A surfboard is used in the sport of surfing. A typical surfboard is about 18-24 inches (46-61 cm) wide, 72-120 inches (183-305 cm) long, and several inches thick. It has a lightweight, buoyant core covered with a hard shell. In use, the surfer lays face down on the surfboard and paddles out into the ocean to the point where waves are beginning to rise. The surfer turns the board towards shore, paddles rapidly to match the speed of an incoming wave, then quickly stands up and balances on the board as it is propelled by the face of the breaking wave. One variation of the surfboard is the sail-board, which includes a short mast and sail used for wind surfing. Another variation is the body board, which is shorter than a surf-board and is ridden in the prone position.
The surfboard, and the sport of surfing, are believed to have originated in Polynesia as early as A.D. 400. The Polynesians brought the sport with them when they settled in Hawaii. Hawaiian surfboards were made of wood from various trees on the islands. They were carved and shaped by hand, then stained and finished using the natural juices and oils of plants. The largest boards, called 'olos, were 144-240 inches (3.6-6 m) long and weighed nearly 200 pounds (91 kg). Experimentation with wooden Hawaiian surfboards during the 1920s and 1930s resulted in hollow board designs and the use of redwood and balsa laminates to reduce the weight.
The first fiberglass surfboard was built in 1946. It consisted of two hollow, molded halves with a redwood stiffener, or stringer, running down the center. In 1949, Bob Simmons built the first board with a buoyant, styrofoam core sandwiched between two thin, plywood veneers and sealed with resin.
The birth of the modern surfboard came in 1958 when Hobie Alter started producing boards with polyurethane foam cores. Later, he went on to develop fiberglassing techniques using polyester resins to form the outer shell. Today, almost every surfboard uses this construction.
The typical surfboard has a rigid polyurethane foam core with an outer shell of fiberglass cloth and polyester resins. If a stringer is used in the design, it is usually made of wood such as redwood, basswood, or spruce. Colored fiberglass stringers can also be used. The fin, or skeg, is made of wood or laminated layers of fiberglass and resin.
The history of surfboard design has been one of constant experimentation. Except for a period in the 1960s when there was an effort to market standardized, mass-produced boards, most surfboards have been individually designed and hand crafted by talented surfboard builders. Over the last four decades, boards have gotten shorter, then longer, then shorter again. One fm was followed by two fins, then three fins, as builders tried different designs to improve the board's ability to perform maneuvers. Some board builders used channels cut lengthwise along the bottom to improve stability.
Today, surfboard builders continue to experiment with board design as surfers search
Most surfboards are built one at a time in small surfboard shops. Although techniques and materials vary from one surfboard builder to another, the following is a typical process.
A surfboard is visually inspected several times during the manufacturing process. The blank is inspected for voids and other defects after it comes out of the mold. The shaping step, which is critical to the appearance and performance of the board, takes place in a well-illuminated area to allow the builder to spot any imperfections. The board is given a final inspection after the sanding and finishing steps to ensure it meets the craft standards of the builder.
Some of the materials and processes used in building a surfboard are hazardous. Surf-board builders must use the proper safety equipment and have an understanding of the dangers involved. The polyurethane chemicals used to make the foam core are toxic and flammable. This process requires explosion-proof fume removal equipment and careful control of the room temperature and humidity. The shaping process produces fine foam dust which can be harmful if inhaled. A dust mask is required for the person performing this task. Finally, the laminating resin gives off poisonous fumes which require the use of an appropriate respirator for the person doing the glassing.
Experimentation with surfboard design, materials, and construction techniques has produced some new approaches to surfboard manufacturing. As with anything new, there are advantages and disadvantages to each approach.
In the area of surfboard design, the use of computers—especially those known as computer aided design, or CAD, systems—has simplified the design process. With CAD, the board builder can create a three-dimensional picture of a new board design, change dimensions and contours, then print out a finished drawing and contour templates. This saves considerable time over the traditional method of building and trying each new design, but many builders still rely on their eyes and hands to judge the look and feel of a new board.
In the area of materials, some builders have tried boards built with a styrofoam core instead of polyurethane and an epoxy resin instead of polyester. The advantages of this combination are lighter weight, greater strength, and better impact resistance. The epoxy resin also produces less toxic fumes. The disadvantages include greater complexity to the resin preparation process, longer time to manufacture, and significantly greater cost. A variation of this approach uses graphite fiber cloth for reinforcement rather than glass fiber (fiberglass). This adds even more cost and produces boards in only one color—black.
New approaches to surfboard construction include a computer-numerical-controlled (CNC) shaping machine that can shape and sand a blank in about 25 minutes instead of the several hours required for hand shaping. The disadvantage is that the machine is very expensive and must be reprogrammed every time a new design is required. Another approach uses an existing surfboard as a mold pattern, then produces a duplicate shell which is filled with foam. Total time from start to finish is about 4.5 hours. Once again, however, the machine is very expensive and cannot produce new designs without an existing board to use as a pattern.
For the foreseeable future, surfers are expected to continue to demand custombuilt boards at reasonable prices. The majority of this demand will be met by the hundreds of small surfboard crafters who build boards one at a time by hand.
Kinstle, James. Surfboard Design and Construction. Natural High Express Publishing Company, 1975.
Lueras, Leonard. Surfing: The Ultimate Pleasure. Workman Publishing, 1984.
Shaw, Stephen M. Surfboard. Transmedia, 1983.
Wardlaw, Lee. Cowabunga!: The Complete Book of Surfing. Avon Books, 1991.
Young, Nat. The History of Surfing. Palm Beach Press, 1983.
Krakauer, Jon. "Their Turf Is the Surf." Smithsonian Magazine, June 1989, pp. 106-19.
— Chris Cavette