SANTA CRUZ, Calif. -- Tan and grinning, surfer Randy French holds chunks of foam in each hand. In his left, a dense, crumbly foam that is tougher but not unlike the kind used by florists. In his right, a puffy, Styrofoam-like material that resembles the stuff used to make cheap ice chests.
"This foam," he says, holding up the puffier variety, "represents the first time in 30 years surfboards have been made in a new way."
French and other surfboard builders are making waves with epoxy boards, which look the same as those made with standard materials but are stronger, lighter and less environmentally damaging.
"This is the first major industry change in a long time," said Brad Nadell, owner of Foam E-Z, a leading surfboard material supplier based in Westminster. "Surfing is a traditional industry. These new boards may just be too hard, too light. I'm not sure they'll catch on."
Innovative surfboard makers have been experimenting with epoxy components, and other space-age materials including Kevlar, for about 10 years, but only recently have they gained commercial appeal.
The first modern surfboards, designed in the 1920s, were made of wood, but those boards were heavy and sometimes difficult to maneuver. Then came a surfing revolution.
In the 1950s, board makers discovered polyurethane foam and fiberglass technologies. Suddenly boards were lighter, fast, and easier to make. The new boards helped fuel a surfing boom that stretched from coast to coast -- and beyond.
Most board builders still use almost exactly the same materials and process. A polyurethane foam core, known as a blank, is cut and shaped to desired length and thickness. Then it's wrapped with fiberglass and resin.
While nimble and snappy on the waves, regular boards can break in big surf, are easily nicked by contact with other boards, rocks or the ground, and are damaging to the environment while being made.
Epoxy boards are different in two ways: the blank is made from nontoxic expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam -- similar to the stuff that filled bean bag chairs a few decades ago -- and the coat is an epoxy, a hard, slow drying glue.
At Point Blanks, a Ventura, Calif., company making epoxy boards for recreation gear retailer Patagonia, managers say their boards are 70 percent stronger and 10 percent lighter than standard polyurethane boards. They're also about 25 percent more expensive, starting at more than $400.
Epoxy resin has two-thirds fewer volatile organic compounds than polyester resins, whose fumes can be overwhelming. And because they last longer, fewer are ending up in landfills.
Despite the advantages, the boards are just now breaking into the mass market.
The Surf Industry Manufacturers Association estimates that about 400,000 surfboards will be sold in the United States this year. Of those, about 6,000 will be epoxy boards.
"We're just a speck, but it's historic in that what we're doing is completely a first in making a surfboard successfully with alternative technology," French said.
Surfer Ken Gallione says higher-tech doesn't necessarily mean higher performance.
"It's true, those new boards are not going to snap in big surf," he said, "but I get a way better response, in my feet, on an old school board when I'm carving, doing hard curves, dropping in, setting rails, hard sharp turns. It's hard to replace something that's been around for decades."
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