The Evolution of the Surfboard

By Sonnen Sloan


The definition "to surf " has held meaning for people all over the world for many years. For some it is a competitive sport, for others a hobby, and for others a release; an enlightenment reached only by becoming one with their surfboard and the sloping plane of water gliding beneath them.

There is an art to finding the perfect wave, your own perfect break, determined selectively by the certain style of board you enjoy riding and the type of wave you like to surf. The fundamentals to surfing entail no more than a plank to perch on, and a plane of water that breaks from one side to the other. It is from these elements that the legends of surfing have derived.

During the early 1950's, the image of the surfer riding a longboard became established through films as an easygoing popular lifestyle. Over the next few decades the longboard that had forced its popularity at the top of the social scale evaporated. Since then it has slowly been regaining ground. Meanwhile the introduction of the shortboard led surfers to experiment with new techniques and skills that they never new existed within the sport. The introduction of new materials, new designs and fin experimentation added even greater ground to the vast expanding pastime of surfing. The original shortboard design is still visible in today's advanced technology, though each individual surfboard shaper tends to add individual creative twists to the design process that keeps the industry ever changing.

The surfboard has undergone immense changes since the craze took off alongside the other fads of the 50's. Throughout the next four decades a number of different approaches and experiments were applied to surfboards. One thing hasn't changed since those early days of balsa wood; the design of the surfboard still remains a fusion of ideas and instincts shared by the surfer and his shaper.


Contrary to popular belief, the surfboard itself has been around since the 6th century, though it became more publicly recognized in North America at the end of the 1800's. Surfing as we know it (that is, standing upright on a board) was originally brought to Hawaii from the Polynesian islands, and became extremely popular during the mid 18th century. Surfing was thought to be a sacred pastime and was originally reserved exclusively for royalty. Their boards were crudely molded and most were fashioned out of solid wood and weighed close to 150 lbs. Granulated coral was used as a sandpaper to smooth the board. Then the board was stained with bark or charcoal and finished with glossy nut oil.

The first taste of western style Surfing was introduced to Australia in the early 1900's when Duke Kahanamoku (left), the Hawaiian Olympic swimmer, demonstrated his skills as a surfer during one of his visits. To say the least, it made an immediate impression on the Australians and the art of surfing became established. On the other hand, surfing in North America was thought to have made its debut in the 1865 when two Hawaiian princes studying abroad in the USA introduced it.

It was during the beginning of this century that the board itself became the instrument of experimentation. It evolved from a solid redwood plank around 10ft. long which acted like a sponge when it came in contact with water during the 1920's, to a hollow longer lighter board (up to 16 ft. long) and also made of wood called the "Cigar Box". This led to the streamlined "hot-curl" boards of the 1930's made out composite wood, and when supplies became available after the WW2 composite wood was exchanged for lightweight balsa wood.

During this time a rudder was added to help stabilize the board, as well as the addition of a thin layer of resin and fiberglass coating the wood. It is interesting to note, however, that the length of each board previously mentioned remained close to 10 ft. The length of these boards was considered an asset and was incorporated into the surfboards designed during the 50's and 60's.


In a sense, surfing in the 50's was the beginning of modern surfing. The Surfing fad took off and strongly establishing it's reputation as a glamour sport. Anything marketed towards the baby boomers had some kind of "surf" influence. Though a good portion of board material and design during the 50's was based on the use of balsa wood, the 50's were also extremely influential to surfboard technology. The board still carried the long characteristics of its predecessors averaging around the 10.5 ft mark, but it had been thrown into the melting cauldron of industrial mass production.

The most prominent evolution developed in the late 50's and early 60's was the introduction of polyurethane foam and fiberglass. Using this new technology the surfboard passed the point of no return and edged its way closer to the basic board of the 90's. The beauty of foam was that it eliminated excess weight. With less weight to push in the water boards were easier to turn, though small problems arose concerning buoyancy . It also aided the industry by making surfboards easier to shape, hence faster to produce and market. Shaping templates (1) were the norm by now, but their materials had changed from heavy 1/2 inch plywood of the 1930's and 40's to fiberboard, enabling them fit closer to the surfboard blank. This resulted in a more precise finished product.

