Let's Go Surfing Now

Riding the Wave: Making a Better Surfboard

It seems like the influence of surfing is everywhere. You don’t have to look far to see someone dressed like a surfer, or an image of someone surfing. And if you listen closely, you’ll hear surfer lingo in everyday speech. Once upon a time, surfing was a minor subculture limited to California teenagers and twenty-somethings. Now, though, it’s a hip culture on broad display in clothes, movies, music and television.

The call of “Surf’s up!” has always been popular where there are waves, but these days surfing is trendy far from the coastal breaks of California and Hawaii. There are no waves in the Midwest, but there are numerous retail stores offering the next best thing – clothing. If you can’t surf, at least you can look like you do. And there are lots of young people who want to look like surfers. People who ride snowboards, flip on wake boards, or glide on inline skates all want clothes that are hip.

As these new extreme sports have gained popularity, traditional surfer-focused clothing companies such as Billabong, Quiksilver, O’Neill and Roxy have discovered new customers. People who have never touched a surfboard can now look like surfers – and they do.

“In the late seventies, people who liked a challenge went for new sports such as skateboarding, snowboarding, inline skating and wakeboarding. We have now come full circle. It started with surfing, went through all the other sports, and is now back at surfing. Surfing is everywhere you look,” observes Bobby Szabad, veteran of the surfing industry and CEO of Szabad International of San Marcos, California. “All these people participating in extreme sports wore surf clothes and admired the surf lifestyle,” says Szabad. “They just didn’t have an easy way to learn to surf.”

Hollywood has taken notice that surfing is “with it.” The summer of 2002 saw Disney release Lilo and Stitch, an animated movie set in Hawaii and featuring surfing. Then Universal Pictures released the film Blue Crush, which was about girls surfing the big waves of Hawaii. The latest James Bond movie, Die Another Day, begins with the super spy surfing into a top-secret installation.

Television has also discovered surfing as a way to reach the right demographic – young people with money. There are now several programs which feature surfing. MTV recently aired a 12-week “reality” show about eight girls living the surfer lifestyle. The WB network is also airing a reality surf show called Boarding House: North Shore, which features male and female surfers competing in surf contests, while living in a beach house in Hawaii. Even the Nickelodeon channel airs an extreme sports cartoon for the very young set. Rocket Power features surfing, skateboarding and roller-skating, mixed with a dash of ethics and moral lessons, for the under-twelve crowd. Surfing has become so popular that the X Games, which feature the extreme sports, recently added surfing to its annual competition.

“Surfing is the place. It is the rebirth of the Beach Boys of the sixties, but with the girls, the kids and the seniors all invited,” says Szabad.

Wherever you look you see surfing – and now people want to learn how to surf, not just wear the clothing. But opportunities to actually learn how to ride a wave have always been limited by who you knew or where you lived. If you did live near the waves – or went on vacation near them – then you had to find someone who could teach you. And if you were female, it was even harder to learn. You had to borrow a board from an older brother, or convince another surfer that you were athletically skilled enough to try it. Learning to surf can take days of trial and error before you figure out how to stand up and ride a wave.

Now, though, the escalating popularity of surfing has led to an explosion of surf schools. While most people learn a new sport by taking a class or joining a team, surfing didn’t fit into this model. At least it didn’t, until several former pro surfers realized how many different people wanted to learn it. Here was the perfect chance to make money while spending their days at the beach.

“The largest learn-to-surf movement is happening right now,” notes Szabad. “Surfing has never seen this, not even back in the sixties. People have always wanted to learn how to surf, but there weren’t enough schools to support everyone who wanted to learn,” he continues. “We still don’t know how many millions of people really want to know how to surf.”

As the number of surf schools has expanded, so has the real need for a surfboard that is both safe to use and easy to learn on. In the early days of the sport, surfboards were made from wood (see related History of Surfing story), but since the 1960s they have been primarily made using foam and fiberglass. Traditionally, surfboards were always hand-made by shapers who could produce only limited quantities, splitting their time between building boards and riding the waves.

