“The boards started out as a hobby. A friend of mine was making model airplanes out of wood and selling them at craft markets.We started talking one evening about wing construction using a hollow frame structure and how the same technique could be used for surfboards.”
QUESTIONS: ROSS COLEPEPPER
IMAGES: PETER BEAVIS / DOUGAL PATTERSON
You built your first board in 2007 despite the fact that you didn’t have much woodworking experience at all. Your love of a good looking board isn’t the only reason you started using wood, would you like to talk about how and why you started using wood to build boards?
The boards started out as a hobby. A friend of mine was making model airplanes out of wood and selling them at craft markets. We started talking one evening about wing construction, using a hollow frame structure and how the same technique could be used for surfboards. At around the same time I was doing work for a magazine focused on the environment. I was coming across many different ways of doing things in order to be more environmentally friendly. It seemed crazy that surfboards couldn’t be made in another way, one that would be better for the environment. I went away from the chat with a determination to make a surfboard out of wood, but not really having any idea about how I would do that. On the internet, I found that there were people all over the world making wood surfboards and that got me going, including a book that a wooden surfboard maker had produced showing people how to make the boards. That was my starting point.
Do you still ride the first board you made? What would you say was the biggest hurdle when you made your first attempt?
My first board looked like a surfboard – but only just. I was a bit embarrassed by it but I thought I should take it surfing anyway. I didn’t expect it to go, but I had a wave on it where I needed to make a steepish drop and negotiate a few tricky sections. I actually kicked out at the end of the wave – stoked. I immediately thought: what if, I mean what if I could make a wooden board like the wooden board I can see in my mind, with a sleek profile and beautiful wood? And that’s what I set out to do. My biggest hurdle was that when it came to wood I was completely unskilled – the learning curve was hard. I had none of the tools that were required so my early boards were made with the bare minimum.
Can you explain the basics of building a Burnett wooden surfboard?
We start out with rough shorn timber. It’s amazing when you cut it open and see the beautiful grain. Once it has been planked you’re ready to start building the board, which involves laminating the wood around a computer-designed frame that gives the board its rocker and profile. Once this is done, you’re left with a wooden blank that you can shape into the finished surfboard.
What type of wood do you prefer to use to make the boards, what do you find works the best?
I’ve used all kinds of wood from heavier hardwoods to lighter softwoods. It depends what type of board I’m making. Generally though, we go for lighter woods like cedars and redwoods, of which there are a number of types. I try as much as possible to use locally grown timber, when available.
Do you build all of the boards with a ‘skeleton’ and skin with solid rails?
Not always. Many are built like this, but I’ve been experimenting with some variations that involve taking the frame out of the centre of the board and using recycled bits of foam or locally grown sisal to reinforce the rails and the centre of the board.
Does this not make it difficult for the shaper to work on the rocker, bottom concave and channels?
The technique for building a hollow wood surfboard is totally different to a normal surfboard, and the material is also different with its own unique properties. We define the rocker through a table, with each rocker measurement defined at a particular part of the table – this gives the board its bottom curve. Other aspects such as concaves can be designed for in the ribbing structure on the computer.
On that note, how does the wooden construction affect the flex and feel of the board through turns?
Wood is an amazing material for building surfboards with, and not only because it is aesthetically beautiful. It has amazing flex and flex-retention properties. There’s inherent buoyancy as a result of the hollow structure. And the extra weight gives momentum and drive.
How are you glassing your boards?
I use epoxy resins and fiberglass cloth.
How easy is it to do repairs on the boards if they might get damaged?
Basic repairs such as shatters to the glassing are easy to fix. The structure is very strong so it takes something serious to damage the core. It is possible to fix almost anything – if necessary you can take a whole deck or bottom off and replace it with new wood.
I once heard an old time surfboard builder say that there will never be such a thing as a ‘green’ surfboard, what are your thoughts on that?
In the sense that you cannot make any product, no matter how green you may claim it to be, without some kind of carbon footprint, I agree. But I firmly believe that we can make and ride surfboards that have far less of a negative impact on the environment and that it is important to explore alternative surfboard manufacturing techniques in order to achieve that.
I’ve been doing some homework on what it would take to make a completely ‘green’ board and it doesn’t look like the technology is too far off. The production of hemp fiberglass, hemp epoxy and the talk of making foam from sugarcane is coming to light, would you consider making a switch or combining some of the elements with your craftsmanship?