THE 1960's

The 1960's will probably always be referred to as the revolution decade of the surfboard. Like the youth rebellion during the sixties and seventies, the surfboard also underwent major experimentation. Though longboards remained popular during the early 60's, balsa wood had been almost exclusively exchanged for foam and fiberglass. The jet propelled introduction of the shortboard transformed the way that everybody looked at surfing, and pretty much converted every surfer to a shortboarder overnight. Between 1968-1970 the average length of the surfboard went from 10 to 6 feet, and lost about eight lbs. Manufacturers could hardly give away the longboards and many ended up shaving off a few feet and reselling them as 6.5 footers.

Sources debate who in fact started the revolution, though George Greenough (AST) was of major influence taking positive qualities from the designs of his knee boards, along with the influence of Bob McTavish (USA). Shaper Bob Simmons (USA) and Surfer David Nuuhiwa were also prominent influences in the transformation to the shortboard during the sixties.

The major advantage over the new shape was its emphasis in speed. Making good use of the foam and fiberglass technologies, the shortboard was extremely maneuverable and enabled the rider not only to surf the waves vertically like the longboard, but also to ride inside the pipe and carve radical turns in and out of the white water. During it's early stages, the shortboard went through several progressions, one being the lack of control of the tail end, hence the creation of the pintail design (2) to add stability in the pocket of the wave. In Australia, designers were making their boards thicker to aid flotation, though this restrained it's speed, while in the USA the board remained thinner, but didn't hold it's buoyancy as well. Shortly after, a little lift was added to the nose of the surfboard to help with flotation. The flexible fin also came into the picture and eventually the shortboard became the basis of the all around performance board of today.

THE 70's & 80's

The excitement of the shortboard in the late sixties carried though into the early 1970's as surfers started to get the hang of the new riding style. Unfortunately, improvements made to the surfboard during the 70's were few, with the exception of general experimentation relating rail curve (3) and the shape of the tail (4).

One of the best things to happen to surfing did, however, happen in 1973, when surfer Jack O'Neill invented the leash, or leg rope. This piece of stretchy yet extremely strong surgical tubing enabled the surfboard to be attached to the leg of the surfer, hence keeping the board from washing ashore every time the surfer missed a wave. Leashes were designed in different sizes depending on the size of the wave and are attached to the board at the tail end by a plug that is soundly embedded. It is truly a great design because it allows the leash to be interchangeable between boards and easily replaced in case of damage.

Another achievement was the introduction of tri fins which were basically two attachable "stick on" fins made of plastic that could be mounted in various positions outside of the fin (5) that was permanently glassed on (6). This was a nice addition for several reasons; firstly it added greater stability to the rear of the board by enabling greater rail control in the water, and secondly it gave the rider the chance to experiment with different fin arrangements without committing to a certain one. The fin was also easily replaced if it broke or fell off, and economically, the surfer didn't have to buy more than one board.

The early eighties were also a quiet time in surfboard design, though nearing the end of the decade, shaper's designs started to focus on certain areas of the board individually. There were a few new experiments in fin design, none of which became socially popular, with the exception of the three fin surfboard (which as you can guess had three fins permanently glassed on) brought to the market in 1981. In the meantime, the long board was entering a revival phase, which expanded into the 90's where it remains influential to the board design industry today. In fact, half of today's surfing population ride the same style of longboard as the boards designed almost fifty years ago.

THE 90's

During the 1990's surfboard design started to refine a little. As mentioned previously, the longboard, which became fully accepted by the surf industry was re-launched into the market, but it had as well been tainted with advancing technologies and was being manufactured using much lighter materials than those used during the 50's and 60's.

Surfboard designs also started to be directed specifically towards certain styles of riding and certain wave types. Three main elements, the rail curve, the tail design and the bottom contour (7), which runs the length of the rocker (8) evolved and through these elements, four basic surfboard designs sprouted. Each of these elements are equally important aspects of board design and each element changes depending on the type of wave that the surfer wishes to ride. Some of the more significant tail and bottom contour designs include the double concave bottom (9), the vee bottom(10) the rounded square tail (11) and the swallow tail(12). From these tail, bottom contour, and rail designs, the fish board (13), the shooter (14), the mini Malibu (15), and the gun (16), established themselves as the main structures for board shaping . Most surfboards were being designed with stringers (17) which were added to the design of the board during the shaping process for optimum strength, though it did make the board a little heavier.

