Buying a Surfboard – Choosing The Best Materials For Your Surfing Style

One of the most important factors in choosing a surfboard is what type of foam and glassing/resin it is made of. These two items determine from a surfing perspective (a surfboard’s overall strength/ding resistance/longevity, floatation, & responsiveness), as well as its environmental impact, and ease of use for shapers in shaping custom boards. The main kinds of foam used nowadays are PU and EPS. The main types of resin are poly and epoxy, which can both be used with fiberglass cloth.

I’ve read a lot of articles about these types of foam blanks and resins, when looking to replace my broken long board with a custom surfboard, but thought I’d compile that info here in a quick pros and cons list, as well as highlight some other materials that have developed in surfboard making.

In general, if you are a committed beginner (surf flirts can stick with the foamers) looking for a non-custom, affordable, durable surfboard that is lighter to carry and better to paddle fast to catch waves easier, an Epoxy board made with EPS foam is probably the best for you. If you are an experienced surfer and want to get a more customized board or surf bigger waves and get barreled, a PU board is probably your best bet.

Polyurethane (PU)

This foam type was the original foam blanks used in surfboards provided by Clark Foam (who had a monopoly on the business – at 90% of foam blanks sold in U.S. and 60% worldwide – but which shut down due to environmental regulations). This was also the first type of foam used after surfboards were mainly made from balsa wood. 

This foam can be glassed with Polyester or Epoxy resin.

  • Pros/Benefits/Advantages
    • Better for medium/bigger waves, barrels, and choppier/windy surf conditions since it is slightly heavier and therefore the surfboards made of this foam sit lower in the water and are less likely to bounce around on the waves (although I kind of like the bouncy feel, I feel like I’m flying when I’m bouncing on smaller waves)
      • Since this foam can use polyester resin (which PS/EPS boards can’t), the poly resin offers more flexibility, which is needed more in medium and big waves
      • Also provides better maneuverability and faster response time in the water.
    • Offers the best flex and feel (however more noticed by advanced vs beginner-intermediate surfers)
    • Easier to repair
    • Slightly more affordable than EPS foam/Epoxy Resin combination foam/glassing types
    • Doesn’t soak up as much water or resin as PS/EPS as the foam is “closed cell” which helps keep the board lighter
    • For Shapers/Custom Boards
      • More likely for custom surfboards as the foam is very fine and stiff & allows shapers to sculpt with more detail to more exact specifications and is cheaper 
      • Better for custom colors, as the poly resin that can be used with these boards (unlike PS/EPS) works better with colors and gloss coats, when designing your board with the style you are envisioning
  • Cons/Drawbacks/Disadvantages
    • Not as floatable for easy wave catching and paddling
    • Easier to ding/damage (especially when combined with poly resin), however Epoxy resin can also be used with this foam type to make the boards stronger and more ding resistant.  
    • Heavier to carry, about 10-15% heavier than EPS  
    • Sun damage – sun exposure can cause the boards to yellow and results in faded colors for a very used look
    • Extremely toxic and bad for the environment
    • For shapers – becomes less dense the deeper you cut, so they have to pay especially close attention to how much foam they take off, especially around the deck area

Polystyrene (PS)

Lighter, alternative material developed after closure of Clark Foam, higher density than PU foam. However, nowadays, the newer version of this material, EPS (listed next below) is mostly used.

  • Pros
    • Greener than their PU (waste from blanks can be recycled)
    • Stringer-less models are increasingly popular
  • Cons
    • Strength and ding resistance and flexibility is less than Epoxy (EPS)
    • Difficult to shape, takes 2x+ long to shape
    • Not as strong as PU, needs more resin (epoxy required)

Expanded Polystyrene (EPS)

This is a new version of PS with small beaded foam “open-cell foam” and contains more than 95% air, which gives it it’s lightweight properties. EPS is found in products such as food containers, protective packaging, and sandwich containers. It also has excellent insulation and cushioning properties.

This type of foam is usually pre-molded by shaping machines (where the term “pop-out” boards comes from). Foam blanks with this material (used for making surfboards) don’t require a stringer as the foam’s strength plus the strength of the glassing with epoxy resin provide adequate strength for surfing. open cell foam, meaning it’s extremely water absorbent. In order to keep the board water tight, shapers add extra layers of fiberglass and epoxy resin to this foam.

Epoxy is the only kind of resin that can be used for these boards and because epoxy resin lighter than polyester resin, less resin is needed per coat, which makes the boards lighter.

