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The History Of The Surfboard - From Wood To Fiberglass

From surfboards carved from trees, weighing 100 pounds, and having the maneuverability of a log (quite literally!), the history of the surfboard has shown a great evolution in surfboard design and manufacture.

Surfboards have been around for a very long time. No, not 50 years, try many hundreds. Yep, that’s right, with the Hawaiians taking the surfboard history award for inventing the first surfboards and the sport of surfing.

What’s more, their surfboards were a very long way from the surfboards of today.

1778 – The First Surfboards

As I just mentioned, the history of the surfboard dates back to the first surfboard that originated in Hawaii.  This all started when Captain James Cook, a European explorer, sailed to the islands aboard the HMS Discovery  in 1778, and saw the locals surfing.

Surfboard History Captain James CookBy then surfing was firmly established into the Hawaiian lifestyle and had been around for hundreds of years. The sailors were so impressed that even  one sailor described the locals surfing in 1779 in a ship’s journal.

The oldest surfboard still in existence is on display in Hawaii’s Bishop Museum and dates back to 1778.

The original Hawaiian surfboards were made from trees and varied in length from 3-16 feet on average. The length of your surfboard was determined by your social rank. So, the longer surfboards were for the Royal family, and the shorter were for the peasants. These shorter boards however were still in the 10-12 foot range as compared to the surfboard you know today.

These surfboards were made from trees and were solid. They could range in weight to more than 100 pounds! The boards had no fins and went in one direction only, straight ahead.

So next time you are complaining about the weight of your surfboard, or its lack of performance or manoeuvrability spare a thought for the original Hawaiian surfers!

The Early 20th Century – Shortening the Log

Unfortunately, after the islands of Hawaii were settled by Europeans and missionaries, surfing began to become less popular. However, by the beginning of the 20th century surfing in Hawaii had a surge in popularity, mainly due to the famous Duke Kahanamoku, who brought surfing to the world’s attention.

Duke Kahanamoku Surfboard HistoryEuropeans and Americans then began to participate in the sport, and it wasn’t long before the surfboard began to be redesigned.

The first important milestone in the history of the surfboard was the establishment of a more practical and user friendly length and weight.  This was achieved by chopping the older style surfboards in half.

At this stage the surfboards were being made out of redwood, but in the 1920′s balsa started to be used instead as it was a much lighter wood and was more readily available.


1926 – Hollow Surfboards

In 1926 in Hawaii, Tom Blake decided to dramatically reduce the weight of the surfboard. He achieved this by drilling multiple holes into his redwood board, then covering the entire thing up with a thin layer of wood.

The reduced weight made for a much faster surfboard, and these designs started to be mass produced in 1930.

Surfboards continued to be made from various wood combinations until the 1940′s.

1935 – The Fin Is Added

Single Fin SurfboardIn 1935 the same Tom Blake added a fixed fin to the back of the surfboard and by some is considered to be the most influential milestone in the history of the surfboard.

This change provided increased stability, stopping the board from sliding sideways on the wave, and allowing surfers to maneuver the board better.

  

 

 1940 – Surfboards Are Made Of Lightweight Fiberglass

In the 1940′s fiberglass became more easily available and surfboard designers saw its possibilities.

Fiberglass meant that surfboards could weigh a lot less, and be waterproof. Initial designs involved a core of balsa sealed with a layer of fiberglass.

 1950 – The Introduction Of Polyurethane Foam

In the 1950′s balsa wood cores were replaced with polyurethane foam. This enabled surfboards to float better and allowed surfboards to be manufactured a lot more quickly.

In fact, polyurethane foam was so popular that surfboards are still made with this as the blank to date, even though epoxy foams have been introduced.

 1960 – Surfboard Lengths Are Further Decreased

Through the 1950′s surfboards stayed in the 9-11 foot length. Remeber Gidget and all those old fashioned surfing movies?

By the 1960′s surfboards were becoming a lot shorter, down to the 6 foot mark. The shorter surfboard was faster and allowed for far more radical surfing maneuvers.

Mark Richards, an Australian surfer, realized that two fins were needed to add stability to these shorter surfboards and the twin fin surfboard was born.

1960 – Surfboard Design Experimentation

From the 1960′s on surfboards were constantly being redesigned to maximise performance, speed, and to adjust for various surfing conditions, such as big waves in Hawaii, and whatever your local break provided.

Everything on a surfboard was constantly examined and altered, including the nose, tail, shape, curve, rails, and weight.

1981 – Birth Of The Thruster

Thruster SurfboardIn 1981, Aussie surfer Simon Anderson designed a 3 fin system called the thruster. This combined all of the benefits of a single fin along with the 2 twin fins and gave surfers the ability to surf as we know it today.
 

 The 1990′s – Computer Aided Surf Design

With the help of computer technology, by the early 90s shapers could mass produce even lighter and thinner surfboards, allowing for far more radical movements on the waves. This also allowed the average joe to have the top name shapers produce custom shaped surfboards for them, enjoying some of the perks of a professional sponsored surfer.

At the other end of the scale long boards such as Malibus and their shorter cousins, the mini-Mals were having a resurgence in popularity, particularly with older surfers who were looking for a more relaxed ride.

Another creation of the 1990′s were the fish surfboards which featured a wider outline for extra stability and a v-shape cut out of the tail, allowing for more movement.

Surfboards with 4 fins, known as quads, also hit the market with surfers having a wider range of shapes and templates for every type of surf condition.

2005 – The Closure Of Clark Foam and The Emergence Of Epoxy Surfboards

Now for one of the most notable occurrences in the history of the surfboard that has affected all surfers and shapers of today.

In the 1990′s epoxy surfboards started to appear on the surfing horizon. However, it wasn’t until the closure of Clark Foam in 2005, that epoxy surfboards really took off. After Clark Foam shut down, there was a shortage of PU foam and surfboard makers began to look more seriously at other types of foam that were more easily available.

Since polystyrene foam was a readily available alternative as opposed to the polyutherane (PU) foam of the more traditional surfboards,  and could be hand shaped like PU foam, this seemed like the ideal solution.

Once covered with a strong epoxy resin, these epoxy surfboards are extremely tough while weighing less than a traditional polyurethane surfboard.

With the advent of different foam centres, new manufacturing techniques were also able to be explored. One of the more well known is the “Pop Out” surfboard. This technique involves squirting EPS (or beaded) foam into a mould shaped like the end product surfboard. Layers of epoxy resin are wrapped around the foam, and then the whole thing is compressed, popping out a surfboard.

Putting The History Of The Surfboard Behind Us

The latest technologies in surfboard manufacturing and surfboard design, including computers for design and shaping, along with the advent of epoxy surfboards, has seen a huge surge in high performance surfboards.

No one truly knows what the future for surfboards holds but one thing is certain, the closure of Clark Foam has caused a spark and sense of innovation throughout the surfboard industry.  Let’s all just hope that in the end these new surfboards are for the best, with the surfers needs in mind, and not all for profit.

As for today, no matter your experience, age, weight, budget, or local break, there is a surfboard on the current market to meet your specific requirements.

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