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U.S. surfboard makers thrive in choppy waters

Surfboards, one of the most quintessential American products, have been slammed by a wave of imports over the past few years. Some think that may have been a good thing for the industry.

Somewhere in California, Florida or Hawaii someone is painstakingly sculpting a block of polyurethane foam into one of the most unique products the United States has ever produced: a surfboard.

Using knowledge handed down from "shapers" and surfers over hundreds of years, the craftsman sands here and there along the blank until, eventually, it takes shape as a one-of-a-kind product.

Each surfboard takes about 16 days to go from blank to finished product, including shaping, fiberglassing, sanding and painting. The eventual cost at a surf shop for all that craftsmanship is $400 to $600, on average, depending on the type of board.

On the other side of the globe dozens of workers, many of whom were raised on farms and may have never even seen the sea, are engaged in the same activity — almost.

Trained by shapers from Australia and the United States, these Asian workers produce dozens of boards a day for $2.50 an hour plus lodging in a crowded dormitory. Many of them have no idea what a surfboard is used for; it’s just another toy bound for Western markets and for people who have the time and standard of living to afford a hobby.

Time spent on each board: several hours. Eventual cost at a surf shop or major retailer: $300.

And there’s the rub.

Ever since the top U.S. producer of surfboard blanks suddenly announced it was closing shop in 2005, the surfboard market has been awash with cheaper imports from Asia. To many small, backyard producers, those two events were the worst things that ever happened to a sport invented by Hawaiians hundreds of years before white men set foot on their islands.

To larger surfboard manufacturers, however, the sudden industry change opened the door to new types of production, new designs and new materials that they hope could lead to a renaissance of their business.

"What I have seen over last three years is more design development, more willingness to create exciting shapes and designs than I ever remember before. Part of me believes that’s a shaper’s answer to what’s going on," said Shea Weber, president of Dewey Weber Surf Boards and son of surfing legend Dewey Weber.  

The nation’s devastating recession officially began in 2007, but for the surfboard industry the downturn actually began two years earlier when Clark Foam, based in Orange County, Calif., ceased production.

Clark Foam was to surfboards what cows are to shoes; it provided the raw material that boards were made of. Clark Foam began operating in the mid-1960s, and by the time Gordon “Grubby” Clark shut his factory in Laguna Niguel on Dec. 5, 2005 — surfing’s Black Monday — his polyurethane blanks accounted for about 80 percent of U.S. surfboard production.

With no raw materials from which to produce boards, many small and midsized manufacturers had to either lay people off or to close shop. Larger producers with an inventory of blanks in their warehouses were in better position to survive until they could find another source.

But Clark’s demise had a broader impact that just forcing producers to search for new raw material sources; it provided a beachhead for mass producers from Asia to muscle in on an industry and business model that had not changed much for several decades.

“I think a lot of domestic producers have been hurting because of the economy. But what affected us more was the day Clark Foam closed,” said Weber.

Just as manufacturers were scrambling to find new sources of blanks, the bottom fell out of the economy. Sales slipped as unemployment soared and more surfers decided not to spend a few hundred dollars for a new board, perhaps concluding that their old boards were good enough to last a little longer.

It was a perfect storm for producers: a loss of their main supplier, a slump in sales and then a flood of cheaper goods from Thailand, China and Vietnam.

In 2004, 74.1 percent of the boards sold in the U.S. were made by domestic manufacturers. By 2006, a year after Clark Foam closed, that dropped to 71.4 percent, and by 2008, the most recent data, it declined to 63 percent.

Although those numbers only reflect retail sales — and not those sold directly to clients, whether from large manufacturers or backyard shapers — there was a clear and significant trend, said Sean Smith, the executive director of the Surfboard Industry Manufacturers Association.

For retailers struggling in a tough economy, the allure of less-expensive boards was too attractive to resist. Most surf shops are mom-and-pop businesses that make a good chunk of their money from selling the image of surfing. Clothing and sunglasses generally provide a much larger profit margin than surfboards.

“For most of them, carrying surfboards is like pulling teeth,” said Weber, referring to the retailers. “They do it because people won’t look at them as a surf shop if they don’t have surfboards. But the markups are ridiculously low.”

In the U.S., surfboards can cost anywhere from $200 to $225 in labor to manufacture. The manufacturer sells it to a shop for around $300 and the retailer will mark it up to about $400, according to SIMA’s Smith.

A polyurethane board made in Asia goes for about $200 on average at wholesale and about $300 when sold at a surf shop or big-box retailer such as Costco in the United States.

Of course, not all the boards coming from Asia are so cheap. Some U.S. makers of quality boards, such as Firewire, have moved production overseas to Asia where they turn out boards made from expanded polystyrene foam, or EPS, and epoxy resin at factories run by experienced surfers/shapers. The boards cost about the same, or sometimes more, than custom boards made in the U.S.

Prior to Clark Foam’s closure, there wasn’t much research done on such boards compared to polyurethane boards, which were thought to be superior. The debate rages on, but there’s no doubt that EPS boards are here to stay. They are more durable and float higher on the water, making them easier to paddle, although many surfers think they have too much “bounce” when the wind creates "chop," or small bumps on the face of the wave.

“The quality of the molded (EPS) boards is very good. But it’s a very labor-intensive process that would make them extremely expensive if made here in the U.S.,” said Matt Biolos, a top shaper for the ...Lost Surfboards brand.

Biolos says that the quality of the Asian-made polyurethane boards is not up to par with those made domestically in the U.S. “But for better or worse — mostly worse — that will change.”

To Weber, this is part of the “new normal” for surfboard manufacturers. Experienced surfers know the difference and will pay more for boards at the high end of the spectrum. That’s the end of the market where most of the research is being done on new designs and materials, particularly materials that leave less of a footprint on the environment.

But the average surfer, be it a beginner or weekend warrior, often doesn’t know the difference between an imported board and a domestic one.

“It’s probably the biggest reason they (imports) won’t ever go away completely,” Weber said. “But certainly the dynamics have changed.”

Surf industry experts say the novelty of the imported boards has worn off a bit, mostly because retailers over-ordered imported boards and the economy has been soft. Some Asian producers have had to close shop in the past year. After all, there are only so many Americans who surf; it’s a sport that for the most part requires easy access to a coast with consistent surf.

Ironically, some experts say the imports have actually increased the value of what custom board shapers do, which is to combine a type of sculpture with physics to make a product that flies across the face of a wave.

“The shapers out there … view themselves as craftsman and artisans rather than producers of composite material products,” Smith said. “For them, watching this become more of a process than a craft has been painful.”

Still, Weber believes most of them are optimistic. “I think most of them believe the worst is behind us. Not that things are going to get easy, but there is a sense of a more positive outlook, far more so than two or three years ago.”