Developing A Better Surfboard
The evolution of surfing and surfboard construction are two parts of the same story. While the earliest pioneers of the surfboard industry most likely cruised in a straight line to the beach on their 20-foot, 200lb wooden Olo surfboards in Tahiti around 2,000 B.C., surfing and the boards we ride today can trace their lineage to sometime around 1,200 A.D. when Tahitian settlers arrived in Hawaii.
Today’s various types of surfboards have traded their solid wood construction for modern materials like expanded polyurethane, fiberglass, and epoxy resin to provide surfers with lighter and more durable products that perform better in the water. And the difference these materials have made on our ability to surf better is undeniable. The evolution of surfboard construction has taken us from riding knee-high whitewash straight into the shore to flying high above the lip of a 10-foot wave on high-quality surfboards. With new materials rising to popularity every year, the future of the sport looks brighter than ever.
The first surfboard design to make a true impact on our ability to ride waves is the Alaia. These boards were made from the wood of the Acacia koa tree and rose to popularity under the feet of royalty and commoners across the Hawaiian Islands. Before the Alaia, Hawaiian royalty were the only group of people allowed to surf. That’s why surfing is still called the “sport of kings” to this day.
What may look like a finless plank of wood to the untrained eye is actually a highly-tuned speed machine. In fact, Alaias glide across the face of a wave with more speed than a modern surfboard. Alaias were typically 7-12 feet in length and weighed roughly 100lbs. They relied on the sharp edge of their rails to hold their speedy line on the face of the wave. These thin wood surfboards remained a staple in Hawaiian surfing for hundreds of years. They floated well enough to paddle into unbroken waves and offered enough maneuverability to shred the face of a wave.
When Surfboards Started To Evolve
Surfboard shaping and design remained largely unchanged until the 1920s. Santa Monica lifeguard Tom Blake drilled hundreds of holes in his 15-foot redwood surfboard to reduce the weight and make it easier to maneuver through the lineup. His desire for a lighter and faster board marked the first major evolutionary change in surfboard building in hundreds of years. Experiments with removing mass from his surfboards led Blake to construct hollow chambers in solid wood planks. But Blake changed the history of surfing by developing a surfboard that utilized a wooden skeleton or frame covered by a thin sheet of solid wood.
Polyurethane (PU) Construction
The next significant evolutionary step in board manufacturing materials and techniques came courtesy of Bob Simmons. This former Douglass Aircraft mathematician became obsessed with applying his knowledge of naval ship construction and aviation materials to create the world’s fastest surfboard with fins in the 1950s.
While Simmons toyed with balsa, plywood, and Styrofoam to build his boards, he eventually settled on a lightweight polyurethane core with a wooden stringer running from the nose to tail of the board for additional support. PU blanks go from a rectangular piece of foam to a surfboard shape with the use of abrasive materials and elbow grease or milling with a computer-controlled CNC machine to effectively sculpt the desired shape from the blank. After the shaping portion is complete, multiple layers of fiberglass saturated with polyester resin cover the polyurethane blank. Once the fiberglass dries, the boards receive a finishing detail sanding to achieve their final shape. Simmon’s breakthrough still remains the basis for modern surfboards to this day. This development is why people call Simmons the “father of the modern surfboard.”
Polyurethane construction remained the industry standard for more than 50 years until California-based surfboard blank manufacturer, Clark Foam, unexpectedly closed its doors in 2005, citing difficulty with government regulations over the chemicals used to produce their blanks. With as much as 90% of the American surfboard shaping industry relying exclusively on Clark’s polyurethane blanks for shaping boards, another evolution in surfboard construction was due.
Epoxy (EPS) Construction
The death of Clark Foam sent surfboard shapers across the world scrambling for new suppliers who could offer a suitable if not an innovative replacement for surfboard blanks. The first dominant material to emerge in the construction of surfboards in the 21st century is epoxy. While EPS boards have been around since the 1970s, they didn’t rise to popularity until the early 2000s. Epoxy surfboards are similar in construction to polyurethane boards. They utilize a foam blank that’s either shaped by hand using an electric planer or milled by a CNC machine. The shaped blank is covered in multiple layers of fiberglass, then saturated with epoxy resin to produce a surfboard with flex properties similar to PU boards, but with increased durability and less weight.
Epoxy surfboards are looking like the future material of the industry. Due to the density of the foam, epoxy surfboards and stand up paddle boards weigh less and float much better, making them easier to maneuver in the water — something that’s helpful for surfers of all skill levels. While they can be more expensive due to the cost of the materials, they’re far more durable which more than makes up for the slight increase in price in the long run. For beginners and experienced surfers alike, the future looks bright with epoxy boards on the rise.
The inventor of the bodyboard, Tom Morey, stumbled upon the idea of foam surfboards in the mid-70s. But for the last four decades, it was only really beginners and surf instructors who rode soft top surfboards. They floated well and offered a great level of safety for everyone in the water, but they were very lacking in performance due to the materials used in their construction. However, advancements in surfboard materials and manufacturing technologies have led to yet another evolutionary step in surfboard construction. Today’s high-end soft top surfboards offer the same shape with similar flex patterns and design elements found in their hardboard counterparts — making them an insanely fun addition to anyone’s board rack.
Today’s best soft top surfboards start out as molded EPS foam cores. Most EPS and PU blanks rely upon a single wood stringer for their support and flex. But today’s soft tops utilize two parallel wood stringers wrapped in fiberglass for optimal flexibility and strength.
These boards utilize irradiation cross-linked polyethylene (IXPE) foam on the deck that’s waterproof, has wonderful compression resistance, and doesn’t get slick when wet. The current industry standard for the bottom of soft top surfboards is a layer of high-density polyethylene (HDPE). This highly-durable material has an incredible strength-to-density ratio that’s ideal for surfboards. Finally, all the layers of a soft top surfboard are heat laminated to produce an ultra-durable board. A high-end soft top surfboard will offer the same removable fin options as standard surfboards. This means you can enjoy surfing with the same FCS fins you use on your traditional PU or EPS surfboards.
What’s The Best Surfboard Construction For You?
If you’re looking for your first surfboard, a soft top is still a great choice. And if you’re looking to find an alternative to rigid surfboard construction, today’s soft tops are absolutely worth your time.