Wood To Foam
The Development of Polyurethane Foam Boards
Late 1950's image of Hobie Alter, Hoppy Swarts
and Whitey Harrision courtesy of Gary Lynch and the Tom Blake Collection.
Aloha! And welcome to this chapter of LEGENDARY
Beginning with the innovation of using fiberglass and foam to craft surfboards by Bob Simmons
in the late 1940's, this chapter (written in the late 1990's) details how the polyurthane foam board was developed and how it caused a
radical change for surfers from using fiberglassed wooden surfboards to fiberglassed foam boards.
The Modern Foam Board
Pete Peterson, Brant Goldsworthy & Ted Thal
Bob Simmons (1919-1954)
Polystyrene Foam, 1947-48
Sandwich & Spoon, 1949
Reducing the Weight
1st Surf Shop
Retreat to San Diego
Joe Quigg & Matt Kivlin
Lorrin "Whitey" Harrison (1913-1993)
Gordon "Grubby" Clark
Noll Steals the Formula
East Coast Explosion
Although he exaggerates and makes fun - as usual - Corky Carroll
was not far off the mark when he wrote in his "Totally Unofficial History
of The Modern Surfboard," that "The foam board was the biggest and most
important breakthrough in the history of surfing. These new boards weighed
only thirty to forty pounds. This opened the door to anybody that wanted
to take up surfing, including women, children and geeks from inland. Previously
it had taken a beach version of Hercules to carry one of those hundred
plus pound monsters from your car to the water and back. There weren't
many babes that could or would do that back then, and if there were you
probably wanted to stay clear of 'em. If you got hit by your board in those
days you were seriously damaged too."
Modern Foam Board
The modern surfboard, with the exception of stringers, are products
of the petrochemical age. As such, they owe their existence, as Surfing
magazine editor Nick Carroll once wrote, "to the laying down of large quantities
of decaying vegetable matter beneath the current planetary surface hundreds
of millions of years ago."
The three main components of today's surfboard are foam, fiberglass
and resin. All three have their beginnings in the wartime technological
advances made before, during and following World War II.
"Polyurethane foam," wrote Nick Carroll, "the core of almost all
surfboards manufactured today, is an extraordinary chemical cocktail, simple
yet volatile, first developed some 50 years ago for use as aircraft and
refrigeration insulation. Inert liquid materials are mixed with several
additives, including the primary active ingredient, toluene di-isocyanate,
and poured into a secure mold, where gases formed by the chemical reactions
'blow' the foam into its hardened cellular matrix..."
Put another way, foam "is a material based on an isocyanide and a
polyester or polyester type polyol," the authors of Surfboard wrote,
adding, "along with a rather complicated mixture and blend of catalyst
and bubble-producing agents. The components are formulated for molding
into surfboard cores. The foam is made strictly from petro-chemical derivatives
with the exception of some of the bubble-producing items, catalyst, and
a blend of commonly available commodity-type chemicals which are processed
through several chemical reactions during the manufacturing process. Two
chemical reactions take place simultaneously when the ingredients are mixed.
One chemical reaction is the formation of polyurethane. The other reaction
is a gas formed either through heat or through two chemicals forming carbon
dioxide, which yields small bubbles within the liquid. The small bubbles
in turn expand and make the foam as the polyurethane is being formed within
"Perhaps the most important advantage in manufacturing," wrote Peter
Dixon in the 1969 edition of The Complete Book of Surfing, "is that
foam can be mixed and molded into almost any size and shape. Surfboards
do not come out of the molds as a finished product. Molding the blank is
just the first step. The blank is the semi-fiinished shape that emerges
from the mold when the chemicals are mixed and then 'cooked'... Several
chemical ingredients go into the mix before a board blank is cast. The
chemical liquids are first heated, mixed in new clean paper containers
that can only be used once, and then poured into the molds (One foam blank
manufacturer used so many paper containers that he had to build his own
container factory to keep up with his needs). Once the mix is in the molds
it is baked for approximately thirty minutes. The heat cures the foam,
which is then removed from the molds. The molded blanks are now ready to
be sold to custom shops for final shaping and glassing. Most of these blanks
are made oversize so the custom builder [shaper] can trim them down to
shapes desired by individual buyers."
"Another way of forming blanks is to create the board right in the
mold," Dixon added. "In this method the fiberglass covering is molded first
and then the plastic foam is allowed to cure inside. This is the least
expensive way. There are several disadvantages to this method of construction.
The glass doesn't bond well to the foam and may blister if left in the
sun. The skeg cannot be fixed firmly to the fiberglass [pre-fin box], and
the seam or joint where the two halves are joined together is not sufficiently
strong. Mass-produced boards have not as yet matched the quality of the
custom-made product. Though factory models are cheaper, inferior quality
tells in the long run. As the mass producers gain experience, their product
will likely improve."
"Fiberglass," continues Stephen Shaw in the revised and updated edition
of the very first manual on surfboard making, "is a glass similar to window
glass heated to a molten state and strained through very small platinum
discs into the air and collected as very fine threads. These threads are
immersed in an oil to keep the filaments from breaking as they are woven.
The threads are woven on textile machinery, and the oil is melted out under
high temperature. A finish, such as Union Carbide's 'Silane' or DuPont's
'Volan' are put on the cloth to promote flexibility and adhesion to the
polyester resin. Cloth used in the surfboard industry is woven especially
"Polyester resin is... a liquid plastic, bulked up by styrene, a
benzene derivative that makes up over a third of its content," wrote Nick
Carroll. Various other stabilizers, anti-UV compounds and the like make
up the difference. "It is turned into a hard plastic by the introduction
of a substance known as methyl ethyl ketone peroxide, or 'catalyst,' as
we professionals prefer to call it. A small amount of MEKP -- just a few
drops per cup of resin -- sets off the hardening reaction..."
"The three resins used in surfboard manufacturing, laminating, hot
coating and glossing, are made of a combination of phathalic, anhydride
or isothalic acid, makeic and hydride propylene or ethylene glycol and
styrene plus a promoter and a catalyst." These "are cooked together forming
a long series of molecules. The material is then mixed in the cool state
with styrene. With an addition of the catalyst and promoter, the styrene
crosslinks the long molecules cooked earlier and form a solid."
The fact that the modern surfboard has its roots in military R &
D is not a new development to the sport. "Wars have always sped up the
pace of technology," wrote Nat Young in his History of Surfing,
pointing out that, "The period leading up to World War I was one in which
chemists searched for waterproof glues which would bond timber together;
that led to surfers having a means of holding all the pieces of timber
together instead of using bolts running from rail to rail. Plywood was
a refinement of this bonding; it made the first fighting aircraft a reality
and led to the box-frame plywood-covered surf/paddle boards..." These glued
plywood-over-a-light-wooden-frame became "kook boxes" and, at one time,
ruled the surfing scene.
