Ever have a surfboard in your mind’s eye that, search as you might, you’ve never found on the store racks? Maybe you’ve taken your vision to a custom shaper, only to be disappointed with the final product. Or perhaps you’ve glimpsed a face-masked board maker in his bay and felt a tug, an envy, as chunks of foam fell to the floor and dust rose with each stroke of the sanding block. These could be signs that you need to take things into your own hands, literally. You need to make your own surfboard.
Crafting one’s own surfboard is a very common item on a surfer’s bucket list. For early generations of surfers, it was considered a rite of passage. And those who’ve made their own boards and shared the experience mostly agree: if you’ve never shaped and ridden your own surfboard, you’re missing out on something special.
So you’re going to make your own board – where do you start?
A note at this point: it takes a whole book to detail the complete process of surfboard making, and comprehensive resources are available online, if it’s a step-by-step how-to you’re after. This article will only attempt to give an overview of the topic.
Some shapers actually offer paid lessons for those keen to experience shaping their own board. Taking into account the cost and effort needed to prepare your own shaping space and equip it with tools, you may find it practical to look for such services from shapers in your area. Not only do you get the benefit of someone’s expertise, but you’ll also likely have the use of their existing tools and work area. The following few sections of this overview will help you decide.
The shaping bay
Before anything else, you need a place to work. If setting up your own area, you will need to consider space, lighting, storage and protection from the unhealthy substances you will be working with.
An ideal space would measure in the 15′(length) by 10′(width) by 11′(height) range. This will give you room to walk around the board as you shape it, with space for lighting and storage shelves.
Recommended lighting fixtures are florescent lights, attached horizontally to the side walls slightly higher than the surfboard stands. These will illumine the board so that subtle shadows and reflections are easily visible.
Shapers are constantly swapping tools, so side shelves are useful to keep equipment within hand’s reach.
Chemicals and other unhealthy materials are a given in surfboard shaping, so good air circulation is essential. You must have an air conditioning system that can remove dust and fumes quickly and efficiently.
As important as your shaping space is the stand you’ll be setting your surfboard on as you work on it. A sturdy approximation of the image below can be made with 2 x 4s, using foam and duct tape to cover the U-shape where the surfboard will be laid (the padding is to prevent damaging your foam in the shaping stage).
Surfer Steve offers detailed instructions for stand-making with various materials HERE.
To shape your surfboard, you’ll need an assortment of tools:
– a foam blank
– a saw
– a planer
– a pencil
– a steel square
– a dust mask
– a sanding block
– sandpaper of different sizes and grits
– spoke shave – for removing material from a stringer
– weight (to hold foam down while you shape it)
For glassing your board, you will need:
– fiberglass cloth
– resin and hardener
– disposable squeegees
– respirator with vapor cartridge
– disposable latex gloves
– mixing containers with cc gradations
– fin boxes and fins
– masking tape
– duct tape
– wax paper
– paper towels and white rags
– cheap scissors
– razor blades
– mixing sticks
– clean-up solvents (acetone for polyester resin / 90% alcohol for epoxy)
– cheap natural bristle or foam brushes
– nylon leash rope
– optional – fiberglass rope, for glass-on fins only
Again, this article is just an overview. Precise sizes and quantities of materials and tools can be found online. (At this point, paid shaping lessons may be looking very attractive to some readers.)
Designing your board
Naturally before you start shaping, you need a shape in mind. If you are making your first board, most experts will suggest you keep it simple and aim for a shape suited to the kind of waves you surf most and find most enjoyable. If you’ve only ever surfed modest breaks, don’t envision a comp-level air-catcher for your first attempt. You might consider using an existing board, with slight modifications, as the rough model for your project.
To keep things easy for the beginning shaper, SurferSteve.com suggests:
1. Use mostly hand tools. Electric tools can get out of hand quickly when you don’t know what you’re doing, and are the easiest way to ruin your surfboard.
2. Make the rails round and the bottom and top flat – side to side. Concave bottoms and sharp rails are tricky for first-timers to shape properly.
3. No wood stringer (if possible). A stringer is the slim piece of wood that runs through the length of some surfboards, adding to their strength. It is usually shaped first and glued into the center of the foam before the surfboard is shaped.
