DESIGN FORUM – Breaking Point

Surfers live basic, rudimentary, fundamental lives far from the reach of terms like price per
barrel and cost per gallon, right? Of course. Look at us. We’re capricious and carefree. We
wear dirty sandals and wet shorts, bump our way through life fueled on ephemeral
memories and hopes for some of the same in the future – none of which pursuits have the
least to do with things like unrefined petroleum or crude oil. Not us. Nope.

On second thought, this worldview, though comforting in its simplicity, is a farce.
An outmoded sentimentality. And at another, more careful glance, we’re some of the most
uninformed consumers currently occupying the planet – and despite our shag-haired, “no
worries” stereotype, when you look at the facts, we’re about as dependent on crude oil as
any subset of the population: the constant flying (how do you think those planes operate?),
the excessive driving, and the sheer reliance on a piece of equipment whose materials
haven’t been refined significantly in 30 years (aside from epoxy-composite technology,
which has, let’s face it, received lukewarm acceptance from the surf world at large), and so
are dependent on crude oil for their constitution. The point is this: We’re reliant on
petroleum, and for more reasons than just the gas that fuels our cars and overpriced flights.
We’re reliant on the stuff because our boards – which is to say the resin and fiberglass
used to seal our boards – are petroleum based.

And this is where it gets interesting. It’s no news that consumers in the U.S. have
been leaving limbs at the pump in the past few months, nor is it a surprise that the reason
given has been the rising cost of crude oil. In fact in the past six months alone, the price per
50 gallon drum of crude oil has increased 15%, this according to International Plastics
Business Manager Daryl Francis. Stay with me here. International Plastics produces
ResChem, the preferred resin of most glass shops in the United States. And with the
increase in the production costs of ResChem, companies like International Plastics are
passing along the cost to glass shops, who are paying double because petroleum is also a
base component of fiberglass. So, as the costs to glass shops increase, they subsequently
pass along the costs to their boardbuilding clientele, who, in turn, increase their wholesale
board prices when selling to retailers. And of course retailers aren’t going to eat the cost, so
they go ahead and — with a quick little swap of the sticker — raise the price of your
surfboards a handy $30. Neat trick. When the trail is followed, it takes you all the way back
to the rising price of crude oil.

But another look at the facts reveals that, for all of the design refinements of the
modern surfboard, we haven’t been paying that much more off the rack. The mean price for
an off-the-rack surfboard in 1990 was $290 whereas in 2004 the mean price was $390. Not
much of a difference, considering inflation in other markets. But temper this information
with the fact that the preferred method of production today (polyurethane foam and
polyester resin) hasn’t developed much since 1960. All that being said, consumers and
retailers alike are very wary of the fact that the mean price of a shortboard is rapidly
approaching the $500 mark, a princely sum for a piece of equipment that is almost certain to
deteriorate within two years.

Is there a more sensible (and by sensible we mean cost-efficient) alternative?
Depends on how you look at it. According to some of the more forward-thinking factions
of the surfboard manufacturing industry, the technologies for stronger, longer-lasting
products are currently available to construct a more durable custom surfboard but aren’t
being utilized.

One of the most readily available of such technologies is epoxy resin. Using epoxy
resin and traditional foam cores, board-builders are able to create a product that is more than
four times more durable than a standard polyester-resin surfboard. Oh, it’s lighter too.
Stronger and lighter – sounds about right. So why don’t your boards have this technology?
Well, the blunt answer to that question isn’t pretty, but it sure is simple – you don’t
have it because it’s different. This according to board builder Bill Bahne, who says, “The
technology is there, but most of the glass shops don’t want to work with the new materials
because it requires changing their whole process.”

The glass shops don’t want to work with the materials because they’ve grown
accustomed to working with polyester resin, and to work with the new technology would
require learning a whole new process. Sure, epoxy resin is stronger and lighter, doesn’t give
off potent hazardous fumes, and could be the custom board-builders’ answer to molded
boards, but the glass shops are slow to adopt the methodologies. In fairness, the resin is
also more expensive, but as the price of a custom shortboard creeps nearer the $500 mark,
so too will the demand from consumers for a durable product.

Despite the best efforts of glass shops, epoxy resins are gaining momentum –
however slow – from production boardbuilders. In fact, Channel Islands has been using the
resin to glass some of its team boards for the past 20 years.

“I’ve been using some of the epoxy resins since before Tommy [Curren] turned
pro,” says Al Merrick. “It does have added value with strength, but some of the flex
characteristics change with temperature when you use it on a polyurethane blank, which is
something they need to perfect. The biggest benefit I see is being able to glass extruded polystyrene blanks, which is something Tommy is really excited about.”

So it seems that it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the board building
industry catches on. With new technologies for cores (Solomon blanks, hollow graphite,
extruded polystyrene) and resins (epoxy, UV, AST glass) slowly gaining acceptance in the
mainstream, it may not be long before the traditional polystyrene foam and polyester resin
board is remaindered to the realms of other relics.

But this has been written before. And it’s a prophecy that hasn’t been fulfilled yet.
The key? Bahne sums it up best. “The industry needs a swift kick in the ass; they can
handle it.”