Nowadays there are a lot of people making wooden surfboards. Environmentally it makes a great deal of sense. Wood is a natural, non-toxic material that is infinitely less harmful to work with than polyester, epoxy, polyethylene or polystyrene, and that can be assimilated back into the environment once the life of the board has ended. Also, wooden boards are generally made to last longer, which reduces the environmental footprint at the manufacturing end and at the waste-management end. And if the raw material (i.e. trees from the forest or offcuts from other industries) is extracted at a rate that is slower than the rate of natural re-generation of that material, a wooden board can be close to being truly sustainable.
When one thinks of modern wooden surfboards, those that immediately spring to mind are longboards, retro-fishes and single-fins – boards where a little more weight and perhaps a little less speed are not too much of an impediment. Boards for riders whose top priority is having fun without necessarily being able to land an aerial 360.
But extra weight is not necessarily too much of an impediment in another type of surfboard: the big-wave gun. Dropping down a giant wave, most of the time you need to control the speed you already have, rather than generate more speed. Some say that extra weight is actually an advantage in big surf, because it helps the board push through chop and reduces the effects of windage. That’s open to debate, but, whatever the case, a lighter board in big surf usually means a weaker one, and the last thing you want is for your expensive gun to snap on the first wave of the best day of the year.
From my own perspective, the idea of a wooden gun fits in very well with my passion for the environmental and with my passion for big waves. Calling myself a big-wave surfer and at the same time an environmental activist sometimes seems a little hypocritical, especially when I spend all day driving up and down the coast looking for the biggest, cleanest waves, and must always have a quiver of guns including back-ups in case they snap.
So, recently, at a fairly ‘mellow’ 15-foot day at Sunset Reef in South Africa, I was thrilled to bump into Patrick Burnett and Jason Hayes, both trying out for the first time serious guns that they had constructed out of wood. When I say ‘serious’ I mean 11’0” and 11’4” – lengths that could potentially be used to catch the biggest waves ever paddled into.
Of course, these are by no means the first wooden guns to be made, but probably the first ones anywhere in Africa or Europe. The interesting thing is that Patrick and Jason had each decided on a completely different construction method to achieve the same objective.
Sunset Reef, South Africa. Photo: Javi Muñoz Pacotwo
Tony Butt (TB): What were the waves like and how did the board feel out at Sunset that day?
Patrick: It wasn't maxing but there were some really defined and good quality peaks breaking off the back. The board paddled very well, had a liveliness entering the wave and the drive that I needed through the bowl section. I was stoked!
Jason: Surfing the board out at Sunset Reef, on a fairly onshore 12- to 15-foot day, was not the ideal conditions to be surfing in. The board has more weight than the conventional foam guns and ended up not riding the bumps all that well. However, the other day I took the board out on a clean, 10 foot day with no wind and the board was magnificent.
TB: How is the board constructed?
Patrick: It's constructed using a hollow wood frame and rib method. Glassed with epoxy.
Jason: The board is constructed from many machined Agave stems that are made into stringers, and then laminated together with cold waterproof glue in a chosen rocker profile. This gives you the blank, which you then shape in the same way as a foam blank. The board is then glassed with epoxy.
TB: Why did you choose that method over other wooden board building techniques?
Patrick: I've been making hollow wood surfboards for six years. This is the method I have chosen to experiment with/perfect and I've made fishes, single fins, eggs, mini-malibus, longboards, the lot. I make my living from making these boards and so it followed that I would use it in making this board.
Jason: One reason I chose the Agave wooden board over other timber designed boards is that right from the beginning the process brings you closer to Nature. You first have to go out into the bush, choose each plant by hand and imagine how it will form part of the board. Then, once you have laminated it all together to form a blank, you have to use your carpentry tools to shape it into a surfboard. As a master carpenter by trade, I like the idea that the process is as close to carpentry as you can get.
TB: What are the dimensions of the board and why did you choose those particular ones
Patrick: It is 11’0” x 20.5” x 3.5” thruster. I wanted it to surf Sunset Reef. Sunset is a wave where you need the length because it moves so much water and the waves move so fast. You need a big board to be able to catch waves.
