Article

Let Us Go Forward Together

| posted on July 22, 2010

As you read this, somewhere a shaper is cutting into his last surfboard blank manufactured by Clark Foam, which forever closed its factory doors on December 5, 2005. As his planer chews across the bottom strip by strip, a little more of the famous Clark Foam logo disappears into the whirring blades. Then the rectangular insignia that has been stenciled on the lion’s share of our surfboard cores since surfers had crew cuts will be torn into dust, and it will be a hard-hearted craftsman indeed who will not feel a pang of regret deep up in his ribcage. In the coming months all of us will face this moment, and that final pass of the planer will somberly toll out the end of an era.

The lay public and all the many newcomers to surfing likely will shrug and ask what’s the big deal. Even among the more experienced surfboard makers there presently exists a “perfect storm” of rumor and fear and even bitter accusation, for Gordon “Grubby” Clark was never one to suffer fools gladly, and over the years became a lightning rod for whatever discontent roiled to the surface of the surfboard industry. A joke making the rounds in the days following the closure of the Clark Foam plant perfectly illustrates Clark’s eminence as surfing’s scapegoat: On Black Monday shaper “A” staggers into a bar and finds shaper “B” moistening his clay with a few jiggers of Captain Morgan’s finest. “A” plops onto the stool next to “B” and buries his head in his hands.

“Oh, what’ll we do now?” he moans.
Shaper “B” reassuringly pats his companion on the back. The good Captain has added a rosy tint to things.
“There, there,” he soothes. “There’ll be other blanks along in a jiffy. You’ll see.”
“No, no,” groans “A,” massaging his forehead. “I mean, what’ll we do now without Gordon Clark to bitch about?”

And of course, there will be other blanks along. The uncertainty and rumormongering we are now experiencing always swirl about in the vacuum left in the wake of a collapsed regime. In the wide range of possible reaction to this crisis, some shapers will give up and ask Santa for a ski mask and a baseball bat, while some on the other hand will find it invigorating to face the challenges of working with and mastering new materials.

Whinging, defeatism, blank hoarding, price gouging and finger pointing are, of course, not the solution. There remains only one possible direction to for those of us who build surfboards and that is forward. “It’s over, and can’t be helped,” as Dickens once wrote, “and that’s one consolation, as they say in Turkey when they cut the wrong man’s head off.” The purpose of this essay is to look at the future of surfboard building in America, whether for fun or profit; to discuss some of the possibilities and examine a few of the more pressing technical problems facing us.

Yet, before we can try to guess what lies ahead, I think it is vital that we first look at what we have lost with the closure of Clark Foam.

First and foremost, we have lost the main repository of accumulated expertise gathered in surfboard engineering since the early 1960s. Until Monday December 5th, Clark Foam customers could pick up a Clark Foam catalog and choose from 75 blanks from 5′ 9″ to 12′ 8″. The list of designers responsible for crafting each of these blanks reads like a Shapers’ Hall of Fame. Nearly every master shaper in the modern surfing era has at some time set his stone amidst his peers: George Downing, Pat Rawson, Dale Velzy, Phil Edwards, Rusty Preisendorfer, Dick Brewer––all have designed and hand-shaped the prototype plugs from which the huge cement molds were made. Into these molds were poured the resins calibrated to produce five or six densities of foam.

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The rocker catalog was as thick as the phone book for a medium-size town. Dozens and often hundreds of rockers existed for a given blank, and the factory kept secret rockers belonging solely to the designers who had specified them. When rocker was pinpointed, back in those early days, as a crucial element in design, Clark Foam’s willingness to alter and manipulate bottom rocker on a board-to-board basis was certainly instrumental in the drive to quantify how rocker affected performance, to the point where by the mid-1980s many shapers were able to zero in on controlling performance in degrees as small as one-eighth of an inch.

While each serious shaper no doubt maintains his own rocker templates pertinent to his designs, the loss of this collective storehouse, containing decades of research, must be said to be inestimable. Having everything under one roof and freely available to both backyard builders and mass manufacturers allowed for a cross-pollination that will be tough to replace.

