Conservation

Shaping the future of surfing

Interview by Max B White
Photographs by Max B White & Oliver Couch

When was the last time you thought about your surfboard and the process behind making it?

It’s something we don’t usually think about. As surfers, we have a responsibility to protect and promote healthy practices in our natural playground. With the surfboard industry expected to grow 12% a year for the next three years, we went down to speak to Jackson Fearns, founder of Jaxon Surfboards, to learn more about the process behind the boards, the materials used and what the next few years of board development might look like.

It all began while he was studying a boat design course in Falmouth. With the freedom to use the course workshop, he was making boards for himself and friends and after getting a few orders he started a shaping course alongside a university technician. Now he is based in Helston, with a workshop that overlooks rolling fields just a couple of miles from Falmouth. He still teaches workshops and designs custom boards for many of the UK’s best surfers.

Max White (MW): Are people becoming more interested in the process?

Jackson Fearns (JF): The workshops have definitely become more popular. You get a greater appreciation for what goes into a board as well as how hard it is to make one, especially if you’re someone that’s not particularly good with tools. People enjoy that each day of the workshop is different and each part covers a new process and skill. For example, a lot of people haven’t worked with foam before or find the fiberglassing process quite alien. When you shape a board, you’re sculpting a piece of art and making it functional, which is really rewarding and the better you know your own board, the better you’ll be in the water. I think ultimately, it’s more about finding out what works well for you. A lot of people have this perception of what they should be riding because of what they see others on, but it’s so dependent on your local area and your own style.

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MW: Is there a part of the process that concerns you, or that you can see changing?

JF: The whole process, it’s awful! The materials used are some of the worst things you could possibly make surfboards out of. While there’s definitely an increasing amount of awareness among surfers it’s hard because no one really wants to change how their boards ride. The waste output from the process is especially bad and has a large impact on me – I’m always looking for ways to cut it down. I probably produce fifty to sixty boards and output two tonnes of waste plastic each year. People are rarely aware that a lot of the disposables (mixing sticks, pots, gloves etc.) are part of the manufacturing process, they don’t think about that when they buy a board. I do think when people get a new board they should understand and take responsibility for the whole process, not just the finished product.

MW: Is there a solution?

JF: With the materials at the moment, there isn’t a clear solution that allows the same performance but also makes the process sustainable. Wooden boards, for example, are still fibreglassed, super heavy and really expensive to make. No one is prepared to spend “X” amount more for a board that doesn’t perform as well as its plastic counterpart. I’m really focusing my efforts on making boards last longer and implementing new, more sustainable materials, wherever possible. It’s about trying to bridge the performance gap using the properties and materials I think will provide a viable alternative.

I do think you can still make the argument for the foam boards people learn on. Although they’re shipped from halfway across the world, they can take a punch and so many more surfs without breaking. I also like the membership model that Open Surf in St Agnes is doing. You pay a monthly fee and can try different boards made by shapers from all around the world, without paying a massive premium rate to buy your own.

MW: What new techniques are you currently trying?

JF: I’ve always had an interest in sustainable composites, it’s what I studied, so I’ve made a few boards from them in the past. More and more money has gone into the research and development of these materials and the technology is much better than when I started out. I think people are now more open to experimentation with their boards and trust that these new materials are viable. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel but instead find different materials we can substitute that will perform well, be durable and are more sustainable. You don’t want a sustainably crafted surfboard that breaks after a month’s use or that you can’t sell to anyone because it performs so badly.

We’re predominantly focused on the deck and making that the strongest part but we’re also reinforcing the rails. Surfers don’t like their boards to lose pop as the foam squashes or they get compression marks and these new materials deal better with those issues, they also stop the boards yellowing and looking old. While the production costs are £100 more per board, it’s part of a better process and will last a lot longer.

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MW: Could you tell me about the materials used?