I think just by using wood to make my boards means that I have made the switch – it is a natural material, renewable and biodegradable. There are a number of encouraging resin products that are on the market overseas but not available in SA. However, I will soon be using a bio-resin product that is marketed as the most environmentally friendly product available globally. And I have been investigating hemp cloth for glassing. I think we need to be careful about ‘green-washing’ and making claims like the ‘100% green’ surfboard or the ‘completely green board’. For example, a bio resin might be better, but is it ‘green’? Likewise sugarcane – where did it come from? Was a natural environment destroyed to harvest it? We need a ‘land to ocean’ life cycle analysis to determine how green something is, and that is probably not going to happen anytime soon because small producers don’t have the resources to track a complex multi-national supply chain. But that is not to say that we shouldn’t be trying and that there aren’t less damaging technologies available which can be used. Scale does become important – where is your wave craft on the scale measured from least polluting to highly polluting?
Do you still ride polyurethane boards or are you all about the wood these days?
I try to ride my wooden boards as much as possible. I’ve ridden my boards in anything from 1ft mush through to 15ft and everything in-between. I also have some poly boards in my quiver. But, I have only bought one new poly board in the last 10 years. If I have the money and time then I’ll build myself a wooden board.
Where do you see the surfboard building industry going in the next 5 years? Back to the cottage industry that gave surfing its identity or more big factories and cheap labour in the east, mass-producing pop out boards like plastic dolls?
I’m not qualified to comment on the mainstream surf industry. I’m not part of it and never have been. Commenting on wooden surfboards, I think the market for alternatively constructed surfboards is going to grow and that eventually this will to some extent be appropriated into the mainstream.
Do you think it’s just a matter of time before wooden boards go the same route as in being mass-produced on conveyor belts?
It’s possible, but I think it would take a major disruption. If, hypothetically, foam was banned for environmental reasons and there wasn’t an acceptable alternative, then you might see the kind of investment going into lighter, more mass-produced wooden surfboards, but that doesn’t seem like a realistic possibility at the moment. It’s difficult to see the labour intensive nature of making wooden boards completely mitigated by production cycles. That should keep it in the craft-based, labour-of-love category I reckon.
A lot of shapers keep there cards really close to their chest in terms of their trade, yet you are running workshops and providing kits to make your own board at home. Are you not afraid of flooding a niche market that is within a niche market or essentially putting yourself out of business?
No, not at all. The more people interested in wooden surfboards the better. I think interest in wooden surfboards is a new market, not only a niche market, and that there is an interest in retro, alternative surf gear and environmentally friendly alternatives. People love to make things with their hands and if you’re interested in surfing and you respond to the beauty of wood then it’s the ultimate to make your own board. I just provide the environment, added expertise and knowledge to make sure people get a functional piece of surf art that they’ll be in love with for their whole lives.
What are the different courses and kit offerings that you have available at the moment?
1. Six-day full-time courses: these are scheduled courses that take place on specific dates (see below). We limit numbers to 4-6 people per course. Check out the scheduled dates for 2014 below.
2. Three-day courses: For people who would like the experience of building their own board, but have limited time. Some of the stages are done for you and there’s more support so that you can fit it into three days. See below for details on the next course.
3. Weekend courses: These are ongoing and take place every Saturday. It takes 5-6 Saturdays to build a board.
4. Courses by arrangement: If you can’t make the scheduled dates, you tell us what suits you and we’ll arrange a custom course to suit your needs.
For kits, my Board-in-a-Box package provides all the materials and instructions needed to build your own hollow wood surfboard.
The box includes all the wood (pre-cut and ready for assembly), glue, glassing material, and a detailed step-by-step instruction manual to guide you through the process. Email support during your board building experience is also available, if required. The only things we don’t supply are the woodworking tools that you will need.
How long does it normally take to build your own board from start to finish?
Usually about six days.
You also do furniture and decor, can you expand a bit more on this side of your business?
I like to use up all the wood that I have so when I have offcuts from a surfboard or any other recovered wood that I am able to use, I have used them to make a range of items. Things like key ring hangers shaped like surfboards, surfboard shaped clocks, beautiful coffee tables, mirrors with shell inlays… I also use offcuts to make body surfing hand planes and wooden fins.
INFO – BURNETT SURFBOARDS