This ability to order incremental changes in volume, rocker, and density was coupled with Clark Foam’s short and efficient supply lines. Furthermore, it can be argued that Clark Foam democratized board building. Custom blanks were available to everyone via a well-organized network of shipping, and augmented with distribution warehouses in Florida and Hawaii. This system made it possible for large manufacturers to keep a seamless stream of custom blanks flowing into their factories, yet at the same time a hobby shaper was welcome to walk in to one of the warehouses and purchase a single blank.

And many shapers will miss the other services offered by Clark Foam, the little things that helped us be more efficient and productive, such as inexpensive cardboard surfboard boxes and packing materials, shaping tools, power planers customized for shaping, free blade sharpening, complete vacuum systems, and a treasure trove of free literature on every aspect of surfboard engineering. Over the years various malcontents have accused Gordon Clark of being the cantankerous baron of a foam monopoly, yet it is easy to see, for those of us who took advantage of the many services listed above, how his company could have so readily smothered other foam fabricators.

Then there is the human aspect of things. For many shapers, whether they’ve been shaping for one, two, or three fins, being a Clark Foam customer meant belonging to a family. Personally, no matter how weird surfing became, no matter how many shrill hucksters seeped into its commercial margins, I could always center myself by picking up a Clark Foam catalog or by talking story with the folks in the office there. Belonging to that family meant I could always retreat to a bastion of incorruptible rationalism, one in which unadorned engineering and problem solving ruled the kingdom.

At the head of this family was of course Gordon Clark, who always reminded me a little of Charles Lindbergh. Unapproachable, frostily distant, a pure technocrat, Clark, like Lindbergh, loathed the media and disdained the mob, yet he would happily argue technical points for hours with the leading shapers. I will in particular miss his state-of-the-union reports, which he sent to his customers like letters from a stern uncle to his wayward nephews. Indeed, I have over the years collected and bundled them all into an enormous binder.

In recounting all of this, I am merely trying to point out that in overcoming the foam supply crisis we now face the solution will not be as simple as bringing in containers of blanks from overseas. Every shaper working today, whether he thought Gordon Clark a Machiavellian tycoon or a sainted Equalizer, is used to a very high level of service and tight, efficient supply lines. And, as Clark Foam formed the nucleus of a large family, it follows that many of us have entered into a period of mourning for lost friends and shared history.

Now, what of the future?

As I write, the situation is still fluid. A skeleton crew of office staff mans the phones at Clark’s factory in Laguna Niguel while outside in the factory yard the huge cement molds are shattered into rubble and chucked into waiting dump trucks. Shapers and glassers stalk through their factories, cell phones mashed to their ears, like Wall Street traders during a crash, scrambling to secure blanks from anywhere––Australia, Brazil, even South Africa. Many shapers, concerned about the lengthening supply lines or lacking the financial leverage to procure foam in a bull market, are re-examining the various types of Styrofoam, or EPS, already available in the U.S., whether in the form of pre-sized and glued-up surfboard blanks, or the raw slab foam offered by large plastics factories.

This is probably a good place to remind the reader that in engineering terms all modern surfboards are foam-sandwich structures. This means that every type of high performance surfboard out there––traditional hand-shape/hand-lay-up polyurethane and polyester, or EPS and epoxy resin, or bamboo veneer, or molded composite technology––all are essentially the same thing: a combination of lightweight foam core sheathed in a stiff facing (skin) bonded to the core by an adhesive.