4. No artwork.
5. No gloss coat. A gloss coat is an optional final coat of resin that can be sanded or polished. It is added for both strength and aesthetics.
Blanks, the roughly-shaped foam that shapers use, can be bought in a variety of shapes and sizes. Buying pre-shaped foam close to the dimensions of your target board will reduce the amount of shaping work you have to do, and some blanks even come with a stringer already glued in. However, it can be pricey and hard to come by depending on where you’re located. If surfboard-shaped blanks aren’t available or affordable for you, you can use rectangular blocks of foam, glued together if necessary. Expect of course to do a lot more work removing the excess foam.
Transferring the design
The surfboard design is traced onto the foam blank, usually one half on one side of a center line or stringer and then the reversed half on the other side of the center line. It is then sawed out, leaving a 1/2″ or 1/4″ allowance. The rail area is also traced onto the blank.
After sawing out the board design, it’s time to shape. The remaining excess foam is removed and the shape refined using a planer and sandpaper. Long strokes are recommended, first on one side, then on the other, 10 strokes at a time, to keep things even. Shapers warn against “scrubbing” in one area.
If using Future Fins, holes for the fin boxes can be made when shaping is complete. If cutting through a stringer is necessary, a drill or chisel will come in handy. If cutting only through foam, a hack saw blade and sandpaper will do the trick.
When you’ve got your foam shaped to your liking, the next step is glassing your board. Most surfboards are glassed with three layers of resin: 1 – the laminate coat (cloth-saturating layer); 2 – the hot coat; and 3 – the gloss coat.
Many first-time shapers say the first resin coat is the hardest part of building a board, harder even than shaping. For this reason, it is strongly suggested you practice with scrap foam, fiberglass cloth and resin – especially wrapping the rails.
For the laminating resin layer, fiberglass cloth is laid over the board (bottom side up) with at least 1″ overhang all around. Slits cut into the overhang at the nose and tail keep the cloth from wrinkling at those points.
Resin and hardener are thoroughly mixed (refer to the instructions that come with the resin, aiming for the resin to gel in about 30 minutes. It’s a good idea to mix slightly more than you need, rather than run out in the middle of the process). The mixture is poured along the middle length of the board and squeegeed towards the edges.
Laminating a board requires speed and care. The overhanging cloth must be saturated and wrapped under the foam edges before the resin hardens. SurferSteve.com provides detailed instructions for doing this, and Instructables.com has a helpful video.
Once the bottom has dried, you repeat the laminating process with the deck, with the difference that the deck requires an extra layer of cloth, called the “deck patch”, for extra strength.
The next layer of resin, the hot coat, is so called because many shops use extra hardener in it, which makes the resin heat up and speeds up drying. This layer fills in the weave of the fiberglass cloth and makes the board watertight.
If you don’t plan on doing a gloss coat, prepare the laminate layer by sanding lap lines, drips, corners and lumps carefully.
As with the laminating layer, start bottom side up. An inch of good quality masking tape is placed around the entire circumference of the board, top edge sticking mid-rail and bottom hanging free for the resin to run off of.
You’ll need about half as much resin as you used for the laminate, applying it with cheap natural bristle or foam brushes.
Once the resin has cured, it’s time to sand your board. This can be done with a power sander, a drill, or by hand. It is better to sand too little than too much. You want to avoid sanding through the fiberglass cloth. If you can see the weave in an area, best not to sand further. Delicate parts like the rails are best sanded by hand.
As mentioned before, the gloss coat is optional. You can actually save money, labor and weight by foregoing it. It is applied much in the same way that the hot coat is, then sanded and polished for a glossy finish.
You’ll naturally need somewhere to attach your surfboard leash. A leash plug might be stick-on, and can be installed with resin after the gloss coat. Conventional plugs will need you to drill a hole in your board to install them. SurferSteve.com also describes a DIY lockable plug that can be installed after the hot coat.
That about covers the steps needed to make your own board, without going into the fine details. This overview will likely have either whetted your desire to create your own blade, or made you think twice. Again, some shapers offer lessons or workshops. And should you insist on proceeding from scratch, the internet offers some very detailed resources and even forums on the art of surfboard making. Whether you opt for the guided route or decide to go DIY, best of luck to you and we wish you all the thrill of soon riding a board you have had a hand in the making of.
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