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Fresh Cuts - Dr Glass talks about Surfboards  

Dr Glass on Surfboards
Dr Glass on Surfboards

In this the first instalment of Fresh Cuts we are going to discuss a few different commonly asked questions and some myths surrounding "Surftech" and "Boardworks" style moulded epoxy boards (not the heavy duty epoxy rental boards) and touch on mass produced polyester boards. We are talking about the polyester boards mass produced in China, not partially machine shaped boards from reputable shapers.

Letís begin by looking at the construction differences between a moulded epoxy board and a regular polyester board. A regular polyester board starts by having a polyurethane blank either hand shaped from start to finish (backyard/low volume type shapers) or the blank is machined to different levels of completion (depending on the machine) for higher volume shapers and then finish shaped by hand.

After the shape is completed the board is then laminated by hand with a layer or two of fibreglass cloth and polyester resin, after the lamination is cured another coat of resin is applied, this is commonly referred to as the "hot coat" and contains finishing agents to allow this coat of resin to be sanded. The board will then have fin and leash plugs installed, be sanded and, depending on the desired finish, have possibly another coat of either sanding or gloss resin applied and sanded/polished again. All in all a labour intensive job performed by skilled craftsmen who require years of experience to master their art. (It remains a mystery why, despite being handcrafted, custom made, labour intensive items, custom surfboards remain undervalued and their manufacturers underpaid for their workÖbut thatís another story altogether.)

OK now for Moulded epoxy boards; the blank is made by injecting expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam into a pre-made mould. This mould is taken off a "master" design (ironically made with polyurethane blank and polyester resin) made by any number of shapers. The blank comes out of the mould finished and ready for the next step in production. A PVC foam sheet is then pressure laminated to the blank by machine with epoxy resin, following this, fin and leash plugs are installed and then another laminate of fibreglass cloth and epoxy resin is applied using vacuum bagging. The board then goes through the final few stages of production which involve another coat of resin, paint (after which it is oven cured) then decals are applied followed by a clear coat to complete the finish.

As the above clearly shows the epoxy boards require a lot less "hands on" and since they are moulded blanks, no shaper ever touches the board. This also means there is no variation possible from the "stock" dimensions of the original mould hence the unflattering terms "Pop-outs" or "soul-less" often used to describe them. I donít want to jump into the political minefield of where these boards are made and labour costs in such factories but letís just say that someone is lining their pockets and unfortunately itís not the shop owners who sell the boards on the frontlines or even the shapers who get a royalty for every board made using their designs.

Regular polyester boards on the other hand are all hand made in whole or in part and can of course be custom ordered down to the last 1/32 of an inch if you so desire. While computerized machines are becoming more and more prevalent in the shaping process, the customer still gets a board made to his specs and finished completely by hand. You can also usually talk to the man who will be shaping your board (or at least a worker in the factory who surfs) to discuss what you want, where you will be riding it, etc. as opposed to taking a generic, made to work OK for everybody but not optimised for anybody moulded board.

So now some of you are probably asking why epoxy moulded boards are so expensive when they are mass-produced overseas, mostly by machine. Well, good question! Realistically these boards should be significantly less than their handmade polyester counterparts but this simply isnít the case and as long as people perceive their value to be greater and are willing to pay through the nose, then so will the prices stay high.

Letís jump into performance! How do the epoxy boards ride? Well some of you can undoubtedly answer this for yourselves since many have at least tried an epoxy at one time or own one and ride it all the time. They are certainly different and as long as you donít go in expecting an epoxy to ride like a polyester board you may come to love them. Too many people go in expecting the boards to ride like a lighter version of a similar polyester board and this is simply just not the case. The epoxy boards are inherently stiff and therefore wonít soak up bumps and chop very well giving them a sometimes skittish feel underfoot. This stiffness also reduces or eliminates flex and rebound in turns which is what makes polyester boards work so well. Being lighter has some advantages in the epoxy shortboards but in longboards where it is all about glide and momentum they just donít cut it, a longboard also relies heavily on flex to be able to noseride properly, again epoxy with itís lack of flex loses out. Itís also well known in the industry that surfers who are paid big bucks to ride the epoxy boards will paint polyester boards to look like epoxy boards for contests since they donít like the epoxies enough to ride them when it counts.

Durability: this is a big one as the epoxy boards have been hyped up and advertised as being so much stronger than polyester boards and while they are definitely stronger they arenít THAT much stronger. They will still ding, dent, crack, and snap in half, a common problem with them is the outer layer of paint chips off quite easily and while this doesnít affect the integrity of the hull, it doesnít look very good. Repair is also more difficult as water that penetrates the inner foam core is notoriously hard to dry out and the majority of ding repair guys arenít familiar with epoxy and donít know how to use it. Having said all that an epoxy board will last many years if it is properly looked after, but then so will a regular polyester board so advantage polyester again.

So what does all this tell us? Well, donít believe mass marketing and hype for one thing and talk to people who own or have tried epoxy to find out what they think before you jump on the bandwagon. Better yet, borrow one to try it for yourself! If you are a beginner to intermediate, a funshape in epoxy may be just the ticket if youíre willing to fork out the big bucks for a bit of added durability and arenít worries about performance. For a summer "Fish" style board epoxy may also be a good alternative since in tiny waves the lightness and lack of flex will have their advantages. For the majority of intermediate to advanced surfers out there epoxy is probably not going to have the feel you are used to and love with polyester, if youíre prepared for a different feel it may work for you, for many it just doesnít.

