A key turning point in surfing history was the invention and commercial introduction of the foam/fiberglass surfboard, replacing the earlier boards, which were made of wood. Foam/fiberglass surfboards were much lighter and more maneuverable than wooden boards and were a key factor that increased surfing’s popularity.
But who invented the foam surfboard? Many would point to Hobie Alter and Gordon “Grubby” Clark, who worked together in Laguna Beach in 1957-58 to perfect the process of “blowing” polyurethane foam blanks, a trial-and-error process that involved many different mixtures of nasty chemicals, mixing processes, and different types and shapes of molds before they were able to go to full scale production in mid-1958. Meanwhile, up in Santa Monica, Dave Sweet was engaged in the same process of trying to perfect polyurethane foam surfboard blanks. In fact, there is quite a bit of evidence that Dave Sweet beat Hobie and Grubby to the market by as much as a year.
Prior to all that, Bob Simmons did some experimenting with foam and in 1950 created a “sandwich” type board with a polystyrene core, sealed from the resin with wood veneer and balsa wood. The reason for this somewhat complicated construction was the fact that styrene monomer in polyester resin dissolves polystyrene foam (the only foam available at the time). So, Simmons’ early efforts did not catch on with others (Velzy, Hobie, Kivlin) who were making surfboards at the time, and most surfboards made in the 1950s were constructed of balsa wood and fiberglass.
But, unknown to many surf historians, an intrepid group of San Diego-area lifeguards and surfers developed and built their own foam surfboards in 1950 and 1951. Following are historic recollections from those individuals in an account written for the California Surf Museum in 1993.
HISTORIC RECOLLECTIONS ABOUT FOAM SURFBOARDS
By John Blankenship, Bill McKusick, Don Okey and Bud Caldwell
Written for the California Surf Museum in 1993
“While working the night shift at the Life Guard station, two young Mission Beach Life Guards, John Blankenship (age 24) and Bill McKusick (age 20) built the first all polystyrene foam, fiberglass and resin surfboards with a white glue sealer next to the foam. This was in the fall of 1950. The reason for the sealer was that the styrene monomer in the resin would dissolve the polystyrene foam. They kept getting pinholes in the sealer that left cavities under the fiberglass, but the boards were still rideable. With a weight of less than ten pounds, they created quite a sensation at Wind’n Sea. They were aware that Bob Simmons had created a sandwich type board with a polystyrene core earlier that year. His foam core was sealed from the resin with wood veneer and balsa wood. [Note: An example of such a board is on exhibit at the California Surf Museum.] They went on to experiment with better ways to seal the foam.
In the summer of 1950, Don Okey (age 28), moved back to Wind’n Sea and built himself an eleven foot all balsa board with rocker on the deck. The board was chambered with 2” dia. holes on the inside to make it lighter and covered with one layer of cloth and resin. He became very enthused when he saw Blankenship’s new all foam board and proceeded to order two foam logs from the Dow Chemical company in Michigan. The logs arrived in early 1951 and were about 30” x 30” x 9’ long. Okey rigged a hot wire to slab the logs into surfboard stock. The first board he made [was] a copy of his eleven-foot balsa. It had a 1/4” plywood stringer in the center. After the board was shaped, it was covered with a layer of muslin cloth saturated with white polyvinyl glue to act as a sealer. Fiberglass cloth and a green opaque resin were then applied to finish the board. This board was surfed at Wind’n Sea during 1951. In the spring of 1951 he filled a commercial order for eight foam surfboards. Two went to Frank Lyons and six to Ed Cudahy. Ed Cudahy shipped his boards to San Onofre. These boards were made like his first board except they were 9’ to 10’6” long. Opaque resin was used on all of these boards.
By the middle of 1951 many people in the San Diego area were experimenting with various ways to make polystyrene foam boards. Newspapers and Weldwood glue were also tried as a sealer. The flaw in these boards was the inevitable separation between the foam and the covering.
In the summer of 1951 Okey had heard of the use of epoxy resin in the aircraft industry. He obtained experimental resins from the Shell Oil Company and several catalysts and monomers from other manufacturers. With these he formulated an epoxy resin and proceeded to make the first polystyrene foam surfboard covered with epoxy resin and fiberglass. The board was pigmented a translucent blue and after some use at Wind’n Sea was sold to Douglas McKeller, the grandson of F.W. Kellog, the owner of the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club.
One who observed the board at the beach was Bud Caldwell (age 26) who worked for Kettenburg Boat Works at Point Loma. Bud became very interested in the epoxy foam board. He ordered log foam from Dow and rigged a hot wire for cutting the logs. Bud soon experimented with ways to make foam boards. Later he acquired some epoxy resin and made several foam and epoxy boards. One epoxy board that he made for his son is still stored under his house.”
Don Okey, L, and John Blankenship surfing Windansea, early 1940s.
In July 1953 an article “Fun on a Plastic Surfboard” by Bill Reid appeared in the magazine Popular Mechanics (Volume 100 Number 1, July 1953, pages 157-159). The article essentially describes the process used by Don Okey in 1951 to make his boards. The photos from the article show Fred Kenyon constructing a surfboard using polystyrene foam, a protective layer of muslin and “foam-plastic sealer” and then fiberglass and resin. The board had a 1/4” plywood stringer, a hardwood (oak) skeg and extra fiberglass “just aft of midships” for a kneeling pad.
See the article and photos: