When you’re a surfer, nothing is more important than the surfboard you’re bringing. After all, it’s the only way you’re going to ride that wave, right? Having the right board will often make or break your surfing experience, but what makes a surfboard such a reliable tool for surfing, and what goes into making a good surfboard?
What makes a surfboard?
If you imagine a typical surfboard, you’re likely to have a mental image of this flat, elongated shape that’s somewhat pointed towards the top end and curved along the edges. Most surfboards have about a 70-120 inch length and 18-24 inch width, with a few inches of variance in terms of thickness.
The board itself is made up of a buoyant center, in order to keep its user afloat and a hard exterior that keeps the board from damaging and breaking from use.
There are also other features added during the creation of the board, such as a stringer, a fin, and a leg leash. These will all be determined by the craftsperson putting the board together.
Types of surfboard materials
Surfboards are made from a host of different materials. Generally speaking, a board consists of a rigid polyurethane foam core, which is then outfitted with an outer shell of polyester resins or fiberglass.
The stringer, if it exists on the board, is that thin strip of wood that runs down the center from the tip to the bottom. This will usually be made up of basswood, spruce, or redwood, though at times, surfboard makers will also fashion them out of fiberglass.
Creating a surfboard core
If you’re thinking of making your own surfboard, the blank will be your first step. As the foam core, it’s the foundation of any board. A cement mold made of two halves will create the shape of a surfboard.
Special paper lines the inside to keep the foam from sticking. To start the process of shaping or “blowing the blank,” the mold, after being clamped together, is heated. After this, the liquid polyurethane chemicals are poured in.
The heat triggers a chemical reaction with the chemicals that create the signature foam base. The foam core is then taken out of the mold after about 25 minutes to finish hardening.
Having a stringer
Have you ever noticed boards that have a line running down the middle? The stringer adds more rigidity to the surfboard’s design and lets you get away with more speed when riding a wave.
It adds more strength while also allowing the board to stay flexible, which makes the overall construction more durable. The stringer is actually glued to the board after forming the blank, as you must cut the core vertically in half. After this, the core is then clamped together again to let the new combination dry out.
Shaping the blank
With the wood as a template, an outline for the finished board is created for this newly formed foam core and then cut out with a saw. Then, with the use of a power planer, the wood is contoured to the desired final design.
This process usually begins from the bottom of the board as they work to the top. Good quality surfboards are usually smoothened out by experienced and trained surfboard builders, as this process can only be done manually, so the only excuse for an imperfect surfboard is a bad job.
Whatever ridges were left behind by the planning tools will get buffed out with a power sander, and the sides are shaped manually with rough sandpaper. The final step in designing the blank is using fine paper for one last sanding, and the builder will leave a special design or signature to mark their handiwork.
Laminating the shell
With the blank shaped and ready, the outer shell of the surfboard is ready to be made. Compressed air is first used to blow away any dirt. Then, the board is colored or designed with acrylic paint, usually a spray gun or an airbrush.
Fiberglass cloth then covers the blank and is cut to fit. Unlike when shaping the board, the top or deck of the surfboard is laminated first. A polyester or laminating resin is then taken and mixed with a catalyst, a mixture that hardens in about 15 minutes.
“Glassing” is then done as the fiberglass is spread together with a layer of the polyester resin and evened out. This arduous process is then repeated on the other side of the board. Plus, an additional layer of the fiberglass/resin combo is applied to the first side to create an exceptionally sturdy surfboard.
Fitting the fin
The position of the fin is marked during the shaping part of the process. However, before you can fit it, another filler coat of resin, known as sanding resin, is applied to fill in any imperfections from the laminating resin stage.
This kind of coat is different, however, causing the entire concoction to harden and dry completely. The sanding resin goes on the deck side first. Afterward, the fin is secured snugly with fiberglass tape and resin.
Yet another filler coat is applied once that’s been installed for greater durability. In some boards, this step also includes having a small hole drilled to attach the leg leash. Wiping out is a natural part of surfing, so these attach the board to a surfer’s leg to keep it from floating away.
The best surfboards undergo a few more steps before being completed. Excess resin should be sanded away with care. The wider, broader surfaces are buffed with a power sander tool, while any carefully contoured surfaces should be hand-sanded so as not to damage the smoothness of the fiberglass.
After blowing the board down with compressed air for the last time, any decals and graphics that the board maker wants can be added, along with a final coat of glossy resin to make it stand out. This takes about 12 long hours to completely harden. Finally, very fine sandpaper can be used to polish and buff the board to perfection.
It takes a lot of time and care to make a board that will stay firm with its owner through the roaring crests and crashing waves of the unrelenting ocean. But just as surfing itself is a mesmerizing pastime, so too is the beauty and intricacy of making surfboards themselves.