  • Pros
    • Extremely light and buoyant, floatable – lighter than PU/PS
      • Good for small waves & lets you ride a smaller board on those waves and get in more turns in a tight area and even go high flying with some aerial maneuvers
      • Helps to build speed faster and easier to glide through flat sections
      • Paddles faster (on water that’s not choppy)
      • Lighter to carry
    • Stronger than PU foam
    • Lasts longer, less likely to deteriorate over time
    • Most environmentally sustainable choice, foam can be recycled and epoxy resin required takes less energy to produce
    • For shapers/custom boards
      • The consistent density throughout the foam allows them more carving freedom since they don’t need to worry so much about taking too much of the foam away, especially on the foot area of your board
  • Cons
    • Extremely water absorbent, should repair any dings asap in order to prevent the board from becoming waterlogged and thus heavier, however custom modern technologies have improved this
    • Less flexible feel than PU boards due to the extra layers of fiberglass and epoxy resin that are needed to prevent any dings from penetrating deep enough to reach the foam, which makes the boards stiffer and more solid feeling, more resistant to compression and lower memory responsiveness.
    • Sun damage – sensitive to sunlight and can boards can delaminate 
    • Tends to be more expensive than PU boards, however the expense is the trade-off for durability, in addition, for pre-made boards, they can actually be cheaper as surfboard manufacturers can buy pre-molded foam blanks in bulk. This is often what gives them the bad name, as often these bulk purchased boards can come from China.
    • For shapers/custom boards:
      • Less likely to be used for custom shaped surfboards – Very difficult and takes more time to shape very clean by hand as the tiny foam balls have a tendency to fall apart when hit by a planer or rougher sandpaper.
      • However, in recent times, EPS has been improved with smaller cells so that it now works for hand shaped boards as well (although most ocal shapers will still prefer shaping PU foam – I found that out when looking to get a custom board made and I was set on EPS. Going through your local surf shop is probably the best way to get a custom-made EPS surfboard, which is what I ended up doing.
      • More expensive on a custom board basis than PU foam
      • Colors are limited except in the hands of experienced glassers, which can further increase the costs  

Extruded Polystyrene Foam (XPS)

Where EPS is often compared to styrofoam, styrofoam is actually the US trademarked name for the extruded polystyrene (XPS), and not EPS. This type of foam is made with computers and expensive machines that melt the foam crystals down and results in a fluid that expands as it cools to form solid blocks of “closed cell” foam. Therefore it has the benefits of PU foam (not absorbing water) and the benefits of EPS foam (being strong and lightweight).

  • Pros
    • Generates more speed
    • Great flex memory, ensures high resistance to strong impacts, and it doesn’t feel too rigid to ride, super responsive feel
    • Doesn’t absorb water, even when dinged, which means that a surfboard with a ding will not gain weight or change color, resulting in longer memory (resilience) of the materials
    • For Shapers/Custom boards – Can be airbrushed for a custom surfboard
  • Cons  
    • Very expensive, with EPS development in water absorption, its benefits may not outweigh the cost
    • Can be damaged in higher heat environments
    • Delaminations or bubbles that occurred mainly right under the front foot  
      • However, Epoxy Pro came out with a patent pending system in 2003 called thermoventing, that solves the delamination problem (XTR is the trademarked name from Epoxy Pro for this XPS foam developed with the thermoventing process)
    • For Shapers/Custom boards – Mixed commentary on ease of shaping

In addition to the above, many surfboard manufacturers are continually experimenting with new materials in surfboard design. 

Varial Foam

This is a newer foam that has a selling proposition of adapting advanced aerospace materials for surfboard construction. They say their foam increases performance, strength and longevity and that it’s also 25% lighter and 40% stronger than a PU blank with a stringer (however not sure how it compare to EPS foam) but they’re comparing it to PU foam because it also allows shapers to incorporate any flex option they desire.

They also have a new patent-pending process for glassing boards, called Infused Glass, using a vacuum bagged glassing product that infuses polyester or epoxy resin into the fiberglass under vacuum pressure in one shot.  Doing the glassing process this way is said to create a uniform laminate that’s tight to the shape with lower resin content.  

Carbon Fiber/Kevlar

Some surfboard brands are designing hollow boards with no foam inside but just carbon fiber or kevlar composites.

Carbon boards don’t have to be hollow either, they can be used in conjunction with EPS foam. Haydenshapes created and patented the original carbon fiber surfboard tech, FutureFlex back in 2006. The stringer-less carbon rail construction was designed with a one direction flex pattern that’s lighter, faster and maintains that new board feel a lot longer than a traditional PU.

They have a signature black carbon frame outline along the rail and bright white EPS foam. There was a Tesla branded board made of 100% carbon, designed by both Tesla and Matt “Mayhem” Biolos that came out, which went for $1,500 – and all 200 sold out! However, these the carbon boards need to be made in black which can get super hot in the sun and not go over well at all with wax in the summer.

All in all, it’s great to see the advancement of surfboard materials development, but you can’t help but wonder how much of it is just clever marketing with all of this new jazz. I’m sure advanced surfers can tell the difference but for us average joe and jane surfers, understanding the basic types of 2 types of foam and glassing methods are all you really need to make the best decision on which surfboard to buy.

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