World War II military research and development lead to fiberglass,
resin and styrofoam and the first surfers to experiment with it were Preston
"Pete" Peterson and
Peterson, Brant Goldsworthy & Ted Thal
Twentieth Century landmark surfer Preston "Pete"
Peterson was the first person to build a fiberglass surfboard, in June
of 1946. Brant Goldsworthy helped and Joe
Quigg -- along with Pete -- tested it out in the water. Godsworthy
had a plastics company in Los Angeles that supplied component parts for
WWII aircraft. The first-ever fiberglass board was constructed of two hollow
molded halves, joined together with a redwood stringer down the middle.
The seam was sealed with fiberglass tape.
Later, Brant Goldsworthy and his partner Ted Thal were the first
ones to sell fiberglass and resin surfboards.
The first fiberglassed board could have an even earlier start date.
Twentieth Century surfing innovator Tom Blake
told biographer Gary Lynch that "Before
the war started... [noted swimmer Jim Handy] had sent a board back East
and had it fiberglassed... that's what Tom swears. I've asked him three
times about it, cuz everyone says it couldn't be true. But, he said that
before World War II, Jamison Handy already had a fiberglass board. I don't
know why he'd tell me that if it wasn't true."
"Where this came from," Tommy Zahn
told Gary, "was - Pete had been a lifetime friend of Brant Goldsworthy's...
and Brant Goldsworthy was the who who invented the stuff..." Tommy went
on to tell some more about how Pete's first fiberglass board developed:
"Pete had two boards - one was 'The Pete Board' and the other was
this [prototype] board, which was redwood/balsa... It was just balsa wood
with redwood rails. It wasn't 'The Pete Board,' which was balsa with a
redwood deck. And this prototype, which was wood, was the one he used in
big waves. He didn't use 'The Pete Board' in big waves.
"And so, when the fiberglass first came out, he thought, 'hey, it
would be a real neat idea to reinforce the nose of all these boards with
fiberglass' and started doing that. Then he covered the whole [prototype]
board with fiberglass. Then, he said, Brant talked him into making an all-fiberglass
board. so he used it [the redwood/balsa big wave board] for a male mold
and pulled that - this board [the 'plastic'] off that one; then, put a
center dividing strip of redwood, here, and nailed it on and glassed over
that. Then, the whole board was effectively fiberglass except for this
dividing srip - you could see light through the whole board."
The first commercial resin manufacturer was the Bakelite Corporation.
The "early resins were of the same viscosity as the resins used today,"
wrote Nat Young, "but the catalyst was a paste-like vaseline that had to
be thoroughly mixed with the resin. The drying time was totally dependent
on the amount of sunshine and naturally one side dried while the rails
were still tacky." Because this mixture made the boards look ugly, compared
to the shiny varnish surfers had been using for decades previously, the
boards were not popular.
"Experimenting with resin and glass was a frustrating experience,"
continued Young. "Because of his diligent inquiries to every chemical company
in Los Angeles, Joe Quigg [who got interested in the technology, too] was
suspected of being a German spy!"
"Another time," Young went on, "Quigg remembers walking into Ted
Thal's one-room shop (now a huge corporation) and seeing little bottles
of stuff that had just arrived at the Thalco Chemical Company. Ted didn't
know what it was, but the label read 'setting fluid -- highly explosive'
and that made him suspect it was the catalyst he needed. Joe pleaded with
Thal to let him have some; Thal, however, declined. Frustrated, Joe remembered
that one of his friends,
Dave Sweet, had an uncle
who was in the plastics department of Douglas Aircraft so Joe persuaded
Dave to contact his uncle and get some setting fluid. When Joe came back
to Dave's house a couple of days later he saw Dave in the backyard putting
out a fire which had occurred from a particularly hot mix! Because it was
proving so hard to get he drove back to Ted Thal's office, identified the
suspicious stuff in the little bottles, and persuaded Thal to part with
it and some other funny stuff called pigment or tint."
But, the surfer who is most responsible for bringing this new technology
to surfing was the enigmatic Bob Simmons.
"If anybody was ever to get the credit of being the 'Father of the
Modern Surfboard,'" Santa Barbara's most honored surfboard manufacturer
Rennie Yater told me, "I would say it would have to be Simmons. He changed
board design in a shorter period of time than anybody has before or since.
When his boards started showing up at San Onofre, they couldn't believe
it. Such a traditional place. Everything had to look the same, ride the
same, pose the same... Simmons' boards weren't welcome at San Onofre. See,
his influence was more at Malibu. He could care less about the San Onofre
area. He always went up and tested his stuff at Malibu or Palos Verdes
"To go back a little farther," Rennie Yater explained, "Simmons worked
for Gard Chapin. He had a garage
door business, as I remember. So, Simmons had access to a lot of different
materials. They used plywood a lot for garage doors. Simmons finally came
up with this -- probably the first production line other than Pacific Systems
-- the first production line surfboard that had a foam [expanded polystyrene]
core, balsawood rails, and plywood deck. He came up with that idea probably
because of all the influence he had from plywood... mahogany veneers on
the outside to get them even lighter. He did incredible things for the
time he did 'em in, compared to today. He's also fortunate to come out
of the Second World War. Fiberglass was a revolutionary product to come
out of the war. See, here comes this material on the open market. So, he
now had access to that."
Bob Simmons never attempted to fully explain
his designs to anyone because they were "complex and the applications were
simple, and could be modified," wrote his friend John Elwell. "He was also
secretive and didn't trust some people." His brother Dewey had had a long
legal battle over his invention of the electrical strain gauge and this
was probably ever-present in his mind. Elwell, who knew him, also feels,
"There was also some delight in baffling some of the rule of thumb, surfing
know-it-alls. There was no doubt he rejected exaggerators and dreamers
on the beach. He gravitated to the better surfers and ignored the less
serious and unskilled."
& Spoon, 1949
In 1949, a fairly famous photograph was shot of Simmons streaking
across an outstanding wave at Malibu. "He was riding a foam core, veneer
laminated, dual fin concave," wrote his friend John Elwell. "The picture
is historic for the reasons of his early position and increased angle across
the wave. His wake is long and flat, indicating great power and speed for
Elwell says Simmons had started messing around with styrofoam, a
new material at that time, back in 1947. Foam had been used during World
War II, molded into fuselage radar domes. Simmons located the raw chemical
sources from a government or corporate agency, then went about building
a cement mold in the ground. With this, he blew his own foam to make "styrofoam
core sandwich boards," using a plywood lid topped by five large rocks.
Elwell recalls seeing these blanks, in 1950, at the lifeguard
station at Imperial Beach. The mold still exists by a barn on his late
uncle and aunt's ranch in Norwalk. He did a lot of research and development
there, keeping tools and utilizing a large work space.
Joe Quigg confirmed that it was 1949 when Matt Kivlin began talking
to Simmons about the idea of making lighter, hollow plywood rescue boards.
"Simmons thought that was interesting, but instead of simply making the
boards hollow he began sandwiching styrofoam between plywood and glassing
the whole thing over. He had gotten some samples of styrofoam after the
war, and had always dreamed of making a board with styrofoam." The drawback
with styrofoam, however, was that it would dissolve once catalyzed resin
was poured onto it, so the two together turned out to be impractical. By
sandwiching styrofoam in between plywood, however, Simmons made it viable.
