Each year, thousands of surfboards fill our landfills, broken during a run of swell or left in "disrepair" from seasons of affectionate beatings—a favorite board loved to death and discarded. After years of memorable sessions, these boards have just as much personality and character as their owners; what a shame that they should rot at the dump. Recently, a few bold board builders have taken it upon themselves to rescue those beloved pieces of foam and fiberglass from the grave, resurrecting old boards to give them a second life. Inspired by the garage shapers of the 1960s, scrappy "upcycling" shapers are reclaiming busted boards, sun-browned beaters, cheap, old, and deformed foam blanks, and pretty much anything they can get their hands on—scrap lumber for stringers and cast-off aerospace materials—to build boards in a cost-efficient and more sustainable manner.
And it isn't just limited to backyard builders cutting their teeth on burnt-brown foam. Attendees at Vissla's "Creators and Innovators Upcycle Contest" were privy to just how beautiful and functional of equipment is being built. The event was meant to showcase the art of upcycling and to gather artists from around the world to share their craft and spark creative thinking on how to create boards out of not just discarded boards, but also everyday household items. Shapers built boards out of old film canisters, scrap timber from old houses, and agave plants that utilize both the root and sap of the plant to create both the base of the board and the binding resin. These methods are both eco-friendly and utilize materials that would have otherwise gone to landfills, turning trash into artful treasure that both surfers and non-surfers can enjoy.
Of course, there's always the question of whether an upcycled board would perform as well as they looked. Recently, we visited with Marc Sanchez of Reeco Surfboards, in Point Loma, California, one of the pioneers leading the upcycling charge. Taking custom orders through Point Loma’s Coconut Pete’s, Reeco sources materials from ding repair shops all around San Diego, often building single boards out of different parts of other boards.
We picked up a retro fish, shaped from an old longboard that had stress cracks in the foam, with glassed-on twin fins made from old skateboard decks that were sitting in a dumpster. Reeco Surfboards shaped this board and purposefully kept the crack in the old foam apparent, but thoroughly glassed it over. They painted on a rainbow using bio-resin tints and affectionately named the board, "Dah Clownfish."
I can't say I didn't feel cool carrying it down the path at my local reef—it was a good looking board. But it also surfed as well as any fish I have right now. Easy to catch waves, and super fast and squirrely in even the most meager conditions, the board brought back the positive and happy energy that got me hooked on surfing in the first place. Pretty amazing that there's now the opportunity to create amazing boards from old tried and true surfcraft to resurrect the energy those boards are capable of and continue their legacy in a different form.
I headed back to Reeco's tiny two-room shaping bay to dive deeper into Marc's process and to see why he became so passionate and involved in the upcycled push.
What do you look for in a board to give it personality?
Every board you upcycle has personality, whether I want it there or not. Sometimes there’s a chunk taken out in a weird place, or it’s thin or low rockered. It’s not like getting a fresh piece of foam and deciding on anything you want. You have to go with it and make the most functional, aesthetically pleasing board you can. Each board is like jazz – you kinda just have to feel your way around while you're doing it. As general rule of thumb, I like to show the imperfections, but in a controlled way so it doesn’t look like pieced-together trash. Which, technically, I guess, it is.
Do the materials you use affect your process when building a board?
We use junk materials, and sometimes it's hard to see the difference between our boards and another board. I just want the junk to look like any other pretty board. Using these materials lends itself to some weird shapes. They're usually pretty flat rockered, but I try to leave as much foam as I can, because a lot of times it can be a pretty small piece, so I end up with a lot of short, fat, low rockered, weird little Simmons-type boards.
What does the future of upcycling boards mean to you? Do you try to use anything you can get your hands on?
I try to collect a lot of materials. Every time you glass a board, there's always a little excess resin in the cup. But if you just dump it in something and make fins out of the excess resin, you save so much and use more in your shop, rather then just letting it go to a landfill. I started making fins out of old stringer pieces. I also save all my cloth scraps to make fins out of them. I really try to not throw anything away. I think the ideal would be working with more friendly materials. That's the true goal. But as long as there's junk to be used, I'll keep using it.
What would you want to do to take it to the next level for recycling?
The big-picture next level isn’t really upcycling or recycling. It’s building with different materials. I want to see boards that are built with compostable foam and entropy resins so there wouldn’t really be a need to upcycle the foam, because you could just compost it. If that happens industry-wide, I would dust off and gladly walk away.
As surfers, we are in close connection with nature, specifically the ocean. We should seek out alternative and eco-friendly methods to manufacture these crafts that allow us to be in such a close connection to the Earth every time we paddle out.