Aloha and Welcome to this LEGENDARY SURFERS chapter on the transition from wooden surfboards to foam core boards that took place from the late 1940's to the late 1950's.
Components of The Modern Foam Board
The First Fiberglass Board
Bob Simmons (1919-1954)
Polystyrene Foam, 1947-48
Sandwich & Spoon, 1949
Reducing the Weight
First Surf Shop
Retreat to Imperial Beach
Joe Quigg & The Malibu Chip
Lorrin “Whitey” Harrison (1913-1993)
Boarding House Basement Experiments
Santa Monica Shop Experiments
The Hard Shell
Balsa to Foam
Gordon “Grubby” Clark
Foam Over Balsa
New Foam Friends
Noll Steals the Formula
East Coast Explosion
Foam Since The Sixties
Although he exaggerates and makes fun – as is his want – Corky Carroll was not far off the mark when he wrote in his “Totally Unofficial History of The Modern Surfboard,” that “The foam board was the biggest and most important breakthrough in the history of surfing… [further weight reductions caused by using foam over wood] opened the door to anybody that wanted to take up surfing, including women, children and geeks from inland. Previously it had taken a beach version of Hercules to carry one of those hundred plus pound monsters from your car to the water and back. There weren’t many babes that could or would do that back then, and if there were you probably wanted to stay clear of ‘em. If you got hit by your board in those days you were seriously damaged too.”1
Components of The Modern Foam Board
The modern surfboard, with the exception of stringers,2 are products of the petrochemical age. As such, they owe their existence, as Surfing magazine editor Nick Carroll once wrote, “to the laying down of large quantities of decaying vegetable matter beneath the current planetary surface hundreds of millions of years ago.”3
The three main components of today’s surfboard are foam, fiberglass and resin. All three have their beginnings in the wartime technological advances made before, during and following World War II.
“Polyurethane foam,” wrote Nick Carroll, “the core of almost all surfboards manufactured today, is an extraordinary chemical cocktail, simple yet volatile, first developed… for use as aircraft and refrigeration insulation. Inert liquid materials are mixed with several additives, including the primary active ingredient, toluene di-isocyanate, and poured into a secure mold, where gases formed by the chemical reactions ‘blow’ the foam into its hardened cellular matrix...”4
Put another way, foam “is a material based on an isocyanide and a polyester or polyester type polyol,” the authors of Surfboard wrote, adding, “along with a rather complicated mixture and blend of catalyst and bubble-producing agents. The components are formulated for molding into surfboard cores. The foam is made strictly from petro-chemical derivatives with the exception of some of the bubble-producing items, catalyst, and a blend of commonly available commodity-type chemicals which are processed through several chemical reactions during the manufacturing process. Two chemical reactions take place simultaneously when the ingredients are mixed. One chemical reaction is the formation of polyurethane. The other reaction is a gas formed either through heat or through two chemicals forming carbon dioxide, which yields small bubbles within the liquid. The small bubbles in turn expand and make the foam as the polyurethane is being formed within the mold.”5
“Perhaps the most important advantage in manufacturing,” wrote Peter Dixon in the 1969 edition of The Complete Book of Surfing, “is that foam can be mixed and molded into almost any size and shape. Surfboards do not come out of the molds as a finished product. Molding the blank is just the first step. The blank is the semi-fiinished shape that emerges from the mold when the chemicals are mixed and then ‘cooked‘… Several chemical ingredients go into the mix before a board blank is cast. The chemical liquids are first heated, mixed in new clean paper containers that can only be used once, and then poured into the molds (One foam blank manufacturer used so many paper containers that he had to build his own container factory to keep up with his needs). Once the mix is in the molds it is baked for approximately thirty minutes. The heat cures the foam, which is then removed from the molds. The molded blanks are now ready to be sold to custom shops for final shaping and glassing. Most of these blanks are made oversize so the custom builder [shaper] can trim them down to shapes desired by individual buyers.”6 This is the method developed by Hobie Alter and Gordon “Grubby” Clark in the late 1950s.
“Another way of forming blanks is to create the board right in the mold,” Dixon added. “In this method the fiberglass covering is molded first and then the plastic foam is allowed to cure inside. This is the least expensive way. [But] There are several disadvantages to this method of construction.” 7 This was the method followed by Dave Sweet in his foam developments of the late 1950s. It’s important to note, however, that when foam was first contemplated for use with surfboards prior to the late 1950s, it was polystyrene (aka “Styrofoam) – not polyurethane – that was the foam of choice.
“Fiberglass,” Stephen Shaw wrote in the revised and updated edition of the very first manual on surfboard making, “is a glass similar to window glass heated to a molten state and strained through very small platinum discs into the air and collected as very fine threads. These threads are immersed in an oil to keep the filaments from breaking as they are woven. The threads are woven on textile machinery, and the oil is melted out under high temperature. A finish, such as Union Carbide‘s ‘Silane‘ or DuPont‘s ‘Volan‘ are put on the cloth to promote flexibility and adhesion to the polyester resin. Cloth used in the surfboard industry is woven especially for surfboards.”8
“Polyester resin is... a liquid plastic, bulked up by styrene, a benzene derivative that makes up over a third of its content,” wrote Nick Carroll. Various other stabilizers, anti-UV compounds and the like make up the difference. “It is turned into a hard plastic by the introduction of a substance known as methyl ethyl ketone peroxide, or ‘catalyst,’ as we professionals prefer to call it. A small amount of MEKP ‑ just a few drops per cup of resin ‑ sets off the hardening reaction...”9
“The three resins used in surfboard manufacturing, laminating, hot coating and glossing, are made of a combination of phathalic, anhydride or isothalic acid, makeic and hydride propylene or ethylene glycol and styrene plus a promoter and a catalyst.” These “are cooked together forming a long series of molecules. The material is then mixed in the cool state with styrene. With an addition of the catalyst and promoter, the styrene crosslinks the long molecules cooked earlier and form a solid.”10
The First Fiberglass Board
That the modern surfboard has its roots in military R & D is nothing new to the sport. “Wars have always sped up the pace of technology,” wrote Nat Young in his History of Surfing, pointing out that, “The period leading up to World War I was one in which chemists searched for waterproof glues which would bond timber together; that led to surfers having a means of holding all the pieces of timber together instead of using bolts running from rail to rail. Plywood was a refinement of this bonding; it made the first fighting aircraft a reality and led to the box-frame plywood-covered surf/paddle boards...”11 These glued plywood-over-a-light-wooden-frame boards became known as “kook boxes“ and, at one time, ruled the surfing scene.
World War II military research and development lead to fiberglass, resin and styrofoam. How these elements mixed with the first fiberglassed surfboard were through the hands of 1930s champion surfer Preston “Pete” Peterson, his friend and fellow surfer Brant Goldsworthy, and Goldsworthy’s business partner Ted Thal.
“Brant Goldsworthy is certainly the ‘godfather of fiberglass’ in the world,” attested Hobie Alter who, in the late 1950s, became the key man in the development of the foam surfboard for mass production. “He is looked at as the ‘godfather’ of reinforced plastics.”12 Goldsworthy and his partner Ted Thal would, a little later, become the first ones to sell fiberglass and resin for surfboard construction.
Tom Blake protégé, champion paddler and legendary lifeguard Tommy Zahn said of the Brant Goldsworthy/Pete Peterson connection that “Pete had been a lifetime friend of Brant Goldsworthy’s… and Brant Goldsworthy was the who who invented the stuff,” 13 meaning fiberglass.
Pete Peterson’s first fiberglassed surfboard was constructed in June of 1946. Brant Goldsworthy helped and Joe Quigg ‑ along with Pete ‑ tested it out in the water. Goldsworthy had a plastics company in Los Angeles that supplied component parts for WWII aircraft. 14
Pete Peterson’s first-ever fiberglass board was actually a hollow board constructed of two hollow molded halves, joined together with a redwood stringer down the middle. The seam was sealed with fiberglass tape.15
“Pete had two boards,” at the time he made his fiberglass board, recalled Tommy Zahn. “One was ‘The Pete Board‘ and the other was this [prototype of the hollow fiberglass] board, which was redwood/balsa… It was just balsa wood with redwood rails. It wasn’t ‘The Pete Board’ ‑ which was balsa with a redwood deck. And this prototype, which was wood, was the one he used in big waves. He didn’t use ‘The Pete Board’ in big waves.
“And so, when the fiberglass first came out, he thought, ‘hey, it would be a real neat idea to reinforce the nose of all these boards with fiberglass’ and [he] started doing that. Then he covered the whole [prototype] board with fiberglass. Then, he said, Brant talked him into making an all-fiberglass board. So he used it [the redwood/balsa big wave board] for a male mold and pulled that – this board [the ‘plastic‘] off that one; then, put a center dividing strip of redwood, here, and nailed it on and glassed over that. Then, the whole board was effectively fiberglass except for this dividing strip – you could see light through the whole board.” 16
It is possible that the first fiberglass surfboard could have an even earlier start date. Twentieth Century surfing innovator Tom Blake told his biographer Gary Lynch that “Before the war started… [noted swimmer Jim Handy] had sent a board back East and had it fiberglassed… that’s what Tom swears. I’ve asked him three times about it, cuz everyone says it couldn’t be true. But, he said that before World War II, Jamison Handy already had a fiberglass board. I don’t know why he’d tell me that if it wasn’t true.”17
Early surfboard shapers who used fiberglass – guys like Hobie Alter ‑ tend to dismiss this East Coast question, maintaining that fiberglass was developed on the West Coast for the war effort. Sending a board back to the East Coast to have it fiberglassed would not have made any sense. 18
In order to use the fiberglass, you needed the resin and catalyst. The first commercial resin manufacturer was the Bakelite Corporation. The “early resins were of the same viscosity as the resins used today,” wrote Nat Young, “but the catalyst was a paste-like vaseline that had to be thoroughly mixed with the resin. The drying time was totally dependent on the amount of sunshine and naturally one side dried while the rails were still tacky.”19 Because this mixture – known as “garalyst” 20 ‑ made the boards look ugly, compared to the shiny varnish surfers had been using for decades previously, the boards were not popular.
