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Stringer Theory

INTRO - A guide to the history of surfboards and current trends in shapes made for kiting and waves. Take a big breath, we're going deep into the shaping shed black hole of time and it might take you more than a couple of soggy biscuits and cold cuppas to get through this one.
The following section is taken from a university study made by Brian Green before he joined Vision Surf Co / Freak Dog

Surfing dates back to the year 1500 B.C. when the Polynesians surfed the waves on planks of wood for fun and recreation. The first record of surfing by Europeans was made by Captain James Cook when he discovered the Hawaiian islands. Witnessing the natives surfing, who had brought it over from the Polynesian islands, Captain Cook's first impression was that "He and his crew were captivated - they had never seen something as unique as people riding waves on a piece of wood.". Of course, to the Hawaiians, these boards were not just pieces of wood; their whole society was shaped around these boards.
PHOTO - Christian NerdrumIn ancient Hawaii, there were four basic types of boards used by the Hawaiians: the Olo, the Alaia, the Paipo and the Kiko'o. All were different in the type of wood used, the dimensions, the ways they were ridden and the people they were made for. Social status was determined by the type of wood used to make each board. The Alii were the upper class ? usually royalty ? who would ride the Olo boards; huge things measuring up to 24-feet in length and up to two hundred pounds in weight. They were usually cut down from the Wili Wili trees and trimmed and polished with a nut oil finish. The commoners used a mid-sized Hawaiian board called the Alaia, about eight feet long, and made from the Hoa tree, which was heavier and denser than the Wili Wili. Due to their size, Hawaiian children always rode the Paipo bodyboard, sometimes called the Hioe board, between two and four feet long. The final Hawaiian boards, used by both the Alii and the commoners, were the Kiko'os. Used for really big surf, they were similar to the big wave guns of today, measuring twelve to eighteen feet. All of these boards were very important to Hawaiian surfing and society.
So when a person walks into a surf shop and says, 'Just give me the basic surfboard', is there really such a thing? The answer is most definitely 'No'. The evolution of the surfboard has seen it transform from a wooden plank into a lightweight, foam-core science project. The surfboard design industry is in constant flux, tampering with the most minuscule dimensions to make each and every board able to ride on any wave in any way.
The construction of the Hawaiian surfboards was as important to the Hawaiians as the boards themselves. The Hawaiians took surfing very seriously, conducting ceremonies before each board was made. In order to bless the wood of the surfboard, the Hawaiians placed a 'humu' ? a ceremonial fish - by the roots of a tree before it was cut down. The shaping was done with lome or stone-edged tools and the cut marks and chipped edges were removed with coral or rough stone.
Once the board had been smoothed down, a dark stain was rubbed onto the board with ti roots, pounded bark or hili, lacunae buds and buried kukia nuts. Once the staining was complete they glossed the board with kuki oil for a glassy finish to keep it smooth. After every surf session each board was treated with coconut oil and wrapped in a tapa cloth to keep the wood from rotting or further damage. The process and boards used by the Hawaiians remained relatively unchanged until the early 1990s. And even today people still worship their sticks!
The first change in board design since the ancient Hawaiian era occurred in 1907 when George Freeth produced and sold the 'shorter board'; (it was less than sixteen feet long!) From the early 1900s to the 1930s the main surfboard design, called the Garut, comprised wooden boards made with glue and decking oil that had no resin or fibreglass finish. Almost all boards until the 1930s fell under the category of plank surfboards: surfboards without any fins on the bottom. In the early 1930s, surfboard design underwent an abrupt change when Tom Blake began building hollow surfboards composed of various woods, such as cedar, mahogany, spruce, redwood or pine and bonded with glue and screws. His new surfboard reduced the weight of the common surfboards of the day by sixty pounds. He later improved his design by adding laminated strips of wood with hard redwood on the board's outside edge, nose and tail, allowing the board to ride more smoothly in the water. Blake was also the first to attach a fin to the surfboard in 1935 by adding a boat keel to his paddle board. This design concept of a lighter board with a fin was revolutionary, but would not catch on until the 1940s.
Another revolutionary idea developed in the 1930s was Pete Peterson's, who'd started making boards from balsa wood. Many purists at the time thought that the board was very easy to use and had a really good feel, that it was very manoeuvrable, buoyant, and easy to paddle and turn. Because the board was light and more manoeuvrable it allowed surfers to switch easily and do tricks, such as hang-tens, step turns and to get barrelled. Although balsa boards seemed to have a huge number of positives, some argued that they became waterlogged too easily, that good balsa was hard to find and that the boards were difficult to shape. In 1937 John Kelly made a very popular finless board with a narrowed tail and a boat-like bottom hull. The 'Hot Curl', as it was called, sat low in the water but held the nose in more control than previous boards. The 'modern surfboard' was finally developed in the 1940s as a result of the production of surfboards composed of plastic resin and fibreglass cloth. From the 1940s to the mid-1950s the longboards made up of balsa and fibreglass were referred to as 'Malibus'. Leading shapers building the balsa and fibreglass surfboards at this time were Joe Quigg, Matt Kirbin, Dale Velzy and Bob Simmons.
PHOTO - Alberto Guglielmi/Nikon
In 1957 Dale Velzy changed the surfboard construction industry forever by using a hand-held tool called the planer, to take off the top layers of the core materials in the board shaping process. In the late fifties, Hobie Alter and "Grubby" Clark, designed the first foam surfboard, setting off a new trend that shapers would use throughout the 1960s and still do today.

