Questions about Balsa? Ask Here!

HISTORY & FAQ's OF BALSAWOOD SURFBOARDS

HISTORY OF BALSAWOOD SURFBOARDS

Ecuadorians have always fished from Balsa rafts, the ancient Machiguenga culture believed their God, Tasorinchi, carved the first people on Earth out of Balsa wood! Spanish Conquistadores saw the Incas transport armies on the river and seas and gave the wood its Spanish name: Balsa meaning raft

Fishing raft in Playas
Surfing is said to originate on the Hawaiian Islands, as surfboards were made according to size of surfers, style of riding, type of wave. Surfboards were wooden, either Ulu (Bread-Fruit), Koa (Hawaiian Mahogany) or Wili-Wili (Hawaiian Balsa, which is not endemic and was reserved for royalty). Thor Heyerdahls’ Kontiki raft sailed the currents from South America and demonstrated how Balsa wood seedlings would have reached Hawaii by ancient tribes.
Hawaiian surfer p.29 History of Surfing
Early 20th century ‘father’ of surf culture Duke Kahanamoku, introduced surfing and water man ship to Australia, California and foreigners in his home waters of Hawaii. Tom Blake’s hollow redwood hulls were replaced with Balsa ‘potato chips’ in the late 40s after Joe Quigg shaped for a girl; realising the dream of a lighter more manoeuvrable surfboard.
The Duke p.45 History of Surfing
The new ‘hot curl’ style of riding in the wave pocket was possible with a narrower tail and fins. This period in the 1950’s of great surfboard innovation gave birth to the rounded 50/50 rails, nose rocker, pin tail, foiled fins and progressed into the ‘hotdogger’ style, which has changed little to this day.
Balsa board couple 1949 p. 38 The Surfers Journal
Legendary surfers of that time, such as Greg Noll, Mike Doyle, Rabbit Makaha, Tommy Zhan, Matt Kevlin, Dale Velzy and Bob Simmons, Phil Edwards are synonymous with Balsa surfboards. They pushed surfing to its limits; Noll rode Waimea Bay and later Edwards rode Pipeline for the first time, breaking local taboos surrounding these dangerous peaks.
Waimea Greg Noll, p.63 The History of Surfing
As the awareness grew so did competition surfing, Rabbit Makaha won the ‘56 & ‘57 world title in Peru where, in a role reversal the president of Peru offered him $1000 for his board! Balsa wood surfboard shaping has always been a hand craft. Mike Doyle picked up his board from Dale Velzys’ workshop, to find it had 64 ants glassed in!
Gluing 12 foot balsa p. 52 The Surfers Journal
By the 60s, Balsa innovators Simmons, Quigg, Velzy and Noll were joined by Hobie Alter who started to experiment with polystyrene foam and resins from factories. A raise in production levels and reduction in weight pushed foam to the fore. Its availability and uniform consistency meant for the first time surfboards could be machine made.
Surfboards on the beach Texas  p. 73 The History Of Surfing
Big wave surfers from Woody Brown to Laird Hamilton have always led great surfing innovation. Hydrofoil fins, foot straps, jet skis tow-ins and now a special Balsa board shaped by Dick Brewer, help Laird to ride some of the most powerful waves on the planet today.
Laird Hamilton and jet ski p.181 The History Of Surfing
Films such as ‘Morning Of The Earth’, ‘Surfing Hollow Days’ and ‘The Endless Summer’ illuminated surfers as creative people on the edge of society, existing in harmony with nature rather than manhandling it for profit. Although surfing has become a mainstream industry over the last 20 years, some still live by these ethics; we call them soul surfers.
George Greenough Page 91. The Surfers Path March 05
TREE OF KNOWLEDGE AND SURF LEGENDS

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT BALSAWOOD BOARDS

  1. Q. What is balsa wood?
    A. It is a hard wood called ochroma lagopus that grows naturally very fast in Equatorial forests coining the term 'weed tree'. Its cells are 90% water which gives the tree strength to shoot up above the canopy, however, once dried the cells contain so much air that it is considered the natural foam equivalent. It is used commercially for insulation, packaging and of course modelling. Locals use balsa for roof insulation, ocean and river rafts and shavings as a sponge to absorb salt when watering coastal gardens with sea water.
  2. Q. Where does balsa come from?
    A. It can be found in South and Central America from Guatemala to Bolivia. Ecuador is the primary exporter of balsa and the best quality is found here. The surfboard balsa wood comes from around the tributaries of the river Guayas, where rainfall and soil quality is high, the higher the water content in each tree, the lower overall weight of a surfboard.


