Fin Systems: what are they all about, which is the best and why?
Fin Systems, well this is opening a can of worms, everyone seems to have an opinion on which is best and why, there seem to be new systems appearing all the time and other ones disappearing. There are a few systems however, that have been around for a while, have marketing behind them, and most importantly work! Letís look at a couple of the most commonly available systems in the Canada and see what they have to offer and possible advantages/disadvantages for each.
Weíll start off by looking at the advantages of fin systems regardless of which kind.
FCS & K-fin
Red-X & Al Merrick fin
The first obvious benefit is being able to remove your fins, since most Canadian surfers like to escape the cold at least once a year this is a huge benefit! Even on short trips removing the fins allows you to pack and store your boards more compactly than with the fins on so you can fit more in your boardbag or vehicle. On longer trips via plane or even buses and trains, removing the fins will protect them from baggage handling damage which occurs far too often. (Unless of course you have a Surftech and believe their ridiculous ads showing a naked board tagged and amongst the suitcases on the conveyor belt! Please donít try this at home kids, it will end in tears!)
Fins are the most vulnerable part of a surfboard when travelling and most difficult to repair at your destination. You can slap some duck tape, dingleberries or solarcure on rail cracks and crunches and jump in the water but a cracked fin base (glass-on fin) requires tools, time and skill to repair properly. You need to grind away the resin/cloth/rope along the sides of the fin and in a lot of cases remove the fin completely and rebuild the base since a lot of impact fin damage results in at least some delamination of the glass in the surrounding area. Once you are ready to start glassing the fin back on it is a multi stage process which is difficult to do properly if you havenít done it before. All in all, the absolute worst-case scenario with a fin system (broken box that needs to be pulled/replaced) is 10 times easier to repair than a damaged glass-on fin, even if you have all the tools and know how.
Fin Variety and Placement
You can try different fin sizes and types and with at least one type of fin system adjust the fins back and forth in the box to get the feel you like best. While a lot of people donít bother to even adjust the fins they have let alone try different templates or materials, in my and many other peopleís opinion, the fins affect your board more dramatically than any other design feature.
Maybe youíre a beginner struggling to make your first turns and by adjusting your fin position a tiny bit or trying a smaller template your board is suddenly loosened up and those turns (and therefore progression) become possible. Conversely you might be a shredder looking for a bit more pop out of turns or stiffness in bigger waves, again a bit of experimentation with fins can make amazing differences in the way a board rides. In fact a few surfers I know who have Red-X fins on their board have gone from saying their board is OK but not anything special to saying it is their all-time favourite board just by adjusting the fin positioning a little bit. This just goes to show how dramatically the fins affect a boardís performance!
So donít be scared to experiment, swap fins with your buddy for a session, tinker with what youíve got or go all out and visit your local shopís test centre, a lot of shops have both FCS and Red-X test centres which offer a lot of possibilities for experimentation. Donít get stuck in the rut of being comfortable with your equipment and therefore not willing to break out of that comfort zone and experiment, it could mean the difference between finally pulling that move you been trying again and again and never progressing on that board.
Red-X deck side mini pad
Red-X deck side
As long as you have a basic repair kit and a bit of know how, repairing cracked, broken or ripped out fin system boxes is relatively easy. As I touched on before, worst-case scenario you need to get the old box out and install a new one. Getting the old one out has the potential to be the hardest part of the whole operation! Once youíve removed the old box and any loose debris from the hole, all you need to do is mix up a batch of resin mixed with chopped fibreglass and, using a fin inserted in the new box to get the angle right, set it in the board and leave it to harden. Once hardened you simply sand down the box and resin overflow to flush and youíre ready to go. I donít want to get into all the inís and outís of repairs but I will say the most important thing is to use a new box for repairs, donít try and re-use the old one! New boxes have tabs on them so you can set them to the correct depth and lips to prevent resin running into the box etc.(see photoís), these tabs and lips sand away when you sand everything flush. Trying to re-use the old box is a nightmare waiting to happen! (Always have spares when you travel to avoid needing to attempt re-using the old box)
OK, letís have a look at the fin systems most prevalent here in Canada, there are lots of fin systems available worldwide but there are 2 that are much more common here and elsewhere. These 2 systems are FCS and Red-X, Futures has recently been doing a lot of marketing and generating some hype but we have yet to see many boards here with this system so it remains to be seen whether or not they will challenge the "big 2".
