A shortage of blanks in the surfboard industry may turn into a flood in a few months as new suppliers emerge and Southern Hemisphere producers ramp up efforts.
The quantity of blanks may offset losses from the Dec. 5 closure of Clark Foam, but some shapers and surgers wonder if the quality will meet their needs.
It is ``going to be hard for the next two months until foam arrives,'' said Bill Bahne, chairman of the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association's board builders' group and president of Fins Unlimited of Encinitas, Calif. SIMA is based in Aliso Viejo, Calif.
Clark Foam in Laguna Niguel, Calif., manufactured 250,000-300,000 polyurethane blanks per year, representing about 80 percent of the domestic market and possibly 40 percent of the global market.
In San Diego, exhibitors at the Action Sports Retailer show, held Jan. 20-22, and speakers at a SIMA forum Jan. 20 expressed concerns and discussed initiatives.
Among those stepping lively are PU blank maker Walker Foam Inc. and enterprising firms Just Foam, Salomon SA, Safari Surf Co., Foam Core Blanks Corp. and Arimo Inc.
While not a producer, newly formed Surf Solutions Inc. links San Diego surfers and surf-shop owners who are seeking a solution to the blank shortage, said Blake Bowling, managing partner.
Surf Solutions has ordered PU blanks from a Rio de Janeiro, Brazil-area firm that uses a superwhite formula from Australian surfing legend Midget Farrelly.
``Several companies in Brazil make blanks,'' Bowling said. Currently, ``they are overwhelmed by what is happening in the U.S.''
Shapers and smaller businesses are hurting.
``Some of the big-volume board guys like Rusty and Channel Islands can go down and buy up thousands of blanks, if available. But they are not necessarily going to make that available to the local surf-shop guy who is shaping boards and needs those boards to make a living,'' Bowling said. ``We are for the smaller to medium-sized surf-shop owners who might need 30 blanks.''
PU blank maker Walker Foam of Wilmington, Calif., has ramped up production, targeting 1,200 units per week by early February, said General Manager Gary Linden. The firm, which employed five in November, now has 25 workers and is hiring more.
Adding shifts and equipment allowed Walker Foam to boost production quickly at its 3,000-square-foot plant. Plans call for another small facility nearby soon, ``while we look for a bigger factory,'' Linden said.
Walker Foam helped set up a PU blank maker in China. Since mid-December, ``the Chinese people are making blanks for their own surfboard use,'' Linden said. ``The initial expectations that they would be able to supply us have changed. We are going to be doing all of our domestic production from our Wilmington plant.''
Walker Foam has molds for 17 different models and sizes and is making more molds.
``Some people aren't aware of the gravity of the situation,'' Linden said. ``I do not think it has hit retail because of the time of year it happened. ... Around April, there are going to be a lot of shops without legitimate surfboards. A lot of surfboards are being made out of a lot of stuff that should be used for other purposes. That is going to have a negative effect, I think, on some retail shops as far as customer service.''
Separately, Linden operates Linden Surfboards. ``I have used Walker Foam for 15 years,'' he said. ``I bought [from] Clark until [Gordon Clark] told me I had to only buy Clark Foam. ... I do not like to get pushed around, so I chose Walker Foam.''
Three years into development of its own formula, Just Foam of San Clemente, Calif., hired some former Clark Foam employees and is ramping up production, said owner Scott Saunders.
In the surfboard industry, ``we have never had the kind of help or banding together'' as in the weeks since Dec. 5, Saunders said. ``Six months ago, everybody had to have their own plug. Now, shapers are willing to use each other's plugs.''
Salomon of Metz-Tessy, France, introduced surfboard blanks containing its S-Core technology to the U.S. market in August and is stepping up the pace, said Nicolas Marion, U.S. business unit manager for S-Core in Encinitas. S-Core test marketing in Europe and Australia began in 2004.
An S-Core blank has a top and bottom of expanded polystyrene foam, separated fiberglass and carbon-fiber layers and, in between, three full-length polypropylene stringers that ``bring perfect flex,'' Marion said. Cobra International Co. Ltd. of Chonburi, Thailand, manufactures the S-Core blanks, which a custom shaper can finish.
Amer Sports Corp. of Helsinki, Finland, acquired Salomon from Adidas-Salomon AG in October.
Safari Surf of Durban, South Africa, has jumped into the North American market as an extension of its local and European sales, mostly of finished boards.
The firm has been making blanks since the early 1960s to supply its surfboard factory, said George Mayou, chief executive officer for U.S. operations with an office in Laguna Niguel.
``When Clark closed down, people started calling [South Africa],'' he said. ``We jumped into top gear and, right away, started making molds and air-freighting chemicals.''
The company has 35 molds now and by mid-February, expects to have 50 molds and daily output of 1,000 blanks.
Safari had been running below its daily capacity of 336 blanks.
