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Major bummer as surfboard supplier closes

Last week's sudden shutdown of a key supplier has the laid-back and thriving surfboard  industry fearing a wipeout.
Shaper Geoff Madsen does custom work on a Clark Foam board at Stewart Surfboards in San Clemente, Calif. Clark Foam, which enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the blocks used for customized boards, abruptly closed its doors for good last week.
Shaper Geoff Madsen does custom work on a Clark Foam board at Stewart Surfboards in San Clemente, Calif. Clark Foam, which enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the blocks used for customized boards, abruptly closed its doors for good last week.Chris Carlson / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

For more than 40 years, everyone from casual weekend waveriders to top competitive surfers has shared one thing: Customized boards that began as nondescript foam blocks mass-produced by one Southern California company.

Clark Foam, an icon in California surf culture, enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the blocks that have been shaped and hand-painted by everyone from backyard do-it-yourselfers to design shops that churn out thousands of handcrafted boards each year.

That’s why the company’s sudden closure last week has the laid-back and thriving cottage industry fearing a wipeout.

Boards that cost between $300 and $800 have soared by as much as $200 at some smaller shops. Manufacturers are scrambling to secure the last supplies of the polyurethane foam blanks, customers are hoarding custom-made boards, and thousands of specialty board shapers, air brushers and workers who coat boards with fiberglass face unemployment almost overnight.

“Everybody’s figuring how they’re going to get on with their life,” said Chris Mauro, editor of Surfer Magazine, which broke the story on its Web site Tuesday. “There’s probably a shortage of 2,000 boards a week globally now. It’ll be months before things are back up to speed where any Joe Blow can get a blank — maybe even years.”

Clark Foam supplied the unshaped blanks for about 90 percent of all custom-made boards purchased worldwide — and those boards make up nearly three-quarters of the total international market, said Bjorn Deboer of Stewart Surfboards, a major custom-made retailer and designer in San Clemente. The rest of the $200 million U.S. market is comprised of machine-produced boards mostly churned out at factories in Asia and Eastern Europe.

A handful of small U.S. companies also produce foam, but Mauro said not in great enough quantities to fill the gap. Australian companies that make foam blanks turn out enough to meet Australian demand, but not much else, he said.

“Everyone’s scrambling to find new suppliers, foreign suppliers, anybody,” Mauro said.

Customers reacted by hoarding boards at stores up and down the coast — and some requested multiple boards.

Jefferson Wagner, owner of Zuma Jay Surfboards in Malibu, upped the price of his custom boards by $100 within a day of Clark Foam’s closure. He said people were calling with requests to buy 12 or 15 boards at a time.

“I’ve got every dealer in the book calling me, I’ve got customers running into the store buying them,” said Deboer, who said he sold a record of 14 boards in one day. “It’s a panic mode.”

Making a custom board is a painstaking process that holds special meaning for surfers. Foam blanks — which resemble rough surfboards — are first smoothed and shaved with sandpaper and handheld electric grinders and shavers. Painters then add intricate designs and color before the board is covered in fiberglass and polished.

At Stewart Surfboards, shaper Geoff Madsen worked Thursday on one of the last Clark Foam blank orders placed before the company’s sudden shutdown. The customer, a longtime surfer, has asked Madsen to shape the edges — or rails — of a 10-foot-3 longboard blank so it will move more slowly in the water like “old-school” boards.

A fine spray of white foam dust shot from the board like a miniature Fourth of July sparkler as Madsen used an electric shaver to peel away layers of its face. Thick slabs of foam fell away as he pushed the hand tool down the length of the board in smooth motions, leaving the unshaved portion sticking up like a half-mown lawn.

Across the hallway, airbrush artist Tom Cervantes trimmed the edges of a nine-foot board with black paint, then blew neon blue coloring on its front with an airgun.

Madsen, a 25-year veteran shaper, said he couldn’t understand why Clark Foam shut down so suddenly — especially because it had just started a new business in shaping tools and machinery.

In a letter to customers Monday explaining his closure, company founder Gordon “Grubby” Clark said he has increasingly been in trouble with state and local government because of his nonstandard production machinery — most of which he designed himself — and his use of toxic and polluting chemicals such as toulene di isocynate, or TDI.

He said he spent $500,000 in fire code fixes, another $400,000 defending himself against an employee’s lawsuit and faced buying a multimillion “scrubber” to comply with emissions law. He also battled with the Environmental Protection Agency over pollution issues at his Laguna Niguel-based company.

“They simply grind away until you either quit or they find methods of bringing serious charges or fines that force you to close,” he wrote.

Local and federal officials said Clark was in compliance with all laws and rejected the claim they were to blame for his demise.

Clark, who opened his company in 1961, revolutionized the surfboard in 1958 when he and surfing pioneer Hobie Alter poured resin over foam to create an all-foam board. The foam boards were durable, but had better flexibility than wooden boards that had previously been the hobby’s standard.

“He was kind of like the father figure and this came out of absolutely nowhere,” said Chas Wickwire, who custom makes about 500 boards a year out of his Westminster factory. “He took us all, put us in the back of a wagon and basically drove off the cliff.”

The most practical surfers said they would take better care of their existing boards, which can last up to 10 years with excellent care — but much less without it.

“I’m hanging onto my good one as long as I can to make it last,” said Mauro, also an avid surfer. “I’m taking my board out of my car every day now and storing it in a nice cool place and washing it off after every ride.”