"The first couple of boards of this type," wrote Elwell, "had 50/50 rail
lines, but by '49 he had them down to 60/40 and as low as 80/20. The tails
were so thin as to be fragile."
Quigg was still in the Islands when Simmons wrote saying that he
had built his first light board in the 25 pound range. "He had never built
anything like this before and that was late 1949," wrote Nat Young. "Simmons
had had fibreglass and resins for three years but did not choose to use
these materials for their lightness but only as protection around the nose
of his redwood boards." Simmons "was familiar with a light fibreglass cloth
which gave him the possibility of making lighter boards, but he didn't
use it until 1949. Ironically Simmons delayed using the cloth because he
believed that heavier boards were faster and he fastidiously stuck to this
Bob Simmons, like Tom Blake before
him, had began thinking that heavier boards would work better, but like
Blake, he later spent much of his design and development time aimed at
lightening his boards.
The first Simmons-made Sandwich Boards were simply sealed plywood
over a styrofoam core. Later, he added light and shapable balsa rails to
streamline the shape.
"The lifeguards, unfortunately, never would buy them, but the surfers
-- Simmons' followers -- thought they were neat and started buying them,"
recalled Quigg. Demand for Simmons boards increased. He sold about 100
in the summer of '49 alone, which was a record at that time.
To satisfy demand, Simmons set up a surf shop in Santa Monica. "In
those first days," said Quigg, "Simmons would glue the plywood, styrofoam
and balsa parts together, then Matt (Kivlin) would shape the balsa rails
and glass them over." Simmons' new board-building business became too big
for he and Kivlin to handle alone, so they asked Joe Quigg to return from
Hawai`i to give them a hand. Quigg came back and, while Simmons maintained
his original Santa Monica shop, Quigg and Kivlin organized a separate glassing
and finishing shop to support Simmons' operation. "Matt and I rented a
shop space up the same road from Simmons' shop," said Quigg, "and it was
there that we did all the finishing work. At that time, Simmons had lots
of orders. We did maybe a hundred boards."
Then gremmie Greg Noll tells a little story
of this period. "One day, I ditched school and talked Simmons into taking
me with him to Salt Creek. He didn't like kids any more than he liked adults,
but I also rode one of his boards, so he tolerated me. He'd go through
long periods of silence, then he'd start quizzing me. 'Why are you going
to school? What are you going to do with your education? Why don't you
get out and do something with your life?' He was provocative and he was
smart. A real individual."
"If you really wanted one of his boards," wrote Nat Young, "you had
to pay for it up front and sometimes you had to wait for a year to get
a new Simmons 'spoon.'" Nat referred to one of the many other ideas to
pop out at this time. Simmons, Quigg and Kivlin carried their board-building
into further realms. As an example, Quigg fashioned the first fiberglass
fin during this period. All three scooped their noses, dropped the rails
and shaped the tailblocks in various experimental ways. Out of these design
sessions came the Simmons "Spoon." It was a 10-foot solid male balsa board
with a full belly, kicked up nose, thin rails and a glassed and foiled
wooden fin. It's probable that Simmons developed the balsa Spoon for larger
breaks like Ventura Overhead and La Jolla's Bird Rock due to its relatively
pointed nose. Rennie Yater pointed out that, "His spoon nose, you know
-- it's been copied ever since. It just made surfboards, instead of being
straight, with a little curve to them; quite a bit more curve to them.
They didn't get essentially that way right away. He did, like I say, very
extreme things." In essence, this was the beginning of rocker in surfboards.
"Well, you might call it that," agreed Yater, "because the planks didn't
have any rocker. They were dead flat.
"Simmons' boards were really wide in the tail. He wanted to get up
and go! With concave bottoms and all those things he put back there, they
did go. They went fast, straight across the wave. But, boy, the wide tail
would push the nose down because the tail would ride so well. The scoop
of the nose, concave bottom and wide tail -- it all worked. The boards
had their problems, but the concept itself worked."
Simmons, however, did not go for ultra light weight. He still believed
it was necesary to have a degree of weight in the boards he built. "Even
his 'sandwich' board, as it was called," wrote Nat Young, "-- it had a
light styrofoam core with thin plywood on the deck and bottom, plus balsa
rails, and was covered with glass -- was heavier than the balsa boards
that his glassers Matt Kivlin and Joe Quigg were making at the same time."
"At one time," recalled Greg Noll, "Simmons' boards were in such
demand that the pressure of meeting orders almost became too much for him.
Like most of us, he really just wanted to surf. I remember once, he had
something like thirty-four boards on back-order. Velzy
and I both had had a Simmons board on back-order for three months. Simmons
wouldn't answer his phone, so Velzy decided that we would check out the
situation in person.
"Going to Simmons' shop was just as much an experience as riding
one of his boards. The shop was on a side street in Venice Beach. It was
an absolute goddamn mess. He never cleaned up the balsa-wood shavings,
so you'd have to make a path through the shavings and other debris to get
from one place in the shop to another.
"Velzy and I arrived there about five o'clock one afternoon. The
place looked all shut down. We pounded on the door. No reply. Velzy noticed
that the door wasn't locked, so he opened it and called, 'Simmons?'
"No reply. We walked in cautiously through the shavings, calling,
'Simmons, where are you?' Finally, we heard a gruff voice from a corner:
'Whaddaya want.' We followed the voice and found Simmons sitting in the
corner in shadow. He was eating beans out of a can, using a big balsa-wood
shaving for a spoon.
"Simmons was eccentric. When he'd worn holes through the soles of
his shoes, he'd cut a piece of plywood and tape it onto his shoe. With
his perpetually uncombed hair, skinny physique and gimpy arm, he truly
looked like a mad scientist.
"He didn't like many people, but he liked Velzy better than most
because Velzy rode Simmons' boards and he rode them well. Besides that,
he just liked Velzy."
"When I first met Simmons at Malibu," between 1946 and 1948, Walter
Hoffman recalled, "I didn't realize he wouldn't make you a board unless
he liked you... or he'd make you wait a year or two... if ever." By 1950,
at Laguna Beach, Hoffman had, "one of the very first boards featuring a
foam core, with plywood deck and bottom, balsa rails, fully glassed, built
by Matt Kivlin and Joe Quigg. 'It was a great board!'"
"Simmons' stuff was not good craftsmanship; not pretty to look at;
not well done," Rennie Yater recollects. "You might say 'crude.' But, his
ideas -- he just kept going! He wouldn't be afraid to try something, build
it and two days later be out there riding it just to find out, himself,
how it worked...
"Kivlin and Quigg were from Malibu and they worked together... Joe
always made boards that rode better. They were much easier to ride. He
wouldn't be as radical as Bob. Kivlin's boards were even quite a bit different.
His style of surfing -- you ever seen in the museum, the real thin 90 rails?