“Experimenting with resin and glass was a frustrating experience,” noted Nat Young. “Because of his diligent inquiries to every chemical company in Los Angeles, Joe Quigg [who got interested in the technology, too] was suspected of being a German spy!”21
“Another time,” Young went on, “Quigg remembers walking into Ted Thal‘s one-room shop (now a huge corporation) and seeing little bottles of stuff that had just arrived at the Thalco Chemical Company. Joe didn’t know what it was, but the label read ‘setting fluid -- highly explosive’ and that made him suspect it was the catalyst he needed. Joe pleaded with Thal to let him have some. Thal, however, declined. Frustrated, Joe remembered that one of his friends, Dave Sweet, had an uncle who was in the plastics department of Douglas Aircraft so Joe persuaded Dave to contact his uncle and get some setting fluid. When Joe came back to Dave’s house a couple of days later he saw Dave in the backyard putting out a fire which had occurred from a particularly hot mix! Because it was proving so hard to get he drove back to Ted Thal‘s office, identified the suspicious stuff in the little bottles, and persuaded Thal to part with it and some other funny stuff called pigment or tint.”22
Irrespective of Pete Peterson being the first one to fiberglass a board, this innovation went largely unknown among surfers of the day. Even Hobie Alter admitted, “I always thought Simmons was the first guy to use fiberglass on a surfboard.” 23 Anyway, Pete did not produce further fiberglass boards in any number that would have been noticed. So, the surfer recognized at the time and in history as the one most responsible for bringing the new technology ‑ both fiberglass and foam ‑ to surfing was the enigmatic Bob Simmons. Here’s why:
Bob Simmons (1919-1954)
“If anybody was ever to get the credit of being the ‘Father of the Modern Surfboard,’“ Santa Barbara‘s most honored surfboard manufacturer Rennie Yater told me, “I would say it would have to be Simmons. He changed board design in a shorter period of time than anybody has before or since. When his boards started showing up at San Onofre, they couldn’t believe it. Such a traditional place. Everything had to look the same, ride the same, pose the same... Simmons’ boards weren’t welcome at San Onofre. See, his influence was more at Malibu. He could care less about the San Onofre area. He always went up and tested his stuff at Malibu or Palos Verdes Cove...”24
Polystyrene Foam, 1947-48
“To go back a little farther,” Rennie Yater explained, “Simmons worked for Gard Chapin. He had a garage door business, as I remember. So, Simmons had access to a lot of different materials. They used plywood a lot for garage doors. Simmons finally came up with this ‑ probably the first production line other than Pacific Systems ‑ the first production line surfboard that had a foam [expanded polystyrene] core, balsawood rails, and plywood deck. He came up with that idea probably because of all the influence he had from plywood... mahogany veneers on the outside to get them even lighter. He did incredible things for the time he did ‘em in, compared to today. He’s also fortunate to come out of the Second World War. Fiberglass was a revolutionary product to come out of the war. See, here comes this material on the open market. So, he now had access to that.”25
Bob Simmons never attempted to fully explain his designs to anyone because they were “complex and the applications were simple, and could be modified,” wrote his friend John Elwell. “He was also secretive and didn’t trust some people.” His brother Dewey had had a long legal battle over his invention of the electrical strain gauge and this was probably ever-present in his mind. Elwell, who knew him, also feels, “There was also some delight in baffling some of the rule of thumb, surfing know-it-alls. There was no doubt he rejected exaggerators and dreamers on the beach. He gravitated to the better surfers and ignored the less serious and unskilled.”26
Sandwich & Spoon, 1949
In 1949, a fairly famous photograph was shot of Simmons streaking across an outstanding wave at Malibu. “He was riding a foam core, veneer laminated, dual fin concave,” wrote his friend John Elwell. “The picture is historic for the reasons of his early position and increased angle across the wave. His wake is long and flat, indicating great power and speed for slow Malibu.”27
Elwell says Simmons had started messing around with styrofoam, a new material at that time, in 1947. Foam had been used during World War II, molded into fuselage radar domes. Simmons located the raw chemical sources from a government or corporate agency, then went about building a cement mold in the ground. With this, he blew his own foam to make “styrofoam core sandwich boards,”28 using a plywood lid topped by five large rocks. Elwell recalls seeing these blanks, in 1950, at the lifeguard station at Imperial Beach. The mold still exists by a barn on his late uncle and aunt’s ranch in Norwalk. He did a lot of research and development there, keeping tools and utilizing a large work space.29
Hobie Alter raised a question about the Simmons mold, pointing out that Styrofoam is extruded, not molded. “I think he (Simmons) had block Styrofoam and shaped it… I don’t know of moldable Styrofoam. It always comes in blocks or extrusions.” 30
Joe Quigg confirmed that it was 1949 when Matt Kivlin began talking to Simmons about the idea of making lighter, hollow plywood rescue boards.31 “Simmons thought that was interesting,” Leonard Lueras wrote, “but instead of simply making the boards hollow he began sandwiching styrofoam between plywood and glassing the whole thing over. He had gotten some samples of styrofoam after the war, and… dreamed of making a board with styrofoam.” The drawback with styrofoam, however, was that it would dissolve once catalyzed resin was poured onto it, so the two together turned out to be impractical. By sandwiching styrofoam in between plywood, however, Simmons made it viable.32
“The first couple of boards of this type,” wrote Elwell, “had 50/50 rail lines, but by ‘49 he had them down to 60/40 and as low as 80/20. The tails were so thin as to be fragile.”33
Reducing the Weight
Joe Quigg was still in the Hawaiian Islands when Simmons wrote saying that he had built his first light board in the 25 pound range. “He had never built anything like this before and that was late 1949,” wrote Nat Young. “Simmons had had fibreglass and resins for three years but did not choose to use these materials for their lightness but only as protection around the nose of his redwood boards.”34 Simmons “was familiar with a light fibreglass cloth which gave him the possibility of making lighter boards, but he didn’t use it until 1949. Ironically Simmons delayed using the cloth because he believed that heavier boards were faster and he fastidiously stuck to this idea.”35
Bob Simmons, like Tom Blake before him, had began thinking that heavier boards would work better. Like Blake, too, he later spent much of his design and development time aimed at lightening his boards.
The first Simmons-made Sandwich Boards were simply sealed plywood over a styrofoam core. Later, he added light and shapable balsa rails to streamline the shape.36
“The lifeguards, unfortunately, never would buy them, but the surfers ‑ Simmons’ followers ‑ thought they were neat and started buying them,” recalled Quigg.37 Demand for Simmons boards increased. He sold about 100 in the summer of ‘49 alone, which was a record at that time.38
First Surf Shop
To satisfy demand, Simmons set up a surf shop in Santa Monica which was more a workshop than anything else. “In those first days,” said Joe Quigg, “Simmons would glue the plywood, styrofoam and balsa parts together, then Matt (Kivlin) would shape the balsa rails and glass them over.”39
Simmons’ new board-building business became too big for he and Kivlin to handle alone, so they asked Quigg to return from Hawai`i to give them a hand. Quigg came back and, while Simmons maintained his original Santa Monica shop, Quigg and Kivlin organized a separate glassing and finishing shop to support Simmons’ operation. “Matt and I rented a shop space up the same road from Simmons’ shop,” said Quigg, “and it was there that we did all the finishing work. At that time, Simmons had lots of orders. We did maybe a hundred boards.”40
Gremmie at that time, Greg Noll tells a little story of this period: “One day, I ditched school and talked Simmons into taking me with him to Salt Creek. He didn’t like kids any more than he liked adults, but I also rode one of his boards, so he tolerated me. He’d go through long periods of silence, then he’d start quizzing me. ‘Why are you going to school? What are you going to do with your education? Why don’t you get out and do something with your life?’ He was provocative and he was smart. A real individual.”41
“If you really wanted one of his boards,” wrote Nat Young, who talked with some guys around at the time, “you had to pay for it up front and sometimes you had to wait for a year to get a new Simmons ‘spoon.’“42 Nat referred to one of the many other ideas to pop out at this time. Simmons, Quigg and Kivlin carried their board-building into further realms. As an example, Quigg fashioned the first fiberglass fin during this period. All three scooped their noses, dropped the rails and shaped the tailblocks in various experimental ways. Out of these design sessions came the Simmons “Spoon.” It was a 10-foot solid male balsa board with a full belly, kicked up nose, thin rails and a glassed and foiled wooden fin.43 It’s probable that Simmons developed the balsa Spoon for larger breaks like Ventura Overhead and La Jolla’s Bird Rock due to its relatively pointed nose.44 Rennie Yater pointed out that, “His spoon nose, you know ‑ it’s been copied ever since. It just made surfboards, instead of being straight, with a little curve to them; quite a bit more curve to them. They didn’t get essentially that way right away. He did, like I say, very extreme things.” In essence, this was the beginning of rocker in surfboards. “Well, you might call it that,” agreed Yater, “because the [redwood] planks didn’t have any rocker. They were dead flat.
“Simmons’ boards were really wide in the tail. He wanted to get up and go! With concave bottoms and all those things he put back there, they did go. They went fast, straight across the wave. But, boy, the wide tail would push the nose down because the tail would ride so well. The scoop of the nose, concave bottom and wide tail ‑ it all worked. The boards had their problems, but the concept itself worked.”45
Simmons, however, did not go for ultra light weight. He still believed it was necessary to have a degree of weight in the boards he built. “Even his ‘sandwich’ board, as it was called,” wrote Nat Young, “‑ it had a light styrofoam core with thin plywood on the deck and bottom, plus balsa rails, and was covered with glass ‑ was heavier than the balsa boards that his glassers Matt Kivlin and Joe Quigg were making at the same time.”46
These balsa and fiberglass boards that Quigg and Kivlin started to make for friends would become known as “Malibu Chips” and were the original Malibu boards.
“At one time,” recalled Greg Noll, “Simmons’ boards were in such demand that the pressure of meeting orders almost became too much for him. Like most of us, he really just wanted to surf. I remember once, he had something like thirty-four boards on back-order. Velzy and I both had had a Simmons board on back-order for three months. Simmons wouldn’t answer his phone, so Velzy decided that we would check out the situation in person.
“Going to Simmons’ shop was just as much an experience as riding one of his boards. The shop was on a side street in Venice Beach. It was an absolute goddamn mess. He never cleaned up the balsa-wood shavings, so you’d have to make a path through the shavings and other debris to get from one place in the shop to another.
“Velzy and I arrived there about five o’clock one afternoon. The place looked all shut down. We pounded on the door. No reply. Velzy noticed that the door wasn’t locked, so he opened it and called, ‘Simmons?’
“No reply. We walked in cautiously through the shavings, calling, ‘Simmons, where are you?’ Finally, we heard a gruff voice from a corner: ‘Whaddaya want.’ We followed the voice and found Simmons sitting in the corner in shadow. He was eating beans out of a can, using a big balsa-wood shaving for a spoon.
“Simmons was eccentric. When he’d worn holes through the soles of his shoes, he’d cut a piece of plywood and tape it onto his shoe. With his perpetually uncombed hair, skinny physique and gimpy arm, he truly looked like a mad scientist.
“He didn’t like many people, but he liked Velzy better than most because Velzy rode Simmons’ boards and he rode them well. Besides that, he just liked Velzy.”47
“When I first met Simmons at Malibu,” between 1946 and 1948, Walter Hoffman recalled, “I didn’t realize he wouldn’t make you a board unless he liked you... or he’d make you wait a year or two... if ever.”48 By 1950, at Laguna Beach, Hoffman had, “one of the very first boards featuring a foam core, with plywood deck and bottom, balsa rails, fully glassed by Matt Kivlin and Joe Quigg. ‘It was a great board!’“49
Enter Hobie Alter.
“The first board I made was in the summer of 1950,” Hobie told me, going on to tell me of the irony of the connection between Simmons, Hoffman and himself. “It was a balsawood board; all balsa and fiberglass covered… Walter Hoffman showed me how to make my first board. Walter loaned me [his Simmons Sandwich] board to copy. So, my first board was a copy of that 10’4” Simmons foam board with the Styrofoam core.” 50
“I didn’t even know Walter,” Hobie continued, pointing out another irony. “I met him on the beach. He had a light board and I’m riding a paddleboard here in Laguna… He told me he would either make me a board or tell me where to get the materials. So, he gave me the name of General Veneer for the balsawood and Thalco for the fiberglass. In fact, my name is actually Hobart and Thalco is on Hobart Street in L.A.” 51
“Simmons’ stuff was not good craftsmanship;” Rennie Yater noted, “not pretty to look at; not well done. “You might say ‘crude.’ But, his ideas ‑ he just kept going! He wouldn’t be afraid to try something, build it and two days later be out there riding it just to find out, himself, how it worked...