High-performance longboards dominated the surfboard industry in the 1960s. Early on in the decade Bob Simmons designed the spoon nose; a longboard with wide rails and a round, lifted nose. In the mid-sixties the step-deck was invented; a longboard with a Vshaped deck that prevented the board from nose-diving. The board also had forty per cent of the volume planed off the first third to increase speed. The fin box became popular in the late 1960s and wasn't too dissimilar to some of today's guises as a plastic, slotted box to which removable fins were attached. It had actually been invented in 1951 by George Dowry but did not come into being until 1967. Most of the surfboards in the late sixties were gradually shaped shorter and shorter with one and sometimes two fins.
The 1970s became the era of the short board. George Greenough was one of the leading shapers to have emerged in the late 1960s. His designs included the hooked fin, V-bottom, the high nosed boards and, in 1967, he also invented the flex fin. His innovations were said to 'ignite the shortboard era' that dominated the entire surfboard industry from 1967 until the eighties. The seventies' generation was determined to enhance the legacy it had been left from the previous decade and in 1970 Skip Frye developed the 'egg' shortboard; a very wide hybrid type of board. Hot on his heels, Con Collins invented the leash plug a year later, allowing surfers to go out and not worry about losing their board after a wipe-out.
Malcolm and Duncan Campbell came out with the Bonzer model surfboard in 1972; a design that featured a standard centre fin with small, heel-like fins that were angled out near the rails. By now, developments were coming thick and fast and, in the same year, Ben Apia designed the first swallow tail surfboard with a split four to six inches wide and five inches deep at the tail, bevelled rails, a step-like bottom and single fin pushed way up. He introduced his Stinger model surfboard two years later. One of the last major design breakthroughs of the disco decade was the channel bottom design of Jim Polland's in 1974. This gave the board slot-like channels on the bottom rear end that increased the board's speed tremendously. Although many innovations were introduced in the 1970s, most were overshadowed by the surfboard designs to come in the 1980s and 1990s.
Intro - We talk to three kite-surfboard shapers with a history in surfing to get their take on what all this means to us winged wave warriors
The major, revolutionary designs of the eighties and nineties would have more of an impact on the surfboard industry than any of the preceding eras. Single fins were slowly phased out due to a new fin concept called the 'thruster'. The thruster, or three-finned board, was developed between October 1980 and December 1981 by a shaper named Simon Anderson. To prove his concept worked, Anderson went out and won three major surfing competitions on it. Designed to suck the rider up the face of the wave, the thruster still enabled him to drop back in, creating more speed. The thruster also cured the twin-fin instability issue and although the concept was taken on by almost every surfboard shaper in the world, some felt that it had a major negative effect - that it could not run on flat water and would slow down and sink. Much of this controversy was overlooked and the thruster took the lead role in surfboard design. In 1982, Glen Winston tried to improve the thrust by inventing the quad-fin, but his design failed to catch on.
