If you surf, odds are you’re surfing on a board made of polyurethane and fiberglass. The design, a sandwich of foam and the fiberglass, was born in the late 1940s using methods and materials developed during World War II.
Two lifelong surfers, one of them a rocket scientist who did a stint at SpaceX, think surfboards are due for an update. They’ve designed a more advanced model by engineering a foam core structure they call Varial foam. It’s a finely tuned lattice of polymers more akin to the lightweight material found in helicopter blades than anything you’d ride a wave with. As the inventors tell it, this new foam makes for stronger, lighter, and more flexible boards.
They’re hardly the first to think they’ve designed a better board. The $7 billion industry has attracted no end of shapers and designers using reclaimed, recycledand renewable materials to improve on the design Bob Simmons, the father of the modern surfboard, pioneered after World War II. The fundamental technology has changed little in the 60-odd years since, largely because a single company—Clark Foam—utterly dominated the field until it suddenly folded in 2005.
Varial’s founders, Edison Conner and Parker Borneman, grew up surfing together in Santa Barbara, California. Later, while at separate colleges, they starting thinking seriously about how to improve the foam core. Polyurethane foam is a popular material because it is light, cheap and easy to work with. But it has downsides. Aside from being environmentally suspect, it isn’t especially durable. Even with the addition of a wood spine, called a stringer, it isn’t unusual to see surfers break a board or two each season. “The price point on a board is about $700,” Borneman says, “so when surfboards are breaking bi-annually you’re spending a lot on your equipment.”
Polyurethane remains dominant, but some think the sport is ready for disruption. “It’s still got a pretty good grip on the industry,” says Richard Kenvin, author of Surf Craft. “All the production methods were set in place, so people in that might be slower to change. But I don’t think it can hang on forever—new foams and composites are going to replace that stuff—and on the high performance end, it’s kind of way overdue that it moved out.”
From the start Borneman and Conner believed tinkering with new foam structures in the lab would improve flexibility and durability. Surfboards have what’s called a rocker, or a curve that runs its length, that provides about an inch of flex. It helps surfers navigate slight turns, but also plays into the physics of the sport. “It stores energy, and that energy releases the rider back out of the run and pushes the rider out of the turn,” Conner says. The problem is, “boards are either flexible and not strong, or strong and not flexible.”
Design Cues From the Skies
The Varial guys wanted both. Conner happens to be especially equipped for this type of challenge—he’s a composites engineer. In fact, it’s what he did at SpaceX while getting Varial going. He helped develop “high strength, plastic-like materials” for rockets.
In the lab, Conner developed a foam with a meticulous, web-like structure. It’s a proprietary technique, but he’s essentially made the air bubbles in the foam as small and dense as possible, optimizing it for lightness and strength. Riding a Varial board, Borneman says, makes it easier to turn, and makes the sport faster, letting you ride the wave longer.
Surfboard design has long intertwined with the aerospace industry. In the early 20th century, most boards were balsa. When surfing took off in southern California, the growth of the sport dovetailed with advances in military tech. Polyurethane was originally designed to be insulation in aircraft, for example. And like other post-war design innovations—notably, Charles and Ray Eames’s molded furniture—surfboards benefited from advances in foam and fiberglass manufacturing made during World War II. It helped that many early surfers and shapers were glider pilots, Kenvin says. Even now, the two fields continue drawing from each other. Surfboard design has been integrated into wing design at Boeing, for example. “Most of the guys I know at the forefront [of surfboard design] are always looking at swatches and Kevlar and things that have uses in aerospace,” Kenvin says. “That always pushes things along.”