“Kivlin and Quigg were from Malibu and they worked together... Joe always made boards that rode better. They were much easier to ride. He wouldn’t be as radical as Bob. Kivlin’s boards were even quite a bit different. His style of surfing ‑ you ever seen in the museum, the real thin 90 rails? Boy, he could really ride ‘em, too. Really good. So, he just went off and did his own thing. You know, Kivlin and Simmons didn’t like each other, either. But that was the admiration part of it, too.”52
Retreat to Imperial Beach
As rumors and word of Simmons’ boards continued to spread up and down the California coast, Bob Simmons suddenly shut down his Santa Monica shop. He had a falling out with Quigg and Kivlin over their shaping Malibu boards.53 He moved his operation out to the family’s Norwalk ranch for privacy and seclusion and to do more R & D. He surfed mostly in the San Diego area and it was during this time that the best and last of a series of Simmons boards were made.54
At this time, Simmons prototyped double-slotted boards to improve paddling. Some very short ones appeared from 6-to-8 feet. He experimented with different tail dimensions, but all his stock models were quite different than his personal boards. His own boards always had dual shallow fins and harder 60/40 rails, all the way down to 80/20.55
“There was a huge vacuum left when Simmons quit producing boards,” wrote John Elwell. It was natural that modified copies would be produced and these first started showing up in the summer of 1950. Elwell says he and others asked Simmons about these and he replied, “They are easy to make. Changing the nose and tails somewhat don’t make that much difference. The nose sticks out of the water when we surf. I’d hate to get stabbed by a pointed one! If the tail is less than ten inches, it’s a paddleboard! My noses are much more functional and stronger. The points break off too easy!” The most common feature to be seen in the modified boards, including the paddleboard types, was a Simmons-type hydrofoiled rail.56
“In San Diego,” wrote Elwell, “a stream of people came down from LA and begged him for boards, as did San Diego locals. He politely refused and only made a handful of boards for a selected few. He surfed all the time at his favorite spots ‑ the Tijuana Sloughs and Windansea. He was a busy man, finishing his math degree at San Diego State, playing championship ping pong and going to the horse races. Simmons had devised a scheme of probability of mathematical odds, pooled family money, played the horses, did very well and took a cut. He had money, got out of all the dust, resin and hassle of surfboard making and had more time to surf and do the things he liked.”57
Thus, quietly, Simmons slipped into an even greater legendary status while still alive, by withdrawing from the whole embryonic surfboard production scene. His move down south marked the beginning of the end of what has been known as the “Simmons Era.”58 Rennie Yater recalled, “Simmons went on down to live in Imperial Beach. People kind of forgot about him after he left the Malibu testing grounds. Surfboard evolution went on, but surfboards weren’t as radical. They were pretty conservative; with natural rocker, the way balsa wood came; with about an inch of deck rocker, with very little heavy rocker in the bottom of the board. That went on for a long time, into the Velzy era and Hobie era; didn’t change much at all ‘till foam came around. Then, you weren’t restricted by the dimensions of balsa wood. Even the balsa wood boards didn’t have much rocker, except for the ones in Hawai`i, where they started to put kick in the nose because of the big waves.
“I can’t tell you how much I think about Simmons... I really admired what he did ‑ you know ‑ his approach to what he did. ‘I’m just gonna make what I wanna make.’ Just try something different all the time. He didn’t care if guys came around. He was annoyed by people coming around, wanting his boards. He only sold ‘em cuz he had to make some money.”59
“Simmons was indeed a rare, rare man,” declared Dave Rochlen. “Here was a guy who believed pretty radically in something. He had a certain kind of integrity. His behavior never changed. He had a better mind than any of us guys. Above all, he was a better man than almost any man on the beach.”60
“I was there and saw it all,” testified Bev Morgan who began his surfing career in the late 1940s. “Simmons was the one. It was a brilliant combination of technology and genius. It was a quantum leap from the old Pacific Homes planks and Tom Blake paddleboards.”61
“He experimented with different materials,” wrote Greg Noll, “such as sandwiching balsa, plywood and Styrofoam together to try to get the weight down. Equally as important as his use of lighter materials was his use of fiberglass. He was the first to combine light weight and fiberglass, and this blew the whole thing wide open.”62
Fiberglass and resin applied to balsa boards became thee board of choice during the 1950s, in the form of Quigg-shaped Malibu boards. The other Simmons-pioneered technology of using foam would take longer to catch on. Key to foam’s development was the later switch from polystyrene to polyurethane foam.
Joe Quigg & The Malibu Chip
At the beginning of the 1950s, the surfboard was going through a period of radical change in weight, materials and shape ‑ the likes of which hadn’t been seen since Tom Blake first developed hollow boards in the late 1920s.
Bob Simmons‘ introduction of light weight materials like fiberglass, resin and styrofoam to the surfing world seemed, at first, to be the next branch to the tree of surfing evolution. The styrofoam core sandwich board, especially, looked like it would be the one to replace the old redwood/balsa’s.
“At that time,” recalled Hobie Alter, who was just starting out, himself, “the older surfers were still staying with the redwood and balsa. It was the younger group – probably 20 [years of age] and under – who were getting into the fiberglass foam-covered boards.” 63
At this critical juncture, it was the combination of light weight materials with light weight wood ‑ i.e. balsa ‑ that changed the surfboard’s developmental direction. Reducing the weight and using new materials were not the only change agents. Not only would redwood become a thing of the past, but the traditional surfboard designs and old plank shapes would give way to newer designs featuring scarfed noses, pulled down rails, concaves and multiple skegs. Simmons had set this all in motion. Yet, in was the union of fiberglass and balsawood ‑ coupled with the shaping finesse of Joe Quigg ‑ that would carry the surfboard’s development through the 1950s.
Joe Quigg and Matt Kivlin are generally credited with creating what became known as “the Malibu Board.” This balsa board would go on to dominate the 1950s surf scene. While Bob Simmons played his part in the introduction of fiberglass and resin used in the Malibu Chips, Quigg and Kivlin disagreed with Simmons’ stance on weight. Quigg and Kivlin ended up moving out from Simmons’ shop not only to support Simmons shaping with their glassing operation, but also to develop their own boards which soon became known for their lightness.64
As Quigg explained to surf historian Gary Lynch, his first breakthrough design was made in the summer of 1947,65 just before leaving for the the Hawaiian Islands. Writer Craig Stecyk has it being made on July 5, 1947.66 Not intended, originally, to be any big deal in design or shape, it was merely a board built as a “novice girls board” for Tommy Zahn‘s girlfriend Darrylin Zanuck. Shaped out of balsa and sealed with fiberglass and resin, Quigg created “the board to satisfy Zahn’s expressed requirements that the board be short, light, and easy for a girl to carry, plus it must fit in the back of her Town and Country convertible. At 60 pounds, it’s about half the weight of a typical boards of the period.”67 This board weighed half as much as the lightest Simmons surfboard, had a flowing deck rocker with 50/50 rails and rail rocker from end to end. Quigg called this board his “Easy Rider,” but it’s also been called “the Darrylin Board“ and is known as the first Malibu Board.68
Like most all other surfboard designers who shaped themselves into new design territory, Quigg’s boards were viewed skeptically at first. In fact, his shapes were initially looked down upon. Even Bob Simmons dismissed Quigg’s direction and their partnership would end because of them. “The guys at San Onofre and Hawaii ridiculed me so bad that I was embarrassed to take the board to the beach,” recalled Quigg about the reception he received when he took another design her was working on down to the beach.69
Joe Quigg became one of surfing’s great “crossover” shapers because of his sense of hydrodynamics and his use of materials. He made the transition back and forth between wood, foam and fiberglass and he did so for not only surfboards, but paddle boards, canoes and catamarans. In fact, Quigg’s paddle boards set many records. Because of his improved hydrodynamic theories and use of lighter materials, Quigg was partly responsible for changing the racing paddle board from its Tom Blake era of 19 feet in length down to its current 12 foot length.70
From California, the first time Matt Kivlin surfed in Hawai`i, he got punched and Rabbit Kekai had to intervene. “You better believe it!” Remembered Rabbit. “That’s how I got to know Matt real well. And Matt, well... he catches waves and those guys drop in and they figure well, they’ve got territorial rights. And Matt’s a really good surfer, out of all those guys, I think he was the best.... He had a real stately stance, like straight up, you know? Real graceful. I used to watch him a lot. Matt gave me a balsa board that he’d shaped similar to our style, a hot curl but with a fin. He made that board for his wife and then I rode it and liked it and he gave it to me. That was in 1954. And I won the Makaha with that board in ‘56 and ‘57. I rode it in Peru and won with it there too. I ended up selling it to the President of Peru’s nephew for $1,000.”71
“The boards I looked up to,” Hobie Alter recalled, “were the Quigg boards and the Kivlin boards; all balsa and fiberglass. They had taken the next step. Simmons did bring the rails down and put the scoop in ‘em and that changed it from the ‘boat’ shape and got it down to what became the surfboard shape. A quick jump in that [history] would be Kivlin and Quigg bringing it on down into a more refined shape.” 72
Lorrin “Whitey” Harrison (1913-1993)
The next significant milestone in the development of the modern foam surfboard was planted by Lorrin “Whitey” Harrison. Whitey ‑ older than either Quigg or Kivlin, and six years older than Simmons – had helped forge surfing in California during the 1930s redwood years. Significantly, in the late ‘30s, he and Tarzan Smith broke open O`ahu’s North Shore for usage by the Hot Curl big wave surfers centered at Makaha. A waterman in every sense of the word, Whitey’s contribution to the foam board was his being the first one to build a surfboard out of polyurethane foam. He did it in 1955, a year after Bob Simmons‘ untimely death.73
Gordon “Grubby” Clark ‑ the man who would go on to become the single largest manufacturer of polyurethane foam blanks for surfboards ‑ said Whitey, as an innovator, inspired many surfers, including himself. “After all the places he’d been and waves he’d surfed, he could still get pumped about a 2-foot day at Doheny. That’s the most remarkable thing about Whitey ‑ how he retained his skill and enthusiasm for surfing throughout his long life.”74
The first person to make commercial polyurethane foam boards is generally considered to be Dave Sweet.75
“His affinity for the sport began in 1945,” wrote Mark Fragale in a landmark biography of Sweet in Longboard magazine published in September/October 2000. “He hitched his first ride on a wave at Topanga Beach with a borrowed Pacific Systems Homes surfboard.”76
“David Milton Sweet was born in Seattle, Washington on December 21, 1928…Sweet learned how to surf on a series of used surfboards. His first new board remains memorable to this day, a 120-pound redwood, custom made by [Bob] Simmons. He vividly remembers his parents driving him in the family car out to the Pasadena home of Bob Simmons to purchase the specially ordered board. A genuine friendship with Simmons ensued. The two went on to make occasional surf trips together, often to The Overhead in Ventura or sometimes Rincon. Other times they cruised the coast in search of waves. Simmons’ ongoing companionship and the surfboards he built became a major and lasting influence on Sweet.” 77
He first started surfing in 1945, at Topanga Beach on a borrowed Pacific Systems Homes surfboard. 78 During the late 1940s, he surfed there with guys like Ricky Grigg, Les Williams, Corny and Peter Cole, Buzzy Trent, Bob McCoy, Gregg D’Nelly, Don Drazan, Howard Terrill, and close friend Freddy Harrison. 79 Gravitating to the better waves of Malibu, Sweet recalled, “Joe Quigg, Matt Kivlin and Dave Rochlen were already well established at Malibu. Slowly we gained their acceptance and edged our way into the lineup. It would become our favorite place to meet and surf, regardless if there were waves.” 80
Sweet’s first shaped surfboard took place in 194981. His inspirations were from the Malibu Chips being developed by Quigg and Kivlin. “It was an exciting time to be building surfboards,” Sweet recalled. “Infinitesimal changes realized in board shapes became especially evident with lightweight materials.” 82
After discharge from the Navy,83 sometime around 1953, Sweet ordered his first piece of extruded Styrofoam from Dow Chemical, in Midland, Michigan. “The material was just incredibly dense and seemingly absent of beads. It was more like a piece of lumber than a piece of foam.” 84
“… cutting the outline with a saber saw,” wrote Mark Fragile, “caused the foam to gum up and melt. Undeterred, Sweet hand-shaped the brick-like slab into a period design shape, then sealed it with a red epoxy coating. In clandestine surf sessions he rode the board that winter at Rincon, and later Malibu, the whole time covertly testing the foam contrivance under its disguise of color.” 85
In 1954, Sweet dropped Styrofoam in favor of Polyurethane, “the new miracle material.” Unlike Styrofoam, urethane was compatible with polyester resin and successfully allowed a fiberglass lamination and seal. Sweet worked with this new material, getting his supplies from Nopco Chemical, and learned on his own how to blow his own foam. It was a trial by error process with an expensive learning curve. “Gaining the knowledge of how to mix and pour the foam,” Mark Fragile continued, “clamp the mold securely shut within seconds and strive to avoid air pockets was no easy feat. Liquid urethane foam components were mixed together for about 8-10 seconds and then poured into the mold. Moments later the mix expanded to approximately 20, maybe 30, times its volume. Almost instantly the concoction yielded extreme heat and dangerous pressures.” 86
“Sweet quickly learned that foam blown at lower pressures lacked stability,” Fragile went on. “Heat and ultraviolet exposure caused poorly formulated foam within a fiberglass lamination to continue its expansion, causing distortion, delamination and eventual structural failure.” 87 Sweet kept with the task of discovering how to properly formulate the liquid urethane.