Boy, he could really ride 'em, too. Really good. So, he just went off and
did his own thing. You know, Kivlin and Simmons didn't like each other,
either. But that was the admiration part of it, too."
to San Diego
As rumors and word of Simmons' boards continued to spread up and
down the California coast, Bob Simmons suddenly shut down his Santa Monica
shop. He had a falling out with Quigg and Kivlin over their development
of what would later be known as the Malibu
Board. He moved his operation out to the family's Norwalk ranch for
privacy and seculusion and to do more R & D. He surfed mostly in the
San Diego area and it was during this time that the best and last of a
series of Simmons boards were made.
At this time, Simmons prototyped double-slotted boards to improve
paddling. Some very short ones appeared from 6-to-8 feet. He experimented
with different tail dimensions, but all his stock models were quite different
than his personal boards. His own boards always had dual shallow fins and
harder 60/40 rails, all the way down to 80/20.
"There was a huge vacuum left when Simmons quit producing boards,"
wrote John Elwell. It was natural that modified copies would be produced
and these first started showing up in the summer of 1950. Elwell says he
and others asked Simmons about these and he replied, "They are easy to
make. Changing the nose and tails somewhat don't make that much difference.
The nose sticks out of the water when we surf. I'd hate to get stabbed
by a pointed one! If the tail is less than ten inches, it's a paddleboard!
My noses are much more functional and stronger. The points break off too
easy!" The most common feature to be seen in the modified boards, including
the paddleboard types, was a Simmons-type hydrofoiled rail.
"In San Diego," wrote Elwell, "a stream of people came down from
LA and begged him for boards, as did San Diego locals. He politely refused
and only made a handful of boards for a selected few. He surfed all the
time at his favorite spots -- the Tijuana
Sloughs and Windansea. He was a busy man, finishing his math degree
at San Diego State, playing championship ping pong and going to the horse
races. Simmons had devised a scheme of probability of mathematical odds,
pooled family money, played the horses, did very well and took a cut. He
had money, got out of all the dust, resin and hassle of surfboard making
and had more time to surf and do the things he liked."
Thus, quietly, Simmons slipped into an even greater legendary status
while still alive, by withdrawing from the whole surfboard production scene.
His move down south marked the beginning of the end of what has been known
as the "Simmons Era." Rennie Yater recalled, "Simmons went on down to live
in Imperial Beach. People kind of forgot about him after he left the Malibu
testing grounds. Surfboard evolution went on, but surfboards weren't as
radical. They were pretty conservative; with natural rocker, the way balsa
wood came; with about an inch of deck rocker, with very little heavy rocker
in the bottom of the board. That went on for a long time, into the Velzy
era and Hobie era; didn't change much at all 'till foam came around. Then,
you weren't restricted by the dimensions of balsa wood. Even the balsa
wood boards didn't have much rocker, except for the ones in Hawai`i, where
they started to put kick in the nose because of the big waves.
"I can't tell you how much I think about Simmons... I really admired
what he did. You know, his approach to what he did. 'I'm just gonna make
what I wanna make.' Just try something different all the time. He didn't
care if guys came around. He was annoyed by people coming around, wanting
his boards. He only sold 'em cuz he had to make some money."
"Simmons was indeed a rare, rare man," declared Dave Rochlen. "Here
was a guy who believed pretty radically in something. He had a certain
kind of integrity. His behavior never changed. He had a better mind than
any of us guys. Above all, he was a better man than almost any man on the
"I was there and saw it all," testified Bev Morgan who began his
surfing career in the late 1940s. "Simmons was the one. It was a brilliant
combination of technology and genius. It was a quantum leap from the old
Pacific Homes planks and Tom Blake paddleboards."
"He experimented with different materials," wrote Greg Noll, "such
as sandwiching balsa, plywood and Styrofoam together to try to get the
weight down. Equally as important as his use of lighter materials was his
use of fiberglass. He was the first to combine light weight and fiberglass,
and this blew the whole thing wide open."
Fiberglass and resin applied to balsa boards became thee board of
choice during the 1950s. The other Simmons-pioneered technology of using
foam would take longer to catch on. Key to its development was the later
switch from polystyrene to polyurethane foam.
Quigg & Matt Kivlin
At the beginning of the 1950s, the surfboard was going through a
period of radical changes in weight, materials and shape, the likes of
which hadn't been seen since Tom Blake first developed hollow boards in
the late 1920s.
Bob Simmons' introduction of light weight materials like fiberglass,
resin and styrofoam to the surfing world seemed, at first, to be the next
branch to the tree of surfing evolution. The styrofoam core sandwich board,
especially, looked like it would be the one to replace the old redwood/balsa's.
At this critical juncture, it was the combination of light weight
materials with light weight wood -- i.e. balsa -- that really changed everything.
Weight and materials were not the only change agents. Not only would redwood
become a thing of the past, but the traditional surfboard designs and old
plank shapes would give way to newer designs featuring scarfed noses, pulled
down rails, concaves and skegs, in large part due to the genius of Bob
Simmons, but also to the shaping finesse of Joe Quigg.
Joe Quigg and Matt Kivlin are generally credited with creating what
became known as "the Malibu Board."
This balsa board would go on to dominate the 1950s surf scene. While Bob
Simmons played his part in the introduction of fiberglass and resin used
in the Malibu Chips, Quigg and Kivlin disagreed with Simmons' stance on
weight. Joe Quigg and Matt Kivlin moved out from Simmons' shop to develop
their own boards which were immediately recognized for their lightness.
As Quigg explained to surf historian Gary Lynch, his first breakthrough
design was made in the summer of 1947, just before leaving for the the
Islands. Writer Craig Stecyk has it being made on July 5, 1947. Not intended,
originally, to be any great breakthrough in design or shape, it was merely
a board built as a "novice girls board" for Tommy Zahn's girlfriend Darrylin.
Shaped out of balsa and sealed with fiberglass and resin, Quigg created
"the board to satisfy Zahn's expressed requirements that the board be short,
light, and easy for a girl to carry, plus it must fit in the back of her
Town and Country convertible. At 60 pounds, it's about half the weight
of typical boards of the period." This board weighed half as much as the
lightest Simmons surfboard, had a flowing deck rocker with 50/50 rails
and rail rocker from end to end. Quigg called this board his "Easy Rider,"
but it's also been called "the Darrylin Board" and is known as the first
Also that summer, he shaped two other revolutionary boards. One was
a 100% foiled down wide pintail with the first fiberglass fin. It featured
carved-in rail rocker, low sharp rails, flowing rocker end to end and a
100% breakaway tail. "A surviving historical sketch drawn by Quigg [during
a conversation with Kivlin] while on the way to Hawaii in 1947 (aboard
the S.S. Lurline)," wrote Gary Lynch,
"shows a streamlined, finned pintail gun that would be built as a series
starting that year. This design was to be the first modern pintail gun
shape with a fin." What has been referred to as "Pintail #1" was unveiled
at Malibu, on June 11, 1947, just prior to the creation of "the Darrylin
Board." It was a lightweight balsa board designed for speed and maneuverability.