In the mid-1980s Greg Locke was credited for designing epoxy resin for glassing the surfboard. While Locke was testing epoxies on the west coast of the USA, surfboard shaper Buddha Bonifay was using it on the east coast. John Bradbury, a shaper from California, was also on the cutting edge of epoxy technology in the 1980s. Considered by the majority of shapers as one of the biggest advancements in surfboard design, the epoxy composite is lightweight, flexible and durable. Epoxy resin hardens stiffer than polyester resin, also making the board more durable. Epoxy glassing is used most often on polystyrene foam blanks, but can also be used on expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam. Many shapers' problem wi th using epoxy fibreglass is that polystyrene is very hard to shape and is easy to make mistakes with, not to mention the environmental impact.
In 1986, a shaper named Erik Arawak a made the first nose guard - a rubber cover over the tip of the nose that adds protection against breaking and safety towards surfers. Also in the late 1980s, a design concept called t he triple Concave bottom was revealed, but was dropped by most shapers when they discovered quickly the board stalled, a problem as speed plays a vital role in surfing.
At the beginni ng of the nineties, shapers were all about creating more flex. Steve 'Buddha' Bonifay, who PHOTO - Alberto Guglielmi/Nikonhas shaped for the likes of Tom Curren and Christian Fletcher, stated, "Flex is ve ry important in a surfboard. I find that a board with no flex tends to track more down the face of the wave and on its pivoting turns.' Flex can be adjusted by the foam density, type of stringer and the type of glassing used. For example, polystyrene foam has been proven to be stronger than polyurethane foam becaus e of its longer lifespan and increased flexibility. In the mid-1990s surfboard engineer, Mark Tolan, developed a new type of fibreglass called DHP (Durable High Performance) that could be used on both polystyrene blanks and polyurethane blanks. Tolan discovered DHP glass to be an alternative to epoxy resin and that it was 23% more flexible than epoxy fibreglass. Even with new glassing discoveries, shapers still used a mixture of polyurethane, epoxy and DHP fibreglass.
A Computer Aided Design (CAD) programme for surfboards was developed late in the decade by Brazilian Luceano Lear. This measured the volume of surfboards, meaning that a shaper could keep the same design but still change the volume; they could make small changes in the board on the computer rather than in the actual construction process.
PHOTO - Christian NerdrumThe CAD programme is now widely used, but this invention resulted in much controversy. One side felt that a surfer could carry his or her favourite board in their pocket, find a machine, pop out a virtual replica and have just about any skilled shaper finish it. The other side argued that computer shaped surfboards are for those who do not love and live for the next time they receive/shape a custom surfboard. 'There is no more soul in shaping that way," according to Bonifay. With the later developments in the 1990s still being tinkered with and fine-tuned, many shapers agree that the surfboard industry is more precise than ever before.
From the nose guard to its flexible fins, the surfboard is one giant science project. The quest for new surfboard designs is never-ending and the surfboard will continue to change. Since its first conception as a wooden plank to its current guise as a lightweight, foam-core, fibreglass 'magic carpet,' the search for the ultimate surfboard is, and always will be, on.
JEFF: It went from Clark foam to expanded polystyrene (EPS) to composition sandwich to pretty much everything in between. I like stringer-less EPS vacuum bagged with 4 oz 'S' cloth for super light customs. The kiting industry has been clueless for the most part, making heavy, tow-style flat-rockered shapes with way too much emphasis on durability to make any progress in performance. Dialled flex is the key with balanced fin placement, rocker and outline. We are only at the beginning.