Boarding House Basement Experiments
“After my discharge from the service,” Sweet recalls, “I returned home” where he began his foam experiments. “After several months passed my parents… politely told me to leave… They gave me a warm and caring nudge out the door and I was off on my own.
“I was lucky enough to stumble into a boarding house on the corner of Franklin and La Brea in Hollywood. What a deal that place was. For $65 a month I got room and board in this beautiful, one-hundred-year-old Victorian house. With my living expenses covered I used whatever money I had left to continue my work toward building a surfboard with a core made of foam.” 88
“My room at the boarding house was set up in the basement,” Sweet continued. “For my purposes this was the best room in the house. The only shortfall was the waterfall. Every time somebody flushed the toilet it would sound like I was going to be washed away. My landlady, Ms. Smith, was a saint. She was a great cook and prepared all the meals. I can still remember her prime rib and mashed potatoes. She actually allowed me to move my mold in and do foam pours within the confines of my subterranean living quarters. Imagine that! Often I would come upstairs for dinner only long enough to eat then quickly return downstairs to continue with my work foaming…
“At this point I had gained considerable knowledge about the foam process and posed little danger to others in the house, not to mention myself. I was determined to make things work and money was the most essential ingredient to continue moving forward. Initially I had been purchasing materials in small amounts, so a few pours might set me back as much as 20 bucks – quite a bit of money in those days. Money was hard fought, which forced me to confront a series of challenging decisions. I went to the extreme and sold my new car. In actuality this turned out to be a very positive move. I purchased an old Dodge station wagon that was clearly better suited for my new situation. The added bonus: I was once again capitalized to continue; I was ready to build surfboards.
“With my skills and techniques somewhat honed,” Sweet continued, “I was confident and ready to begin. In the series of ongoing obstacles to overcome, I was now in need of a commercially fabricated mold to make surfboard blanks. With the proceeds left over from the sale of my new car and the reserves I had in my savings, I began shopping for a mold.
“I found a company in Van Nuys called Techniform that manufactured molds. I presented my idea to them of a steel and fiberglass surfboard mold. They were quite receptive and the project was soon underway. The high cost of the mold required that Techniform be partners in my endeavor. Building the mold took much longer than originally projected. As I grew more anxious, the two principals at Techniform became more frustrated. In my persistence to finish the mold, I was eventually allowed access to the job and became quite involved in the outcome of the finished project.” 89
“When the mold was completed in 1954,” Sweet went on, “we conducted our first pour of urethane foam. For just shy of three months we diligently but unsuccessfully attempted to produce an acceptable foam blank. Our efforts were not without their exciting moments. More than a couple of times we ran for our lives, away from a creaking mold on the threshold of its capacity. Steel latch bolts once flew through the air like bullets. It’s funny to talk about the episode now, but at the time it was a rather serious deal.
“My partners in the endeavor had basically given up and said the project was impossible and would never work. There was simply too much air trapped, preventing a satisfactory foam blow. I remained steadfast in my belief that a way to make the mold work did exist. I offered to buy out their half of the mold and they agreed. I amassed the necessary six thousand dollars from what was left of my savings and a variety of other sources. The mold was now mine.” 90
Santa Monica Shop Experiments
Dave Sweet now moved his operations from the basement of the boarding house to a shop on the corner of 10th and Olympic, in Santa Monica. The main problem at this point was trapped air in bubbles too large to be structurally sound. He partially solved this problem by reversing the mold clamps which created a thicker blank from which he could shave off most of the major bubbles. By 1956, he had a board that he could offer commercially – the first commercially offered polyurethane foam surfboard. 91
C.R. Stecyk wrote that it was May 5, 1956 when Sweet first showed his work off in public: “Dave Sweet, an idiosyncratic designer, paddles out on an unassuming looking marbleized abstract pigmented opaque surfboard. Astute local observers notice the change in Dave’s surfing style and closely examine the stick discovering it to be unbelievably light in weight. Offering no explanations, Dave leaves with the mysto-prototype board. Insiders realize that Sweet has mastered the foam process. Next week he will offer the first commercial polyurethane foam surfboard for sale. It will be two years before he has any competitors. Paradoxically, Sweet will never take public credit for his innovation. Not even such close friends as Joe Quigg can get him to admit it. Even Dave Rochlen who vividly recalls having shaped foam blanks for Sweet back in ‘53 is unable to get Dave to discuss his contributions.”92
Thus, Polyurethane foam surfboards had their beginnings in the workshops of Whitey Harrison, Dave Sweet and Dave Rochlen.93
“The first person to try foam in a surfboard was Bob Simmons… using polystyrene foam,” reaffirmed Greg Noll. “In 1955, Lorrin Harrison in Capistrano Beach became the first to try polyurethane foam, and in [May] 1956 Dave Sweet in Santa Monica made the first sustained effort to develop polyurethane foam boards.”94
At this point, Sweet had to move again, this time due to a landlord who wasn’t happy about how his space was being used. Sweet relocated not far away, at 14th and Olympic. The shop was 30’ x 150’ and cost $75 a month. 95
Meanwhile, Hobie Alter and Gordon “Grubby” Clark were working on their own version of the foam surfboard down south in Laguna Canyon. Their approach was different, though, requiring molded halves glued to a stringer and then shaped. “Yeah,” admitted Hobie, “Sweet was working on foam surfboards for a considerable time before us, although I must add that he had no idea what Grubby and I were doing, nor did we have any idea what he was up to.” 96
“My best recollection says that Dave Sweet was the first with foam,” agreed Greg Noll. “I even remember him showing me a piece of the stuff. Thing is, he started out on such a small scale that it didn’t overthrow balsa right away… He was such an independent guy; he just didn’t buy into the promotional aspects of the foam the way Hobie and Clark did. When Hobie got the foam thing going he promoted the hell out of it… People probably thought he invented the stuff.” 97
At this point, Dave Sweet was joined by his brother Roger who bought into half the mold. For a short period of time, the Sweet brothers were partners. Three months after the partnership began, it ended over irreconcilable differences. Dave wanted quality and Roger wanted quantity. 98
Before Roger left, though, enter Cliff Robertson.
“Shortly into Roger’s tenure at Dave Sweet Surfboards,” recalled Sweet, “movie star/actor Cliff Robertson learned of our foam surfboards and became quite interested. He played the role of ‘Kahuna’ in the movie Gidget. Anyway, he approached me and offered to help finance or become partners in Dave Sweet Surfboards. I declined the offer, but Roger saw things differently. Roger’s growing disenchantment with our situation was clearly evident. With the small salary he was drawing, Roger began considering a business relationship with Robertson. I couldn’t blame him. He was married with two kids, a mortgage and financial obligations that far exceeded mine.” 99
Soon, Cliff Robertson and Roger Sweet partnered up. Robertson/Sweet (R/S) Surfboards was based on a business plan based on high production but low cost. The duo opted to produce “pop-out” type surfboards that required little shaping or glassing. What came out of the mold is what was sold, basically. The company did not last long because surfers demanded a more customized approach, as they had enjoyed traditionally. 100
Meanwhile, Dave Sweet – now sole proprietor of Dave Sweet Surfboards – was left with a mold half of which belonged to his brother. While R/S Surfboards was in operation, the Sweet brothers shared the mold, which was moved to Glencoe Avenue in Marina del Rey to facilitate mutual use. Certain days belonged to a certain brother. As R/S Surfboards came closer to insolvency and receivership, the mold that Dave Sweet had worked so hard to develop was in serious jeopardy of being lost to creditors. At the last minute, Dave and Roger’s dad stepped in and financed Roger’s half of the mold and had it returned to the Dave Sweet Surfboard shop in Santa Monica. 101
“Little did we know that Dave and Roger Sweet were working on [polyurethane] foam at the same time [we were],” Hobie Alter recalled. “Actually, they’d been working on foam for a considerable time before us. Then they separated, and Cliff Robertson [later to become a well-known actor] joined forces with Roger to form Robertson-Sweet. They did foam boards, but we didn’t consider them… We didn’t think they were any good. They were big, round-railed things. Which is fine, as they were looking for the mass production solution.”102
Gordon Clark recalled: “Two years before [Hobie Alter developed commercial polyurethane foam], Dave Sweet and his brother, both surfers with a shop in Santa Monica, had found a backer in the actor Cliff Robertson,” who went on to star with Sandra Dee in the first Gidget film. “Robertson financed their work in developing a polyurethane foam surfboard… Many others have claimed to have been the first to try polyurethane foam, but Lorrin Harrison in Capistrano Beach was actually the first, in 1955. [But] The work started by Sweet in 1956 was the first sustained effort in developing polyurethane foam boards.”103
“In 1958, when we started” foam development, Hobie Alter remembered, “we couldn’t get Reichold or American Latex – they were the two big suppliers. Reichold was the one who brought the foam to me [first] and American Latex is who we eventually went to – to show us or find anyone who was doing any foam in any size whatsoever. One guy was making picture frames out of high density urethane. That was about it.
“Sweet was working on his hard shell at that very same time. Where he was getting his [supplies], I don’t know.