"This pintail was a forward thinking innovation which featured an
absolutely flat bottom with low rails rolling down to a sharp edge in the
rear," wrote Craig Stecyk. "This revolutionary board was basically ignored
by all those present. Furthermore, if it were not for Quigg's considerable
surfing ability, an outside move like this design could have led to total
ostracization from the point elite."
The other revolutionary Quigg board from 1947 was an extension of
Pete Peterson had done just following the
war and what Simmons was working on in terms of weight reduction to boards.
Quigg shaped an all-foam surfboard prototype. It was four feet long with
four ounce fiberglass.
Quigg built other boards, also. One board that he shaped that eventually
fell into the hands of a young hot rider in the early 1950s -- named Phil
"The Guayule Kid" Edwards -- was nicknamed "The Grey Ghost." It was a Hot
Curl design, but untraditionally fiberglassed, pigmented and made from
solid balsawood. The Grey Ghost was 10' 11" long and 20 1/2" wide. Quigg
made it in an effort to re-evaluate the Hot Curl shape and Edwards later
rode the board for nearly two solid years.
Following up on his three revolutionary 1947 designs, Quigg built
"Pintail #2" on May 20, 1948. Quigg noted it as a "speed board" and the
"first narrow pintail, later called a big wave gun." It was a pintail with
a spear-like look, a flat bottom, low sharp rails and a 100% breakaway
tail. "Unfazed by the... negative reception," he and his pintails received
at Malibu, "Joe cuts the pintail board in half longitudinally, removes
the center area and re-glues it producing an even narrower, gunnier board.
The result, a very fast sinker. The reaction: total rejection... Only Gard
Chapin has a few kind words to offfer. He was intrigued over the board's
exotic features such as its fiberglass fin (the first ever). Quigg's experimentation
with the fins on this board included multiple configurations (The first
Joe Quigg followed his pintail designs with a later refinement of
the pintail design and, in 1949, with his first "Nose Rider." This last
board had a straight flat front, with "all the curve in the back, even
the deck turned up in back."
Like most all other surfboard designers who shaped themselves into
new design territory, Quigg's boards were viewed skeptically. In fact,
his shapes were initially looked down upon. Even Bob Simmons dismissed
Quigg's direction and their partnership would end because of them. "The
guys at San Onofre and Hawaii ridiculed me so bad that I was embarrassed
to take the board to the beach," recalled Quigg about the reception he
received when he took his new narrow and extremely pointed nose and tail
design to the beach. "I built the pintail design so early on," he added,
"that later many people mistakenly gave others credit for the design."
After four other prototypes, Quigg built a fifth pintail gun in 1951.
The board was made of light balsa covered with a single layer of 4 ounce
fiberglass. Measuring 10 feet long and weighing 24 pounds, Quigg remembers,
"I took this board to Rincon when it was breaking 10'. I beat a wave from
second point indicator through Rincon point, and on down into the outer
shore break." The full pintail design was consequently adopted by many
shapers making boards for big waves.
Joe Quigg was one of surfing's great "crossover" shapers because
of his knowledge of hydrodynamics and his use of materials. He made the
transition back and forth between wood, foam and fiberglass and he did
so for not only surfboards, but paddle boards, canoes and catamarans. In
fact, Quigg's paddle boards set many records. Because of his improved hydrodynamic
theories and use of lighter materials, Quigg was partly responsible for
changing the racing paddle board from its Tom Blake era of 19 feet in length
down to its current 12 foot length.
As for his outrigger canoes, Joe Quigg's Hawaiian class racing outrigger
canoe shapes still dominate the majority of races and can be found all
over the world at present day. Quigg's a member of the Outrigger Canoe
Club and Quigg-inspired shapes can be seen on any day in the waters off
Curiously, while Quigg's contributions to paddle board, outrigger
canoe and catamaran designs continued to be recognized, what he did in
terms of his breakthroughs in surfboard design were somewhat forgotten
in the later eras of the 1960s, '70s and 80s. This is perhaps because,
as Gary Lynch puts it, "Close friends will shout in anger while jealous
has-beens and wanna-bees distort the historical record on who did what
and when they did it." Noted Lynch with insight, "This phenomenon of not
agreeing will likely remain a permanent factor in the historical discussion
of the 20th century surfboard."
Quigg is not phased by the neglect of his contributions. Downplaying
his offerings, he wrote, "I'm not trying to claim the surfing world wouldn't
have gone right on with out me... of course it would have. Someone else
would have built those first (1947) foam boards and experimental models...
built the first glass fin... introduced those shape combinations. Someone
else would have built the first stand-up skim boards, polyethylene foam
belly boards, and the first modern pintail gun with fin. Someone else would
have made all those improvements on paddle boards and racing canoes. Probably
most important of all: My motive before, during and after was to make stuff
that was happy, more fun. Nobody else wanted girls or young kids in surfing.
It does my heart good to see people having such wild delight, just like
I had envisioned."
Going beyond the realm of surfing, Quigg said the question of who
did what when was a small matter. "It's just a lot of trivial stuff, stages
From California, the first time Matt Kivlin surfed in Hawai`i, he
got punched and Rabbit Kekai had to intervene.
"You better believe it!" Remembered Rabbit. "That's how I got to know Matt
real well. And Matt, well... he catches waves and those guys drop in and
they figure well, they've got territorial rights. And Matt's a really good
surfer, out of all those guys, I think he was the best.... He had a real
stately stance, like straight up, you know? Real graceful. I used to watch
him a lot. Matt gave me a balsa board that he'd shaped similar to our style,
a hot curl but with a fin. He made that board for his wife and then I rode
it and liked it and he gave it to me. That was in 1954. And I won the Makaha
with that board in '56 and '57. I rode it in Peru and won with it there
too. I ended up selling it to the President of Peru's nephew for $1,000."
Whitey Harrison was a surfing legend, too;
older than either Quigg or Kivlin and six years older than Simmons. Whitey
helped forge surfing in California during the 1930s redwood years. Significantly,
in the late '30s, he and Tarzan Smith broke open O`ahu's North Shore for
usage by the Hot Curl big wave surfers centered
at Makaha. A waterman in every sense of the word, Whitey was the first
one to build a surfboard out of polyurethane foam, in 1955, a year after
Bob Simmons' untimely death.
Gordon "Grubby" Clark -- the man who would
go on to become the single largest manufacturer of polyurethane foam blanks
for surfboards -- said Whitey, as an innovator, inspired many surfers,
including himself. "After all the places he'd been and waves he'd surfed,
he could still get pumped about a 2-foot day at Doheny. That's the most
remarkable thing about Whitey -- how he retained his skill and enthusiasm
for surfing throughout his long life."
The first persons to make commercial polyurethane foam boards were
Dave and Roger Sweet.
"Little did we know that Dave and Roger Sweet were working on [polyurethane]
foam at the same time [we were]," Hobie Alter recalled.
"Actually, they'd been working on foam for a considerable time before us.
Then they separated, and Cliff Robertson [later to become a well-known
actor] joined forces with Dave to form Robertson-Sweet. They did foam boards,
but we didn't consider them... We didn't think they were any good. They
were big, round-railed things. Which is fine, as they were looking for
the mass production solution."