Each material used in the foam-sandwich construction, whether core or facing or bonding agent, brings its own complex and, often, contradictory array of strengths and weaknesses. There are a number of builders in the industry who have a good understanding of the principles governing the foam-sandwich structure, but most have just drafted the slipstream by merely copying standard production techniques, techniques that, significantly, were largely pioneered back in the late ’50s and early ’60s by Hobie Alter and Gordon Clark. Few board builders have exerted themselves to learn and understand the engineering principles of the foam-sandwich-structure-as-surfboard. The notorious fragility of the modern high-performance shortboard, for example, largely stems not from reliance on inferior materials or cheap resins, but from the simple fact that they have become too thin. Any engineer will tell you so. A super thin and inherently breakable 6′ 1″ “pro model” can be shored up with denser, stiffer foams, thicker stringers, and exotic yarns and resins, but in the end all you have done is make an asking-to-be-snapped board a little more heavy and brittle.

I emphasize this for two reasons: First, the consumer and the industry need to face the factors governing foam sandwich structures, as they will both very soon confront surfboards built with unfamiliar materials and shaping and glassing techniques. For example, there exists a handful of builders who have already mastered the variety of EPS and epoxy constructions, but before long there is sure to be others adopting these materials that haven’t done so. And as foreign polyurethane blanks arrive on our shores shapers will have to adapt to them, whether they hand shape or use a shaping machine. Some of the foreign blanks are bulkier and less close-to-shape than those of Clark’s, and possess different properties. Some are better foams, some are worse; they might be harder to shape, or have wacky rockers. And most of the overseas catalogs end at 10′ or 10′ 6″—it will be a long time before any of us shape 11- or 12-foot boards out of polyurethane.

Strangely enough, the second reason is political. In recent years the clash between proponents of alternative materials and adherents of traditional polyurethane/polyester surfboards has been seized onto by the lay public and politicized. What should remain a technical issue between professional craftsmen has somehow turned into debate carried on by uniformed reactionaries.

Entwined within this is another issue equally fraught with foolishness. I have noted with concern a trend in which one type of surfboard is condemned as “toxic” while another type is labeled “green.” Once more, we see that a technical matter has been overshadowed by shortsighted sloganeering. Following news stories on the Clark Foam closure, I read a letter in a Honolulu newspaper written by a young woman bemoaning the fact that she felt guilty enjoying her surfboard now that she realized it had emerged from such a hell’s brew of toxic chemicals. Since the domestic surfboard industry is poised to enter a new era, where it is certain to be battered by the market forces of globalization, I think it is a perfect time to remind the reader that everything that makes our surfing lives possible comes out of the same oil well. All resins, all foams––oil well (go ahead and try to glass your next board with hemp and maple syrup). The neoprene that makes our wetsuits, our urethane leashes, our wax, our high-market sneakers––oil well. The jet kerosene that rockets us off to the Mentawais––oil well. Most of our surfing goods are now manufactured overseas because our high standards of living––and high standards for the quality of our air and water––have made many industries unprofitable for corporations and the shareholders hiding in their apron skirts. Thus it has been ordained that poisonous chemical and industrial processes must be fobbed off on developing peoples. Not-In-My-Backyard has become Not-On-My-Continent. All the nastiness that must occur so we can enjoy illimitable cheap consumer goods is done on our behalf by a labor force protected by no EPA, no OSHA, and no South Coast Air Quality Management District.

How do we, as surfers, rank toxicity? Which is worse, a chemical that is bad for the environment, or one that is toxic to the human being working with it? Do we equally accuse foam and resins and airborne fiberglass strands, none of which are blameless––and what would you be more likely to condemn, tightly regulated and controlled TDIs in a handful of factories, or thousands of bins of acetone wafting volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere?

And what of the most pervasive and insidious brand of “toxicity”: The oil wells from which spew our surfboards and wetsuits are directly linked to the global scourge of intractable conflicts we see in the world today––not to mention the Pandora’s Box of global warming opened by our petrochemical gorging.

This poses the question: Should our surfboards, emanating as they do from oil wells, be condemned along with TDIs and CFCs and SUVs? I contend that if our surfboard enables us to become better, more aware individuals, less consumptive and more likely to detach from the vast swineherd of consumers that drive our economy, then we can go ahead and ride our surfboards free from guilt. However, if our surfboards bring about no such reduction in our ecological footprints, and instead become only one more throw-away product desired by fashion-following and consumptive drones, then our boards are no better than a V-8 Escalade.

