Surfboards Moving Back To Their Roots
These days conventional surfboards are made of a combination of foam and fibreglass, offering a lightweight, flexible body that’s designed to make it easier to ride waves and manoeuvre through the surf. But it wasn’t always the case.
The very first boards were made entirely of wood and, while we have come a long way since then, a growing number of surfers are moving towards board designs that hark back to these roots. According to a report from Fairfax Media this is a “quiet revolution happening in the surfboard industry”.
“Although the industry is dominated by foam surfboards, cutting edge surfboard shapers are increasingly making boards from wood,” Alexandra Cain writes, predicting a steady shift to more wooden boards as both small and large board builders embrace the trend.
“While it’s unlikely wooden boards will ever take the place of foam boards, expect to see an increasing number in the line-up in the future,” she says.
In light of the growing interest in wooden boards and surfboard construction in general, we thought it would be interesting to take a look at the evolution of surfboards. From the earliest designs in ancient Polynesia through to the the iconic boards of the 50s, 60s and 70s, right up to modern designs, here is a look at how far surfboards have come and where they are heading next.
On This Page
- Surfboards in ancient Hawaii
- Development of modern surfboards
- Refining surfboard designs
- Surfboard fashion and innovations
- New wooden surfboards
Surfboards in ancient Hawaii
While surfing and surfboards have been a traditional part of many pacific and island cultures around the world, surfboards as we know them today were originally inspired by the wooden versions used in ancient Hawaii. For the purpose of this article, that’s where we have focused, but it is worth looking at the history of surfboards in other parts of the world if you are interested – they have, after all, been used for thousands of years.
When it comes to traditional, ancient Hawaiian surfboards, wood from the Wili Wili (Hawaiian balsa), the Ula (bread-fruit) and the Koa (hawaiian mahogany) trees was shaped to create the traditional, powerful boards that are a part of this culture. Surf website Club of the Waves explains that surfing then was not just recreational, but also “a training exercise for Hawaiian chiefs and a means of conflict resolution”.
“Surfing was a deeply spiritual affair, from the art of riding waves itself, to praying for good surf, to rituals surrounding building a surfboard,” it says.
Boards at the time ranged from 10 to 16 feet long based on social class, with shorter boards for commoners and longer boards for nobles and chiefs.
The solid wood construction of these boards made them incredibly heavy and also very powerful. People who could master the use of a surfboard were treated with respect as a result, and the longer the board the more respect you would get (for good reason!).
When settlers from Europe and America came to the region, they eventually tried out surfing and started adapting the design for their own preferences. And that is where things started to change for both surfboards and surfing.
Development of modern surfboards
The shorter, lighter weight surfboard designs we have come to know were gradually developed throughout the 20th century and further refined through the start of the 21st century.
Settlers in Hawaii began adapting surfboards, first shortening them. Club of the Waves says this change came about at the hands of a settler named George Freeth.
“…Through his surfing [Freeth] experimented with board design, and cut his 16 foot Hawaiian board in half,” it says. This cut the size of the board down to around 6 to 10 foot long, much closer to what we know today.
“George took his shorter board to California and became the first professional surfer, promoting a railway company in Los Angeles, California.”
Around the same time, another surfer – Tom Blake – was developing a hollow surfboard that created more buoyancy and manoeuvrability in the surf. According to a report on the 360 Guide website, this change took surfboards from weights of 35kg-91kg down to around 20kg and helped his design become the first commercial surfboard model on the market.
Blake then went on to introduce fins in 1935, to help prevent surfboards from sliding sideways in the waves. At the time, Blake made the following observations:
“When I first paddled out the board felt like it was much easier to keep in a straight line, although I thought I might be imagining it. My first wave revealed the truth. Never before had I experienced such control and stability. There was much to work out, but the seed had been sown.”
A number of other surfers and designers continued to develop the shape and size of surfboards, including Bob Simmons (inventor of the rocker and “father of the modern surfboard”), George Greenough (modern single fin design) and Pat O’Neill (the surfboard leash). All of these changes happened throughout the 20th century and have helped shape the surfboards we know and use today.