Jason: The dimensions are 11’4” x 22” x 3”. At the time I had not heard of a big wave gun longer than 11’2” in Cape Town or in South Africa and I had never heard of an Agave gun that long anywhere in the world. The width ended up 22” because I battled to get out more than 3” on thickness and so compromised with more width. Note that Agave plant grows up to 15 or 18 feet long, but you need extra length in the plant in order to get the rocker in the board.
Jason with the 11’4” agave board.
TB: How many hours did the board take you to make?
Patrick: It is hard to say. I made it over a 4-5 month period and was working on many other boards at the same time. But I took my time on this one. At a rough estimate, up to 80 hours of labour. I was as meticulous as I could be.
Jason: The board took many days to make. First I had to drive into the bush and look for Agave plants, choose the ones I wanted, cut them down, load them up and drive back again. That took about two days altogether. Then stripping them down and getting them into stringers that I could laminate together took another couple of days, and the laminating itself took about a day. I haven’t shaped many boards before, so the shaping probably took me a lot longer than normal – about four days. The board was glassed by a friend of mine, which took him two days. So there you have it, around eleven days altogether.
TB: How did the idea of building a wooden gun evolve?
Patrick: I've been surfing bigger waves for about eight years. Boards I surf in other conditions are hollow wood surfboards that I made myself and it has always been in my mind that I also wanted my big wave board to be a hollow wood surfboard. The first hollow wood gun that I made was a 9’6” single fin. I surfed it once in eight-to-ten foot waves and then started to tinker with it in the workshop. Eventually I put it aside, unfinished, and stored the lessons it had taught me in my memory bank. That was about four years ago. When I started making this latest board I felt like I was ready to make it.
Jason: The idea to make an Agave gun was inspired by my friend legendary Cape-Town big-wave surfer Simon Lowe. Originally my plan was to make a Pat Curren Gun, 10’6”, shaping it as close to the original lines of that board as possible. But then Simon inspired me to make a more modern board that would surf much bigger waves than Curren surfed in the 1960s. I had already cut the Agave stems, and 11’4” was the biggest I could get out of them.
TB: Apart from the environmental side of things, what are the principle advantages and disadvantages of wood compared with plastic for big-wave guns?
Patrick: I think it is an area that I'm still learning about. I haven't surfed it many times and so it is a bit early to say. But there are a few things that I'm thinking about and exploring. Firstly, the strength of the board is in the rails and although I have put some reinforcements in the central area of the board, the strength remains in the rails. But there is still flexibility through the board. I could actually feel this flex in the board on some waves – there seemed to be a real 'spring' in it coming off the bottom and setting a rail. Given that wood has good flexibility and flex retention properties this has interesting performance implications. One of the tricky questions, however, is how much flex can be built for without compromising strength. I don't know. It's an experiment.
Jason: The principle advantage over plastic I would say, for this type of construction method anyway, is strength. Even though they have not been put to any proper tests, I have no doubt in my mind that these boards are extremely strong. You are using natural growth curves to strengthen your boards and by the end of it you have natural fibres from nose to tail, side to side and top to bottom.
TB: Some people don’t like the fact that these boards are heavier than plastic ones, yet others think that weight can actually be an advantage in big waves. What are your feelings on that?
Patrick: I feel that weight does help, but there's a tipping point. You don't want too much weight. The theory is weight helps with momentum and makes the board better able to handle chop, bumps etc. I'll go with that. But I think the other aspect to wood that is related to weight is how wood with its organic, cellular structure absorbs/transmits energy and deals with or dampens bumps, ribs and all the other extreme wave conditions that big waves present, given that the board is glassed anyway and that this will therefore negate some of the natural properties of wood. I think the right kind of weight in the right areas of the board can definitely be an advantage, but must also be seen in conjunction with other design elements like rocker, fins, rails etc.