Shapers also started to use computer software to create board templates such as the CAD/CAM design program created by a company called D.A.T. (for Windows), made popular in 1994. Recently this software has been re-written three times and there are plans underway to create a board making machine that will read the software.

The nineties have also been a pivot point in surfing as a sport with the addition of tow in surfing (18). A tow in is usually required for waves that are bigger than 25 ft. because the surfer is too slow to paddle into these giant waves himself. Gun boards are used in most big wave riding because the length is necessary for stability on the wave, and where speed became the priority.

The major problem with early equipment was that it was too slow to gain proper entrance into the wave. In the 50's and 60's, Gun boards were long and thick, maximizing paddling speeds to enable the surfer to enter the wave, but they tended to be too big and chunky to control. To gain proper entrance onto a wave, the surfer had to be going the around the same speed as the wave, and to achieve this from a standstill was usually extremely difficult. The second problem was that if the surfer actually caught the wave, the board sped up too fast. With the addition of tow in surfing, the "cold start syndrome" was eliminated. Now that the surfer did not have to create his own momentum to catch the wave, board design focused primarily on riding the wave. In short, the length of the gun board was reduced to maximize maneuverability and control.


The surfboard has come a long way since it's Polynesian ancestors. It has slipped in and out of decades, dragging, pushing and pulling unique subculture and devoted followers with it. It has undergone a revolution; designs have been lengthened and shortened and lengthened again, and no doubt there will be many other attempts to dismember the surfboard from it's original design origins. Even though surfboard design today has become a multi-million dollar industry, caught up in the whirl wind of mass marketed consumerism, surfers will always view the surfboard as a universal symbol- a way to achieve peace of mind, and a tool that will bring them closer to the endless tranquillity of the deep blue sea.


  1. shaping templates: were mostly used for nose and tail designs before the foam board
  2. pintail design: see surfing in the 1990's
  3. rail curve: the rail is the side of the surfboards from the nose of the board to the tail. It helps determine how the board will turn. Rails with hard edges, of straight cut rails provide a quicker turn, while softer or more rounded rails tend to be more forgiving
  4. tail shape: the shape of the end of the surfboard, see surfing in the 1990's for specific shapes and attributes
  5. fins: used to stabilize the surfboard, and influence board performance
  6. glassing: the final layer of fiberglass that is applied to the board waterproofing it. It also secures the fins to the board
  7. bottom contour: channels the water and the flow under the board, aids performance.
  8. rocker: the curvature of the board from the nose to the tail, a low rocker enables better paddling speed on a wave, while a nose rocker is easier to get into big waves with.
  9. double concave bottom: lets the water be channeled through two light depressions shaped into the bottom of the board. A smooth ride in smooth water( not good in choppy waves) and lets you control it easily.
  10. Vee bottom: bottom design where the bottom forms a slight vee in the middle of the board from tip to tail. A good board for vertical waves, with a very loose feel.
  11. round square tail: The shape of the tail. A good all around tail shape, has a substantial surface area for extra maneuverability.
  12. Swallow tail: the name given after the shape of the tail. Maintains good leverage and a forceful speed, especially good for squarer turns.
  13. Fish board: designed for riding smaller flat waves
  14. the shooter: a controllable all around board
  15. Mini Malibu: a longer, wider board designed for the longboarder at heart (or a larger person)
  16. Gun: used mostly in big wave riding
  17. stringer: the main support spine of the surfboard, running right down the middle, usually made of light balsa wood.
  18. tow in: when the surfer it pulled into a very large wave, previously by zodiac, though it has now been replaced by the jetski


  1. The Evolution of the Shortboard - A Talk Presented to the Atlantic Surfers Organization, by Bruce Gabrielson, 1996
  2. The Surfer's Journal, Volume 4, No.3 - 1995
  3. Aloha Board Design, info written by Ronnie Woodward
  4. Human Movement Essay, Adreena Cameron, Australia
  5. The Complete Surfing Guide for Coaches, Bruce Gabrielson, 1977 book, 1995, web
  6. Surfboard Shaping Template History, by Bruce "Snake" Gabrielson, 1997
  7. Surfing Subculture's of Australia and New Zealand
  8. Surfer Magazine