Who doesn’t remember their first time stepping out into that cool water?
Maybe the sun was shining high above your head, maybe you were coaxed out before sunrise to catch that water in its glassy virgin state. Either way, there you are. Standing in ankle deep water. Looking nervously at the outside break.
Really though, you’re only going halfway out--out to the first break of waves that gently glide onto shore. It’s your first time. Nobody escapes the first-time jitters. When the idea of taming the ocean and riding her curves is nothing but a dream and a YouTube video.
Maybe you were a kid. That soft, squishy board balanced on your head because it was too big to tuck under your arm. Or maybe you were older and thinking what the hell am I about to do? Luckily, for most of us we had our comfortable companion: our first surfboard. But where did it come from?
For those curious cats out there, come along for the ride because we’re dusting off the textbooks to figure out the history of the modern surfboard.
Balsa, we love you, but you’re bringing us down!
Before foam boards’ rise in the mid to late 50’s the balsa wood surfboard was king. Serious-minded surfers considered it not only the standard, but the pinnacle. For board makers, however, it was somewhere between an artistic feat and a nightmare to create.
First off, balsa wood wasn’t easy to find. This came with two predictably negative side effects:
1) Mass producing was out of the question. Balsa wood was shipped out to the garages of the top surfboard makers and then was shaped by hand down to the boards’ size. This meant sawing, carving, and sanding for weeks (sometimes months), to hit the right specifications. Top board makers could produce between 10-20 boards PER YEAR. Try rolling out a Costco line of surfboards with those numbers!
2) Money, money, money! Like any rare material, it was expensive to purchase. Without being able to produce a lot of boards, most shops were trying to make enough money just to keep working and building more surfboards. Not exactly the idea you see on Sharktank.
Not only this but balsa wood was heavy. Here’s some math for you (I know, I know, History and Math--we spoil you!): typical balsa wood comes in around 8-10lb/ft3, while the plastic foam introduced to the industry, polyurethane, weighed about 3-6lb/ft3. Polyurethane (PU) accepted glue and resin just as nicely as balsa without dissolving like its plastic counterpart polystyrene. This made it ideal for the first commercial boards.
With all this in mind we enter the late 1950’s.
Welcome to the world of the plastic beach.
(Bonus Recommendation -- Gorillaz album!)
There were a few shapers who threw their hat in the ring when it came to making the first commercial foam surfboard. Gordon “Grubby” Clark and Hobie Alter were two boardmakers working in the Laguna Beach area who found success in 1958. Unfortunately they were about a year too late to be considered first. Up north about 60 miles, there was another guy who had already found success.
Dave Sweet of Dave Sweet Surfboards is the name that truly comes to mind as the father of the modern foam board. Out of his own garage, Dave Sweet had already perfected the process of blowing polyurethane (“blowing”: another word for the process that expands the chemicals into the plastic foam), and was selling the boards to his friends.
Over the years, discrepancy over who created the first foam surfboard came into question and Dave Sweet fell into the background. Although, this didn’t stop him from having a successful career in the surfing industry creating high-end, premium surfboards until 1974. When he passed away in 2015, the LA Times published a commendable obituary on Sweet, issuing his due credit.
Alter and Grubby, on the other hand, also found great success due to their own stature. Alter was considered one of the greatest surfboard shapers by the community and had the clientele to boot. The hottest surfers went to Alter when they needed their next upgrade. Because of this, when Grubby and Alter decided they would solely work with foam… well… that was just going to be the way it was and everybody would have to adjust.
The California Surf Museum has a great piece on some of the earliest trailblazers of the modern foam board prior to Sweet, Alter, and Grubby, written by the surfing pioneers themselves.
Boardmakers are happy, but what about that cruise control.
At the end of the day, it’s all about the quality of the ride. It was the final test for plastics.
The 50’s are pretty much done, surfboards are 10-15 pounds lighter, and more are being produced as the creation techniques are becoming widespread and refined. But did surfers enjoy the material switch? Could plastic really outperform balsa wood or was it a crazy fantasy for boardmakers who were tired of spending countless afternoons carving and shaping wood?
In general the switch was met with enthusiasm. Prices for surfboards became more manageable for the average surfer. They were harder to ding because the boards themselves had a little give. Finally, being lighter than the balsa boards, surfers found the foam surfboards to be more maneuverable on turns, which was a huge advantage. Rideability, at the end of the day, is the most crucial factor.
Rumors have it that some professionals were reluctant to swap over to the newer boards like Phil Edwards and Greg Noll, but eventually the overwhelming majority was too hard to ignore. If the foam surfboards didn’t outperform balsa wood right away, it wasn’t long before they did and everybody adopted them.
In the end, foam got the gold.
Take a look at any beach and you’ll see dancing the inside break some noobie atop a foam board. You’ll recognize them from that awkward pop-up, the frog pose, the cockroach, the one-knee salute, the no-way-am-I-standing-up-on-this-thing smile, all of them riding on a piece of history. A history that started as a wooden plank with no leash and no fins, but with the help of chemistry has pushed forward to the modern era where, like anything and everything, it is mass produced. (Yes, you can find these foam surfboards lining the Costco aisles.)