Surfboard Industry Wipes Out, Innovation Soon Follows

For decades, Gordon Clark and his company Clark Foam held an almost complete monopoly on the surfboard blank market. “Blanks” are pieces of foam with reinforcing wood strips (called “stringers”) in a rough surfboard shape that board manufacturers use to make a finished product, and Clark sold almost every single one of these board manufacturers their starting templates in the form of these blanks. Due to environmental costs, Clark suddenly shuttered his business in 2005 with virtually no warning. After a brief panic in the board shaping industry, and a temporary skyrocketing in price of the remaining blanks in existence, what followed next was rather surprising: a boom of innovation across the industry.

While the shock of Clark Foam’s closing sent a wave through the surfing community which resulted in a brief shortage of boards, an innovation boom was perhaps destined to happen. Since the 1950s there was essentially no change in surfboard construction methods, even though the shape of the boards changed from longboards in the 50s and 60s, to shorter boards in the 70s and 80s, to extremely thin, small, high-performance boards in the 90s. The vast majority of all of these boards were made with a urethane foam blank, shaped to size, and covered in fiberglass (a method known as “glassing”). Other minor improvements such as fin size and placement, the implementation of the leash, and the use of CNC machines for shaping all occurred while the board manufacturing method itself stayed relatively static.

Some of Firewire’s Timbertek boards. Not 100% wood, but foam core with a wood exterior and wood rails. Picture courtesy of Firewire

Since 2005, however, a flood of new board manufacturing methods have become available which has pushed the envelope of surfing far past the stale, monolithic boards of the past. One of the first changes was boards built out of polystyrene and finished in epoxy rather than fiberglass. These boards are stronger, lighter, and often less expensive than polyurethane/fiberglass boards and don’t get UV damage from sun as rapidly, although some surfers complain that they don’t have the same flexibility as a polyurethane board. Their light weight makes them exceptional for airs, though.

Other surf manufacturers such as Firewire have had good success with using a wood exterior on the board, rather than using only fiberglass or epoxy. This gives the board unique handling characteristics as well. Even boards that are made entirely out of wood are starting to make a comeback, as hollow wood boards, and even solid balsa boards are becoming more and more popular. Some other manufacturers are going in a completely different direction and are starting to use a carbon fiber reinforced polymer throughout the foam of the board which makes the boards incredibly strong and often eliminates the use of the traditional wood stringer.

Nontraditional board manufacturers made their debut since Clark Foam closed its doors as well. Lib Technologies, often known as Lib Tech, is famous as an innovator in the snowboard world. Snowboards haven’t seen the same constraint to innovation as surfboards had in the past, and as a result innovation is more forthcoming. Once that spirit was applied to surfboards, Lib Tech started finding success building boards that are essentially indestructible.

One of my boards, a Meyerhoffer XYZ. While not asymmetrical, it does have an atypical shape.

While all of these new methods exploded onto the market in the wake of Clark Foam’s closing, the obvious benefit here has been to surfers. Now, there are options for every style of surfing and every different surfer rather than a single style of board that would have been virtually the only option for a surfer as late as the early 00s. Beginners can find soft boards for $100, experts can fine tune their boards in new and interesting ways, and everyone in between can pick from a wide variety of different construction methods that suit their needs. There are even asymmetrical boards now too, for surfers who surf at particular beaches that have waves that break in extremely specific ways.

One of the less talked about benefits to this sea change, though, has been environmental impact. Clark Foam, when it was still in business, was known for clashing with the EPA since urethane foam production isn’t exactly the most environmentally friendly process. To add fuel to the fire, it seems like Gordon Clark was very set in his ways and was unwilling to work with the environmental regulators, instead preferring to shutter his business. Since they closed and the new blank manufacturers aren’t grandfathered in to new regulations, surfboard manufacturing has moved into the 21st century in terms of reducing its environmental impact. A lot of the compounds used still aren’t ideal, but improvements have been continuously made now that there is competition and innovation again.

Some famous surfers have gotten into the blank and shaping scene as well in an effort to improve the environmental impact that board manufacturing has. Rob Machado, one of the most successful and famous surfers still alive, now builds boards that are able to recycle the foam from waste packing materials, since foam-based surfboards are built essentially out of the same material as packing peanuts. Future improvements to environmental sustainability include experimentation with natural resins, as well.

The lesson that we should all take from the surfboard industry, though, is that we can often get locked into a method or technique without realizing that we’ve built ourselves into a prison that limits innovation in key ways. What would happen, for example, if the Linux kernel disappeared from existence? Surely there would be a brief panic similar to the surfboard scene post-Clark Foam, but in the end we might also see a similar innovative boom in computer science. There are other more relevant examples, like the fact that almost all bicycle frames are built by an extremely small number of factories owned by one or two companies. Could the bicycle world benefit from some innovation as well? What other things have we locked ourselves into?

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