MARTIN: The XPS (extruded polystyrene) was no good, it delaminated due to degassing. We then went to EPS foam sandwich from Thailand and China to the new XPS foam that is the latest core for surfboards. I believe the ultimate kite-surfboard construction is still out there waiting to be discovered.
RAPHAEL: I've always used a sandwich construction since the beginning. Kiteboards need to hold a lot more power and stand to get damaged way more than surfboards. We're always riding them; going back upwind, we jump, we put more power in our wave riding and we use straps that allow us to push more. Clark foam is way too fragile, PVC sandwich is also fragile for dings and EPS/ fibreglass is too heavy, so the ideal kiteboard construction was never there. We've worked a lot on that and our new Bamboo sandwich offers the perfect compromise between weight, strength and looks.
JEFF: Kiting thought it could re-invent the wheel but that didn't happen. The major breakthrough came in PHOTO - Brian Greenreturning to high-performance surfboards, and the current industry trends continue to follow surfboard design. In my view more emphasis is needed on the kites and riding styles. Boards are way ahead of kites at this point due to borrowing from surfing. More emphasis on strapless riding will allow riders to progress, boards to progress and the sport to progress. Few riders have ever ridden a really good board and few riders have ridden enough boards to have much of a baseline. Almost all of us are still learning how to fly the kite while surfing so overall progress is slow. I'm lucky to have had a lifetime of surfing, really good team riders and good conditions.
MARTIN: Kiting here in Margaret River requires foot straps most of the time due to its size and power and the boards developed here reflect that. They are designed to go fast and be super grippy in turns at any speed; the faster the better. Control at speed is the design parameter that's uppermost in my mind, so all the variables need to blend so that the resulting board gives the rider confidence to push harder all the time; as opposed to building designs that are easy to ride in mild conditions that fail on the good days.
RAPHAEL: My first kitesurf board back in 1997 that really worked was a 7'0 surfboard, so I can say that surfboards have always been in my mind for kiting. The twin-tips arrived in 1999-2000 but I always used my directional 192cm / 6'4 even when the trend went towards mutants or 5'0s. Between 1998 and 2005 my directionals were influenced a lot by the fact that you have to hold the power from the two lined and then the four lined kites. When the full depower kites arrived the shape of the boards could do more than just hold the power! Surfboards have changed a lot, but in general they have got smaller and by the time we came along they could be easily applied to our sport without making many adaptations. For riding with straps we have continued to develop sizes between 5'6 and 5'10 because you can stand in straps without having too long a nose. Now more and more we're using the bigger sizes. Riding unhooked is much easier with a 6'0 that keeps its speed without as much power.
JEFF: Fins are the engine that drive your ride. Lift, drag, drive, control... Simon Anderson changed the world forever with the introduction of the thruster and the rest is history. There's currently a lot of four fin hype. Quads give easy upwind performance and are good for the lateral down-the-line riding that most riders do but are still vertically challenged overall compared to thrusters in high-performance riding. I like some flex in fins. Good 4 oz. fibreglass lay-ups glassed on are the ultimate, or FCS plastic G5s and YUs are nice, too. Stiff carbon fins are a joke and so are fins that twist. Stiff fins cavitate. But overall at the moment there's lots of experimentation, which is good. Try removing your back fin for small days.
MARTIN: For me the major breakthrough was tPHOTO - Christian Nerdrumhe inside foil on side fins for maintaining grip at full speed. Similar to tow boards that go at kitesurfing speeds. I like the extra grip of inside foils at speed. Dreu Beavis prefers to use regular fins for the extra bit of speed over the extra control because he has the control anyway. Ordinary mortals will take all the grip we can get, especially back-side!
RAPHAEL: The concave vector profile on the inside foil took away a lot of drag. We can also thank the surfboard industry for developing fin boxes like the Future system that is strong and easy to use.
JEFF: Outline is so critical. The interplay between outline, rocker and fins is pretty much what it is all about. How they feed into each other is everything. Moving the widepoint back (Geoff McCoy) and Al Merrick's hidden bump wing hip in the eighties were big breakthroughs I believe. These were redefined by guys like James Chilli, Jason Stevens and Darren Hendley in this century. Current industry trends represent subtle refinement, borrowing and testing, and I don't see any radical change coming any time soon.
MARTIN: Everything comes and goes with new combinations, but I think we're still looking. I like to generally keep things fairly narrow so that they go fast.

