Lightweight Wooden Surfboards

As long the sport has existed, surfers have been known for being environmentally conscious, which seems a little surprising when you see a regular surfboard being made. A foam ‘blank’ with the rough shape of the finished board is reduced down by a skilled shaper using a variety of hand and power tools until the perfect curves are realised. The board is then fibreglassed, using polyurethane or epoxy resin before being sanded and polished down to a final gloss. What’s left is a beautiful and carefully shaped board, but around the shapers’ feet is a thick layer of petrochemical dust and glass fibres. The lifetime of a standard surfboard in frequent use is anywhere from 6 months to a few years. After this they tend to be discarded along with the rest of our plastic waste.

The reduction process is fast, and makes surfboards incredibly lightweight and strong, and with a standard 6’0” (1.83m) shortboard normally weighing in between 2.7-4kg (depending on how long it’s built to last) the bar has been set high. Until now, making a surfboard with equivalent characteristics in the water has been very difficult to achieve with any other combination of materials.

At Lyster Surfcraft in the UK; we are tackling this challenge head on. Unlike other wooden surfboard builders, our focus is on producing sustainable boards that don’t just look amazing, but also perform like any other surfboard. With today’s understanding of engineered structures, and a plethora of lightweight woods and new woodworking techniques it seems surprising that the industry is still using pretty much the same technique to build surfboards that was first developed around 1960. When Duncan built his first wooden board using his father’s traditional carpentry tools in 2014, it came to a final weight of 9kg. At this point he realised the issue that many wooden board builders face. He persevered, and started looking into ways to bring down the weight of the raw materials, and use less of them. As an experiment he settled upon balsa and an aircraft grade birch plywood to try and built the lightest board he could. The final weight came out to be 3.7kg. After refining our process and lengthy testing over a period of around 3 years we have finally settled on a commercially viable construction method. What started out as an experiment, to make the lightest wooden board possible, has become a product.

Our boards are built from the bottom up, so the exact shape of the board is decided before the first cut is made. The internal frame of the surfboard is not unlike that of an aircraft wing, with the central stringer forming a spine, and a series of transverse ribs supporting the deck.  In each board immense care has to be taken at every stage to protect the delicate internal structure before it is reinforced by the deck. The main wood used for the deck is plantation grown paulownia. Not only is this an incredibly lightweight and durable wood, but it is fast growing, with Paulownia Elongata being the fastest growing tree species in the world. The final stage is fibreglassing the entire board to keep it watertight, and add support to the internal structure; we use epoxy bio-resin to reduce the environmental impact of this stage. The strong bond between the paulownia and the fibreglass ensures that our boards aren’t susceptible to ‘pressure dings’ and they have much greater resistance against snapping than PU boards, and with a final weight of around 4kg they are comparable to foam core boards. The small amount of waste produced throughout manufacture is mostly either sawdust which helps make very effective garden compost, and wood offcuts which are used in the next board, or burnt as firewood to heat the house and workshop in which the boards are built.

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