The History of Surfboard Use & Design

Objects evolve over time. Sometimes objects evolve slowly and nearly imperceptibly, while other times they evolve quickly and radically. But any evolution is a never-ending process of improvement and refinement. The surfboard is certainly no exception.

For as long as human beings have been swimming in the oceans, we've been coming up with surfboard designs to ride waves to the beach. Surfboard history likely predates even writing by thousands of years.

What started as a rudimentary form of transportation made of bound reeds has slowly but surely evolved into today's sleek, ultralight foam composites. Surfboards are a perfect example of the design mutations and developments that can occur over a long period of time when people from around the world come together with passion, vision, and purpose.

The Pursuit of Perfection

As such, the surfboards of today have come a long way to be as well made as they are. Countless people have dedicated themselves to the pursuit of developing and designing better surfboards. Over the years, surfboard design advances have altered the size, shape, weight, fins, and materials to become different boards designed for different waves. The surfboard design process has always been a case of trial and error. After a template is created, it is tested in the water. Once feedback has been considered, alterations are made accordingly, and the process begins again.

Surfboard design preference is very much a personal thing. Shapers are more often than not surfers themselves, and surfboard design is just as much a feat of engineering as it is a passion for surfing. Professional surfers have always worked closely with shapers. Because each surfer has a different style and utilizes different techniques, they know better than anyone else how their surfboard needs to perform. And there are numerous styles, techniques, and preferences to consider.

Surfing is now, and long has been, a popular and beloved sport worldwide. According to the International Surfing Association, approximately 23 million people worldwide take part in the sport. There are an estimated 2.8 million surfers in the US alone, while in Australia, there are 1.7 million and 500,000 in the UK.

Below you will find a chronology of pivotal moments in the history of surfboard development, use, and design. For some surfboard eye candy, check out the visual timeline of surfboard history on The Museum of Surf website. The virtual museum features a photographic timeline of incredible surfboards from the 1910s to the 2020s. The site is chock full of surf history, as well as surf art, events, photography, master craftsmen, and stories. We highly recommend using it as a visual complement to the timeline below.

Surfboard History & Design Timeline

The Origins

Surfing originated in Polynesia, and it is believed that Polynesian settlers brought the sport to Hawaii. By the time North American missionaries settled there in the 1800s, surfing had become the sport of island royalty.

Even so, surfboard design at the time was relatively crude. The surfboards were made out of thick, solid wood and weighed as much as 150 pounds. The boards were sanded with coral to keep them as water-resistant and as smooth as possible, and then stained with charcoal and bark and finished with a glossy coat of nut oil.

Surfboards Before the 1950s

In the late 19th century, surfboards were made out of planks from the Koa, Ula, Willi Willi, and redwood trees native to the Pacific islands. The biggest problem with using these types of woods for surfboards is that they aren't very waterproof. Redwood was the most commonly used material for boards in the early 20th century and was a particularly poor choice. The longer a surfer spent in the water, the heavier the board became and the more difficult it became to control.

Eventually, surfboard designers would figure out that aerodynamic surfing happened when a board was water-repellent, light, and hollow. Surfer and surfboard maker Tom Blake made surfboard history in 1926 when he created a hollow surfboard.

The surfboard was cut from redwood but drilled with hundreds of holes and encased with thin layers of wood over the top and bottom. The board was 15 feet long and weighed 100 pounds, but his innovative design made it much faster than previous surfboards. In 1930, Tom Blake's board became the first ever to be mass-produced. In 1935, Blake was the first to install rudders, also known as "fixed fins," on surfboards to stabilize the board's position in the water.

Blake's board would quickly become obsolete, however. By 1932, redwood lost favor, and all eyes turned toward South American balsa wood. Because a balsa board weighed only 35 pounds, it was a tremendous breakthrough for fast, lightweight surfboards. The balsa boards were then made waterproof with layers of resin and fiberglass.

Surfboards in the 1950s & 1960s

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, industrial and manufacturing technology developments made during World War II carried over to surfboard design. The most important and lasting development in design occurred when wood was phased out in favor of polyurethane foam and fiberglass in the late 1950s.

In 1946, surfboard maker Pete Peterson made the first fiberglass board, built around a redwood centerboard (called a stringer), then sealed with fiberglass tape. A few years later, California builder Bob Simmons invented the "sandwich" surfboard: a board with a foam core encased in plywood, balsa outer rails, and a waterproof fiberglass coating.

Foam is incredibly lightweight and makes surfboards boards easier to control. Foam is also way easier to shape and cut than wood, which allows for rapid mass production.

Thanks to the mass production and availability of boards in the 1950s, there was an explosion of surf culture in the 1960s. Surf bands like the Beach Boys and movies like "The Endless Summer" allowed the sport to spread worldwide. As lighter synthetic materials became the norm, board length became an issue.

Super light boards, clocking in at 10.5-feet long, were difficult to maneuver over powerful waves. By 1969 builders George Greenough and Pete Brewer helped bring 6-foot shortboards, or "pocket rockets," to the forefront of the surf scene. While longboards allowed surfers to ride waves vertically, shortboards could also carve turns, giving surfers more freedom for personal style and stunts.