Jason: Whether a heavier board will give you an advantage or not in big waves on a particular day probably depends on one or two other factors. For example, your own strength to weight ratio – lighter, fitter surfers are generally better paddlers, giving them an advantage for catching waves under normal circumstances. But if there is a lot of wind and chop coming up the face, then heavier surfers would have an advantage and lighter surfers might need to compensate for that weight advantage with a heavier board. Ideally, you would perhaps want to have a few different weight boards of the same length for different spots under different conditions.
Patrick (middle) puts his shape to the test at Sunset. The inside surfer is Dougal Paterson, the outside surfer is Matthew Bromley. Photo: Michelle Douglas
TB: What are the environmental advantages and disadvantages of your particular construction technique over other wooden board building methods?
Patrick: I can't answer this question – I haven't done or seen an analysis of hollow wood surfboards versus solid wood or chambered boards, for example. I have seen a study that compared polyurethane (PU) foam boards with hollow wood boards, and stated that wood surfboard production produced less than half the CO2 emissions and other noxious emissions of foam boards.
Jason: One advantage is that Agave is considered an alien species in South Africa, and it grows pretty fast. So, even though it would be best that they never appeared in the first place, cutting them down and making surfboards out of them is certainly not doing any more harm to the environment. The other advantage is that the core of the plant can also be used to make tequila.
TB: A friend of mine thinks that a surfboard to a big-wave surfer should be like a sword to a Samurai warrior: to be treasured and looked after during one’s entire life, and never replaced. Do you think we might ever get anywhere that concept, particularly with wooden boards, or does the constant evolution of design really mean we have to keep replacing them?
Patrick: With big wave boards I think the question gets taken out of your hands. A big wave will break anything if the board is put in the wrong position, no matter how you build for strength. For shorter wood boards where the power of the wave becomes less of an issue then, yes, it is realistic to have one board for a long period of time. The question also depends on the performance aspirations of the surfer in question – someone wanting to constantly push the boundaries of size and wave type is obviously going to have more of a motivation to experiment with design.
Jason: Your friend is correct in saying that these boards should be considered like Samurai swords. There is no reason why one should have to replace these boards if they are looked after properly. If you experiment a lot with boards, but then are lucky enough one day to find that ‘magic formula’ – a board that you would be quite happy to keep for the rest of your life – it makes total sense for that board to stay under your feet till the very end. And for that to happen, of course, the board must be strong enough.
TB: Is this just a one-off or do you envisage making more and perhaps selling these boards?
Patrick: It will be hard not to make more. They are such grand pieces and I get an enormous amount of satisfaction from the process and the final product. I always find surfing the boards I make is the greatest motivation to make more – it's in the interplay between surfer, board and wave that I make realisations about changes I'd like to experiment with.
Jason: This is definitely not a one-off. These boards inspire me tremendously. As a carpenter I can feel that making more of these boards will give me immense satisfaction. I would like to see more surfers riding these boards – worldwide. A dream of mine is to be able to make a board for someone, deliver the board personally and then join them for a session at their local break.
TB: Now after having tried the board out at Sunset, do you see any particular reason why it shouldn’t be ridden on much bigger waves?
Patrick: I see no reason why it shouldn’t be used on bigger waves. I plan to surf it regularly, to learn and discover what it is capable of.
Jason: After having tried the board at largish, lumpy Sunset Reef, I’m not sure if I’d personally want to charge bigger waves with it. Perhaps if conditions were super-clean and long-period with no wind, things might be different. I feel that, with the right conditions and the right surfer, 20-foot waves could be surfed with this board.
Dr. Tony Butt holds a BSc in Ocean Science and a PhD in Physical Oceanography. He lives most of the year in a forgotten corner of Northwest Spain, where he has pioneered a couple new big-wave spots and works with NGOs like Surfers Against Sewage and Save the Waves. He makes a meager living writing articles about waves and the coastal environment for Surfer’s Path and other publications. For more from Tony, check out his books Surf Science: an Introduction to Waves for Surfing (2004), The Surfers Guide to Waves, Coasts and Climates (2009), A Surfer's Guide to Sustainability (2011) and his previous articles here on The Cleanest Line.