Far beyond the inability to get enough surfboards for students, there’s a bigger problem with using fiberglass boards for surf schools: If one gets loose from an inexperienced student, it can easily hit and injure anyone in its path, sometimes seriously. Several companies tried to make boards out of other, softer materials, but students could not successfully ride waves using these boards. The solution was the performance softboard.

The performance softboard has its origins in the Morey Boogie board. Tom Morey of Hawaii invented the Boogie board in 1971, by pasting newspaper on a piece of polyethylene foam. Tom hired Bobby Szabad in 1973 to help him build the new creations, and by 1975, Tom and Bobby were joined by surfing legend Mike Doyle, who helped them bring the Boogie board to the masses. “The Boogie board was a rocket ship,” says Szabad. “It was easy to make, and we made millions of them.” Doyle thought the same foam used in Boogie boards would be perfect for a surfboard, but no one wanted to invest in a way to mass-produce softboards. “There were already high-performance fiberglass surfboards,” continues Szabad. “Who needs a low-performance foam softboard? There were no surf schools back then, and the softboards were hard to make. Everyone saw the exponential growth in Boogie boards, and forgot about the softboards.”

With the growth of surfing and surf schools, however, Szabad wanted to find a way to manufacture a softboard that would be safe for students and still have great performance. “By 1998, surf schools started blossoming,” he says. “They were once seasonal, but then they started having classes year ’round. Then the operators of surf schools came to our factory and asked if we could make a performance softboard for them.”

There were two ways to meet the demand for softboards – go offshore or automate production. Neither choice would be easy. Although surfboard builders have found ways to increase production, the process remains time-consuming and labor-intensive – in fact, it’s a process that’s ripe for export to nations with low labor costs. But Szabad didn’t want to take it overseas.

“We’re proud to be an American company. I have never understood why anyone would take something as American as the surfboard and take it overseas,” Szabad states. And while other surfboard manufacturers have taken production to China, Thailand and Slovakia, Szabad knew that surf schools wanted a board built in America. “I have had customers come up to me at trade shows and ask if our production is going overseas. They don’t want to deal with a company making boards overseas. People will pay for surfboards that are made here and that will be delivered on time. Nobody has ever been sorry they bought the best.”

So how does a company increase production and quality, while maintaining a unique product in a growing industry? While others have ventured offshore to reap the benefits of inexpensive labor, Szabad found a solution right in his own backyard. For Szabad

International, the answer to producing more surfboards was right across the street at Pacific CNC Machining. It came in the form of a Haas GR-510 gantry router – a CNC machine with a 40-taper milling head and a 5-foot by 10-foot table that is well suited for making surfboards.

John McClain, owner of Pacific CNC Machining, explains how the relationship came about. “The surfboard company was just across the alley, and I saw them cutting away on band saws. I thought there might be a way to use our CNC machines to help them become automated,” he says. “They were thinking the same thing, but unless you have the machining skills and are familiar with CNC, it’s going to be a long, hard road.”

Szabad agrees. “If it wasn’t for John and Haas Automation, we wouldn’t be able to meet the demand for our boards. CNC automation was the key.”

With years of machining experience, McClain definitely had the skills and experience to make it happen. Before opening Pacific CNC in April 2002, he ran the machine shop at another company. “I had aspirations to do better, though,” he says. “I wanted to have my own shop, so I left that company, started Pacific CNC with one Haas VF-4, and I haven’t looked back.”

To the benefit of his neighbors, however, McClain has looked forward. “I had just been to WESTEC 2002 and seen this new machine from Haas – the GR-510. It’s designed for machining long parts,” McClain says, “like surfboards. So I took the opportunity to get the GR-510, and then I contracted with Szabad to manufacture their surfboard components.”

“When John said that Haas, an American company, had a machine that would be ideal for machining surfboard components, I thought it would be the perfect fit. An American surfboard made on an American machine,” says Szabad.

Pacific CNC took delivery of the second GR-510 to roll off the Haas production line. It quickly proved to be as easy to use as other Haas VMCs. “I want to make parts,” McClain says. “I don’t want to learn how to use a new machine. I knew I could put the GR-510 on my floor and be running it that afternoon. No one out there offers a machine that is this size and this easy to use,” he adds. “We think of it as a Super Mini Mill on a big gantry.”

