Why make a hollow wooden surfboard?

Making a hollow wooden surfboard is the hardest and longest way to make a surfboard. It seems crazy that a technique invented over a hundred years ago is still being used by a handful of practitioners around the world, especially in a hi-tech surf manufacturing environment  where a foam blank can be cut in minutes. By contrast, making a hollow wooden surfboard will take you five days, and that doesn’t even count the wood preparation and glassing.

In busy times, when the labour quotient requires long and relentless hours, I’ve often wondered what is so compelling about making these boards, and why I keep on coming back for more. This wondering, and reflections from others who have built their own hollow wooden surfboards over the 10 year period that I’ve been holding workshops, has led me down a number of interesting thought paths as I’ve sought to understand the craft.

 It often takes a workshop to help me see why it’s such a rewarding and valuable process because when someone joins me to build their own board, their enjoyment of the process is mirrored back at me and I’m reminded why I still find it so rewarding.

Hundreds of people have built their own hollow wooden surfboards at Burnett Wood Surfboards since workshops started in 2013, and this has provided a unique insight into what motivates people to put hard work and energy into their surfboards, and what they get out of the process. Read on to find out about some of the reasons why people love making hollow wooden surfboards.

To learn about surfing: There is no better way to understanding how your surfboard works on a wave than building it yourself and then taking it surfing. Making a wooden surfboard is an immersive experience. In imagining what you are making actually ending up in the water and being surfed, or even if you are looking at your creation hanging on a wall as a piece of art, you are already beginning to engage in one of the most fascinating aspects of surfing: how water flows over a surfboard and why a certain surfboard is good for all things or only some things. Many a workshop builder since 2013 has commented on how making their own ride has had an enormous impact on how they think about the surfboards that they ride, and surfing in general. In my own surfing life, one of my greatest thrills has been in making a wooden surfboard and then catching a wave on it. There’s no stoke like it.

For environmental reasons: Millions of surfboards are made every year, and while the materials that go into making these surfboards don’t sound as if they’re plastic – foam, fibreglass, resin – all of these surfboards are essentially made from different forms of plastic. This in turn is derived from petroleum and therefore presents a clear link with fossil fuel extraction. Apart from the CO2 emissions caused by fossil fuel extraction, much of the foam made for surfboard construction releases toxic chemicals into the environment. 

Then there is the issue of what happens to these surfboards when they are cast aside as they don’t easily biodegrade. Many surfers have pointed to the huge contradiction between this pollution and the public image of surfers as being connected and caring to the environment while continuing to largely ignore the toxicity of the craft they ride.

Making your own wooden surfboard does address this issue to some extent, as wood is a natural material that is renewable, biodegrades and is not connected to fossil fuel extraction. Using glues and resins in the manufacture of a wooden surfboard is a downside, unfortunately, but these materials are a small percentage of the overall surfboard. One study that conducted a life cycle analysis of wood surfboards versus foam surfboards, found that even considering the resins used in both types of manufacture, hollow wooden surfboards were found to emit less than half the emissions of their foam counterparts.

Traditional craftsmanship and working with your hands: Crafting a wooden surfboard honours traditional craftsmanship and woodworking techniques. Many people enjoy the process of working with their hands and preserving time honoured, hand-based skills in a world where making things that we use ourselves is a rarity and more often than not left to someone far away in another country.

Many people have commented on how working with your hands and wood offers numerous benefits for physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Engaging in hands-on woodworking activities can have positive effects on various aspects of your life. It allows for expression of creativity and in some ways the process of woodworking is akin to a therapeutic outlet. The process of planning, shaping, and crafting wood can help reduce stress, anxiety, and tension, promoting relaxation and mindfulness. It slows you down. Being present in the moment while working with your hands can enhance your overall sense of mindfulness and well-being.

Furthermore, completing a woodworking project instils a strong sense of accomplishment and pride. Seeing a tangible outcome from your efforts can boost self-esteem and confidence, especially for those who have never made something before. 

Love of wood: The fascination that humans have with wood goes back to the very beginnings of our existence. Trees provided fuel for keeping warm and cooking, for shelter and for tools. Harvests from fruit bearing trees were central to nutrition and survival. 

In the life of a tree can be found the fascination of creation and growth that is not dissimilar from our own life journeys. Even the largest or oldest of trees on the planet started out as a very small seed, sometimes only the size of a pinhead, or taken back further a cluster of microscopic cells. An extraordinary combination of circumstances must co-exist to create the conditions for germination and growth, while growth through the seasons and the trees’ experience of heat, cold, access to water and many more factors are what creates the beautiful timber that is given to us by nature. 

Looking at the grain in a piece of wood is also a window into the decades of its life, and that natural grain that is created is an art work all of itself. This makes working with wood a very evocative experience – the material speaks to us, it resonates with our DNA and sparks our creativity. Simply by making and working with it some of its magic rubs off on us, changing us in a very small way, opening ourselves up to the beauty of nature and all that it has to offer us. Working with wood is an opportunity to tune into the mystery of nature, to gain appreciation for the delicate balance of the ecosystems that allow nature to flourish, and to become closer and more connected to the natural world.

Making your own wooden surfboard allows you to work with a natural material. Handling wood and witnessing its transformation into a functional object fosters a deeper connection to the natural world, and in a very real way, while you are transforming wood, it is also transforming you.

To mark and celebrate at life event: There’s something about wooden surfboards that resonate with the idea of legacy. Maybe that’s because they are lasting, or because of the timelessness of wood as a material, or because your work, energy and spirit goes into making it and so it holds a special place in your heart. But what that means is that making a wooden surfboard is a great thing to do to mark a birthday or anniversary, or as a way to spend time with loved ones and friends.

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