  3. Image of large Balsa tree

  4. Q. How do balsa wood trees get made into surfboard blanks?
    A. Local families have managed their forest plots for generations, their knowledge in the location of good quality balsa is vital as it is dispersed amongst other wild trees, grapefruit, coffee, palms, oranges etc and can take many hours on foot. The owner fells and cuts the balsa in location, lashes the 12 foot lengths to horses which drag them to the nearest road. The balsa is kiln dried for 11 days to remove moisture, insects and fungi. Lengths of equal density are matched, cut, shaped and glued together often with a Cedar wood stringer in the centre. After two weeks they are finally clamped together and left in the sun to dry - a blank is born!
  5. Q. How much balsa wood is needed for each surfboard?
    A. A typical height of an 8 year old tree is 75 foot with 20 inch diameter. With a yield of three 6 foot by 10 foot lengths, eight of these lengths are needed, therefore almost three trees to produce one surfboard blank. Balsa seedlings spring up as quickly as grass, much to the annoyance of agricultural farmers, so space left by a fallen tree will naturally re-seed. If not cut after 10 years and 6 foot diameter the balsa tree rots from the inside, even though some giants are 6 foot in diameter and support many vines and forest ecosystems, they are in fact slowly dying.
  6. Q. Why use balsa wood for surfboard material?
    A. It makes more ecological sense to harvest balsa as it only takes 6 years to mature and can weigh just 4 lbs per cubic foot, it isn’t the lightest wood in the world-but its weight to strength ratio and flex makes it an ideal surfboard material. Balsa boards are legendary in surf history; in the 50s Greg Noll broke a taboo and rode Waimea bay on a balsa board! Today Laird Hamilton uses a balsa board for big wave tow-ins.
    The truth about balsa wood surfboards is that they have proven they surf under pressure from immensely powerful waves, time and time again.
  7. Q. Why are modern surfboards made of foam not wood?
    A. In the late 1940s factories made many petrol-chemical compounds commercially available after research and application during the Second World War. In the 1970s foam surfboard blanks were used extensively as these chemicals became more readily available in the US than balsa, the uniform consistency could fill moulds mechanically to bring supply up to demand, achieving more profit and a height of surfboard manufacturing unheard of before.
  8. Q. What are the advantages of buying a balsa rather than a foam surfboard?
    A. The Environment Protection Agency closed down US Clark Foam in 2005 because its foam surfboard blanks use nature distorting compounds, toxins, known poisons and carcinogens (VOCs,TDIs). Many companies have moved to factories in China and use MDIs which are fractionally less toxic. Foams’ bubble structure means surfboards break easily and release more toxins, new complex structures that improve strength are now available, but with so many patented layers they are difficult to repair.
    Balsa wood is vital for global ecology, supporting ecosystems and releasing oxygen, even its dust particles are big enough to be effectively caught in masks protecting the health of the shapers. Good quality balsa is incredibly lightweight, dings are repaired with more wood and the strength of the wood grain means that they don’t snap in two, so you can recoup your investment in just a few years.
  9. Q. Who makes balsa wood surfboards?
    A. Cesar Moriera has been shaping balsa surfboards for 13 years, a professional long boarder he has won contests in California, Panama, Costa Rica and the Latin Pro in his home country of Ecuador. He gained his knowledge of surfboard design from travelling and repairing, believing passionately that balsa surfboard production benefits his country. Respected on the competition circuit for; arriving with only a return ticket, sleeping bag and surfboard, and an incredibly soulful surfing style. He started Ecuador’s first surf club, organises annual surf competitions, 5 years ago he started shaping for Balsa Surfer. Few North American shapers have carried on the tradition of wooden surfboard construction.
  10. Q. What is the cost breakdown of a typical Balsasurfers board?
    A. Balsa wood like any commercial commodity has its price raised according to political and economic influences. I recently paid £45 for a tree. Up to three trees are needed there fore the raw material could be £135. The transport of lumber from the forest and drying in kilns adds £80.
    So before shaping the cost is minimum £205. To shape, cut and glue a blank with a stringer cost £60. The resin, fibre glass, hand designs and polishing increases the amount to £400. Shipment by sea including documentation, export permits and VAT adds £200 to each board. Transport from the port, storage and publishing brings the total to £750 per long board.
    Balsa Surfer is a cooperative and has not made a profit, but Tamzen donated £1150 to Cesar Moriera last year for regular water supply to the shaping rooms in Montanita.
How to shape a balsawood board - see below

