Traditional vs. Epoxy Construction
The typical modern surfboard is made using polyurethane foam and polyester resin. While this combination proved successful as the standard for many years, the industry couldn’t turn its back to the benefits of epoxy resin and has begun to embrace the idea.
To begin with, epoxy resin is a healthier alternative to polyester. When working with polyester resin, glassers must wear masks to ensure that the harmful chemicals won’t damage their respiratory system. For years, manufacturers have struggled to come up with a method of making surfboards that would be less destructive, both to their health and the environment. It seems that epoxy might fit the bill. Epoxy emits 50-75% fewer VOCs (volatile organic compounds) than polyester resin, which means a decrease in harmful chemicals in the shop and the environment in general. In fact, epoxy is a common household item, safe to use without a mask and with only moderate ventilation.
Also epoxy is lighter than polyester. Under most circumstances, resin makes up a large part of a completed board’s overall weight. Not only is epoxy lighter than polyester, but less is needed per coat. This ends up meaning a lighter surfboard – a big plus for most surfers. The biggest bonus However is the durability and strength of epoxy boards.
As discussed above, most surfboards are made with polyurethane foam as their core. Polyurethane (PU) foam has many benefits that have made it a front-running choice for so long: it is very easy to handle and shape, it is inexpensive, and it can be found in several shapes and sizes. Unfortunately, making PU foam requires the use of highly toxic materials, not to mention that it is also highly susceptible to water damage during storage.
PU is the most common type of foam used in surfboard construction (it was the only type sold by former blank giant Clark Foam for over 40 years). However shapers are more and more using polystyrene foam, an alternative foam that is lighter weight and not as chemically harmful to those who handle it. The foam technology has been around a while but was not able to be applied to surf boards because it was not compatible with Polyester resin. Now with the introduction of epoxy resin it is quickly becoming the new standard. Polystyrene foam comes in two varieties – expanded and extruded – each compatible with epoxy resin, and each with its own positives and drawbacks.
EXPANDED (beaded foam, Styrofoam)
Expanded, or beaded, foam (EPS) is a relatively inexpensive and incredibly lightweight surfboard core. Manufacturers produce sheets of EPS by feeding tiny polystyrene spheres into a machine, then introducing steam coupled with a trace amount of pentane gas to expand the beads and mold them to one another. The end result is an open cell foam, meaning that is very water absorbent. To combat this issue, shapers who use EPS foam must add extra layers of fiberglass and epoxy resin to prevent any dings from penetrating deep enough to reach the foam.
Pop-out boards are made using EPS foam, because the beads can be formed into specific molds. The soft outer portion of a pop-out is an ideal match for the EPS foam, keeping dings to a minimum and preventing leaks from entering the foam core. However, very few hand shapers use EPS foam, because it is difficult to work with and nearly impossible to fine-tune with shaping tools (the beads retain their spherical shapes so well that any sanding causes whole chunks of foam to fall off, leaving the edges jagged).
EPS foam is cheap, light and can be molded into various shapes and sizes. However, in addition to being highly moisture absorbing, beaded foam has a few other noteworthy drawbacks: EPS foam blanks have poor flex patterns and they are more susceptible to dents caused by compression. Again, the extra layers of fiberglass and resin work to prevent these problems from affecting the finished board.
EXTRUDED (closed cell)
Extruded foam (XTR) is made using expensive machinery and computers. The machines melt polystyrene crystals down, using additives and a blowing agent to essentially deflate and combine all of the ingredients together. The result is a fluid that expands as it cools, forming solid blocks of XTR foam. The foam is closed cell, so it blocks out moisture – a big plus in the watery world of surfing.
The process of making XTR foam is time-consuming and costly. The price of the foam itself, coupled with the fact that most XTR epoxy boards are hand-shaped, does unfortunately lead to a more expensive finished board – but one with several benefits for discerning surfers. Not only is the foam core moisture-wicking and stronger than other types of foam, it is also extremely resistant to dings and compression-caused dents. XTR foam also has a good flex pattern, so it’s responsive on the water.