“At that time, nobody was looking at foam boards. If they were, it was styrofoam [as opposed to polyurethane].” 104
“As much as I know, I thought we were ahead of him,” Hobie admitted, “but it was about the same time we both came out with the foam board. His [Sweet’s] was a hard shell board. It was eventually what we were trying to do. We were trying to make a board that was already shaped… We ended-up labeling them ‘pop-outs,’ later.” 105
The Hard Shell
Sweet’s manufacturing process involved uninterrupted attention and focus. A single break of concentration during the several seconds it took to pour the activated liquid foam and clamping it down could easily result in a rejected blank. Sweet remembers many a day coming home mentally exhausted. It was during this time that he solved the trapped air problem that had plagued him from the beginning. By introducing a special paper inserted in the mold, the forced air from the expanding foam was retained in the porosity of the paper, allowing a nearly perfect, blown blank. He reversed his mold latches back to the way they were originally designed to work. 106
Another refinement was Sweet’s unique 60/40 formula mix of both freon blown and water blown foaming components. The potion produced a composition within the finished blank allowing the option of a hard shell finish or one that could be easily cut and hand shaped. Sweet blanks now came out of the molds looking roughly like the finished product. 107
A further refinement involved using multiple paper inserts. These paper inserts made it possible for a finished blank to come out of the mold to the specifications and dimensions of a custom ordered board, thus eliminating the need for hand shaping. 108
“To compensate for the extra weight inherent in the higher density foam formulations,” wrote Mark Fragale, “Sweet devised a stringer system that was again unique to the industry. In a free thinking departure from conventional norms, Sweet elected to rout his stringers into both sides of the board. The deck and bottom stringers structurally tagged together where they converged in the last 8 to 12 inches of each end of the board. Additional strength was found in large part in the eight-pound density outer hard shell foam – more than double that of other custom surfboards of the day. For those who opted for a conventional stringer, through-hull stringers remained available. Sweet believes that about 80 percent of his boards left the shop with the inlaid converging stringers and the other 20 percent employed conventional layouts. Supplementary benefits permitted setting the rocker and locking in the desired curvature with the chosen stringer system.” 109
Hobart “Hobie” Alter‘s name became synonymous with the foam and fiberglass surfboard in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Although a “moderately talented surfer who excelled in peripheral events like tandem, paddling, and wake surfing,” surf writer Scott Hulet noted in a 1997 profile of Hobie for Longboard magazine, “Hobie’s genius hinged on invention, experimentation, and follow-through.”110
Like anyone, though, he had to start somewhere.
Joe Quigg recalled that “those of us from up north used to go down south to show off our new equipment, usually at San Onofre, and a lot of people down there, including Hobie, became very interested in what we were up to.”111
In a September 1981 interview with Laura Bly of the Santa Ana Daily Register, Hobie recalled that he first started making boards in his father’s Laguna Beach garage, while he was still in high school. The year was 1950. 112
“I started out making maybe 20 boards a summer for my friends,” Hobie said, “and it sure beat being a lifeguard. About the end of junior college – which took me a little longer because I was doing a lot of surfing and skiing – my father decided I’d learned everything I could, and he recommended I go into the board business full time.”113
“Hobie began,” 1950s and ‘60s surf champion Phil Edwards wrote, “as many of us did, by making a surfboard in his garage in 1950.”114
“I’d make them in my garage for friends,” Hobie told Hulet, “then word of mouth spread, people would see or hear of surfing, and they’d find out that they could get a board from me.” 115
“I made boards in my garage” for awhile, Hobie told me. “I ended up making 80 boards out of my house. I opened the shop [at Dana Point] in January of ’54. I was full time into the surfboard business from then on. I started numbering my boards [beginning] at 100. I skipped the last 20 [81-99] and ended up with [restarting] at an even number.”116
“Dana Point was nothing then, of course,” Hobie recalled. “The entire business district was two buildings – a market and a real estate office. I had a little money I’d saved, and I bought the building. Best thing I ever did. What great advertising! Anyone driving south went right by the shop, with only two other buildings, if you can imagine. To give you an idea of the growth, we went from 99 boards to 1580 boards, all balsa, in a very short period. Of those, I shaped all but two. Phil Edwards shaped one. Reynolds Yater shaped one. So, if you own an old Hobie balsa, you can thank – or blame – me for it.” 117
Balsa to Foam
Hobie’s friend and world champion surfer Phil Edwards tells what happened next as well as anybody.
After Edwards came back to California from his first trip to the Islands in 1955,118 he wrote, “I began to experiment with boards... The mood had begun to hit California: Quigg and Velzy were on parallel courses, turning out shapes and sizes of boards. We had begun to glass them ‑ working in fiberglass up to our armpits. Between all of us, we had ruined the inside of more garages up and down the California coast than anybody...
“Then came the revolution.
“It was subtle: We had been getting our surfboard blanks from Ecuador... Two thirds of the board ‑ about 35 pounds of it ‑ were ending up in shavings on the floor. Time was involved; precious time when the surf was up and there were horrible moments when we would hover uncertainly over a board, knives poised in the air, looking first at the board and then at the open door where someone stood impatiently, saying, ‘Jeez, you guys. Come on! The surf is good.’
“And it was an expensive process.” 119
“Balsa was really getting harder and harder to get a hold of,” Hobie emphasized. “We had already bought all of the good wood,” meaning it was harder and harder to get light sections of the balsa trees. “Velzy was trying to buy it [the light balsa wood]. I was trying to buy it. Although I finally got into… some real good wood for a little while [via model plane manufacturer Ken Adams], Greg Noll found out about it. Then Velzy wanted to get it and Greg said, ‘No. You have to be Jewish for them to work [General Veneer] with you… Hobie and I are Jewish.’ So it was a matter of there not being [enough] quality wood available.” 120
By 1954, “There were more and more manufacturers getting into the business,” Hobie to me. “At one time, there was virtually myself and Velzy that had shops and were making boards and a few guys in garages.
“As more guys got on,” the manufacturing end, “it got harder and harder to get good wood. Wood came in a big bundle and you really didn’t want all of it. We always used to be able to pick out the good stuff – the light wood.
“Pretty soon, it got to the point of: ‘Uh, uh. You got to take the whole bundle [light and heavier balsa both] at a time or else you have to pick out of the bad stuff they had in the back.” 121
“It did get to the point,” Hobie continued, “where it was hard to keep the weights down on the board and keep the heavier pieces on the outer edge so you could shave them off and that – trying to keep the weights in the 30-or-under [range].
“I’ve been told,” Hobie added, “that actually only about ten percent of a balsa tree is good enough for surfboard quality wood.” 122
Hobie pinpoints a Friday night in February of 1958123 as the time he first realized polyurethane foam was surfing’s future direction:
“One Friday night in February of ‘58,” Hobie tells the story, “this guy, Kent Doolittle, walked into the shop and showed us this little piece of foam that was about this big around and about that thick (Hobie’s hands abstract a shape roughly the size of a deck of cards). It was kind of crude, but it was hard and dense… you could just get your fingernail in it. I was impressed. At this time, when you said foam you meant what we call Styrofoam, which was horrible, you could take your finger and just push it right through. I mean, worse than a cheap beer cooler. Just huge, open celled foam, like the kind you find in arts and crafts stores. We’d actually tried that stuff before. Rennie Yater (who worked for me at the time) and I had each made one. I think Rennie’s turned out better, but they were both terrible… they rattled like peas in a pod. You had to finish them with glue or epoxy. Joey Cabell actually loved the things, he rode one of them for a while. But they were no good, and we didn’t pursue [styro] foam anymore.
“But Doolittle claimed that polyester resin wouldn’t dissolve his little block of foam, so we tested it out. So I put resin on it. I put acetone on it. I glassed it… and that night I took that little block to a party, pulled it out of my pocket, and said, ‘This is it, boys, the future of surfboards right here.’” 124
“Enter Hobie Alter…” Phil Edwards wrote melodramatically in his autobiography, published in 1967.
“He had seen polyurethane foam before, and one day he stood looking deeply into a cup of the stuff. He saw that (1) its ratio of strength to weight was enormous and (2) that it wouldn’t soak up water like balsa wood.” 125
“‘Surfboard!’ mumbled Hobie, and took his cup to a chemical company. ‘Dandy,’ they said, ‘except that you can’t control the stuff in the size you want. This cup is about as far as you go, kid.’
“So Hobie did exactly what they told him not to do. He built a mold for the foam ‑ roughly the size of a surfboard ‑ and poured in a batch.”126
Hobie did not get the kind of response he was expecting – not by a long shot. Undeterred, he tried numerous times, changing the equations.
“We weren’t getting results that were good enough to replace balsawood,” Hobie said of his initial efforts that spanned months. “I had gone though, I think, eight thousand dollars at that time – which doesn’t sound like a lot, now, but it was everything I had – trying to develop this thing with Grubby.” 127
“He constructed some molds of plaster of Paris and added a touch of concrete,” wrote Phil Edwards.
“And Gordon Grubby Clark ‑ who had been to engineering school and knew all the right equations ‑ began to work along with Hobie, figuring out the principles of molds and mixtures of foam...”128
“… my glasser at the time was Gordon Clark, who happened to have some background in engineering from college,” Hobie detailed. “He got interested in it and said, ‘Why don’t you let me work on it too and we can make a deal later on for so much a board and you don’t have to pay me till it’s up and running.’” 129
“There was a time there when nobody surfed,” Phil Edwards wrote.
“Hobie was afraid Velzy or someone would find out what he was doing,” Edwards wrote. “It is rather hard to keep a secret with a garage that has only three walls, for one thing. So he and Grubby rented a shack high up in a canyon outside town. It was the kind of weather-beaten, wind-scrubbed shack where the cowboys always hold the rancher’s daughter captive while they’re waiting for the ransom.
“They painted all the windows black and worked in a kind of eerie darkness.
“Finally, they came upon the idea of molding the boards in halves ‑ cut down the long way ‑ which proved more stable. They added strips of balsa or redwood in the center for stiffener, and we began to turn out pioneer boards.”130
“So we got a shop in Laguna Canyon,” Hobie said, noting that they rented an old pottery shop at the beginning of the canyon and right on the edge of town, “and I made a half-surfboard mold, and we started experimenting. It was just a huge mess. No one had seen a block of foam as big as the ones we were trying to pour. Up until then, foam was just used for picture frames, ornaments, that kind of thing. What we came up with was a way to pour two halves of a surfboard, whereupon they’d have to be stringered and glued up. We did most of our experimentation in an old bellyboard mold. We’d get the chemicals from American Latex and other companies, and just go at it. This was June of 1958.”131
At one point, according to Edwards, “Hobie took a finished board up to Laguna, on a cliff high overlooking the sea ‑ and threw it over the side. We all craned over and looked down at it. It had bounced on the rocks a few hundred feet below ‑ but it wasn’t in bad shape.
“Still, there were problems to overcome. Mixtures, for one thing.
“Even nicely shaped and fiberglassed, the boards had a tendency to expand in the sun. Sometimes they got nicely rounded, like giant loaves of French bread. Hobie began painting test boards black ‑ to soak up more sun ‑ and stashing them out on rooftops all over town. Then a few days later we would make the rounds and see how fat they had grown. Some of them were like cigars; but the mixtures were starting to take shape.
“Hobie came upon the system of forming the molds under high pressure; it made them more stable. And by this time the copiers were after him. Many of them were going through the same agonies of experimentation and getting less stable boards.
“With the balsa boards, we had started with 40-pound blanks; had cut them to 15 pounds ‑ then built them back to 35 pounds with the rest of the work.
“Now, suddenly, a new era had begun. The foam boards were unlimited. We could, in shaping them, put rocker effects on them and give them flying shape...”132
“What foam does is it goes up and expands,” Hobie explained, “and will be restricted whatever your mold shape; whatever the shape of the mold. And, it starts to become jelly-like. So, now it doesn’t want to flow, so to speak, but the gases keep expanding, so it does keep expanding.
“If you allowed it – the real big problem was – imagine if you fill up this mold and it’s kind of a jelly state and you allow it to move some more. Now it’s not flowable, so it tears itself apart – like a piece of wood wanting to expand and has to split in order to go somewhere. So, that was the real problem. It started wrecking the quality of the foam… what we call ‘stretch.’ Part of it would be stuck against the mold. And, then the inert part would want to move some. That would tear the two layers of foam.