How to make a Balsa wood surfboard

  1. Making a board out of Balsa wood is a craft that can be traced right back to surfing’s roots when Hawaiian royal surfers would select a Balsa tree to make an ‘olo’ board. For South Devon surfer Rob Beling building a surfboard out of Balsa wasn’t a nutty time travel experiment; he specially wanted to recreate and experience the type of Balsa board ridden by the likes of Phil Edwards and Johnny Faith during in the late 1950s, before the advent of foam.
  2. After a lot of serious thought Rob decided on a template which was transferred onto the solid Balsasurfers long board blank. Using shaping trestles, he cut this template with a hand saw while stood on the blank itself - testament to the wood’s natural strength. After cutting the template, the rocker line and foil were cut into the blank using a razor-sharp planer. He had to build a clever tool to accurately measure the subtle combinations of ‘belly’ or ‘roll’ and flat sections in the bottom contours of his favourite boards.
  3. Rob took a methodical and mathematical approach to both rails, taking exactly the right number of cuts and the correct angle and length, whilst walking the length of the board smoothly to ensure an accurate job. It is important to know exactly how and what you are about to cut before you do it. After each pass, he would go back to the measurement and checking process. After nearly six hours of painstaking hand sanding down through the various grades of grit, the board was ready to be glassed.
  4. In order to simulate the kind of weight traditional balsa boards were glassed with, Rob used two layers of 6oz cloth on the top and bottom. The double layer was also there to act as a safeguard against water penetration. After the glassing was competed it was allowed to cure for a week, after which Rob began the sanding, again finished painstakingly by hand, through the fine grades, right down to wet and dry paper.
  5. The only sensible choice of fin for this type of board was a fairly significant single fin. The additional weight attributed to a big, heavy single fin helps serve as a counter-balance when floating the tail and lifting the nose, in order to initiate a pivot turn on a aboard with so much weight. On close inspection Rob’s fin is actually a fine balance of thickness distribution, smooth flowing curves and aerofoil wing section. It was set in place using glass strands and mat, in much the same way as a fin on a short board would have been before the advent of FCS fixture systems, but with more surface area to compensate for drifting due to the board’s extreme weight, and beefed up with several layers of glass. What was created was a fairly ‘fat’ looking fin that can cope with the ‘bite’ needed to make a direction change and cope with the forces generated when turning a board with a finished weight of 35lbs.
  6. Balsa boards are not just giant relicts from the past. Dick Brewer makes a range of Laird Hamilton’s specialised tow-in boards from Balsa due to its strength-to-weight ratio and ability to cut through chop. In short board designs where weight is an issue, they can be hollowed with internal chambers to dramatically lighten them. However extremely light weight Balsa is the best; it is comparable to foam in weight and the board is light but doesn’t lose any strength of solid Balsa wood.
  7. Once completed and in the water the natural buoyancy of Rob’s Balsa board took over. What was rather large and unwieldy on land suddenly became a smooth slider. "It seems virtually unaffected by chop - great for cutting through our often bumpy conditions" Rob says, "Now when I watch Bruce Brown’s Surfing Hollow Days and watch Phil Edwards riding his Balsa, I know how it felt for him" - Mission accomplished then!

Edited from Richard Kenyon’s article in Carve issue 86, titled ‘How to make a Balsa board’.

www.swaylocks.com for discussion and shaping forum.