Danny Hess builds sustainably-minded surfboards from reclaimed wood and recycled foam in an impossibly hip workshop in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco. The space is called “The Woodshop,” for reasons that were immediately obvious when I peered through the windows looking for Hess: wooden surfboards, thick redwood tables, and stacks of timber were artfully arranged in a small showroom at the front of the shop. At the back of the showroom, just visible through the sawdust-caked porthole windows of two swinging doors, were bandsaws and jigsaws and dozens of planers hanging from racks.
I walked inside and, after a quick round of predictably firm, carpenter-y handshakes with Hess and his shop mates, proceeded directly to a snub-nosed 5’6” that had caught my eye through the window. Hess’ boards are sold in the local alternative-craft surf shop Mollusk and are relatively common in San Francisco lineups, but I’d yet to actually hold one. It was surprisingly light, with a deck and rails made of different colors of wood and a bottom of bright-white foam. Hess’ high-performance shortboards are recycled EPS cores wrapped in a wood shell, usually poplar. But he also makes guns, hybrids, and the occasional log. They’re not cheap, running nearly $1,300 per board, but in theory you could surf the more durable wooden designs for a decade or more.
There are enough people who consider the boards a worthy investment to keep Hess Surfboards backlogged with a six- to eight-month waitlist. “When Clark Foam shut down in 2005, it really sparked a better dialogue among surfers and shapers about what a surfboard could be,” says Hess. “People started thinking about a surfboard as a lifetime investment again.” Hess, with a background in sustainable home remodeling, was more than happy to oblige. He’d built his first foam board at 16, moved on to wood boards in 2000, and hung up his hammer for a planer in 2005 to make a career out of building these lifetime surfboard investments.
“I want to make sustainably-built boards as an option for people who care about where their products come from,” says Hess. “But a surfboard isn’t going to change the world.” Hess thinks of more eco-friendly boards as just one piece of a holistic approach to sustainable living. Boards built with reclaimed, sustainably harvested wood, recycled foam, and bio-resins are a start, but he wants to take it even further. Hess is working on a lightweight, lip-cracking shortboard made entirely out of wood and sealed with plant oils. No foam, no fiberglass, no resin. I grabbed one of his early prototypes and it felt unlike any other surfboard I’ve ever touched—strong, solid, and alive. Like an equal parts blend of surfing’s past and future.