“With ‘pop outs’… we talk about the glass didn’t stick to the foam. In a lot of cases, that wasn’t the complete deal. What happened is, they could get the glass to stick to the foam, but they couldn’t get the foam to stick to itself. That outer skin sometimes wouldn’t be bonded to a section right underneath it.” 133
“We almost ran out of money,” Hobie told me, “when we switched over to American Latex and then went to what ended up being shaped foam, because it came out [of a mold] with a skin that was not a viable skin. You had to actually shape it off. You couldn’t really shape the hard shell foam [like Sweet was working with]. It had a hard skin. You tore things up trying to get it off and what you had underneath wasn’t good. With shaping foam, it was practically better when you got the skin off it. That’s what switched us over to the shaping foam. We virtually gave up on it [the hard shell]. ‘We don’t see anything satisfactory, here’ and went to the shaping foam, which was a break that was kind of a serendipity thing. It was a break, because that is the style that has lasted ‘till today – the shaping foam vs. the hard shell.”134
“Hobie came out with the first polyurethane foam boards,” according to Gordon Clark, “in June of ‘58, followed by Sweet. Sweet had figured out the foam by then, but he had had trouble building a board design that worked. Everyone takes foam boards for granted now, but in those days it was quite a challenge to figure out the glassing, how to use fill coating or hot coating. We all went through a lot of broken boards during that time.”135
“The hard shell did have its problems,” Hobie told me. “It wasn’t as stable as you’d like it and it had some expansion and contraction problems, particularly when it had a stringer in it. Then, it would want to expand beyond that stringer and such.
“Not to put Sweet out, [but] the exact time and date of that, I’m gonna say it was weeks one way or the other. He was up there in Santa Monica and we were down at Dana Point.” 136
Phil Edwards wrote that, yes, there were other minor problems that remained to be worked out with the shaped foam:
“The early boards, for example, tended to be full of air voids. Great for floatability ‑ but not the thing for toughness. We would shine a strong light over them; crawl under the boards and look up through them, and pop the bubbles with a screwdriver. Then we would patch up the holes... Trouble is, with all those air voids, you can’t get that splendid clear-foam effect and the boards must be painted solid colors.”137
“We had to find cheap ways to hold this pressure down, with the foam,” Hobie told me. “We had to have a way to restrain something and not let that mold move at all. What we ended up getting was making a concrete trough; a kind of V-shaped trough about 12-inches high. We’d make a plaster mold that we’d drop down into that trough. It was virtually like putting it between a couple of [cement] curbs, so it couldn’t expand.” 138
“This was the difference between what we were using and what, later, Walker and Foss and them started to do,” continued Hobie. “They `went to freon-blown foam. That didn’t have the pressure [problems]. They could do that in molds that were not anywhere near the brutal strength type thing that we had to have to maintain ours.
“Our foam was good, but we got a lot of air in it; air bubble pockets. Air bubbles will expand and cause bumps in your board.
“We had to put a light underneath it to punch-out the bubbles and fill ‘em with putty. Well, that didn’t make a nice-looking board, but, at that time, we had no competition.”139
You see these painted boards in Bud Browne surfing films of the era and some of the early films of Greg Noll, John Severson and Bruce Brown.
“There were a lot of holes in these boards,” agreed Hobie. “We’d have to putty in all of the little air pockets, and most of those boards ended up with some sort of pastel coloration to hide the corrections. Pastel, because darker colors showed all of the problems. The foam couldn’t handle it. But what we ended up with was a better board. Better than balsa. Lighter and stronger.” 140
“Another interesting sidelight concerning foam boards from back then is the stringers,” Alter added. “If you see an old Hobie board from that era, chances are that it has at least two inches of balsa. That’s because the blanks came out of the mold too narrow, and they needed the extra lumber to widen them out.” 141
“But Grubby had the foam handled by then,” Hobie continued. “We kept that place top secret. Nobody got in. We hired off-duty firemen to keep an eye on it. My goal was to have a blank come out of the mold that had a crust on it, and then you’d just glass it. I was tired of shaping. I wanted this thing to be easy! But of course, it wasn’t. We just couldn’t get it to where it needed to be, so we ended up skinning ‘em and shaping ‘em, just like they do now. And, man, what a difference. After balsa, it was like shaping a stick of butter.” 142
“What we did,” Hobie detailed, “we made our blanks a little oversize for shaping, so we could shape a little off and make different things. If we wanted to make a 9’2” board, then we would take the 9’6” mold and cut it down, etc.
“The widths were the same way. A 23-inch wide board would have been a wide board for a 9’6” board, so therefore, we’d use a 1’ or 1 ½” strip in order to make that board. But, it’s not like we used 2” balsa [stringers] all the time. We didn’t do that. We just used it to make the extra-wide board. The idea was to save foam, which wasn’t cheap.” 143
Gordon “Grubby” Clark
“In the late fifties,” Greg Noll recapped, “Hobie and Grubby Clark started experimenting with foam… Soon the word on this new material started spreading up and down the coast.”144
“I was working for Hobie as a glasser,” Grubby Clark told Noll, “when he decided to devote one hundred percent of his efforts to developing foam boards. You have to know Hobie to be able to understand what this meant. When he decides to do something, he goes into it one hundred percent. In January ‘58, Hobie threw out all his balsa-wood stuff and said, ‘This is the way it’s going to be. Foam.’“145
“Gordon offered to help me,” explained Hobie. “I’m shaping [balsa] boards in the daytime and trying to work on this thing [polyurethane foam] at night. I didn’t have the money to pay someone to work on it full time. I told Gordon I’d feed him and he could stay at our house – we virtually took care of him. Then, when we got done and it worked, then he could run the foam shop – he’d get a certain amount of money per blank; on a per-piece deal – and that’s what happened.” 146
“As soon as his foam boards were available,” Clark said, “Hobie became hopelessly backlogged. There was a lot of competition coming on then, but Hobie and Sweet weren’t about to sell foam blanks to a third party. This opened up an opportunity for another team, Chuck Foss and Harold Walker. Foss was the resin expert; Walker made the foam blanks.”147
Three years later, in 1961, Gordon “Grubby” Clark formed Clark Foam, and soon became the largest foam-blank manufacturer in the world.
“In ‘61,” Clark said, “Hobie’s original tooling had become too slow to compete with a full-time foam-blank manufacturer who could run several shifts and grind out blanks one after another. We knew it was time to build new molds and new designs, but it didn’t make sense to do it all for just one surfboard shop. So I bought the few tools that could still be used, formed Clark Foam and started working on new molds and new processes right away.”148
“Foam didn’t change surfboard design all that much,” pointed out Greg Noll, “but it did stabilize and streamline the boards. The same type of board could be made over and over again without worrying about different weights of wood, bad grain, etc.”149
Foam Over Balsa
“Foam didn’t change surfboard design that much,” reiterated Greg Noll. “The weight was pretty much on par with balsa wood. What foam did was stabilize and streamline design. You could make the same type of board, over and over again, without worrying about different weights of wood, bad grain and such.
“With balsa wood, you had to depend on getting quality wood. As balsa boards grew in popularity, there was a real competition among us shapers to get the best balsa. In the early fifties, the best source was General Veneer in South Gate. I happened to live close to the factory, so anytime a new shipment came in I was right on top of it. It was a mad scramble to go through every piece of wood and select the lightest and highest-quality wood. The weight and quality of every surfboard depended upon what type of wood arrived on each shipment at General Veneer from South America. Once foam caught on, that concern was eliminated. You could control the density of the foam. It was an important step forward.”150
“Sweet was making his stuff up there [Santa Monica],” Hobie recalled of the period after his foam process was made viable, “but we didn’t pay any attention to him. That wasn’t competition. We were still competing against the balsa wood board. So, that’s when we started making a lot of these pastel-colored boards. You couldn’t have a dark color on a board or the sun will get to it… We made all these pastel-colored boards to hide the bubbles. That was fine because we weren’t competing against anybody at that time. But, later, was Harold Walker got into the foam business – and Foss – they were pouring a freon-blown urethane foam. On that, they were getting clear boards. But, the freon-blown foam is not as good to use as what I call the ‘water-blown’ urethane foam… but, it was easier and it was a cleaner foam and they could pour it flat, in a one-piece mold. It made a nice looking board. That’s where the pressure came from for Gordon and I to split up: Foss and those guys.” 151
“Before he sold the foam blank operation to [Grubby] Clark,” Greg Noll remembered, “Hobie had his foam blanks all to himself. In the meantime, Harold Walker also had started making foam blanks and was selling them to Gordon Duane, who had opened the first surf shop in Huntington Beach that year, in ‘59. Gordie had gotten interested in surfing in the early fifties when he was in the navy and stationed in Hawaii. He had been making balsa boards since then, but now was beginning the transition to foam boards.
“I had just come in from surfing at the Huntington Beach Pier one day,” Noll recalled of a particular incident, “when I saw this truck go by, loaded with foam blanks. Like a spy, I followed it to Gordie’s shop. When the truck driver was done unloading the blanks, I confronted him. ‘Hey, where are these things coming from? What’s the deal here?’ He told me to follow him back to the factory. I did, and I worked out a deal with Harold Walker. Harold and I went on to become good friends and spent some memorable times in the Islands together.”152
“We needed to make a change and go to a glass mold and be able to do a clear board out of the same foam that we were using. That’s what we did.” Grubby established his own foam-only operation, separate from Hobie’s, selling to everyone – not just Hobie. “They weren’t gonna buy it from me!” Hobie laughed. “At the time of that switchover, that’s when we got into a clear blank which – [is] the [same] blank you see today – Gordon’s done a lot of improvement on it, but basically it’s the same thing we originally developed.” 153
New Foam Friends
“Well,” Hobie said of the reactions to the new polyurethane foam boards, “we had foam boards, and the rest of the world had balsa. At first they [the foam boards] were ridiculed a little bit. ‘Speedo Sponges,’ we called them, or ‘Flexie Flyers.’ Dave Sweet had foam boards, of course, but they took a different turn. They kind of went the popout route, which was great, as far as production went, but we took the shaped board direction. As people started riding them and getting used to the feel, and the fact that they were just superior boards all around, well, the demand just skyrocketed. Other foam companies sprouted up like Walker in the South Bay, and like Foss, who made freon-blown polyether blanks. But Grubby’s system was the one.” 154
“Which created a problem,” Hobie went on. “While all of us competing shapers were friends, and we’d drink together and things like that, we would never admit that the other guy was doing a good job; we’d never give the other guy credit. It was that competitive. The other guys were not about to buy their blanks from me, even if they were better than what they’d get anywhere else. So Grubby and I decided that the best thing to do would be to split up, and have him start a company based purely on blanks. This was good for me too, because the more accounts Grubby had, the more the cost would drop on blanks for me. It was just much more efficient. He picked up Yater, Con, Bing, and Gordon and Smith. Weber and Velzy, they went with Walker.” 155
“Hap and I were building balsa boards like mad,” recalled Velzy. “Customers would ask, ‘Hey, when are you guys going to get foam? In 1959 we switched to foam at Velzy-Jacobs. I didn’t pay much attention to the crap. It wasn’t like I was against the stuff; I just loved the wood.” 156
Noll Steals the Formula
“I soon became the third guy on the coast to use foam,” wrote Greg Noll. “Eventually, my father, Ash Noll, who was a chemist, figured out a formula and helped me devise a way to mold my own foam. The way we did this is an all-time story in itself. One afternoon, my dad and I went over to Grubby’s house just to visit. Along with a few ulterior motives, I also brought along a case of beer. Grubby ended up drinking one too many and started talking about his formula. My dad, being an astute individual and chemist calmly took in every word while I encouraged Grubby’s rambling. Grubby woke up the next morning with a hangover and I woke up with a foam formula.”157
“It wasn’t long before Velzy and Jacobs also started using Walker foam,” continued Noll. “I think Dewey Weber used it, too. When Grubby Clark made Clark Foam available industry-wide, the whole thing blew wide open. Every board shaper started using foam blanks and the balsa board faded into oblivion.
