red Maple rather than discount store versions made from cheaper woods.
De Witt can make four pairs of glasses from a single board if it is in one piece and two from a board that has been broken in half.
After removing what he describes as the “sticky sandpaper” or grip tape, he cuts off the noses and tails of the boards and then slices the middle section into four. The segments are cross-cut, ripped, planed, sanded, laminated, squared, veneered, sanded again and sized to ready them to be laminated into a curve.
In effect, the wood is rebuilt layer by layer to create a strong, lightweight and comfortable frame. Each has more than 250 laminated glue joints.
One by one, de Witt patiently clamps and moulds each frame. 24 hours later, he painstakingly shapes, edges and grooves them. The temples are shaped from the tails and noses to take advantage of the original boards’ readymade curves. They also retain some of the original boards’ graphics, giving each frame a distinctive, yet unique look.
At present, De Witt sells on line, directly from his workshop and from the Vans shop at Gateway. He also custom makes glasses.