FCS has been around a long time, they were one of the original fin systems that, through good marketing and, until recently, lack of stiff competition, have survived and flourished. They are the ones who really made fin systems the standard for board manufacturers worldwide and are the simplest and easiest to install and repair. The system uses two small boxes or plugs inserted in the bottom of the board into which the legs of the fins slide. The fins are secured with an Allen screw which screws diagonally into the fin leg from the top of the box.
|The opinions stated here are those of Dr Glass and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of CoastalBC.com management.
If you have questions about Surf Gear, email the Doc. The best/most interesting question each month will be answered in Fresh Cuts.
email Dr Glass
Fresh Cuts - Dr Glass on
» Surfboard Fin Systems
Advantages of FCS:
- Available worldwide, there are not many (if any) places you can go that wonít have replacement fins and boxes. As long as thereís a surfshop and/or a ding repair guy there will be FCS.
- Fins are quick and easy to install and remove as long as youíve got your Allen key.
- More templates available than the competition, there are so many itís hard to keep track and it could take years to get through testing them all!
- Ease of repair. We touched on this earlier so no need to go through it again.
- A variety of fin materials-composite (injection moulded plastic/fibreglass blend), Carbon-lite (injection moulded carbon fibre with a foam core) and now a few varieties of fibreglass fins. There are also a few pro models such as K-fins and Occy fins which are very popular.
Disadvantages of FCS:
- The Allen screws are easy to strip, either the head of the screw so your key wonít turn it or the plastic around the screw so you canít tighten the screw. If itís the screw thatís stripped you need to get it out (quite often harder than you might think) and replace it, if itís the plastic, unfortunately you need to replace the box which is frustrating when thereís essentially nothing wrong with it.
- These same boxes have been known to break or break out of the board a little too easily under normal surfing use and do not have much lateral/torsional strength since they are essentially floating in the foam inside the board (which might explain why they break or rip out a little too often). There is a deck post, which means they are supported from the deck through resin poured into a cylindrical hole etched into the foam of the board when it was glassed. This is why there are small, sometimes very hard to see circles on the deck side of FCS boxes, this is the deck post showing through (and it should). Unfortunately, although this adds some strength to the boxes it is minimal and once cracked, the deck post cannot really be repaired and is therefore useless. Some manufacturers do not even install FCS with the deck posts, possibly to cut down production time or for cosmetic reasons, if this is the case the boxes will be even weaker and more prone to damage.
This brings us to Red-X, they havenít been around as long as FCS but have been around a lot longer than most of the other fin system companies out there today. They donít yet have as many templates as FCS but have always offered all their templates in fibreglass, FCS has only recently started making fibreglass fins. The Red-X fibreglass fins are one of the reasons they became an instant success with many of the top proís riding them for their feel which is comparable to glass-on fins. This certainly gave the Red-X system a huge endorsement, especially when a certain Mr. Slater was riding Red-X while under contract to FCS!!! This system uses a single slightly larger box which is set into the bottom of the board and runs right through to the deck. Fins have a single large leg which is inserted into the box and then snugged down by screwing in an ordinary slot type screw from the deck side of the box.
Advantages of Red-X:
- Available worldwide but definitely not quite as widespread as FCS, not yet anyway.
- Strength and stiffness, these are the big ones boys and girls! These are the two things a through-deck fitting box has over any system that is floating itís boxes in the foam, no matter what the other guys might say, Red-X is undoubtedly stronger and far stiffer than any other system out there because the box is completely immobilized within the board. Board makers in California who make "old school" fish boards with broad based fins will only use Red-X because they are the only fin system that can handle the torsional loads the big fins place on the boxes without blowing out, they tested Ďem all and this is what they found. The Red-X boxes are also extremely beefy and virtually unbreakable while still being compact and lightweight.