The problem with closed cell foam is two-fold. First, as mentioned above, it is expensive. You will almost always pay more for an XTR board than one made from EPS. Second, there have been reports of bubbles and delamination in the decks of some closed cell boards, caused by gas build-up between the foam, fiberglass and resin layers. However, some companies (such as Channel Islands) have made huge developments in XTR-constructed boards, finding ways to allow the gases to escape without compromising the integrity of the surfboard.
Types of Epoxy Boards
Like regular surfboards, epoxy boards are manufactured using several methods and materials. Here we take a look at the most common types of epoxy boards:
Hand-shaped epoxy boards are made using roughly the same construction method as regular polyester boards, with a shaper sweating over the foam and carefully sanding every curve and line. The difference lies in the type of foam used (see “Epoxy-Compatible Foams” above) and in the glassing process. Rather than using polyester resin mixed with a hardening agent, the glasser applies coats of epoxy to bind the fiberglass to the foam. The entire process is faster when epoxy is used, because the waiting period between coats is shorter.
Some shapers will start with a rough block of foam, cutting and shaping it by hand from start to finish. Others will feed their design into a computer-assisted machine, which cuts the foam to size. However, they still fine-tune the shape by hand. Any hand-shaped or hand-tuned board, especially when it’s customized, will be relatively expensive. The shaper spends a lot of time working with each board, sanding it to perfection by hand, so the end result is usually worth the added cost.
* Note: Machines are only assistants to Shapers, who are viewed as craftsmen and artisans. A hand shaped board will always be superior to a machine produced board.
Cutting Edge Technologies
SurfTech has taken their Techlite core (fused cell foam, virtually waterproof) technology to a new level with their TL2 surfboard design. The Techlite core is further improved upon with the addition of an Acrylite skin, which is glassed onto the board using epoxy resin. The Acrylite skin and the epoxy coating work with the core material to create an incredibly strong, responsive surfboard. The extra strength means that no stringer is needed, so the board is more flexible and springy in the water as well. Like all epoxy boards, the TL2 is made using chemicals that are much less harmful to the environment, which is always a good thing. They are incredibly lightweight and drive hard, giving experienced surfers the performance characteristics they require to go big.
Salomon recently debuted the S Core blank technology, which combines airplane wing structures in the core with ultra-lightweight materials to create a seriously sturdy board. The carbon composite, extruded polystyrene blanks are stronger and more flexible than traditional PU versions. They are not made using sandwich construction; rather, each board is formed using computer-assisted machines, then hand-tuned to shaper specifications. The result is a quick, responsive board that is easy to pick out in a crowd – they are all bright blue!
ENVIRONMENTALLY AWARE FOAMS
A few companies have come out with new technology that embraces the goal of not impacting planet earth so much. One of these new foam technologies is called Biofoam. Biofoam is the result of the ability to transform plants (soy, agricultural bi-product, etc) into foam which then can be used for surfboards. This is a very promising new niche that has seen a very quick expansion in its usage and shapers embracing the technology.
Another environmentally sound technology that has come out is the advent of recycled surfboards. Some companies and shapers have taken up processing new boards out of old foam from old surfboards and surfboard production waste. This technology is extremely exciting as it could lead to self-sustaining surf manufacturing, which would be amazing. Between these two, Biofoam has become much more widespread than recycled surfboards, but with technological innovations on the rise, these environmentally aware industries could become mainstream production methods.
From a practical standpoint, Epoxy boards are amazing. They are much more buoyant than PU boards, meaning you can ride shorter boards which can in turn enhance performance. This also means one is able to paddle easier with Epoxy boards, which also increases performance as well as the number of waves you can catch and the ability to surf mushier waves. These all lead to an enhancement of fun, which is what it is all about. They are also very durable and maintain their integrity a lot longer than PU boards.
However, from a personal standpoint, this surfer has to lean towards PU boards. The feel and flex of a PU board is a feeling that will stick with you. Epoxy boards are great but can have a “corky” feeling to them that can take some getting used to. Also, chop and windy conditions are the Achilles heel for Epoxy boards, and we all know perfect, glassy waves aren’t a 24/7 presence…not by a long shot.
So, in conclusion, both technologies present strong reasons for purchasing them. So what is the verdict? Get the board that you have the most fun on and makes you the happiest, because in the end, it doesn’t matter if you are surfing the hood of a car, as long as you are stoked.