Safari employs 100 and is hiring. Recently, the firm moved into a new 37,800-square-foot factory.
Matthew Murasko, founder of surfboard maker SurfLife LLC, has formed a multidimensional foam firm that may set up a PU blank factory in Mexico or California.
The new entity, Foam Core Blanks, wants to supply PU, EPS and other foams for various water sports including surfing, windsurfing, kayaking and boating, Murasko said.
SurfLife developed the ability to make blanks as an extension of automated compression molding of surfboards containing its proprietary hybrid closed-cell, self-skinning copolymer Durafoam.
Foam Core Blanks is building a close-tolerance mold to make blanks, with or without a stringer, for sale to any shaper, Murasko said. SurfLife and Foam Core operate at a plant in central coastal California. The firms are based in Haiku, Hawaii.
Ocean X Inc. has sublicensed technology for methylene diphenyl diisocyanate foam to Arimo for production of surfboard blanks. The closely connected firms are in Oceanside, Calif.
``We have a huge advantage in that we have the only environmentally sound foam so far,'' said Mark Jolley, principal Arimo owner and Ocean X president. Clark Foam used toluene diisocyanate, a known carcinogen.
Arimo aims to gain traction and, by the end of February, employ 15 and use 15 new molds for different sizes and dimensions to produce 500-700 blanks per day, Jolley said. A Vista, Calif., shop is building the molds for processing the fiber-reinforced plastics.
As the surf industry's busy season begins, ``we should be able to step in and fill a portion of the void,'' Jolley said.
During three years, Ocean X has developed MDI foam technology for filling the cavity of a surfboard with thermoformed twin sheets of 0.04-inch-thick polycarbonate. The demise of Clark Foam provided a new opportunity to use a variation of the MDI formula for the foam blanks. ``We had to slow the formula down'' to accommodate customer requirements to machine, shape, sand and glass blanks, Jolley said.
Meanwhile, the PC project proceeds. Ocean X wants to build an Oceanside thermoforming production facility. Currently, Ocean X rents machine time in the Chicago area and ships the formed sheets to its California plant for finishing. Renting machine time equates to about $30 per board.
Jolley said Ocean X is having a hard time building a thermoforming machine large enough to accommodate the twin-sheet process it needs.
Under limited production, Ocean X sold 700 PC boards last year. ``I regret we are not in full production, because we could sell every one we have,'' he said.
At ASR, volume producer Surf Technicians Inc. of Santa Cruz, Calif., introduced its sandwich-constructed Tuflite 2 epoxy surfboard, which uses acrylic sheet foam instead of original Tuflite's PVC sheet foam.
With a snappier flex pattern, Tuflite 2 is designed to mimic the flex of a regular custom board, said Fritz Bensusan, national sales manager. ``We are introducing it in a limited number of shapes'' and probably limiting 2006 production of Tuflite 2 boards to 500-1,000, he said. Surftech can blow a 1-pound-per-cubic-foot blank with no voids in the foam.
``The EPS core is virtually waterproof,'' Bensusan said. ``Now, we are using that core in all of the Surftech products,'' including both Tuflite versions, wood veneers and Softtops.
A 6-foot-6-inch Tuflite 2 board may wholesale for about $500, about $50 more than an original.
The Clark Foam closing created a run on Surftech boards. For sales, ``we had an August in December,'' Bensusan said. ``As retailers and retail customers reacted, we saw that business spike on our side.'' Growth of 30-40 percent is projected for 2006. Surftech built about 30,000 boards last year.
While not using PU in its contract manufacturing at Cobra in Thailand, Surftech relies on expert shapers for product development.
``They need to be able to shape in their foam for us to be able to grow and develop,'' Bensusan said. ``Ultimately, what is bad for them would be bad for us.''
Major player Channel Islands Surfboards Inc. of Santa Barbara, Calif., has ordered PU blanks from two suppliers in Australia and another in South Africa, said Scott Anderson, general manager. ``Logistically, it is a challenge'' compared with last year when ``you would get a [Clark Foam] van run a week after you placed your order.''
As for shipboard deliveries, ``We are going on four weeks, and it is just getting on the boat,'' Anderson said.
About 80 percent of Channel Islands' 2005 business involved PU boards, with another 15 percent in Surftech Tuflite boards and the remainder in extruded PS boards with XTR and Salomon S-Core technologies.
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Surf Hardware touting twin fin
Surf Hardware International of Mona Vale, Australia, developed an injection molded surfboard twin fin of 60 percent fiberglass and 40 percent nylon.
``This fin is more flexible than a traditional fin, which has a higher percentage of fiberglass'' and a lower percentage of resin, typically polyester, Fred Villela, the firm's territory manager for central California, said at Action Sports Retailer in San Diego.
The resulting ride is ``faster and smoother.''