Gordon Clark recalled: "Two years before [Hobie Alter developed commercial
polyurethane foam], Dave Sweet and his brother, both surfers with a shop
in Santa Monica, had found a backer in the actor Cliff Robertson," who
went on to star with Sandra Dee in the first Gidget film. "Robertson financed
their work in developing a polyurethane foam surfboard. In 1950, Bob Simmons
had been the very first to ever try foam in a surfboard -- he used polystyrene
foam. Many others have claimed to have been the first to try polyurethane
foam, but Lorrin Harrison in Capistrano Beach was actually the first, in
1955. The work started by Sweet in 1956 was the first sustained effort
in developing polyurethane foam boards."
Writer C.R. Stecyk wrote that it was May 5, 1956 when Dave Sweet first showed
his work off in public:
"Dave Sweet, an idiosyncratic designer, paddles out on an unassuming
looking marbleized abstract pigmented opaque surfboard. Astute local observers
notice the change in Dave's surfing style and closely examine the stick
discovering it to be unbelievably light in weight. Offering no explanations,
Dave leaves with the mysto-prototype board. Insiders realize that Sweet
has mastered the foam process. Next week he will offer the first commercial
polyurethane foam surfboard for sale. It will be two years before he has
any competitors. Paradoxically, Sweet will never take public credit for
his innovation. Not even such close friends as Joe Quigg can get him to
admit it. Even Dave Rochlen who vividly recalls having shaped foam blanks
for Sweet back in '53 is unable to get Dave to discuss his contributions."
Thus, Polyurethane foam surfboards had their beginnings in the workshops
of Whitey Harrison, Dave Sweet and Dave Rochlen.
"The first person to try foam in a surfboard was Bob Simmons in 1950,
using polystyrene foam," reaffirmed Greg Noll. "In 1955, Lorrin Harrison
in Capistrano Beach became the first to try polyurethane foam, and in [May]
1956 Dave Sweet in Santa Monica made the first sustained effort to develop
polyurethane foam boards."
Hobart "Hobie" Alter's name became synonymous with the foam and fiberglass
surfboard in the late 1950s and early '60s. Although a "moderately talented
surfer who excelled in peripheral events like tandem, paddling, and wake
surfing," surf writer Scott Hulet noted in a 1997 profile of Hobie for
magazine, "Hobie's genius hinged on invention, experimentation, and follow-through."
Like anyone, though, he had to start somewhere.
Joe Quigg recalled that "those of us from up north used to go down
south to show off our new equipment, usually at San Onofre, and a lot of
people down there, including Hobie, became very interested in what we were
In a September, 1981, interview with Laura Bly of the
Daily Register, Hobie recalled that he first started making boards
in his father's Laguna Beach garage, while he was still in high school.
"I started out making maybe 20 boards a summer for my friends," Hobie
said, "and it sure beat being a lifeguard. About the end of junior college
- which took me a little longer because I was doing a lot of surfing and
skiing - my father decided I'd learned everything I could, and he recommended
I go into the board business full time."
"Hobie began," Phil Edwards wrote, "as many of us did, by making
a surfboard in his garage in 1950."
Around that same time, Hobie took his first trip to the Islands,
surfing with guys like Woody Brown,
Froiseth, George Downing and the quonset hut
crew at Makaha.
"My board building days started when I got back from Hawaii and set
up back home in Laguna Beach," Hobie told Hulet. "I'd make them in my garage
for friends, then word of mouth spread, people would see or hear of surfing,
and they'd find out that they could get a board from me. My Laguna run
totaled 99 boards. I actually skipped number 100 until I opened the Dana
Point shop . Dana Point was nothing then, of course. The entire business
district was two buildings - a market and a real estate office. I had a
little money I'd saved, and I bought the building. Best thing I ever did.
What great advertising! Anyone driving south went right by the shop, with
only two other buildings, if you can imagine. To give you an idea of the
growth, we went from 99 boards to 1580 boards, all balsa, in a very short
period. Of those, I shaped all but two. Phil Edwards shaped one. Reynolds
Yater shaped one. So, if you own an old Hobie balsa, you can thank - or
blame - me for it."
Hobie Alter pinpoints a Friday night in February of 1954 as the time
he first realizes polyurethane foam was surfing's future direction:
"One Friday night in February of '54," Hobie tells the story, "this
guy, Kent Doolittle, walked into the shop and showed us this little piece
of foam that was about this big around and about that thick (Hobie's hands
abstract a shape roughly the size of a deck of cards). It was kind of crude,
but it was hard and dense... you could just get your fingernail in it.
I was impressed. At this time, when you said foam you menat what we call
Styrofoam, which was horrible, you could take your finger and just push
it right through. I mean, worse than a cheap beer cooler. Just huge, open
celled foam, like the kind you find in arts and crafts stores. We'd actually
tried that stuff before. Rennie Yater (who worked for me at the time) and
I had each made one. I think Rennie's turned out better, but they were
both terrible... they rattled like peas in a pod. You had to finish them
with glue or epoxy. Joey Cabell actually loved the things, he rode one
of them for a while. But they were no good, and we didn't pursue foam anymore.
"But Doolittle claimed that polyester resin wouldn't dissolve his
little block of foam, so we tested it out. So I put resin on it. I put
acetone on it. I glassed it... and that night I took that little block
to a party, pulled it out of my pocket, and said, 'This is it, boys, the
future of surfboards right here.'"
Hobie's friend and world champion surfer Phil Edwards tells what
happened next as well as anybody. After Edwards came back to California
from his first trip to the Islands in 1955, he wrote, "I began to experiment
with boards... The mood had begun to hit California: Quigg and Velzy were
on parallel courses, turning out shapes and sizes of boards. We had begun
to glass them -- working in fiberglass up to our armpits. Between all of
us, we had ruined the inside of more garages up and down the California
coast than anybody...
"Then came the revolution.
"It was subtle: We had been getting our surfboard blanks from Ecuador...
Two thirds of the board -- about 35 pounds of it -- were ending up in shavings
on the floor. Time was involved; precious time when the surf was up and
there were horrible moments when we would hover uncertainly over a board,
knives poised in the air, looking first at the board and then at the open
door where someone stood impatiently, saying, 'Jeez, you guys. Come on!
The surf is good.'
"And it was an expensive process."
"Balsa was really getting harder and harder to get a hold of," Hobie
emphasized. "We had already bought all all of the good wood. Velzy was
trying to buy it. I was trying to buy it. Although I finally got into a
different supplier, General Veneer, who had some real good wood for a little
while, the Greg Noll found out about it. Then Velzy wanted to get it and
Greg said, 'No. You have to be Jewish for them to work with you... Hobie
and I are Jewish.' So it was a matter of there not being any quality wood
"Enter Hobie Alter..." Phil Edwards wrote melodramatically in his
autobiography, published in 1967. "He had seen polyurethane foam before,
and one day he stood looking deeply into a cup of the stuff. He saw that
(1) its ratio of strength to weight was enormous and (2) that it wouldn't
soak up water like balsa wood."
