Surfboard prices have risen since the industry's main surfboard blank supplier, Clark Foam, shut down. Mark Distoli looks for a new board at Hansen Surfboards in Encinitas, Calif.
Surfing industry takes gasp of air after firm's wipeout
SAN DIEGO » The wipeout might not be so bad after all.
For sure, the surf culture is still shaking after Clark Foam -- an icon among surfers -- suddenly closed its Orange County, Calif., factory after producing an estimated 90 percent of the blanks used to craft custom-made boards worldwide.
At a recent action-sports trade show in San Diego, manufacturers from surfing hotspots such as Southern California, Australia, South Africa and Hawaii promised that by June, they could fill the void by ramping up production.
In Hawaii, Pacific Allied Products Ltd., a plastics manufacturing company, has started making surfboard blanks using expanded polystyrene, or EPS, a type of plastic that is heated and expands into foam.
"Because we have the technology and the operating facility in place, we have been able to keep up with the demand," said Mike Bilby, manager of the division that produces the blanks.
Bryan Caldwell, owner of Island Glass Surfboards in Maili, said the EPS blanks are priced competitively and actually may better and last longer than boards made of China foam.
Pacific Allied says its manufacturing facility in Kapolei can make 500 core blanks per week, with a turnaround time of seven to 10 business days for custom blanks.
The latest forecast is for foam -- lots of it -- to pour into the $200 million surfboard market from small manufacturers around the world anxious to replace the estimated 250,000 blanks that Clark produced annually in a near monopoly.
Making custom boards is a painstaking process that holds special meaning for surfers. Foam blanks -- which resemble rough surfboards -- are smoothed and shaved before painters add designs and color. Boards are then covered in fiberglass and polished.
"Going from underdog to top dog is exciting, but it comes with problems," said Gary Linden, general manager of Walker Foam in Wilmington, an industrial area near Los Angeles.
Manufacturers like Walker are pushing equipment to the limit and hiring more workers to be the first to get their foam to anxious board makers.
In the meantime, surfers will see dips and curls -- tight supplies and higher prices.
At Hansen Surfboards in Encinitas, Mark Dastoli said he expected to pay as much as $200 more for a new board than he would have before Clark Foam shut down. The Australian transplant, who tries to surf every day, shrugged off the cost.
"They don't charge me to go in the ocean," he said.
Indeed, if any industry can ride out a crisis like "Blank Monday," as the Dec. 5 closing of Clark is called, it would be the laid-back surfing sector. Many people in the business say surfboards were underpriced anyway and might never return to previous levels.
"In the long run, everything will be fine," said Craig Hollingsworth, 49, who's been using blanks to shape boards in northern San Diego County since he was 16. "Most customers have been patient about it. A lot of customers are starting to appreciate a custom-made surfboard."
At Mitch's Surf Shop in funky Solana Beach north of San Diego, shoppers are greeted by a sign saying, "Blanks Not For Sale To The Public." At the bottom of the sign is a skull and crossed surfboards, like a pirate flag.
The market for foam remains strong because surfboards are like tennis balls: They eventually wear out and feel dead. A high-performance short board ridden every day might need to be replaced after four to six months.
Hollingsworth said he liked Clark Foam because the shape of its blanks were refined and he could custom-order certain curve characteristics.
"Right now they're just trying to make as many as fast as they possibly can," Hollingsworth said. "We're happy they are. We're getting blanks."