JF: We’re using an EPS core because it’s a lot lighter than PU and you can recycle a higher content of it. We’re then putting on a higher grade, more durable glass with one layer on top and bottom instead of the conventional two. We’re then substituting one of those conventional fibreglass layers for a sustainable alternative like carbon, linen or bamboo. I don’t think you can rely on natural fibres alone, so I’m still settled on using the initial layer of fibreglass to wrap the boards in and give them strength.

The new epoxys, like the super-sap we’re using, are getting more affordable and there are others I’d like to try. We’re also putting a cork deck on the boards which adds some buoyancy, protects the deck from UV stability and adds traction, so that you don’t have to use wax. The cork itself is great because it’s just bark on a tree so you can shave it off and it’ll grow back over time. It’s also easy to source locally with suppliers selling different thicknesses and densities. Beyond that it’s just a nice material to work with, it sands nicely and is easy to manipulate and cut.

MW: What’s the feedback been so far?

JF: Great! It’s still really early on and I need to do a lot more experimentation with the process. I need as much feedback as possible from all different levels and abilities, which is why we’re doing these as demo boards for people to come and try. We’ve only tested four new materials and just doing the research for this project has opened my eyes to some of the new stuff available. For example, we’re getting some cork blanks to try out and there’s also a foam that’s made from 100% recycled plastic bottles that we’re looking into. It doesn’t yet come in a thick core material or a density that would be suitable for surfboards, but hopefully it will soon.

MW: Are there any negatives in using these new materials?

JF: For sure, the blanks we’re using are so far from where I’d like them to be. While you can recycle a higher content of the EPS blanks they’re still just big cells of foam that crumble away when a board is damaged, those beads are really nasty and end up on beaches all the time. The carbon vector net is working well and makes the boards stronger, but can leave a small pattern through the deck so we’re working on minimising that. The linen and other natural fibres tend to soak up more of the resin, which adds weight to the boards and bamboo creates a few more disposables, but both of these are better ecologically than the traditional layer of glass. The industry is still so far from the perfect solution, but these are a step forward. It needs more consumer demand and experimentation from shapers.

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MW: Have surfers become disconnected from their boards?

JF: I think boards have become so cheap now with an abundance of them shipping from across the world that they’ve become almost disposable. If we can start sourcing more locally, using better materials and if people are happy to pay more, change will start to come. I really admire the kind of business model that brands like Patagonia use with their free repairs and lifetime warranty. We’ve set up something similar with the free ding repairs but also try to encourage people to change the way they look at their boards and understand the process behind them.

The trouble is trying to make them super light and perform better tends to reduce the strength of the boards. People look to competitors on the world tour and want to surf like them. You find yourself wanting the boards they ride so you can surf like them, which inevitably drives everyone towards high performance and fragile shortboards. If they can set a precedent and use their influence to promote more sustainable manufacturing and travel it would be great. Imagine if they were only allowed three boards per event and if you snapped them you’re out, how cool would that be? Surfing, in general, is just nowhere near as sustainable as it’s often portrayed.

MW: Are there any big misconceptions about shaping?

JF: I think the level of craftsmanship involved. When you buy these mass-produced boards they’re often getting made by machines or someone who’s not even necessarily seen the sea, they’ve just been shown one part of the process and production line. Shapers spend so much time and money on the process of learning the craft. You invest a lot with boards that you mess up and materials you try that don’t work. I think it’s just the appreciation of what goes into it, the working space you need and the energy you put into each board to get what comes out at the end. I also think the shaping process is more of a skill than people think, it’s a constant learning curve.

MW: What keeps you coming back to the shaping process?

JF: It’s really the love of surfing and building things, it’s nice being creative and making things with your hands. I like how flexible it is, the way you can adapt designs and try new things with each board. I love teaching as well, showing others what I know and passing on the tips and tricks I’ve learnt through the process. I don’t think shaping should be this closed community where a lot of people hold back information. I want to show others what I enjoy about it and help them to understand the process behind the boards they ride.

Additional surfing photographs by George Hiles and Adel Gordon.

Photographs by Max B White & Oliver Couch

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