The long term trend has been for more rocker. The high-rockered boards that came out of Australia in the nineties where shapers like Greg Webber combined 2 ? "+ tail rockers with deep single concaves really sped things up. Lots of surfers have now gone flatter again in a quest for easier speed in slow waves but I believe, like everything else, rocker must be balanced for an individual outline and fin set up and foil etc. Most production boards now have flat, tow style rockers because it is easy to make a board point upwind and go down-the-line easily.
MARTIN: I keep them very lean on the entry for early planing and no fuss cruising with a bit of a late kick to get out of vertical carves. A speedy, even tail rocker with no breaks to allow smooth power delivery.

JEFF: 50:50 gave way to 60:40 somewhere back in the sixties and there you have it. Tails have gotten harder and crisper, mid points softer and boards more foiled and thinner over time. The 'tucked under edge' came along in the eighties, softer rails through the mid point in the 90s, but no real breakthroughs so much as just trends that come and go. Current industry trends are all over the map. My view is that rail volume is hugely important to how much a rider weighs and what they want to feel and right now it just comes down to rider weight and preference.
MARTIN: Mine are kept thin and soft for good bite and neutrality before they harden right up in the back 30%. I like to keep them tucked under all the way to the tail which seems to hold better at speed.
JEFF: Single to double barrel or deep single or deep double are super important and a major area of design at present. A big breakthrough I think came from Australia in the eighties (and again in the last few years shifting the deep point slightly back to just ahead of the side fins) with the deep single and Merrick's single to double evolution from his tri-plane hull days to now. At the moment everyone's leaning more towards deep singles for small waves, single to double for medium waves, reverse "V" to single to double for big waves. For me, well placed deep single is hard to beat and I want to do more experimentation with super-deep doubles this year. Generally speaking at the moment the kite industry is just fumbling along riding on the coat tails of professional surfing.
MARTIN: I'm 100% on concaves; they give great rail-to-rail transitions and allows a straighter rocker-line through the centre where the majority of the water flows. I love 'em on surfboards; a shaper's delight but a manufacturing nightmare. They don't like broken water much so I don't rate them as a kite-surfboard bottom unless you live at that magical side-shore spot with NO chop on the wave face.
JEFF: It went from square to pin to round to diamond to swallow to squash to thumb over the last one hundred years. I guess the pintail for big waves was the big breakthrough sometime in the fifties. Nowadays, high-performance boards generally have thumb, squash or swallow shapes. Swallows on the flatter rockers usually. I don't think it's nearly as important as people make out. Given the same outline, filling or removing the swallow does fuck all. It's only important to the extent that it redefines your template. Tail shape is just a board selling gimmick really, and right now we're all falling for them.
MARTIN: Got to end it somehow... may as well make a fashion statement.
JEFF: We are mostly limited by materials right now. There is no combination that is light, strong and flexible enough for what we ideally want. Of all production boards out there Firewires have the best flex I have ever ridPHOTO - Brian Greenden for kiting, but they just don't last and they aren't cheap. Every board, even production, is unique. Some for example, have a wide variation in their rockers from board to board in the (supposedly) same exact design. You cannot generalise about any one design aspect being better or worse because there are no absolutes. You have to ride each board and judge the whole thing and not get bogged down in the 'parts'. Try to keep track of your boards' measurements and figure it out. Hang on to any board you think is 'magic' even after it breaks. Try a lot of boards, don't listen to anyone but your feet, ride as much as you can, don't drop in, don't jump in the line-up, eat organic vegetables and try riding more without foot straps because you can't feel or learn shit by cheating.
MARTIN: Talk to the shapers. They will ALWAYS give good advice and are much more dependable than the guy who is defending his latest purchase right or wrong - that's what the internet is for!
Issue 37Stringer Theory was taken from Kiteworld magazine issue #37. To find out more click here

Wainman Hawaii

Added: 2009-10-20

Category: Features

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