- Adjustability, also a big feature, there is ¾ of an inch of adjustability and even 1/8 of an inch makes a noticeable difference so this gives you lots of room to play with so you can make significant changes to the feel of the board without changing fins.
- Simplicity, all you need is a single blade screwdriver to install, remove or adjust fins, the fin legs also incorporate a brass fitting which the screw threads into meaning there is no metal on plastic to strip or tear out.
- A wider variety of fin materials including composite (injection moulded plastic/fibreglass blend), carbon-lite (injection moulded plastic/carbon fibre blend), Air-Carbon (injection moulded carbon fibre with foam core), Air-Cell (injection moulded fibreglass with foam core) and of course the hand foiled fibreglass fins they are famous for.
Disadvantages of Red-X:
- Slightly harder to install for the manufacturer and harder to repair, however this is balanced out by the fact they are significantly stronger so you are far less likely to need to do any repairs.
- Cracking around the deck side of the box, the box is hard, the glass and the foam around it arenít so hard, consequently compression dings from your feet will cause the glass around the box to crack and eventually let water in. This problem is avoidable even on lightly glassed boards, the board should have come with mini self-adhesive deck pads (see photo) which fit over the boxes and are designed to prevent this cracking. If you want to use a regular deck pad it should cover the boxes completely (you cut a hole for access) or be cut to fit around the mini deck pads that should have come with the board. There are also "fin system" deck pads available from a couple different manufacturers designed with cut-outs to be easily fitted to boards with Red-X fins.
FCS works great, there are just better alternatives now. Other systems such as Futureís, Speed fins, OAM etc. all have their merits and interesting fin designs but donít really challenge FCS because they all still have their boxes set into the foam and therefore are just a different version of the same thing. These other systems also use bigger boxes and larger fin attachment legs which make them heavier and the boxes more difficult to repair. I look at Red-X as an evolution of the original concept which they have made simpler, stronger, stiffer and adjustable while still being compact and lighweight, basically better all-round.
Personally, I love the FCS Carbon K-fins but found the fibreglass Red-X X-2 fins to be a very similar fin and in many ways I prefer it. This may have a lot to do with the stiff feel Red-X offers combined with the inherent stiffness and drive of the fibreglass fins (not to mention the adjustability) but whatever the reasons, Iíve grudgingly grown to love Red-X. I still have a few sets of FCS and FCS boards but Iím making the transition to an undeniably better system board by board. For me there is no denying that the inherent lack of strength and stiffness is really the Achilles heel of FCS and the flip side of it being an easy system to install and repair. Iíve hit my Red-X fins hard enough to crush the leading edge of the fin or rip a fin off with no box damage whereas with FCS Iíve blown out and seen too many boxes blow out too easily, itís just not as strong a system which is critical at many of our rocky breaks.
When fin systems first made their appearance there were a lot of people who were determined to stick with glass-on fins and loved to criticize fin systems for real or imaginary reasons (why are we so scared of change?). Nowadays someone riding a board with glass on fins is the exception not the rule. There seems to be the same sort of resistance to new and alternative fin systems for the same sort of undefined reasons, we are already seeing this resistance disappear as more and more boards are showing up at the beach with something other than FCS. The majority of these seem to be Red-X but there is the odd board with Futures or OAM or some other alternative which is great to see. I certainly favour Red-X but we are seeing increasing competition among all the fin systems to make more and more high tech fins and go one better than the other guys. My point? Well this can only be good for us the consumer since the more competition the better the product available to the end user. If one company had a monopoly (and FCS came close) weíd be forced to use what they wanted to sell us at the prices they wanted to sell it for which is not at all good.
So keep that in mind the next time you scoff at Red-X, Futures or another alternative fin system (as I once did), itís because of these guys that better fins and fin systems are becoming universally available at affordable prices. For this reason alone these guys deserve our support and the benefit of the doubt just like FCS did when they were first pioneering fin systems, without innovation there is no progression.