Styrofoam has been touted as one of the more “green” materials. There is plenty of polystyrene (Styrofoam) available in the U.S., and quite a few suppliers offering some pretty darned good ready-to-shape EPS blanks. Yet, even with our primary source of polyurethane gone, why are so many shapers rushing to order polyurethane blanks from Australia, Brazil, England, France, or South Africa? Are we so addicted to polyurethane that we will endure major price increases, lengthy supply lines, and strange rockers, just to keep using it as a surfboard core? Why is this? Well, for one thing, polyurethane foam is easy to shape. It tools superbly and readily holds crisp lines and detail. As a core it tolerates thermal ranges well, and absorbs tremendous damage without falling apart or soaking up too much water. As the standard for so long, there exists with this foam an inertia that seems impossible to budge. That polyurethane is easily glassed with cheap and easy to use polyester resins only cements this inertia. The happy marriage of polyurethane foam and clear polyester casting resins allows for cosmetic options like airbrushing and resin tinting that are hard to match using EPS and epoxy. There exists today a certain niche of high-end surfboard in which cosmetic appeal forms its very reason for being.

It is probable that when the dust settles we will see a stratification of the various surfboard constructions, each supporting the three main categories of board buyer: The entry-level Sunday surfer, who looks primarily for generic shapes with low cost and durability; the connoisseur, who seeks out fashionable labels and cosmetic qualities; and the performance surfer, who cares only about shape and design. With the performance surfers, I predict, we will likely see a substantial exodus toward EPS/epoxy boards.

Many mainstays of the domestic industry foresee immediate price increases in both the manufacturing and retailing of surfboards, of 20-25% or even higher. They also warn that Asian-made polyurethane/polyester boards are growing more sophisticated and are poised to attack our market at its weakest point. Veteran insiders have for years warned that a growing pool of very sharp foreign engineers (non-surfers, of course) are freely able to co-opt our latest and best shapes and reverse-engineer them overseas without so much as a by-your-leave––to compete on their level we will have to out-engineer them by making superior surfboards, both better-riding and more durable.

Still others predict that some U.S. manufacturers see the current crisis as an opportunity to prosecute a vendetta against the “bro deal” backyarders that have been undercutting them for decades. And most practical-minded shapers caution that even if a good, reliable source of polyurethane comes from overseas, we will still need a centrally located glue/rocker shop to ensure the survival of the truly custom surfboard in the U.S.

I feel that there is now a tremendous future for EPS/epoxy in the domestic surfboard industry. Better foams with graduated densities are now available, and less quirky epoxy resins exist on the market. It will be interesting to see what happens when EPS foams are attacked by a wider pool of craftsmen. Barring the appearance of a reliable source of polyurethane blanks that withstand comparison with Clark’s, EPS foams are the only foreseeable surfboard cores that will give the custom-based American builder complete independence. The big labels that make thousands of 6′ 1″s will likely continue to use polyurethane blanks in their shaping machines, but the builder with a clientele wanting longer, wider, thicker, or otherwise customized surfboards will find all these requirements available at his fingertips with domestic EPS.

Other challenges will surely arise. If we are unable to preserve our domestic industry and retain our prestige as leaders in surfboard design and construction, then we will lose to foreign–made surfboards not only sales but an important part of our surfing lifestyle. I appeal to everyone who is passionate about surfboards to push aside the psuedo-science so prevalent in the past, and ring in a new epoch where engineering prevails over such obscurantism. Over 45 years ago a handful of surfboard pioneers faced a similar crossroads when they realized that balsa wood could never permit mass production of surfboards. The advent of polyurethane-cored surfboards changed our sport forever, and it all came about largely because a surfer had gone to college and achieved a degree in chemical engineering. Will we meet the challenges facing us with the same ingenuity and can-do spirit? I am positive we can and will.

Let us go forward together.