Refining surfboard designs
Design refinements have happened alongside additions such as fins, curves and leashes, but it wasn’t until the 1940s that significant changes in materials occurred. This was when fibreglass was added to the mix, giving designers a way to create even more lightweight, streamlined surfboards.
Initially these boards had a core of lightweight wood, such as balsa or plywood, coated in fibreglass. The result was lighter boards that offered the same shape, while adding to manoeuvrability and flexibility in the water.
After that, foam was introduced as an alternative to wood. The combination of foam and fibreglass offered a lighterweight design, while maintaining the shape and integrity of the boards. It also made it easier to construct and produce quality boards at a faster pace than when wood was used as the core.
Fibreglass and foam have since become the foundations of almost all boards, with variations focused on size, fins, shapes and other external elements.
Surfboard fashion and innovation
As well as refinements in the size, shape and construction of surfboards, there have been changes in aesthetics. Around the 70s – when surfing and surf culture experienced a boom – surfboard decoration also grew in popularity.
Adding engravings, paintings or even block colours to a board was a way to help distinguish one from another, as well as a way to include personal expression in the surfing experience.
These days, there are all kinds of colours, decals and visual customisations people can include on their boards. While the aesthetic of a board may not be as important as the design when it comes actually surfing, it has become a significant part of surf culture in many ways. The same could be said for surfboard brands – almost everyone has their favourite brand or board style, and while it could be to do with function, at least some of it also has to do with form.
For all that they do in the waves, surfboards are an iconic part of the entire surf culture, and they way that they look is valued to some extent by everyone.
Beyond being “pretty”, however, surfboard art can serve a practical purpose. Designers in Westnern Australia, for example, have come up with designs that help deter sharks. The current, stripy design looks reminiscent of a zebra, and has been praised for both its practical purpose and aesthetics, so it is clear that visual appeal (or repellent) has a place in all surfboard designs.
New wooden surfboards
The latest trend towards wooden surfboards has been helped by a cultural shift towards more natural-based materials and processes – not to mention the hipster and retro fashion movements.
Wood-based surfboard companies are springing up all around the world, with many of the most established right here in Australia. In her article about the wood surfboard trend (cited above), Fairfax reporter Alexandra Cain profiles Brisbane-based MKSY Surfboards founder Michael Powell, who has “has found a niche” in the market for his all-wood boards.
“I’ve worked with wood all my life; it’s a very easy material to work with,” he says.
“I figured out the process, gave it a go and everyone has been blown away by the finished product.”
Another company is the NSW based Riley Balsawood Surfboards, which has actually been trading since 1996. Founder Mark Riley discovered the benefits of wooden surfboards during a trip through South America, when both his Polyurethane (PU) boards broke. He was introduced to balsa wood and, as a carpenter, crafted the very first board during that trip.
“After the first trial sessions I saw the potential in the material – not just as solid balsa surfboards but also in the combination with foam,” Riley says on the company’s website.
Riley Balsawood Surfboards make 15 different boards that are either pure balsa or a combination of balsa and foam and retail from $1000 to $3000. Most other companies either choose to stick with pure wood, such as Jason Oliver Hollow Wood Surfboards, or wood and foam, like those from US company Firewire.
Firewire’s TimberTek surfboards actually sell in surf shops all around the world, and CEO Mark Price says in an interview with Cain they are probably the most accessible eco-friendly boards on the market.
“Granted there might be some boutique builders who offer more eco-friendly surfboards, but those would only be available in limited quantities on a regional basis,” he says in her Fairfax article.
“The technology has been embraced by a wide cross section of surfers and now represents almost 30 per cent of our total sales.”
With a major company like Firewire noticing an increase in wood-based board sales, the chances are good that more of these kinds of boards will be available soon.
Conclusion: A varied future for surfboards
Whether it was a difference in length for status, an adaptation for performance or a stylisation based on personal preferences, surfboards have a history of diversity.
While most modern boards focus on foam and fibreglass, the growing number of wood-based boards shows that this variety is set to continue, giving people more options than ever before.
Now, you can choose between foam boards, wooden boards, finless and double-finned boards and even shark-repellent surfboards depending on your preferences. What’s more is that all of this variety means you can find a number of surfboards to suit your values and your budget wherever you are in the world.