Making Balsa Wood Surfboards
MAKING BALSAWOOD SURFBOARDS
I bought my first surfboard, a balsa wood Velzy-Jacobs in 1958 at the Jacobs shop in Hermosa Beach. At $40, it was the cheapest used board in the shop because no one wanted balsa wood any more. It is probably worth $30,000 now.
my younger brother with that board + my first self made board.
My first professional shaping job in 1968 was for Gordie surfboards . Gordie started out in 1956 making only balsa boards. By 1968 he was totally into Walker foam, (out of business now since 2010). No one really made the heavier balsa wood boards anymore. By 1970, I had moved on to shape for several of the other surf shops in Huntington beach including Windansea, Plastic Fantastic, Soul, and Pure Joy, That year, 1970 I decided to start my own brand of boards which I named: Infinity Surfboards. I thought it would be fun to make the first Infinity board a balsa wood board, then to just hang it on the wall forever.
I went back to see Gordie and ask him where I could get some balsa wood. He told me about the old days when he would drive up to General Veneer to pick out balsa wood. He said it is in the old, old Industrial district of South Gate and I better call first just to make sure that they are still there and still have balsa wood. I gave them a call and sure enough, they still had balsa wood. When I drove up there, I saw the old warehouse style buildings with the sign: General Veneer on the side. I walked into the office and found it furnished with old 30's style furniture. Purple velvet chairs with dark walnut arms. The old gal behind the desk asked if she could help me. I said yes, I want to buy some balsa wood to make a surfboard. She laughed and said: Gee, i haven't seen any of you surfboarders around here for years. I said: Then why do you still have the balsa wood and she said: We sell it to the Holly Wood studios, they make chairs out of it to bust over each other’s heads and railings that break away easily in a fight. I said well set me up with enough to make a 9'6" surfboard. She typed up the order on her old, black, Remington typewriter, then rolled it into a cylinder, put it into a plastic bottle and put that into this suction tube thingy that disappeared into the wall. Thwap; the order was sucked off to the warehouse where I picked up the wood. In the warehouse there was a counter where I had to sighn the pickup receipt. Behind the counter there was a collection of pictures of old cars dating from the early 1920 up to the current 1970’s. I guess the young guy working there was a car buff.
Through the 70's and early 80's I retuned several times to General Veneer to buy a "bundle" of balsa wood, but then I just got too busy to put in the labor to cut the stringers and glue up the balsa blanks and I hadn't made any balsa boards since around 1986. Then last year; 2017, 31 years later, I had some time mid-winter and thought it would be fun to make some balsa wood models to sell in the shop. A full size balsa wood board with multiple stringers usually sells for $5,000 and up depending on the shaper. Dale Velzy and Phil Edwards were charging $10,000 each for them back in the 1990’s. Dale called them; Wall Hangers. so I decided to some make 1/4 scale models, 4' long that anyone could afford. Besides, a scale model hangs on a wall easier without taking over a room and you can get permission from your wife to hang it.
I drove back to General Veneer and was glad to find it still standing. When i entered the office, it brought back so many memories of my early days. There was the same old 30's art deco, purple velvet furniture with a suitably old gal sitting behind a 90's doss computer (you may remember Doss, which came before Windows). I teased her about her old computer, but she said it worked perfectly well and she could now email the order back to the warehouse. I said what happened to that suction tube thing and she said oh, we got rid of that years ago. So I paid for two “bundles” of balsa wood, enough to make one 9’ board, five 8 ft. boards and about 20 four foot models. Then I drove my van over to their warehouse to pick up the wood. I walked up to the same old counter to see a new young guy working there, but the same ancient, old photos of 1920’s through 1970’s cars were still hanging on the wall behind the counter. Gee, this place sure doesn’t change much!
When I got back to the shop, it felt just like the old days. I cut some of the balsa into pieces to make 8’ boards and the rest into widths matching a 1/4 scale surfboard. Then I cut bass wood, red wood, dark wood and mahogany into different width stringers. This cutting process took 4 days. Then the gluing started. I could glue 4 blanks at a time, each having from 4 to 10 stringers. This took 10 more days.
Next, i made 4 quarter scale templates, a gunny pintail, a retro longboard and a modern long board. Now the shaping could start, but in some ways this is more difficult than a full size board because the small boards are so light that they slide around on the miniature shaping rack. Also the tolerances are so tiny; where a full size board is 3" thick the model is 3/4" thick with a 1/8" thick nose. The shaping was really fun because i was able to do so many different stringer combinations and outlines varying from guns to old style retro classics. I did them in batches of 4: shape 4, laminate 4, hot coat 4. Sand 4, gloss 4 and polish 4. These steps happened simultaneously, while the resin was drying, I was shaping or sanding the next 4.
The whole shaping and glassing process took another month. So within roughly a couple of months i was able to make five full size and 20 beautiful scale model balsa wood surfboards. I put a leash cup in the bottom of each one to facilitate easy hanging on a wall. Now, both of my sons, Dave, Dan and I have one hanging on the wall in our living rooms. While they last, you could have one of the 4 footers for only $795. Or one of the 8 footers for $3495.