Thanks to the synthetic material's flexibility, a new pintail fin could be used, which gave the shortboard stability in a wave pocket.

Although it would continue to evolve, the modern surfboard had arrived.

Surfboards in the 1970s & 1980s

While the significant developments from the 1950s and 1960s remained the standard for surfboards in the 1970s and 1980s, they also served as a template for surfers and builders to tweak and improve the technology.

The early 1970s saw one of the simplest yet most important innovations: the leg rope. Between 1971 and 1973, surfer Jack O'Neill and his sons fashioned the first one out of flexible surgical tubing. One end was attached to the board's tail with a plug, while the other end was attached to the surfer's ankle. Now, if a surfer wiped out, he wouldn't have to dive underwater or wait for the board to wash ashore before trying again.

Another major development of the '70s was the tri-fin, a variation on the underside rudder. Tri-fins are stick-on plastic fins that can be mounted in any formation on the permanent, factory-installed fin. The extra weight of the additional fins provides stability to the rear for better control.

Surfboard modifications in the 1980s were more about individual experimentation on the board's different parts and elements, rather than a redesign of the board itself or the development of new components. In 1981, Australian surfer Simon Anderson developed the permanent three-fin surfboard, born from the interchangeable tri-fin system. Known as a "thruster board," it provides stability in the pocket and remains a standard to this day.

Surfboards in the 1990s

The most significant development in surfboards over this period was the wide variety of different kinds of surfboards available. Tinkering with entrenched surfboard designs led to boards that were suited to individual aesthetics and abilities.

Designers offered up several styles of surfboards, including the Mini Malibu (long and wide), the fish board (for flat, short waves), and the longboard gun, which combined the length of a longboard with the lightness of a shortboard. They allowed surfers to tackle bigger waves, especially during tow-in surfing.

Before the longboard gun, surfers had to be towed out if they wanted to reach waves higher than 25 feet because they couldn't paddle fast enough to get to them in time. Gun boards gave surfers the speed to catch those waves, along with the length they needed for stability.

Manufacturing also became more streamlined and precise thanks to board-designing computer software. CAD/CAM programs hit the market in 1994 and have been updated continually since. Fully automating the process of developing a surfboard out of lightweight synthetic materials to exact measurements and specifications was a far cry from enormous redwood planks.

Surfboards from the 2000s to the Present

From the 1990s onwards, surfboard design hasn’t fundamentally changed. Surfboards have continued to become thinner and lighter, allowing more radical maneuvers, and customized surfboard artwork has become popular. Lighter and more eco-friendly materials like bamboo and recycled foam are quickly gaining popularity as surfers grow more environmentally conscious. In the mid-90s, the vintage longboard burst back onto the surf scene and is still a popular choice among surfers, particularly with beginners and older surfers. Today, there are surfboards for every type of surfer and every kind of wave.

The Future of Surfboards

Since the 1950s, surfboards have mostly been made using three main ingredients: a foam core encased in fiberglass cloth and cured with resin. Toxic from start to finish, traditional surfboard manufacturing is a known human health and environmental hazard. Lately, growing consumer interest in materials and lifecycles, along with advancements in technology, have fueled industry-wide efforts toward finding better, more environmentally conscious, and sustainable ways to build surfboards. Finally, sustainable surfboards are starting to become a reality.

Like other surf brands pushing boundaries, many surfboard makers are producing environmentally-conscious boards that are made to last. The ECOBOARD Project by Sustainable Surf is leading the way in sustainable surfing by awarding certifications to brands manufacturing high-performance boards that have a 'reduced carbon footprint, renewable or up-cycled materials and use low toxicity materials or processes during manufacturing.'

Here are a few surfboard brands dedicated to producing high-quality boards that won't wind up in landfills.

NOTOX

NOTOX produces eco-friendly surfboards (Certified Gold Standard by The ECOBOARD project) while never compromising on performance. The organic, natural, and recycled materials used for the boards are sourced as close to their facility as possible to reduce carbon usage, and the little waste that is produced during the manufacturing process is 75% recyclable. Learn more about how NOTOX makes smarter, greener surfboards here.

FIREWIRE

With 11x World Champion surfer Kelly Slater owning 70% of the company, it makes sense that Firewire is a leading innovator of sustainable, high-performance surf gear. Firewire focuses on smart materials and cutting-edge technology to produce superior, lightweight, and durable products with low environmental impact. For example, The Slater Designs Leash is made from recycled materials and has an 80% lower carbon footprint than traditional leashes. Firewire is certified with The ECOBOARD project as well.

SPOOKED KOOKS

A mega-surfboard brand with a tiny carbon footprint, Spooked Kooks soft boards are made from 100% recycled post-consumer plastic waste, including the fins. Spooked Kooks integrates recycled materials and sustainable non-plastic materials into their boards and continuously innovates new ways to improve their manufacturing process, products, and packaging to minimize the amount of new plastic used and waste created.

The surfboard has certainly come a long way from its early, humble beginning, and only time will tell where the future of surfboard design is headed. As with any other natural evolution, we’re just along for the ride.