On 5 December 2005, a day now known as “Black Monday” in the surfboard industry, the major manufacturer of the foam “blanks” that form the board's core, Clark Foam, shut its doors, ending an almost 44 year monopoly on the market. No one knows exactly why owner Grubby Clark ceased production (he cites increasing regulations and pressure from the EPA, who denied the claims), but the resulting upheavals in surfboard-making technology and materials may be one of the biggest developments to shake surf history in recent history.
Two recently-introduced lines, Salomon S-Core and Nev Future Shapes, are unlike anything surfing has ever seen, using new materials in radically different ways. The S-Core’s hollow design (based on airplane wing construction) and the Future Shapes’ unique parabolic design represent the cutting-edge in new surfboard technologies.
For the last 40 years surfboards have been made essentially the same way, using World War II airplane technology. A shaper starts with a polyurethane foam blank in the rough shape of a surfboard, and shapes it down to a finished design, which is then glassed with fiberglass and polyester resin. The process uses toxic chemicals and releases Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), but the industry and surfers have been hesitant to look at any other materials or construction techniques. Clark Foam was the supplier of almost 90% of all blanks to the surfboard industry.
Immediately following Clark Foam's shutdown, surfboard retailers reacted by raising prices by up to $150 and/or limiting board sales. Since then, board prices have stabilized and new sources of blanks have popped up both overseas and in the US, but new alternative board materials are starting to come forward.
The foundations of the new technologies are the use of Extruded Polystyrene (EPS) foam and epoxy resins. Compared to traditional polyurethane, EPS is lighter and hydrophobic, so it won’t absorb water, but more difficult to shape. Epoxy resin, stronger than the traditional polyester resin, is also more environmentally friendly. The Salomon S-Core and Nev Future Shapes boards use these materials in different applications to create innovative new boards.
Developed by sporting goods giant Salomon, S-Core boards take inspiration from modern airplane wings and focus on strong, lightweight, and rigid hollow design. Salomon sunk a substantial amount of money in developing the technology, hiring top professional surfers who wore foot pressure sensors to best understand how weight is distributed during surfing. Engineers then optimized the construction for the best combination of strength and weight. The upshot is an S-Core hollow blank with 3 polypropylene stringers. The advantage of polypropylene is it's elasticity with 100% memory retention, which allows the board to flex but always return to its original shape. A bottom carbon fiber layer gives the board stiffness to increase responsiveness. EPS wraps this frame, which is then shaped and glassed with fiberglass and epoxy resin. Custom shaped, the boards are, lighter and stronger than traditional boards, but cost about $125 more than the average board, are only made by 20 of the biggest shapers around the world, and are restricted to shortboard applications by the limited blanks currently available.
Nev Future Shapes
After over 10 years of trial and error in Australia, Bert Burger's experiments to design a lighter and stronger surfboard resulted in the award-winning Future Shapes. Based on polystyrene cores, they feature vacuum-formed, resin-sandwiched epoxy glassing and a parabolic stringer that wraps all the way around the rails. A different density foam through out the board customizes and control flex patterns, like with snowboard cores. The stringer looks like a border of 1/2" plywood encircling the board, which makes for more durable rails, yet is still amazingly lightweight; a 9' longboard weighs about the same as a traditional shortboard.
Most impressively, the Future Shapes technology enables innovative design possibilities. Bert has developed a lot of new designs that utilize the construction that are unlike any traditional shapes, like completely flat-bottomed board that, when ridden, flexes in a way that forms bottom contours that have been "shaped" with the materials in construction.
Currently, an unconventional manufacturing process that's vastly different from a traditional shaping facility, means that Nev is the only shaper making the boards and there is a 1-year waitlist. They’re looking at some of the bigger U.S. shapers to start making them, but they'll require training to be able to make the much lighter boards. Though they cost about twice as much as a traditional board, they're virtually indestructible (check out Nev's site for videos of people jumping up and down on the boards) and can be shaped into any type of surfboard.
by Andrew Potash