Surfboard design has always been a very personal thing, which is why board-makers tend to be surfers themselves. As times changed, surfboards have evolved. As surfers tackled new ‘liquid terrain’, they needed their boards to trend along; and that required engineering as well as wave know-how.
Ancient Hawaiian surfboards
In ancient Hawaii, surfing was a spiritual ritual, not just a recreational activity. When old chiefs went out into the water, they most likely used an ‘Olo’. The lay surfers used the ‘Alaia’ board. Both boards were wooden, and differentiated class by the length of the board: up to 12 feet for a commoner and 16 for a nobleman. The serenity of the water was used to teach chiefs how to resolve inner and outer turmoil.
The hollow board
In 1926, Tom Blake designed the first hollow surfboard (and later the fixed fin board). The board was constructed of redwood, and had hundreds of drilled holes encased with a thin board of wood on top and underneath. The board was 15 foot long, 19″ wide, 4″ thick and weighed 100 lbs. Before they witnessed the speed of the hollow board, the local Hawaiian’s called the new design the ‘Cigar Board’. The hollow board became the first mass-produced surfboard in 1930.
The Hot Curl board
Inspired by Blake’s design, surfers Wally Froiseth, John Kelly and Fran Heath in Hawaii started experimenting with the size and length of the board to create a board that would allow for more intuitive movement.
These new boards were called ‘hot curl’ boards, named because the boards allowed the surfer to maneuver into the ‘curl’ of the wave and ride in the pipe.
Redwood, Balsa and Plywood
In 1932 Balsa wood from South America became a popular material for building surfboards because it weighed 30 to 40 pounds opposed to the cumbersome 90 to 100 pound redwood. The reduction in weight created a desire for shapers to create these more versatile and faster boards. But Balsa wasn’t easy to import so many boards combined redwood and balsa.
Later, plywood presented an option, and was often used around the time of World War One.
Fibreglass was one of the most significant materials for surfers to come out of WW11, plastics and styrofoam were two others. In 1949, Bob Simmons made the first surfboard made solely of fiberglass (wasn’t combined with other woods or materials) which sold well in California along the coast.
Dale Velzy was a well liked character in California, a talented surfer and a skilled shaper. Taking knowledge from innovators such as Quigg, Kivlin and Simmons, Velzy improved the board, creating the ‘pig board’ and later the ‘sausage board’. Velzy’s surfboards were in such demand that he took on an apprentice, a local surfer named Hap Jacobs (another big name in surf history), and taught him to shape. Balsa wood boards were still used while experimentations with foam continued.
The development of polyurethane foam in surfboards came about in around the 1950’s. Surfboards were still between 9 and 11 foot long in the 50’s.
In present time, many of these commercial boards can be seen out in the water, depending on how the waves are coming in. The ‘gun’ is still popular for big surf, the ‘fish’ is a new kind of shortboard, and the cheaper foam boards are used by surf school’s and newbies. And for those into the classics, the malibu or longboard and the shortboards will always be popular choices.