“I’ll never forget cutting into my first foam blank. It smelled so strange. Balsa wood has a good smell to it. Foam dust didn’t have the soft feel of balsa dust, either. Foam dust was raspy, scratchy. Made you want to wash up all the time. Working with balsa wood was more like an art form, and there aren’t many guys today who are capable of doing it. It was sad to see an end to the balsa-wood era.”158
During the early 1960s, Dave Sweet Surfboards remained a relatively small but successful operation, expanding into three adjoining industrial spaces with an annual production run that rarely exceeded 800 surfboards. This was compared to operations like Dewey Weber’s or Hobie Alter’s, whose runs were easily in the 3,000 boards a year range. Sweet’s advantage wasn’t in the numbers, it was in the streamlined production sequence. “I figure that Dewey and the other big manufacturers had to build three or four boards to my one to generate the same profit. By blowing our own foam, preparing the blanks, rough shaping myself and later subcontracting our glass work, we made good money at our production levels. Not to be overlooked was our direct marketing strategy. Our customer base was in the greater Santa Monica area, which was strong on its own accord. Amplified by a well advertised mail order business, all our sales were at retail, allowing us to hold a good margin. Others in the industry required a dealer network and wholesale level pricing. Additionally, we offered kits on both the retail and wholesale levels and blanks to other surfboard builders where labor was less of a factor. Make no mistake, Dave Sweet Surfboards was quite profitable.” 159
Sweet advertised in the first The Surfer magazine in 1960. Later, he would make efforts to distance Dave Sweet Surfboards from Robertson/Sweet popouts which many surfers not only associated him with but also did not have high regard for. 160
Part of Sweet’s marketing and advertising plans involved the Sweet Surfboards Surf Team. On the team at one time or another, were such notables as: Jackie Baxter, Les Williams, “Baby” Dave Rochlen, Harry Linden, Denny Waller, Jamie Budge, Tom Morey, J. Riddle, Ray Kunze, Steve Litscher and Buzz Sutphin. 161
As for clientele, a number of Hollywood types who bought boards from Sweet for themselves, friends or family included: Doug McClure, James Aurness, Dick Van Dyke, Peter Lawford, Bruce Johnston (of the Beach Boys), Robert Conrad, Nelson Riddle, James Whitmore, Clark Gable and Kay Spreckles, Eddie Albert, Jack Lemmon and George Goble. 162
In addition to Dave, those who worked at Dave Sweet Surfboards included Bonnie, his wife at the time, Joe Casillas, Jr., Johnny Santana, and Kent Sherwood. 163
East Coast Explosion
“This is when things really started exploding,” recalled Hobie Alter. “In the winter of ‘60, I shaped and warehoused 170 boards, which nobody had done to my knowledge. It was just too expensive and time-consuming to do anything but one-off work until then. But as soon as I’d completed the run, I realized that I was out of cash and needed to come up with some money – quick. So I took an ad in the Los Angeles Times, ‘Surfboard Sale.’ I think I offered $20.00 off. In two days, I sold 173 surfboards. Unheard of. My biggest February ever. And getting those boards out there really got the thing growing.” 164
It was not only the need for cash, but also understanding that his pastels had to go – in favor of a clear board – that drove Hobie to selling his stock at vastly reduced prices. “I realized the pastels were out of date,” he told me. “I put them up on sale… We were going to clear.” 165
At about this time, Hollywood was starting to produce the Gidget and beach movies that so popularized surfing. “The Gidget thing really introduced surfing to the world,” Hobie underscored, “‑ in the U.S., anyway. Thank goodness we had foam by then. Otherwise, we never would have been able to keep up with demand.” 166
“We all thought Gidget was a bunch of crap,” Hobie added. 167
“The explosion wasn’t just in California,” Hobie went on, talking of the years directly following the initial popularization. “Bruce Brown had gone over to Florida and ‘discovered’ a little surf scene over there. Jack Murphy, Bob Holland, Pete Smith… a handful of guys riding these, well, these crummy little waves. And they were great guys. So I went back there and started setting up a little string of dealers.
“Anyway, Bosco Burns [Hobie’s foreman] and I were just heading up the East Coast, setting up appointments with all the guys, and we finally got to Bob Holland’s house, and he opens up his garage and there’s ten brand new Jacobs boards in there! [Hap] Jacobs had already been there, somehow!” 168 While Hobie encouraged Holland to take his shapes, Holland’s wife gave him the ultimatum that he would have to sell what he already had before he could buy any new boards from anybody. 169 “Boy, it just grew and grew from there,” Hobie remembers well. “At one point, the East Coast represented 90% of my business. Can you imagine that?” 170
“… by the time Bruce did Endless Summer [in 1964], it [the East Coast surfing boom] was just peaking,” recalled Alter. “So I got together with Bruce, and said, ‘Hey, an East Coast Hobie promotion combined with your movie might be a pretty good thing. You rent the theaters and I’ll pay the advertising.’ So I got a Ford Condor bus, and I got Corky Carroll, Phil Edwards and his wife, Mike Hynson, Joey Cabell, a whole squad. It went great! We’d have a surfing demo during the day, then show the movie at night. This was during the first skateboard boom, too, so we’d have that going – the Hobie VitaPakt Skateboard Demonstration Team. We’d only gas up at the stations that had perfect asphalt. It was incredible. We had big signs on the sides of the bus, music blaring, girls were following us, chasing Corky, who was just 15 or something… it was crazy! And what an impression we made, boy. That trip paid off for a long time. All of my dealers were exclusive… they carried Hobie’s and nothing else.” 171
Surf writer Scott Hulet asked Hobie what his fondest memories were of this period:“Some of the best people you’d ever hope to deal with,” Hobie responded. “I’ve met such amazing people through surfing. The astronaut who was on the first moon shot… he surfed San Onofre. James Aurness from ‘Gunsmoke,’ he’d be out now and then. Those guys, us, the other manufacturers, all of us… we were just surf bums. That’s what it was all about. You weren’t showy. You didn’t have a flashy car. You wore ratty clothes. There’d be guys that were well off, but they’d try not to show it. They’d have filthy, beat-up old cars. Surf bums. With surf style.” 172
“After that,” Hobie answered when I asked him about changes since the 1960s, “it just went on a period of constant growth… The foam board made it easier for a guy to get into the business. It went from many boards in a garage – to the shop – to a major business – and then it turned and went the other way and, really, almost went back to the garage. Anybody who could make a surfboard could do so easily with very little overhead and few tools needed. It went in that direction and there were virtually thousands of little manufacturers.
“The major ones at that time – none of those are of any size anymore. I don’t even know how many of them are still in business.
“It’s not a money maker. It’s a hard business to compete in. And that’s why there are no large companies in the surfboard business. You can’t go into it with a large overhead. It’s a small business deal. It’s easy to get into. It takes no equipment. Back in the garage, you make it and then you sell it. You can’t get much more efficient than that.” 173
As backyard builders replaced the big manufacturers at the beginning of the 1970s, Dave Sweet Surfboards was impacted along with all the other big labels. To meet the changes, Sweet shifted his production in a similar way as did Hobie, except instead of getting into fiberglass hulls for sailing craft (i.e. the “Hobie Cat”), Sweet started producing kayaks and decorative laminated panels for restaurants, along with continuing fiberglass repair work. Even so, his attempts to adapt to the new realities of the 1970s failed and he was forced to close operations in 1974. 174
Craig Stecyk was there and recalls the day it all ended: “Over the years Dave accumulated quite an assortment of materials. The shortboard revolution was now in full swing and it was difficult at best to find a home for the old, unwanted surfboards and miscellaneous materials. We were into areas of the factory that had not been explored for years. The disposal was filled with surfboards with repair tags on them dating back all the way to the mid-‘50s, including wood boards from Simmons, Quigg, Kivlin and countless dozens of unsold new and used surfboards. The mold, furniture and whatever was left in the factory was carted off to the trash.” 175 The landfill all this once priceless junk went into is now the present location of the Getty Museum.
Out of the surfboard business, Dave Sweet switched to selling cars and living aboard an old Owens Yacht in Marina Del Rey. Later, he inherited his parents’ home in Pacific Palisades. During these changes, he never really got away from fiberglass and foam. In fact, in the late 1970s he redirected his foam experience to manufacturing artificial logs and planters out of urethane. His company “Sweet Brier” has been in existence ever since, now run by his son Greg. Coming full circle and with the help of Bruce Grant, Dave Sweet has once again begun making surfboards bearing his familiar arrowhead logo. 176
Foam Since The Sixties
The most significant developments in foam since the 1960s has been the move to shorter boards and the refinement of epoxy and polystyrene manufacturing. “The shortboard helped it,” Hobie Alter declared of the foam board. “The smaller, lightweight board opened up a lot more breaks." 177
Hobie has high respect for the emerging “Surf Tech” type epoxy technology: “With epoxy, you’re limited by the number of shapes you can offer because of tooling costs, but it is the first legitimate molded board that can compete – in terms of strength and weight – with a custom shaped board. From 1958 to just recently, the custom shaped board was the only way to go… Now, there’s more diversity in the industry.” 178
What about shaping machines?
“You still need a shaper… [But, now] You can try a friend’s board and get one just like it. Just like skiis.” 179
1 Carroll, Corky. “The Totally Unofficial History of The Modern Surfboard,” part 1, from Corky’s column 28 January 1998, www.surfline.com/corky/corky0128.htm. 714-536-8385.
2 Stringer ‑ Narrow wooden runner or runners (1/16 to 1/4 inch thick) inside the blank, aligned from front to back along the longitudinal centerline, for the purpose of strengthening the foam and fiberglass. The stringer sets the rocker, determining how much curvature (nose scoop) the board will have. See Cralle, 1991.
3 Carroll, Nick. “1997 Surfboard Buyers Guide,” Surfing Magazine, Volume 33, Number 2, February 1997, p. 108.
4 Carroll, Nick. “1997 Surfboard Buyers Guide,” Surfing Magazine, Volume 33, Number 2, February 1997, p. 108.
5 Shaw, Stephen M. Surfboard, ©1983 by Transmedia, La Mesa, California, p. 6. This section written by Gordon Clark.
6 Dixon, Peter L. The Complete Book of Surfing, ©1965, 1967, 1969, Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, New York, pp. 182-183.
7 Dixon, Peter L. The Complete Book of Surfing, ©1965, 1967, 1969, Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, New York, p. 183.
8 Shaw, 1983, p. 6. This section written by Gordon Clark.
9 Carroll, 1997, p. 108.
10 Shaw, 1983, p. 6. This section written by Gordon Clark.
11 Young, Nat. The History of Surfing, ©1983, Palm Beach Press, Palm Beach, NSW, Australia, p. 61.
12 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
13 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tommy Zahn, 27 July 1988. Transcribed from tape by Malcolm Gault-Williams. Tommy Zahn quoted.
14 Young, 1983, p. 61.
15 Young, 1983, p. 61.
16 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tommy Zahn, 27 July 1988. Transcribed from tape by Malcolm Gault-Williams. Tommy Zahn quoted.
17 Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tommy Zahn, 27 July 1988. Transcribed from tape by Malcolm Gault-Williams.
