Balsa wood was the darling of surfboard materials through the late ’50s — a high-maintenance darling. Shapers would spend better parts of their afternoons glueing, sawing, and hogging out blanks of different sizes to whittle down their boards, a laborious process. But on a weekday afternoon in 1957, a resin salesman walked into Hobie Alter’s shop and handed him, in Matt Warshaw’s words, “a chunk of synthetic material about the size of a cigarette pack.” Warshaw’s newest History of Surfing chapter recounts the introduction of polyurethane foam to the commercial market, and how it created a DIY-footrace among shapers to create a lighter, cheaper, less time-consuming sled. More from Warshaw:
Like nearly every other petrochemical product of the time, it was developed during the war; in this case, by German engineers in search of a replacement for rubber. Unlike polystyrene foam (better known as Styrofoam), which was nearly impossible to modify or reshape once it came out of the mold, this new material could be cut with a saw and turned dusty beneath a planer or sandpaper—almost like a very light, dry wood. Even better, it bonded with polyester resin instead of dissolving the way Styrofoam did. Later that same afternoon, Alter dripped some resin on one side, came back later, and smoothed on a patch of resin-wet fiberglass on the other side. That night at a Laguna Beach party, he pulled the block out from his pocket, held it up like a winning Lotto ticket, and said to his surf buddies, “This is it, boys. The future of surfboards, right here.”
[READ THE FULL HISTORY OF SURFING CHAPTER HERE]
Alter later received credit in 1958 for first promoting foam boards to a mass consumer base. But a full year before Alter and colleague Gordon “Grubby” Clark tinkered on their secret mold project in Laguna Canyon, another Southern California shaper — Santa Monica’s Dave Sweet — had already created a rideable foam board, and was selling them to his friends on the beach. We asked Warshaw more about Sweet, Hobie, Clark, and the real story behind the sprint to cash in on plastics.
Hobie gets the credit for PU foam, and Sweet was the overlooked trailblazer, but what about those resin salesmen who had the foresight to approach surfboard shapers?
Kit Doolittle! I’m good at the surf history game, real good, but turning a chemical-products salesman named Kit Doolittle into a legend is beyond my reach.
But how much of an anticipation did outside industries have on the coming boom of the surfboard industry, and to what extent did they try to strike while the coals were hot?
No anticipation at all. Hobie’s dad put up the money for Hobie’s first shop, but he was probably the only guy who didn’t surf and was over 25 who believed that maybe, possibly, some day, there would be enough money in making boards that it could be a career. Nobody from the outside believed this was going to be anything. Surfers designed and built the surf industry themselves. And I’m not even sure if they believed it was actually going to take off, apart from maybe Hobie himself and Grubby Clark.
In the ’50s, was there much of a conversational forum among the major shapers? Or was there a fear that someone would poach your technique?
Velzy and Hobie were more or less respectful toward each other, cordial, but so fundamentally different as human beings that they weren’t going to have a lunch meeting and share the latest tech — or a flask of whatever Velzy had in his back pocket. And then, even weirder, Hobie and Grubby are up in in their secret Laguna Canyon laboratory in 1957 trying to crack the code for the foam blank—and they don’t know that Dave Sweet has already done it! I find that so hard to believe, but all three of them seemed to agree that it happened that way. I mean, Sweet’s out at Malibu that summer riding a foam board, selling them to friends even, and Hobie and Grubby don’t even know it? Really?
What were the early testimonies from the first PU boards ridden? How did they ride compared to balsa?
“Flexy Fliers” and “Speedo Sponges,” and stuff like that. Balsa was stiff, foam had a little give, a little flex. Some guys didn’t like it. Phil Edwards hated foam boards, I think Greg Noll did at first, too. But most people liked having that bit of twang. And of course, Hobie forced the issue in 1958, saying, “We’re not making balsa boards any more, it’s foam or nothing.” Which was kind of a gamble, but not really. Balsa was so hard to find, and Hobie had most of the best boardmakers and a lot of the best surfers behind him. Velzy was a God, but Hobie was the industry leader. If Hobie wanted to make foam boards and nothing but foam boards, that’s what we’re all going to ride.
Phil Edwards! What a heartbreak that Hobie couldn’t win him over!
He did, eventually. Edwards kept a tight grip on “Baby,” this old beat-to-shit balsa board that he rode, like, three years past its sell-by date, but in ’61 or so, Phil made the switch. The Hobie Surfboards Phil Edwards Model, the first signature board ever, was foam.
You mention Dave Sweet’s quote, about how he later convinced himself that Alter came out with the foam surfboard in the same month that Hobie did. The two had similarly industrious qualities, and Sweet even had the advantage of working with an aerospace firm. Why didn’t Sweet have more clout in the industry?
Sweet was a lab rat. He didn’t want to build a surfing empire, or move a ton of boards. More than anybody, I think Dave actually liked the whole chemical pioneering process, and the actual hands-on building, using the newest and latest materials. He made a half-ass attempt at branding, at doing retail, but I don’t think his heart was ever in it. If he wanted to sell more boards, it was only so that he could stay in the factory, getting his hands dirty.
When the shortboard revolution weakened the business of Sweet and other shapers, what reflections did Sweet have on not getting public credit for that first blank in 1956? Resentment? Contentment? Both?
I met Dave around that time, in 1969 or 1970. I was just a kid. He was closing down his retail shop in Santa Monica, and he grabbed a couple of short john wetsuits off the rack and gave one to me and one to Jay Adams. I was just 9 years old, but I could tell even at that age that Dave was a quiet guy, a serious guy. His shop was just this little hole in the wall. It just looked like he wanted to get back to work, which he did. At that point, I think that people in the know understood that Sweet did foam first, and starting, I think, in the ‘90s, the rest of the world learned it, too. Longboard Magazine ran a Dave Sweet profile in 2000 where his accomplishments were made clear, and The Surfer’s Journal did one a few years later. The Smithsonian Museum has a Dave Sweet board in their collection, acknowledging that he was the first to make a foam surfboard blank, and when he died, in 2015, the obit headlines all said something like “Father of Foam.” I’m glad he got the attention. He deserved it.