Popouts, My View

By Balsa Bill

Apparently there are some misconceptions about my opinion of molded production boards aka "popouts". I've been accused of saying bad things about the products and the companies that manufacture them. Nothing could be further from the truth. It's not my style to bad mouth competitors whether they are board builders or other shops. Also I have many friends that are either involved in the design or manufacture of these boards and many other friends who ride them on a regular basis and enjoy them very much for their performance and durability.

My old friend Donald Takayama has told me on many occasions that any time I'm in Hawaii and need a board for myself, family or friends to just go over to the Surftech warehouse that there is a standing order from him to lend me anything I want. Under these circumstances and with this kind of generosity how could I say anything negative about the company or it's products?

I have old friends who are also involved with the Boardworks line and are members of their fine stable of master shapers.

I also have many friends who are in the hand made custom board business and often I am caught in the middle of this controversy.

Some History

When I first got into the board business in the early sixties working for Charlie Keller in his Lavallette, New Jersey surf shop we didn't have many custom boards available to sell. During the summer of '63 as Charlie had transitioned from being a board builder to being a board retailer, there wasn't a whole lot of product available. We received about 6 boards from Greg Noll that summer. Not near enough to satisfy an exploding market fueled by Frankie and Annette movies and The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean on every am radio station.

The void was filled by popouts. Or as Charlie instructed me to call them: "Production boards". Charlie at first got a few boards (Keokis) from a distributor in New York City but soon he got his own distributorship from Titan plastics. They were located in Santa Ana, California and had a nice line of boards that were priced at retail from $90 for a solid color model to $125 for the fancy two color tape off model.

In comparison a custom Greg Noll had a base price for a clear board of about $135 as I remember. A board with full color and "s" stringers could run up to $155. All boards had an additional charge of $10 for shipping.

Sales were brisk and I became an expert on the various construction techniques and materials of surfboards of all types. There was little difference in the shapes of boards, custom or popout so the only questions were, "How long, what color and how much do you want to spend?" The length was dependent on the customer's weight and each company offered a weight chart.

When we ran out of boards we would get some fill ins from Ron Dimenna about an hours drive south of us. He was the distributor for the Ventura International Plastics line. They included "Sharks, Tikis and Ten Toes". I can still remember driving down to Ron's house in my 1941 Dodge pickup truck after we closed the shop and picking out a group of boards from his inventory, under the front porch, in his attic, in the living room. Boards everywhere and he was yet to open his famous Ron Jon Surf Shop, having instead a trailer for sales and rentals on a leased piece of land where RJ's Shipbottom store now stands.

The molded board phonoemenon came about, I believe, with the advent of foam boards for the simple reason that for the first time the core material for surfboards was a molded chemical product to begin with. Why not go ahead and mold the stuff into the finished board shape? Not many people knew enough about surfboards at the time to desire a custom shape so what was the difference?

For the next two years, we sold a lot of popouts. As people entered the sport for the first time the product offered a good entry level for the beginner. Cheaper in cost and generally thicker with more flotation, these boards were serviceable for the novice and recreational surfer.

I remember Charlie telling me that within two years all of the business would be hand shaped, what we called "custom" boards.

As the supply of boards increased and we added to our product line, first Gordon and Smith and then Con, Charlie's prediction came true and sure enough by 1965 we were selling hand shaped boards almost exclusively. Not that many were really custom. Certainly not the shapes. Manufacturers such as the ones we carried had a line of shapes they offered and the "custom" aspect came into play only on the length, stringer options, color tape off and maybe the fin. Also the large manufacturers back then had a stable of shapers and you didn't see the shapers name anywhere on the board. The only label was from the guy who owned the company and although most had started as shapers, as the companies grew, you would never see Larry Gordon, Hobie, Hansen, Dewey Weber or Greg Noll in the shaping room unless they might be shaping a "personal".

Of course everything changed in the late sixties and except for a few exceptions such as the Aqua Jet honeycomb board or Karl Pope's "Hollow Wave" board (both failures) or the Morey/Doyle soft board (a huge success), molded boards weren't part of the general product mix in the surfboard offerings in most surf shops.

Fast Forward a Few Years

About 12 years ago or so I had a booth at Surf Expo selling my line of Surf Trunks, T-Shirts and Balsa Boards. Across from my booth was Rob Sullivan with his line of Driftwood Boards shaped by Tommy Maus. These were beautiful boards with fancy stringers, color tint layups and Tommy's clean resin pinlines. Next to the Driftwood booth was a new company that I had never heard of: Surftech. I sat and watched (along with Rob and Tommy) for three days as shop owners and retail buyers marched through the Surftech booth. My friend Kim Robinson, Rennie Yater's rep spent a lot of time in the Surftech booth and he explained the plan to me. Molded boards using sailboard technology (Ok, the return of the popout, ho hum) but with shapes by the best master shapers.

Whoa! This was an entirely new twist. In the past, popouts had been marketed to entry level recreational surfers and the shapes were pretty stock all around beginner models.

Now, under this new plan, the best shapers would be enlisted to shape the plugs and they would receive a royalty on each board of theirs sold. The boards would be marketed to, not beginners, but knowledgeable surfers who wanted a different choice not previously available to them in their home area.

For many who had toiled for years covered with shaping dust working through good times and bad, often at slave wages, this would be their retirement program. Some of the best shapers in the world signed up for the program: Rennie Yater and Donald Takayama to name two of the first.

The benefit to the consumer: An exact copy of a board from a master shaper in a new technology that some said was more durable than the polyester polyurethane construction prevalent at the time. Although this durability point is argued pro and con, I think there are advantages and disadvantages to both construction types and the proponents of each can argue to their hearts content and I'll just stay out of it.

For those who decry the fact that when you buy a molded board a "local shaper" lost some business, remember, the shaper that shaped the plug is getting paid for his intellectual property and his labor on each sale.

Another argument is that the boards are made overseas and that American jobs (glassing, finishing) are lost. This is certainly true. I'm sorry for anyone that loses their job. I'm sorry for the 200 girls that used to sew surf trunks for me in a factory that is now closed since the entire textile/garment industry for the most part has moved overseas. I think though, that the domestic surfboard industry, in general, because of the nature of the business and the product, has fared better than most other American manufacturing businesses. With proper marketing and contiued dedication to quality, service and innovation the domestic industry will survive. Although it will have to adapt to change as we all do in any industry or facet of American life. Certainly the custom business will never go away and the craftsman who can make a unique quality product will thrive.

In Conclusion

So, as you can see, the history of popouts or molded boards have a rich tradition in the history of our sport. The difference today is that the shapers who license their shapes to the manufacturers are justly compensated for their talent. This wasn't common practice back in the sixties.

Now, as to my personal opinion: I'm only talking about longboards here but for my taste, the molded boards are too light. I like a heavy board. My personal boards and the boards I build are around 25-30 lbs. This is not a put down of the Surftechs, Boardworks or other brands, just my opinion. Many surfers do not agree with me on this and like the light boards. I think most hand made poyurethane polyester boards are too light too. But that's why they make chocolate and vanilla and that's why they make Fords, Chevys, Cadillacs, Porches and Ferraris.

I know balsa boards aren't for everyone. And I sure don't recommend the construction for shortboards or funboards. But if you want a longboard that is durable, won't break, or dent. A board that will last longer than you, a balsa board is the answer.

Balsa is a renewable resource unlike foam. Our balsa comes from managed plantations and the eco system and or rain forest is not damaged when we take a balsa tree to make a board.

Surfers who get used to riding a balsa board seldom go back to foam.

So basically, ride whatever you want to ride. I really don't care as long as you're happy and having fun.