"'Surfboard!' mumbled Hobie, and took his cup to a chemical company.
'Dandy,' they said, 'except that you can't control the stuff in the size
you want. This cup is about as far as you go, kid.'
"So Hobie did exactly what they told him not to do. He built a mold
for the foam -- roughly the size of a surfboard -- and poured in a batch.
He blew out the side of the garage.
"'So much for the expansion properties of this junk,' he muttered.
Of course, there was a little trouble with his father about the garage...
"Hobie built a stronger mold and poured in another batch.
"He blew up the mold. He built more; blew them apart...
"He constructed some molds of plaster of Paris and added a touch
of concrete. And Gordon Grubby Clark -- who had been to engineering school
and knew all the right equations -- began to work along with Hobie, figuring
out the principles of molds and mixtures of foam..."
"... my glasser at the time was Gordon Clark, who happened to have
some background in engineering from college," Alter added. "He got interested
in it and said, 'Why don't you let me work on it too and we can make a
deal later on for so much a board and you don't have to pay me till it's
up and running.'"
"There was a time there when nobody surfed," Phil Edwards wrote.
"Hobie was afraid Velzy or someone would
find out what he was doing. It is rather hard to keep a secret with a garage
that has only three walls, for one thing. So he and Grubby rented a shack
high up in a canyon outside town. It was the kind of weather-beaten, wind-scrubbed
shack where the cowboys always hold the rancher's daughter captive while
they're waiting for the ransom.
"They painted all the windows black and worked in a kind of eerie
"Finally, they came upon the idea of molding the boards in halves
-- cut down the long way -- which proved more stable. They added strips
of balsa or redwood in the center for stiffener, and we began to turn out
"So we got a shop in Laguna Canyon," Hobie said, "and I made a half-surfboard
mold, and we started experimenting. It was just a huge mess. No one had
seen a block of foam as big as the ones we were trying to pour. Up until
then, foam was just used for picture frames, ornaments, that kind of thing.
What we came up with was a way to pour two halves of a surfboard, whereupon
they'd have to be stringered and glued up. We did most of our experimentation
in an old bellyboard mold. We'd get the chemicals from American Latex and
other companies, and just go at it. This was June of 1958."
At one point, according to Edwards, "Hobie took a finished board
up to Laguna, on a cliff high overlooking the sea -- and threw it over
the side. We all craned over and looked down at it. It had bounced on the
rocks a few hundred feet below -- but it wasn't in bad shape.
"Still, there were problems to overcome. Mixtures, for one thing.
"Even nicely shaped and fiberglassed, the boards had a tendency to
expand in the sun. Sometimes they got nicely rounded, like giant loaves
of French bread. Hobie began painting test boards black -- to soak up more
sun -- and stashing them out on rooftops all over town. Then a few days
later we would make the rounds and see how fat they had grown. Some of
them were like cigars; but the mixtures were starting to take shape.
"Hobie came upon the system of forming the molds under high pressure;
it made them more stable. And by this time the copiers were after him.
Many of them were going through the same agonies of experimentation and
getting less stable boards.
"With the balsa boards, we had started with 40-pound blanks; had
cut them to 15 pounds -- then built them back to 35 pounds with the rest
of the work.
"Now, suddenly, a new era had begun. The foam boards were unlimited.
We could, in shaping them, put rocker effects on them and give them flying
"Hobie came out with the first polyurethane foam boards," told Gordon
Clark, "in June of '58, followed by Sweet. Sweet had figured out the foam
by then, but he had had trouble building a board design that worked. Everyone
takes foam boards for granted now, but in those days it was quite a challenge
to figure out the glassing, how to use fill coating or hot coating. We
all went through a lot of broken boards during that time."
Phil Edwards wrote that, yes, there were other minor problems that
remained to be worked out:
"The early boards, for example, tended to be full of air voids. Great
for floatability -- but not the thing for toughness. We would shine a strong
light over them; crawl under the boards and look up through them, and pop
the bubbles with a screwdriver. Then we would patch up the holes... Trouble
is, with all those air voids, you can't get that splendid clear-foam effect
and the boards must be painted solid colors."
You see these painted boards in Bud Browne
surfing films of the era and some of the early films of Greg Noll, John
Severson and Bruce Brown.
"There were a lot of holes in these boards," agreed Hobie. "We'd
have to putty in all of the little air pockets, and most of those boards
ended up with some sort of pastel coloration to hide the corrections. Pastel,
because darker colors showed all of the problems. The foam couldn't handle
it. But what we ended up with was a better board. Better than balsa. Lighter
"Another interesting sidelight concerning foam boards from back then
is the stringers," Alter added. "If you see an old Hobie board from that
era, chances are that it has at least two inches of balsa. That's because
the blanks came out of the mold too narrow, and they needed the extra lumber
to widen them out."
"But Grubby had the foam handled by then," Hobie continued. "We kept
that place top secret. Nobody got in. We hired off-duty firemen to keep
an eye on it. My goal was to have a blank come out of the mold that had
a crust on it, and then you'd just glass it. I was tired of shaping. I
wanted this thing to be easy! But of course, it wasn't. We just couldn't
get it to where it needed to be, so we ended up skinning 'em and shaping
'em, just like they do now. And, man, what a difference. After balsa, it
was like shaping a stick of butter."
"In the late fifties," Greg Noll wrote, "Hobie and Grubby Clark started
experimenting with foam. I think some of Hobie's first designs in foam
were racing boards. Soon the word on this new material started spreading
up and down the coast."
"I was working for Hobie as a glasser," Grubby Clark told Noll, "when
he decided to devote one hundred percent of his efforts to developing foam
boards. You have to know Hobie to be able to understand what this meant.
When he decides to do something, he goes into it one hundred percent. In
January '58, Hobie threw out all his balsa-wood stuff and said, 'This is
the way it's going to be. Foam.'"
"As soon as his foam boards were available," Clark said, "Hobie became
hopelessly backlogged. There was a lot of competition coming on then, but
Hobie and Sweet weren't about to sell foam blanks to a third party. This
opened up an opportunity for another team, Chuck Foss and Harold Walker.
Foss was the resin expert; Walker made the foam blanks."
Three years later, in 1961, Gordon "Grubby" Clark formed Clark Foam,
and soon became the largest foam-blank manufacturer in the world.
"In '61," Clark said, "Hobie's original tooling had become too slow
to compete with a full-time foam-blank manufacturer who could run several
shifts and grind out blanks one after another. We knew it was time to build
new molds and new designs, but it didn't make sense to do it all for just
one surfboard shop. So I bought the few tools that could still be used,
formed Clark Foam and started working on new molds and new processes right
"Foam didn't change surfboard design all that much," pointed out
Greg Noll, "but it did stabilize and streamline the boards. The same type
of board could be made over and over again without worrying about different
weights of wood, bad grain, etc."
"Foam didn't change surfboard design that much," reiterated Greg
Noll. "The weight was pretty much on par with balsa wood. What foam did
was stabilize and streamline design. You could make the same type of board,
over and over again, without worrying about different weights of wood,
bad grain and such.
