As the surf industry continues to thrive off apparel and accessories, and the “surfer lifestyle” expands far from the ocean, the surfboard and its manufacturers continue to be overlooked.
In one of my earlier articles, Why is Your Surfboard so Cheap?, I touched on how surfboard prices have barely budged, yet the overheads involved (materials, rent, taxes, etc) constantly rise in price. For the amount of work that goes into a surfboard, the amount of joy they bring and how long they can last, surfboard prices are lower than what they should be. There are not many other industries you can connect with a company to custom manufacture a product by hand that results in the level of stoke from surfing. The men and women behind the scenes deserve more recognition.
In many cases, there is a whole team of people involved in the glassing process. Most shapers these days can and do handle all aspects of the process, but many of them get too busy with having to fulfill your orders that they need to either have their own team of glassers in house, or outsource the glass work to a production glass shop.
Photo: The Waterman’s Guild
Shaping a board is one thing. Having an eye for design and knowledge of hydrodynamics – not to mention the ability to combine or create elements that make a board work – is another. The magic happens in the glassing, though. It takes a totally separate range of skills that can really make the difference in the board of your dream and a dud.
There are so many elements involved in glassing a board that many of these people end up specializing in one or the other to maximize their time and ensure the consumer is getting a perfect board. And they all need to work together. They don’t want to create unnecessary work for the person who has the next step, so they normally find that these guys will take an extra step themselves to make sure the job is done right before the next guy has his hands on it.
Fabric Inlays are another challenge for the laminator. Image left shows a 2015 inlay pattern for aSUPERbrand model pre-glassing, while the right shows Australian SUPERbrand shaper Adam Sparrow Fletcher inspecting some of the new 2016 batch.
Most people are unaware that the way a board is glassed often plays as much of a role in how the board will perform as the shape of the board. It will be the shaper or the customer who dictates what type of cloth, resin, and colors. But it is the application of these materials that is so tricky. Too much resin and the board is heavy and brittle; not enough and the board is weak or can simply take on water without even a ding.
A fresh hotcoat going down. Photo: Asilda Photography
Another important element in the glassing process is the color work. Brands and customers who want specific colors means the laminator has to mix and blend colors together to get just what they want. That may sound easy enough, but I assure you it is not.
Getting the right mixture and amount to get the right hue is very challenging. Resin pigment and tints are so concentrated that the smallest drop will smear and spread out of control. Once that color is put down, there is no backing out either, so it better be right the first time.
For the guys handling hot coats and glosses, there is time in the preparation work that is needed—taping off rails, fin boxes, etc. These guys also have to consider, for example, concave, channels, glass-on fins while making sure to get enough resin on, but not too much where it can pool up in low spots. On top of that they also have to tape off what is called a “dam” for the parts of the bottom that have an edge in their shape like in the tail area. They have to try to mimic that shaped edge with the resin to some degree. It really is a meticulous science.
A sanders job is to take all the excess resin off the board and ensure the shape stays true to how the shaper shaped the board. It’s one of the more sensitive tasks to handle.
Adding to the difficulty to the art, if there is too much resin left on the board the sander has a lot more work to do. Not enough and the sander can easily sand right through the fiberglass. As you can probably appreciate, the sanders job alone is a specialty job.
There are also many different styles and grits of abrasives to use. Using a machine sander for the bigger flat areas, and hand sanding the critical areas and in between fins. To top off their work, they really have to pay attention to the intended shape of the board. The resin left on the board from the hot coat needs to be sanded down and the intended shape has to be mimicked exactly. A sander could easily change the whole performance attributes of a board if he or she doesn’t follow the intended lines to a tee.
Of course, the job isn’t over quite yet. We haven’t talked about fins and fin boxes. There are so many different fin boxes that can be used, and, unfortunately for these shops, each style of fin box requires a totally unique router. Once you have all the routers needed, your routing job (cutting the hole in the foam for the box) has to be exact. Not deep enough and the fin box sticks up too high, too deep, and the structural integrity of the box can be jeopardized. They also have to consider the angles that the boxes have to be set. And in considering those angles, they have to deal with odd bottom contours as well, which can make the job a nightmare.
The truth is that there are so many other tasks involved in the process. What makes this all more challenging is that every board is unique. Sometimes airbrush paint is needed for artwork, or resin panels added. Hell, taping a board for whatever purpose you need is challenging enough. There is a lot of skill involved when taping, especially if you are spraying color or doing resin panel color work. Most don’t know it but tape is probably one of the biggest expenses glass shops have to deal with.
You’d be surprised how much prep work and tape goes into each surfboard.
The artists, of course,couldn’t do what they do without their tools. To get the job done right, the tools have to be kept in excellent condition. This includes items like buckets and brushes, too. If your bucket or brush is contaminated with anything, the resin you are using is jeopardized. It takes the smallest thing to throw off the whole production of a surfboard.
By now you’re probably starting to get the picture. When it comes to the team glassing your boards, they are more than just workers. They are highly-skilled craftsman and artists. Watching someone glass a board is almost therapeutic—it requires a sense of ease and flow, much like surfing a wave gracefully.
No matter the shape or design, a bad glass job equals a bad board. A good glass job equals a great board. And for how cheap a surfboard really is compared to the work that goes into it, every detail shows. No other industry that uses similar materials gets as much scrutiny as surfboards. Surfboard glassing requires more skill and attention to detail than automotive or even aerospace, due to the fact that every little detail is visible.
Nothing like fresh orange juice in the morning. Chemistry Surfboard laminator JimmyJammerJams getting his dose of vitamin C.
Glassers are the unsung heroes of our industry. Next time you get the chance, acknowledge the team glassing your board. Say thanks or even bring them a six pack, that will means more to them than the money they barely make. Appreciating the craft that so many devote their lives while spreading the stoke for surfers around the world.