Cleaner Lines, More Sustainable Surfboards, pt. 1

Cleaner Lines, More Sustainable Surfboards, pt. 1

By Mark Sankey

Here in the UK, Mark Roberts has been carving out his own niche in the local surf industry by crafting greener surfboards from foam and wood under his Glass Tiger Surfboards label. You can find him in a traditional Falmouth boat yard where the piquant smell of the Atlantic blows in and dry-docked boats tower precariously over everything. It is fitting his workshop is here, nestled among the clean lines of classic timber boats, as this is a surfboard factory where artisanship and environmentalism overwhelm mass-production and commercialism. Here, tradition meets modernism as progressive EPS foam surfboard shapes are finished in wood and oil. These are the cleaner lines of Glass Tiger Surfboards.

Roberts has the wiry and energetic build of someone who doesn’t sit around much, and the strong, hardworking hands and the furrowed brow of a thinker. His workshop looks like what it is, a cross between a wood shop and a shaping bay. Foam surfboard shaping, in contrast to woodworking, has minimal needs, so the wood tools and timber materials dominate his space. Every square foot of Roberts’ tiny unit performs a function and he even has an outdoor working space that is protected from the English elements by a tarp. Roberts has been shaping surfboards for more than 10 years, and throughout the last five years he has been perfecting his environmentally friendly hybrid construction method. He uses foam, epoxy plant-based resin and wood with a natural oil finish to create longer lasting and beautifully unique boards that have greater longevity than the average board.

Roberts studied design at college and afterwards worked as a boat builder where he developed his woodworking skills. These experiences merged when he set out to build progressive and more sustainable surfboards.

“I am always thinking up new ideas, looking at the benefits of different materials and trying to find better ways of doing things,” Roberts explains.

His early inspirations were Bert Berger’s ingenuity in combining wood into performance surfboards, and Tom Wegner’s passion for the sustainability of wooden boards. There are a few shapers around the world combining wood and foam, each with their own technique for marrying these different materials.

At the heart of a Glass Tiger board is a locally produced stringer-less EPS foam core. The blank is shaped and the rails are removed so that the timber parabolic rails can be added later. Traditional four-ounce cloth and a plant-based epoxy resin is used to glass the blank.

“I am using Entropy Resins Super Sap 100/100 which is easy to work with, is strong and has a very high bio content,” Roberts told me. 

The blank is glassed because the grain of the exterior wood skin runs from tail to nose and can be prone to splitting on impact without the bi-lateral support from the fiberglass cloth. The deck and bottom of the board then has a 1.5mm thick outer skin of Gaboon wood, vacuum-sealed on.

“This is not just a veneer, it works with the fiberglass to give the board its structural strength,” Roberts added.

Gaboon is an African timber prized for its beautiful grain, but when combined with fibreglass it creates a structure that is strong and light, rivaling the performance characteristics of more advanced composites such as carbon fibre.

For the rails, Roberts uses locally sourced and sustainably grown timber. 

“I am using Cornish Sweet Chestnut which has a good strength-to-weight ratio and a nice colour,” he said.

He creates the 1.5in-thick parabolic rail by laminating long strips of the timber on top of each other. These rails create a strong board with lots of drive and a more efficient flex memory than a regular board.

“The weight distribution of the board is loaded towards the rail, which lends itself to quicker rail transfers and will help you to bury the rail with more ease,” he said.

Finally, the boards are coated with a linseed and tung oil mixture called Le Tonkinois varnish which is made using a Chinese formula dating back two or three hundred years.

“It’s all about using the different materials in the right application and I love the fact that working with wood feels more like a build.”

Roberts has worked hard to continually test and develop his boards. Every aspect of his board-building process is carefully considered and continually reviewed. He’s always looking for cleaner and more effective ways of production which is refreshing in an industry where quick cash is often a priority over quality, and environmentalism is often seen as just another marketing tool.

Check back next week for part 2, featuring Carlos Burle and a 9′ 6″ Hawaiian gun. 

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*Photos by Alex Puppe

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