In addition to epoxy pop-outís another "threat" to shapers around the World is the appearance of machine made polyester boards. These boards are also mass-produced, in this case mostly in China, and are made with inferior materials and obviously no craftsmanship. While the epoxy boards strive to be stronger and use designs by world-renowned shapers, these machine made polyester boards are "no-name" brand boards that are cheaply made using basic and sometimes crude designs and materials. Unfortunately they have improved enough over the past few years so as to be marketable alongside handcrafted designs and at a glance do not look much different. On close inspection however, they reveal themselves for what they are, so too do they reveal themselves when they fall apart long before they should under the feet of uninformed consumers.

Some companies have started having these boards made with their labels, fortunately not surfboard labels, mostly fringe surf-clothing labels. Beware of no-name brand new boards selling for significantly less than a similar name brand board, or boards with clothing brand labels (currently available at Costco in USA). These manufacturers tend to have "Australia" on their boards (usually as part of the logo/label) in the hopes people will think that is where they are made, donít be fooled! The manufacturers are also in bed with FCS so all the boards have FCS exclusively and some (but not all) have billboard like FCS "ads" on the boards expounding the virtues of FCS which makes them a dead giveaway.

Forewarned is forearmed and despite how attractive the price tag is you get what you pay for so as long as you can afford another board a few months down the road you may want to consider one of these mass produced marvels but if you do buy one always remember you are paying less for a reason and hurting real shapers! You are also forcing real shapers to try and compete with these pop-outs which, in the long term, can only hurt the industry. If mainstream shapers are forced to use cheaper materials or (and letís hope this never happens) have some of their boards made in overseas factories to be competitive price wise, we will see small shapers go out of business and many board manufacture/glass shop workers lose their jobs. The Chinese companies and people making these boards donít surf and are only in it for the money so is it really worth supporting them? Save the extra 100 bucks and your conscience and buy a good board from a reputable shaper, you wonít be disappointed.

So what are shapers going to do with all these new mass produced epoxy and polyester boards flooding the market? As I touched on earlier, some big name shapers are allowing their designs to be used with the epoxy boards so they get at least a piece of the pie while most are looking at improving shaping machines and using new high-tech blanks/resins and other forward thinking production methods to lower costs and/or improve durability and performance of handcrafted boards.

Weíve seen moulded epoxy copies of polyester boards before (remember PCB boards?) so itís nothing new, itís just that theyíre doing it better now and marketing the hell out of it. They have certainly come on strong but as the hype dies down and the boards dent and ding and people realize they canít order it ¼ inch thinner or ½ inch wider next time and that theyíre not indestructible (or in the case of the mass produced polyester boards from China realize the shapes and workmanship/quality are vastly inferior) theyíll once again turn to the guys who have spent hours covered in foam dust in their shaping booths striving to squeeze out that last bit of performance by tweaking this and adjusting that in tiny increments to satisfy the customer.

Not that these same shapers have been hiding in their shaping booths hoping these new threats to their trade will blow over, on the contrary some of the worlds top shapers are working hard with these new blank and resin technologies in an effort to make the jump from the 40 year old technology currently used into 21st century technology. The combination of close tolerance blanks featuring internal stringers with set flex patterns and computer shaping machines able to 100% finish a board so itís ready for glassing may well be the future for shapers worldwide and provide us, the customer, with our own personal "magic" board duplicated again and again or tweaked to suit our changing needs. This technology is not far away and although the boards made using this technology havenít quite achieved the same "feel" as regular polyester boards it can only be a matter of time with many of the worldís best surfers continuing extensive R&D. It will be directly comparable to snowboard technology and not unlike ordering a custom made snowboard (how nice would that be)! We will be able to choose blanks for our boards based on their stiffness/flex patterns, add to this new stronger resin and these boards will beat, hands down, any epoxy or polyester board currently out there for strength and ride feel while still being custom shaped.

So when it comes right down to it, no matter how they are shaped, what blank is used or how they are glassed, the best surfboards will always be the ones custom shaped by hand, computer or both to suit individual needs or waves by reputable shapers with years of experience. Some consider the computer shaping machines to be evil and in the right hands can be but for any shaper worth his salt who can afford to use it they are indispensable. The computer allows shapers to start with the same base exactly duplicated over and over again, from this they can make big or small adjustments to suit a customer or just to experiment with new ideas. This base design is just not possible without a computer shaping machine and therefore duplicating or even coming close to duplicating a "magic" board has, in the past, been impossible. This is also where the average customer will benefit just as much as a shaper's top team rider since a shaper will start out with the same base design for both and adjust it to what each individual needs and wants. So getting as good a board as top team riders from the best shapers in the world is now possible whereas in the past these shapers would only shape boards for top team riders and have ghost shapers producing the majority of their boards.

So even if custom made boards become 100% shaped by computer with flex pattern blanks and super strong resin, they will still ride as good as they always did and probably better since we will still know we are getting a board made to the best it can be by whoeverís name is on that board. They will be the ones putting their best ever designs into that computer so all those years of experience shine through in the finished shape, adjusted of course, for the individual customers needs.

Because itís all about knowing that when you pull a board off the rack or custom order it you know the manufacturer stands behind the quality and workmanship and that quality and workmanship has evolved over many years and thousands of surfboards to get where it is today. Itís also all about knowing that your board has at the very least been designed for the waves you ride, if not for you as an individual rather than being a generic board made to work for no one and nowhere in particular but everyone and everywhere in general. No one else ever has or ever will have an identical board, they are all unique and being unique is important since we are all built differently and surf differently, that will never change.

Dr Glass on Surfboards

The opinions stated here are those of Dr Glass and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of management.