Pacific CNC quickly put the GR-510 to use making stringers for Szabad’s performance softboards. Unlike traditional surfboards, which have a foam core and a hard outer skin of fiberglass and resin, softboards are constructed of soft foam, with a polyethylene bottom and rigid stringers down the center of the board. The stringers form the backbone of the softboard. Made of wood, they create the rocker, or curve, of the board, and provide the stiffness and high performance that surfers desire. Szabad laminates the stringers with fiberglass for additional strength.

McClain created a fixture out of particle board to hold the material in place on the GR-510. A vacuum system holds the fixture securely to the machine’s table, and clamps hold the stringer material to the fixture. To cut the stringers, McClain uses a quarter-inch endmill specially designed for cutting wood.

A great deal of sawdust is generated during the 1 minute and 30 second cycle, but a vacuum system mounted next to the endmill clears away most of the loose debris. With cutting speeds up to 833 ipm, it doesn’t take long to work through a stack of boards.

“Before we started cutting their stringers, they were making them by hand,” relates McClain. “They made some templates, and they would use a band saw to cut them. On a good day, they could make about 20 boards. By cutting parts for them on the gantry, they can now make up to 100 boards a day without too much trouble.”

In addition to cutting the stringers, McClain uses the GR-510 to shape the foam for the surfboards. The foam blanks are set directly on the machine’s table, and are cut to shape in four operations. Previously, workers at the surfboard company cut the foam by hand using routers and templates.

Not only has the GR-510 increased production for Szabad, it has brought higher quality and repeatability to the surfboard components. “We’ve been able to take their product from being a very rough, labor-intensive item to being a very repeatable part,” says McClain. “With the GR-510, every part is the same. We’ve been able to eliminate seven operations from their assembly process by doing it with CNC. Just in the short time we’ve been making components for them, they’ve been able to double and triple their production.”

For McClain, starting Pacific CNC with Haas machining centers was an easy decision. “We chose Haas machines at my last company because of price and the user-friendly control. We were kind of novices at CNC at the time,” McClain says. “I have to laugh now, because it took me five years to build a decent machine shop there, and it only took me six months to do the same thing here.”

McClain hopes to expand his capabilities further in the next year, and become a full-service machine shop. Versatility was the main criterion for his first vertical machining center, he says. “The VF-4 gives me an edge on the competition, because most people have a VF-3 size machine and they can’t do the bigger pieces. Versatility is the key so that I can do parts of all sizes.” McClain recently expanded his machine shop by adding a Haas SL-30 turning center. “I had been doing a lot of lathe-type jobs on my mill, but now I’m able to free up the VF-4 for more machining. The VF-4 is a workhorse for me,” said McClain.

The final piece of the puzzle for Pacific CNC Machining is developing a quality control program. “My big challenge right now,” says McClain, “is QC – quality control. A customer I do a lot of prototype work for is getting ready to go into production, but I need a QC system in place first. Once I have that, I can also bid on some government-type jobs. For a lot of vendors it’s important to be quality certified. I think it will be one of the cornerstones of my business.”

The future looks bright for Pacific CNC Machining, as more companies see the benefits of keeping manufacturing in the United States. Just as Pacific CNC was able to improve their neighbor’s process for making surfboards, McClain knows that the flexibility of the GR-510 will provide more solutions in the future. “The GR-510 can do so many different types of things,” he says. “It can cut anything from metal to stone, and I’m looking forward to finding new ways to machine parts with it.”

Szabad International, meanwhile, is taking the growth of the surfboard business in stride, and is planning carefully to avoid the delivery problems that ruined past surfboard manufacturers. “We’re careful not to take orders unless we know we can fill them,” says Szabad. “We don’t want to repeat the problems of the past, where people would order boards and then not get them.”

To meet the growing demand and further automate their processes, Szabad plans to purchase two Haas GR-512 Gantry Routers (slightly larger than the GR-510) of their own to supplement the work being done by Pacific CNC Machining.

“The world has said, ‘I want to learn how to surf,’” says Szabad. “And they’re all going to start on our boards. We want kids to have a great first experience, because once they stand up, they are so stoked – and they stay in the sport.”