"With balsa wood, you had to depend on getting quality wood. As balsa
boards grew in popularity, there was a real competition among us shapers
to get the best balsa. In the early fifties, the best source was General
Veneer in South Gate. I happened to live close to the factory, so anytime
a new shipment came in I was right on top of it. It was a mad scramble
to go through every piece of wood and select the lightest and highest-quality
wood. The weight and quality of every surfboard depended upon what type
of wood arrived on each shipment at General Veneer from South America.
Once foam caught on, that concern was eliminated. You could control the
density of the foam. It was an important step forward."
"Before he sold the foam blank operation to [Grubby] Clark," continued
Noll, "Hobie had his foam blanks all to himself. In the meantime, Harold
Walker also had started making foam blanks and was selling them to Gordon
Duane, who had opened the first surf shop in Huntington Beach that year,
in '59. Gordie had gotten interested in surfing in the early fifties when
he was in the navy and stationed in Hawaii. He had been making balsa boards
since then, but now was beginning the transition to foam boards.
"I had just come in from surfing at the Huntington Beach Pier one
day when I saw this truck go by, loaded with foam blanks. Like a spy, I
followed it to Gordie's shop. When the truck driver was done unloading
the blanks, I confronted him. 'Hey, where are these things coming from?
What's the deal here?' He told me to follow him back to the factory. I
did, and I worked out a deal with Harold Walker. Harold and I went on to
become good friends and spent some memorable times in the Islands together."
"Well," Hobie said of the reactions to the new polyurethane foam
boards, "we had foam boards, and the rest of the world had balsa. At first
they were ridiculed a little bit. 'Speedo Sponges,' we called them, or
'Flexie Flyers.' Dave Sweet had foam boards, of course, but they took a
different turn. They kind of went the popout route, which was great, as
far as production went, but we took the shaped board direction. As people
started riding them and getting used to the feel, and the fact that they
were just superior boards all around, well, the demand just skyrocketed.
Other foam companies sprouted up like Walker in the South Bay, and like
Foss, who made freon-blown polyether blanks. But Grubby's system was the
"Which created a problem," Hobie went on. "While all of us competing
shapers were friends, and we'd drink together and things like that, we
would never admit that the other guy was doing a good job; we'd never give
the other guy credit. It was that competitive. The other guys were not
about to buy their blanks from me, even if they were better than what they'd
get anywhere else. So Grubby and I decided that the best thing to do would
be to split up, and have him start a company based purely on blanks. This
was good for me too, because the more accounts Grubby had, the more the
cost would drop on blanks for me. It was just much more efficient. He picked
up Yater, Con, Bing, and Gordon and Smith. Weber and Velzy,
they went with Walker."
Steals the Formula
"I soon became the third guy on the coast to use foam," wrote Greg
Noll. "Eventually, my father, Ash Noll, who was a chemist, figured out
a formula and helped me devise a way to mold my own foam. The way we did
this is an all-time story in itself. One afternoon, my dad and I went over
to Grubby's house just to visit. Along with a few ulterior motives, I also
brought along a case of beer. Grubby ended up drinking one too many and
started talking about his formula. My dad, being an astute individual and
chemist calmly took in every word while I encouraged Grubby's rambling.
Grubby woke up the next morning with a hangover and I woke up with a foam
"It wasn't long before Velzy and Jacobs also started using Walker
foam," continued Noll. "I think Dewey Weber used it, too. When Grubby Clark
made Clark Foam available industry-wide, the whole thing blew wide open.
Every board shaper started using foam blanks and the balsa board faded
"I'll never forget cutting into my first foam blank. It smelled so
strange. Balsa wood has a good smell to it. Foam dust didn't have the soft
feel of balsa dust, either. Foam dust was raspy, scratchy. Made you want
to wash up all the time. Working with balsa wood was more like an art form,
and there aren't many guys today who are capable of doing it. It was sad
to see an end to the balsa-wood era."
"This is when things really started exploding," recalled Hobie Alter.
"In the winter of '60, I shaped and warehoused 170 boards, which nobody
had done to my knowledge. It was just too expensive and time-consuming
to do anything but one-off work until then. But as soon as I'd completed
the run, I realized that I was out of cash and needed to come up with some
money - quick. So I took an ad in the Los Angeles Times, 'Surfboard
Sale.' I think I offered $20.00 off. In two days, I sold 173 surfboards.
Unheard of. My biggest February ever. And getting those boards out there
really got the thing growing."
"The explosion wasn't just in California," Hobie went on. "Bruce
Brown had gone over to Florida and 'discovered' a little surf scene over
there. Jack Murphy, Bob Holland, Pete Smith... a handful of guys riding
these, well, these crummy little waves. And they were great guys. So I
went back there and started setting up a little string of dealers.
"Anyway, Bruce and I were just heading up the East Coast, setting
up appointments with all the guys, and we finally got to Bob Holland's
house, and he opens up his garage and there's ten brand new Jacobs boards
in there! [Hap] Jacobs had already been there, somehow! So I told him,
'Hey, you've got to get rid of those before I sell you any.' Boy, it just
grew and grew from there. At one point, the East Coast represented 90%
of my business. Can you imagine that?"
"... by the time Bruce did Endless Summer, it [the East Coast
surfing boom] was just peaking," recalled Alter. "So I got together with
Bruce, and said, 'Hey, an East Coast Hobie promotion combined with your
movie might be a pretty good thing. You rent the theaters and I'll pay
the advertising.' So I got a Ford Condor bus, and I got Corky Carroll,
Phil Edwards and his wife, Mike Hynson, Joey Cabell, a whole squad. It
went great! We'd have a surfing demo during the day, then show the movie
at night. This was during the first skateboard boom, too, so we'd have
that going - the Hobie VitaPakt Skateboard Demonstration Team. We'd only
gas up at the stations that had perfect asphalt. It was incredible. We
had big signs on the sides of the bus, music blaring, girls were following
us, chasing Corky, who was just 15 or something... it was crazy! And what
an impression we made, boy. That trip paid off for a long time. All of
my dealers were exclusive... they carried Hobie's and nothing else."
surf writer Scott Hulet asked Hobie
what his fondest memories were of this period.
"Some of the best people you'd ever hope to deal with," Hobie responded.
"I've met such amazing people through surfing. The astronaut who was on
the first moon shot... he surfed San Onofre. James Aurness from 'Gunsmoke,'
he'd be out now and then. Those guys, us, the other manufacturers, all
of us... we were just surf bums. That's what it was all about. You weren't
showy. You didn't have a flashy car. You wore ratty clothes. There'd be
guys that were well off, but they'd try not to show it. They'd have filthy,
beat-up old cars. Surf bums. With surf style."
Sources Used In This Chapter:
DA BULL, Life Over the Edge ~ Fred Van Dyke ~ Greg Noll ~ Mike Doyle ~ Nat Young ~
Scott Hulet ~ Surfboard ~ Surfer
~ Surfing ~ Surfers, The Movie ~ The
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