18 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
19 Young, 1983, p. 63.
20 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
21 Young, 1983, p. 63.
22 Young, 1983, p. 63.
23 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
24 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Rennie Yater, March 24, 1994. This section duplicated in Gault-Williams, “Rennie Yater” and “Bob Simmons & Modern Surfboard Evolution,” Volume 1.
25 Gault-Williams. Interview with Rennie Yater, March 24, 1994.
26 Elwell, John. “The Enigma of Simmons,” The Surfer’s Journal, Volume 3, Number 1, Spring 1994, p. 43.
27 Elwell, 1994, p. 43.
28 Lynch, Gary. “Joe Quigg and the Shape of Things to Come,” Longboard Magazine, Volume 2, Number 5, February/March 1995, p. 28. See also Elwell, 1994, p. 39.
29 Elwell, 1994, p. 39.
30 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
31 Lueras, Leonard. Surfing, The Ultimate Pleasure, ©1984, Workman Publishing, New York, p. 111. See also Stecyk, “Humaliwu, Curse of the Chumash Revisited,” The Surfer’s Journal, Volume 1, Number 3, Fall 1992. Stecyk has February 1, 1949 as the date, “Matt Kivlin decides to craft foam sandwich rescue board and surfboards as a commercial venture. He recruits Bob Simmons and Joe Quigg.”
32 Lueras, 1984, p. 111. Joe Quigg quoted.
33 Elwell, 1994, p. 43. Quoted caption to a veneer laminated Simmons styrofoam core with solid balsa rails, circa 1947-48.
34 Young, 1983, p. 63. Quigg & Kivlin went to Hawai`i in 1947.
35 Young, 1983, p. 63.
36 Lueras, 1984, p. 113.
37 Lueras, 1984, p. 113. Joe Quigg quoted.
38 Elwell, 1994, p. 43 & 45.
39 Lueras, 1984, p. 113. Joe Quigg quoted.
40 Lueras, 1984, p. 113. Joe Quigg quoted.
41 Noll, Greg. DA BULL, Life Over the Edge, by Greg Noll and Andrea Gabbard, ©1989, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, pp. 95-96.
42 Young, 1983, p. 61.
43 Lueras, 1984, p. 113. Male balsa is heavier than female.
44 Elwell, 1994, p. 46. Caption to 10’6” Simmons Spoon, belonging to the collection of Surfer magazine. Possibly Steve Pezman’s comment.
45 Gault-Williams. Interview with Rennie Yater, March 24, 1994.
46 Young, 1983, p. 63 & 67.
47 Noll, 1989, pp. 94-95.
48 Hoffman, Walter. “Tales of Town and Country,” Walter Hoffman’s Scrapbook (The Early Years: 1948-1954), The Surfer’s Journal, Volume 2, Number 2, Summer 1993, p. 81. See photo of him and Simmons on the same wave at Malibu, 1948.
49 Hoffman, 1993, p. 81. See photo on page 80.
50 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
51 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
52 Gault-Williams. Interview with Rennie Yater, March 24, 1994.
53 See Gault-Williams, Golden Age of Malibu.
54 Elwell, 1994, p. 45.
55 Elwell, 1994, p. 45.
56 Elwell, 1994, p. 45. Bob Simmons quote recalled.
57 Elwell, 1994, p. 45.
58 Lueras, 1984, p. 114.
59 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Rennie Yater, March 24, 1994.
60 Elwell, 1994, p. 49. Dave Rochlen quoted.
61 Elwell, 1994, p. 43. Bev Morgan quoted.
62 Noll, 1989, pp. 93-94.
63 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
64 See Gault-Williams, Malcolm. “The Malibu Board,” part of the LEGENDARY SURFERS series, Volume 1.
65 Lynch, Gary. “Joe Quigg and the Shape of Things to Come,” Longboard magazine, Volume 2, Number 5, February/March 1995, pp. 30-31. Quigg’s notations on diagrams.
66 Stecyk, Craig. The Surfer’s Journal, Volume 1, Number 3, Fall 1992, p. 49.
67 Stecyk, 1992, p. 49.
68 Lynch, 1995, pp. 30-31. Quigg’s notes have the spelling “Darolyn” for Darrylin Zanuck.
69 Lynch, 1995, p. 29. Joe Quigg quoted. Bloomfield has Quigg building, “the first of the big gun breed. Quigg built it for one of the pioneer big-wave riders, Buzzy Trent. The board was about 12 feet long and 20 inches wide, extremely long and narrow,” p. 179. This, however, is probably the board Quigg built for Trent in 1956. See Lynch, 1995, p. 32.
70 Lynch, 1995, p. 33.
71 Stecyk, Craig and Pezman, Steve. “Rabbit Kekai -- Talking Story,” The Surfer’s Journal, Volume 3, Number 4, Winter 1994, p. 69.
72 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
73 Marcus, Ben. “Goodbye Coconut Hat,” Surfer Magazine, Volume 35, Number 1, January 1994, p. 30. See also, Noll, 1989, Gordon Clark’s credit to Whitey substantiates this, p. 98.
74 Surfer, Volume 35, Number 1, January 1994, p. 30.
75 Stecyk, 1992, p. 41.
76 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 75.
77 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 75.
78 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 75.
79 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 75.
80 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 75. Sweet quoted.
81 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 75.
82 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 75. Sweet quoted. Dave Sweet quoted.
83 4F status after contacting pneumonia.
84 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 76. Sweet quoted. Dave Sweet quoted.
85 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 76.
86 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 76.
87 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 76.
88 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 77. Sweet quoted.
89 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 77. Sweet quoted.
90 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, pp. 77-78. Sweet quoted.
91 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 78.
92 Stecyk, 1992, pp. 41-42. Unclear where this took place. Malibu is assumed.
93 Stecyk, 1992, pp. 41-42.
94 Cralle, Trevor, Surfin’ary, ©1990, p. 40. Greg Noll quoted, probably from Da Bull, 1989.
95 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 78.
96 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 78. Hobie Alter quoted.
97 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 78. Greg Noll quoted.
98 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 79.
99 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 79. Sweet quoted.
100 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 79.
101 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 79.
102 Hulet, Scott. “In Trim: Hobie Alter,” Longboard magazine, Volume 5, Number 4, August 1997, p. 43. Hobie Alter quoted, saying it was Dave who Robertson partnered with, but this is inaccurate.
103 Noll, 1989, p. 98. The year Noll gave of 1953 (not 1956) is probably in error, as it would usurp Whitey’s first batch of foam.
104 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
105 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
106 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 80.
107 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 79.
108 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 80.
109 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 80.
110 Hulet, Scott. “In Trim: Hobie Alter,” Longboard magazine, Volume 5, Number 4, August 1997, p. 43.
111 Lueras, Leonard. Surfing, The Ultimate Pleasure, ©1984, p. 118. Joe Quigg quoted.
112 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
113 Bly, Laura. The Santa Ana Daily Register, September 1981. Hobie Alter quoted. See also Lueras, 1984, p. 118.
114 Edwards, 1967, p. 17.
115 Hulet, Scott. “In Trim: Hobie Alter,” Longboard magazine, Volume 5, Number 4, August 1997, p. 44-45. Hobie Alter quoted.
116 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
117 Hulet, Scott. “In Trim: Hobie Alter,” Longboard magazine, Volume 5, Number 4, August 1997, p. 44-45. Hobie Alter quoted.
118 Edwards, 1967, p. 61. Hobie had gone over in 1954, just before opening the Dana Point shop.
119 Edwards, 1967, pp. 94-95.
120 Hulet, Scott. “In Trim: Hobie Alter,” Longboard magazine, Volume 5, Number 4, August 1997, p. 46. Hobie Alter quoted.
121 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
122 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
123 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
124 Hulet, Scott. “In Trim: Hobie Alter,” Longboard magazine, Volume 5, Number 4, August 1997, pp. 45-46. Hobie Alter quoted. 1954 cited by Scott, but Hobie verified that it was 1958, due to additional verification by Grubby Clark based on a trip they took to Santa Cruz Island that same week. See Gault-Williams Interview with Hobie, October 10, 2001.
125 Edwards, 1967, pp. 94-95.
126 Edwards, 1967, p. 95.
127 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
128 Edwards, 1967, p. 95.
129 Hulet, Scott. “In Trim: Hobie Alter,” Longboard magazine, Volume 5, Number 4, August 1997, pp. 46-47. Hobie Alter quoted.
130 Edwards, 1967, p. 96.
131 Hulet, Scott. “In Trim: Hobie Alter,” Longboard magazine, Volume 5, Number 4, August 1997, p. 47. Hobie Alter quoted.
132 Edwards, 1967, pp. 96-97.
133 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
134 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
135 Noll, 1989, pp. 98-99.
136 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
137 Edwards, 1967, pp. 96-97.
138 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
139 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
140 Hulet, Scott. “In Trim: Hobie Alter,” Longboard magazine, Volume 5, Number 4, August 1997, p. 47. Hobie Alter quoted.
141 Hulet, Scott. “In Trim: Hobie Alter,” Longboard magazine, Volume 5, Number 4, August 1997, p. 47. Hobie Alter quoted.
142 Hulet, Scott. “In Trim: Hobie Alter,” Longboard magazine, Volume 5, Number 4, August 1997, p. 47. Hobie Alter quoted.
143 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
144 Cralle, 1990, Greg Noll quoted.
145 Noll, 1989, p. 98. Gordon Clark quoted. Actually, it was the next month, February 1958.
146 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
147 Noll, 1989, pp. 98-99. Gordon Clark.
148 Noll, 1989, p. 99. Gordon Clark. “I sold more that February (1961) than I did all the previous year,” Hobie told me on October 10, 2001.
149 Noll, 1989, p. 96.
150 Noll, 1989, pp. 97.
151 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
152 Noll, 1989, pp. 97-98.
153 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
154 Hulet, Scott. “In Trim: Hobie Alter,” Longboard magazine, Volume 5, Number 4, August 1997, pp. 47-48. Hobie Alter quoted.
155 Hulet, Scott. “In Trim: Hobie Alter,” Longboard magazine, Volume 5, Number 4, August 1997, p. 48. Hobie Alter quoted.
156 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 81. Dale Velzy quoted.
157 Noll, 1989, pp. 97-98.
158 Noll, 1989, p. 98.
159 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, pp. 80-81. Dave Sweet quoted.
160 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 81.
161 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 81.
162 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 81.
163 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 81.
164 Hulet, Scott. “In Trim: Hobie Alter,” Longboard magazine, Volume 5, Number 4, August 1997, p. 48. Hobie Alter quoted.
165 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
166 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
167 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
168 Hulet, Scott. “In Trim: Hobie Alter,” Longboard magazine, Volume 5, Number 4, August 1997, pp. 48-49. Hobie Alter quoted.
169 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
170 Hulet, Scott. “In Trim: Hobie Alter,” Longboard magazine, Volume 5, Number 4, August 1997, pp. 48-49. Hobie Alter quoted.
171 Hulet, Scott. “In Trim: Hobie Alter,” Longboard magazine, Volume 5, Number 4, August 1997, pp. 49-50. Hobie Alter quoted.
172 Hulet, Scott. “In Trim: Hobie Alter,” Longboard magazine, Volume 5, Number 4, August 1997, p. 50. Hobie Alter quoted.
173 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
174 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 82.
175 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 82. Craig Stecyk quoted.
176 Fragale, Mark. “In Trim: Dave Sweet, First in Foam,” Longboard magazine, Volume 8, Number 5, September/October 2000, p. 82.
177 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
178 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
179 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
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