One thought triggers another. One experiment leads to another. Santa Barbara’s Joshua Eli Milne, a 43-year-old carpenter by trade and surfboard builder at Flying A Surfboards, is adding another stream to the river of surfboard history and is producing exciting results for the future of surfboard technology.
If the oil market collapses or environmentally unfriendly materials are legislated against (remember Clark Foam’s sudden closure), Josh may just have catalyzed our future security: lightweight, flexible, super strong, long lasting (decades of life from one board), natural, environmentally friendly, stylish, performance surfboards using model glider technology – the models we made from balsa as children.
Early surfboard technology, pre-foam saw Tom Blake putting chambers in wood to lighten his shapes. Hollow, wooden boards are not new. Josh himself was inspired by www.grainsurfboards.com‘s do-it-yourself surfboard kits produced in Maine using locally sourced cedar.
Josh’s unique contributions involve magic parts and potential patents that must stay a secret in this article. A key for Josh was that, adding to the boat building techniques behind much wooden surfboard technology, he utilized the simple balsa interlocking and glued networked structure that lies behind the balsa model gliders many of us have built. Its early airplane construction technique added to the mix of boat building and surfboard design techniques.
Asking himself, “How can I do it better?” Josh realized that WW1 wooden airplanes were built with lightness and strength as goals and he adapted these early techniques to produce his own brand of balsa surfboards. With a difference.
“I’ve always been an environmentalist,” says Josh. “Being a surfer leads you to this place of having a natural respect for the environment and the ocean. The surfing industry uses really dangerous, difficult to dispose of, chemical products. I was also disappointed in how fast I would trash a new foam and glass board. By surfing regularly, I’d have dents all over it, cracks down the middle, some yellowing, within six months. So I had two motivations: the environment and a desire to have a long-lasting surfboard.”
“I also enjoy being able to do something that is improbable. I now believe you can make a surfboard of balsa that surfs better, has varied flex as desired, looks good and is almost as good as new ten years later.”
Each board has a waterproof, Gor-Tex lined vent to equalize air pressure inside and outside the board in different temperatures. Santa Barbara is one of the sunniest places on earth.
Josh is already a long way down the road towards the best combination of internal chambers, holes and angled balsa struts and is now researching into bio resin and bamboo cloth. He is experimenting with identical boards finished with different levels of strength so that he can explore the ideal combinations of lightness and flex.
The boards are designed using the industry standard Aku shaper CAD program which can also be used to print out pdf cross section files. Josh can choose the number of cross sections he needs printed out and then it’s time to use his carpentry skills to cut the balsa itself.
“The balsa comes from Ecuador,” says Josh. “In Ecuador, the balsa farmers buy used up farm land from ‘slash and burn’ farmers that are moving deeper into the rain forest. The balsa growers then plant balsa trees as a crop. Balsa is a fast growing tree that matures in about eight years. The trees are then harvested and replanted. This is very similar to Christmas tree farming in the US and actually serves to re-use, recycle and re-introduce nutrients to land that has been used up and left barren by the destructive tactics of ‘slash and burn’ farming. I buy the balsa down in Cardiff-by-the-Sea. I buy the biggest pieces that I can so that I can minimize waste. The pieces I get are usually 12-14 feet long and 6″x 5″ thick.
The hand-shaping part of the process is minimal and has mostly to do with tail and rail shape. My rocker comes from the computer. I test all my rockers and I know that they fly and are suited to the purpose of the board. After a very careful construction process that ensures the exact rocker and bottom shape is maintained I skin the board with a thin but strong layer of balsa and I steam bend the rails into place. The last step is to hand shape the rails. Just like a traditional board, tuning them with a foil and edge that I would only trust my eyes and hands to know.
The result is a board that is strong, beautiful, light and vibrates in a tighter, more solid way than foam – interacting in a way only wood and water can. I love to ride these things. There is something about riding a wood board that just feels more positively connected to the wave than foam. I have ridden my latest board on everything from mushy two foot to big fast barrels this winter and there is not a mark on it. A balsa board is stronger by far and does not ding when another surfer bumps your rail and believe it or not mine has zero pressure dents under the feet even after seven months of riding it nearly every day. I can’t prove it yet because my oldest board using my new hollow balsa process is only two years old but I believe that these boards will last…My goal is to make a board that can last a lifetime yet still be as light, supple and flexible as a new foam board.”
A down side is the man hours needed to make one of these boards, thirty hours or more. But if you do the math, a surfer replacing ten, twenty or more surfboards over a decade could translate all that labor and finance into one or two long lasting, good looking, eco-friendly balsa boards instead.
I asked Josh about applying that same principle of spending more for longer board life and strength to man-made materials like Kevlar. I was impressed with his reply: ‘I prefer the idea of a low tech process,” said Josh. “Balsa vibrates, guys who use these boards say this is one of the things they like. When you have two natural substances acting together, water and balsa, you experience a timbre. I’d rather listen to a wooden violin than a Kevlar violin.”