Urethane Surf Board Pioneer Tribute
The Prince of Foam
Rest in peace, Dave Sweet, 1928-2015
I liked Dave Sweet before I admired him, for the simple reason that in 1969, about 10 minutes after we met, he tossed me a brand new short-john. I was nine years old. Jay Adams and I were standing in Sweet’s showroom, on Olympic Blvd. in Santa Monica, having been driven there by Kent Sherwood, Jay’s stepdad. Kent worked with Dave, maybe on surfboards, more likely on other non-surfing fiberglass-related projects. After 15 or so years, Sweet was closing down his surf shop. Jay and I happened to be standing there at the right moment, as Dave stoically looked around at the unsold merchandise, absent-mindedly grabbed the two smallest shorties off the rack, and handed one to each of us. My first wetsuit. (Three years ago, Jay told me that Sweet also gave him a first edition copy of California Surfriders, signed “To Malibu surf rider Dave Sweet. Doc Ball, 1948.”)
So my first winter of surfing I was kept a degree or two warmer thanks to Sweet’s generosity. I’ve been telling that story for 45 years now. But I didn’t really understand or appreciate what Sweet did for surfing until I began to research his entry for the print version of Encyclopedia of Surfing, and later History of Surfing. His long and solitary work toward making a polyurethane surfboard blank—the defining boardmaking material, found under the feet of Weber and Dora, on up to Slater and Toledo; 60 years in use and counting—represents as high a level of commitment and dedication as the sport has ever seen.
It’s also, in some respects, heartbreaking. Sweet was making foam surfboards a full two years before polyurethane magnates-in-the-making Hobie Alter and Grubby Clark popped out their first viable foam blank, yet the powerful Alter-Clark team, for years, were feted as getting there first. Sweet, moreover, a proud man but unwilling to fight the entire Dana Point Mafia, of which Alter and Clark were both capo de tutti capi, for years refused to publicly claim his rightful place in surf history. The story eventually was told (the Smithsonian acquired a Dave Sweet surfboard in 1987), but Sweet to my mind was always a bit shortchanged by the sport he loved.
From History of Surfing:
Dave Sweet of Santa Monica was a highly respected mainland boardmaker who never quite made it to the first rank, at least in terms of sales. The power difference between Sweet and Alter, in fact, was big enough that Sweet himself, even though he made his first polyurethane surfboard in 1956–two years before Alter–actually went along with the idea that he’d tied with Alter in the race to market. “I worked on it for many years,” Sweet later told a surf magazine reporter, swallowing hard, “and came out with a foam surfboard the same month Hobie did.”
Sweet began shaping boards on the beach at Malibu a few years after the war and helped Matt Kivlin and Joe Quigg with the development of the Malibu chip. In 1953, the same year he earned a USC Business Administration degree, Sweet painstakingly shaped a board from a thick block of Styrofoam, sealed it, glassed it, and then finished it with an opaque coat of resin in order to keep the core material a secret. The board had a nice lively feel in the water. But the project had been too labor intensive, by far, and he continued making balsa boards.
Less than a year later, Sweet came across a chunk of polyurethane foam, and recognized immediately that this was the stuff. He became obsessed, dropping virtually everything else in his life to work on a polyurethane blank-molding system. He drained his tiny savings account and put all the money into materials for a half-size clamshell mold, which he built himself and installed in the living room of his basement boardinghouse flat in Hollywood. There were no long visits to Hawaii for Sweet. No drunken Saturday nights at the surf movies. He surfed, made a few balsa boards, and thought about chemical ratios and reactions. He couldn’t afford to buy in bulk, so he’d order the necessary chemicals every other week or so and pour the latest formula into his mold.
It was a fast, dirty business. Hunkered down over a cardboard bucket, he’d mix the base chemicals with several catalysts, an expanding agent, and an emulsifier to stabilize the foam as it rose. He’d then pour the dirty-white batter into the lower half of the mold, clamp down the top, and step away. In a heat-generating rush the mix would blow out to roughly twenty-five times its original size, filling and pressurizing the half-sized surfboard-shaped interior; a half hour later, the blank was ready to pop out of the mold.
Sweet produced about twenty blanks in his boardinghouse room–all duds. Most had balloon-sized air pockets; these went directly from mold to garbage can. Some looked good enough to be fiberglassed, but soon the foam would delaminate, shrink, or bulge. Going all-in, Sweet sold his car, borrowed money from everyone he knew, and for $12,000 had a full-sized steel-and-fiberglass mold built by an aerospace firm called Techniform Metal Curving. For about six months in 1955, while the mold was still at Techniform, Sweet and a pair of company engineers mixed and poured blank after blank and got nowhere. It was frustrating and occasionally dangerous: the mold would creak and groan if the interior pressure got too high, and on one occasion the steel latch bolts exploded from the hinges and ricocheted like bullets off the factory walls.
The Techniform workers gave up. Sweet took the mold to a Santa Monica industrial shop and starting working alone. Air bubbles were his biggest problem. The foam was supposed to expand evenly, but trapped air would rise to the top as the blank cooled, and each deck was filled with an assortment of craters, pits, and holes. Finally, Sweet gave up on producing a clean blank and just made a thicker blank. Then he used a power planer to strip off the top inch of air-pocked foam. Not an elegant solution, but good enough. In late 1956, deep in debt, exhausted but triumphant, Sweet was riding and selling polyurethane foam surfboards.
Last April, Sweet friend requested me on Facebook. I replied instantly, thanked him for the wetsuit (he had no recollection, but had lots of good memories of Jay), and gave him a link to his EOS page, which he hadn’t seen. A week later he got back to me, saying the info on his page all checked out, except that he’d been married twice, not once. “It was Bonnie Sweet, my first wife, that covered the bookkeeping, checks, payroll, ordering, payables and receivables, and advertising. She also did the modeling.”
The man simply could not stop deflecting credit. So long Dave Sweet, and thanks again.
Read more at http://www.surfermag.com/blogs/eos/rest-in-peace-dave-sweet/#DD54XY5OCQwkAtvV.99