From polyurethanes to the Beach Boys: shaping a popular surf culture

On 10 July 2011, surfers around the world will celebrate International Surfing Day. To take part we thought we would talk about the most important thing for a surfer – besides flare and waves – his board. Most surfboard owners may not know it but, there is a great chance that their board is made of polyurethane as it is most widespread material used to make surfboards.

This, however, was not the case in the early days of surfing. Surfboards were originally made out of a solid wood and were large and heavy (up to 45 kilos). In the 1940s, slightly lighter boards from balsa wood were introduced, but it was not until 1956, when Dave Sweet, a respected icon in the world of surfing, made and rode the first polyurethane foam surfboard. Polyurethane boards were much lighter and responsive than conventional wooden boards and most importantly, they were much cheaper. This was a big technological leap, which revolutionised the surfing industry and its culture. The invention decreased the price of surfboards dramatically, allowing more and more American youngsters to catch waves, as illustrated by the joyful sound of the early Beach Boys (see their first TV appearance below, it is priceless!), symbol of the popular surf culture that developed in the early 1960’s in America, following the democratization of surf.

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Interestingly, the physical characteristics of polyurethane surfboards were only one reason for their popularity. Another reason was simplification of the production process. If you wanted a wooden surfboard, you had to find a tree, chop it down and then spend weeks shaping it. Few could actually afford this type of luxury, making surfing a sport for a dedicated few.

With polyurethane, the process could go much faster and cheaper. A factory making PU foam surfboards constructs “blanks” which have rough dimensions of a surfboard. These “blanks” then go to shapers who adjust it for personal needs, using information of your weight, length and preferences. Due to the flexibility of polyurethane, PU surfboards are much easier and cheaper to shape, which actually brought surfing to the masses.
Even today, five decades after Dave Sweet rode his first polyurethane surfboard, PU foam surfboards are the most popular choice amongst new surfers for their durability, resistance, responsiveness and low price.

To close this post, I can hardly resist embedding this unbelievable video from big wave surfer and daredevil Laird Hamilton. I do not know for sure whether his board is made of polyurethane, but his performance is worth looking at all the same; simply breathtaking.

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