By Emmaline Harvey
The sudden closing of Clark Foam in December 2005 shocked the surfing world and left shapers and retailers scrambling for another way to get blanks. According to the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association (SIMA), Clark Foam produced roughly 1,000 blanks per day-60 percent of the total global production of traditional polyurethane foam blanks.
After this unexpected halt in production, SIMA released a letter suggesting short-term solutions for board builders, including contacting two smaller foam companies in California, importing blanks from Australian or South African producers, and even exploring blanks made with alternative materials. Three years later, the industry is still coping with Clark Foams absence.
At first, as prices rose, sales dropped and board makers were left with few options. Some companies had Clark blanks stored up, and competitors began to buy from one another. Many smaller vendors started popping up around the country, and some companies even relied on importing blanks from overseas. But overall, builders were still paying much higher prices for what many believed was, initially, a much lower-quality product.
“Immediately after Clark [Foam] closed, we just scraped together what blanks [we] could find locally-we bought from competitors and ordered from outside the country,” recalls Spearz Conomikes, owner of Spearz High Performance Surf in Van Nuys, CA.
As vendors were faced with a sudden shortage of blanks, prices immediately rose for both retailers and consumers. The high prices forced surfers to find cheaper ways to get their boards-including shopping on eBay.
The two companies that stood to gain the most from Clarks closing were unable to cope with such a drastic change.
Oceansides Just Foam-one of the manufacturers cited by SIMA as a “short-term solution”-experienced two years of incredibly bad luck. According to Just Foam owner Scott Saunders, the closing “almost ruined” the business because of his overeager expansion plans. Although business initially picked up, labor costs began to soar and, near the end of the year, the company sent out a batch of “bad blanks” and subsequently lost many clients. After improving the foam formula and gradually rebuilding the client base, a fire in March 2007 burned the warehouse to the ground, forcing Saunders to put foam production on hold as he rebuilt.
Similarly, Walker Foam, the other company referenced by SIMA, seized the chance to expand and bought a 32,000-square-foot facility in China to pick up Clarks business. When the shapers instead shopped around from a multitude of sources, Walker Foam experienced financial trouble and closed its doors in December 2007.
But not all companies experienced such poor fortune. At the time Clark closed its doors, Stretch Boards in Santa Cruz, CA, was planning to slowly transition their blank production from both polyurethane and epoxy materials to only epoxy blanks by June 2006.
“[When Clark closed] we just stepped up our game-we doubled our orders,” notes Stretch Riedel, owner of Stretch Boards. Knowing that retailers would look for alternatives to Clarks traditional polyurethane board, Stretch made the transition to working with only epoxy boards within just two days of Clarks closing. “We were the only ones in that position,” he says. “We didnt miss a beat.”
Shapers and surfers continue to debate the change from a one-solution market. Bob Abdelfattah, director of purchasing and co-owner of Jacks Surfboards, sees it as a positive. “To be honest with you, since Clark Foam closed, theres so much more variety of foam in the market and so much more technology. Clark leaving was an opportunity. This is probably the best thing to happen to the surf market,” he says.
But pro surfer and self-proclaimed “surfboard freak” Ted Robinson disagrees. “I think that its good that there are more options for blanks,” he says, “but Id say 25 to 40 percent are good ones, and there are some bad blanks out there that will break down.”
By late 2006, shapers who had scrambled for any blanks a year before were offered a wide choice of board materials and prices. Epoxy boards, which before had a small following, suddenly saw a renewed interested.
“The new EPS epoxy boards are some of my favorite stuff going on right now,” says Sun Diego surf buyer Bryan Guter. “Theres much more life to the boards. [Theyre] lighter, stronger and have lasted a lot longer than the [polyurethane] boards you used to have with Clark.”
Although rising petroleum costs have increased the price of traditional polyurethane boards, many board builders still arent sold on the merits of epoxy.
Although Just Foams Saunders points out that he was asked to produce epoxy boards last year, he didnt because the popularity of epoxy boards is dropping. “None of the pros are surfing epoxy and, as in any sport, the public follows the pros,” he notes.
Robinson agrees. “I prefer polyurethane blanks about 85 percent of the time versus epoxy,” he reports. “We went through a wave of epoxy about 15 to 20 years ago, and now theyre back. Its hard to get drive out of epoxy blanks; they dont have flex and projection.”
Despite the mixed reviews, epoxy blanks offer a long list of benefits. The material is traditionally seen as more environmentally friendly than polyurethane, both during the production process and in the final product. Stretch believes many big-name companies shy away from the historically hard-to-shape material because it involves a new process of foam production that is not particularly cost- or time-effective.
However, Rocky McKinnon, a Quiksilver-sponsored surfer and owner of McKinnon Shapes and Designs in Huntington Beach, CA, doesnt care about the cost.
“I am extremely happy with epoxy longboards and stand-up paddle boards because I can still make them light but strong,” McKinnon remarks. “And light equals maneuverability.”
As for the traditional polyurethane blanks, in fall 2006, two of Clarks top employees opened a new foam company called US Blanks in Gardena, CA. They claim it is the only 100 percent legal blank manufacturing company, thanks to strict adherence to environmental standards. The company was poised to pick up where Clark left off, and it did-about nine months after Clark shut down, US Blanks picked up the vast majority of Clarks biggest distributors in the U.S. and Japan, and has since added several more.
“Everyone got [blanks] from Clark; people are now getting them from US Blanks,” says Erich Buerger, owner of Razor Reef in Newport Beach. “Theyre still making them [blanks] in the U.S., just not in areas where they care about the environment.” He adds that US Blanks lacks the strict environmental policies that pressured Clark to close.
Now that the industry appears to be stabilizing, many consumers expect prices to return to normal. Unfortunately, polyurethane blanks are manufactured using increasingly expensive petroleum. “When the dust sort of settled and we knew we had enough blanks to meet demand is about the time gas prices started to soar,” explains Duke Brouwer, a spokesperson for Surftech in Santa Cruz, CA. These higher prices may contribute to the renewed interest in epoxy boards.
“All foam cores are petroleum based,” states Conomikes of Spearz High Performance Surf. “As prices rise, theres a cap in the market as to what someone can charge for a surfboard.”
So what does the future hold for surfboard manufacturing? The general consensus seems to favor polyurethane surfboards, which surfers have used for decades. The only difference is where shapers obtain their blanks. Gone are the days of a blank monopoly.
Buerger suggests that Clark is now viewed as a part of surf history rather than as a hole in the industry. “[When the company closed] everyone still had Clark Foam blanks. People are still holding onto Clark stuff because its vintage and is going to be worth a lot later,” he says.
But now that shapers have had time to work with new materials, the reviews for Clarks product are not as strong as they once were.
“I think [US Blanks] are the same quality [as Clark], but because people have been using different foam now, theyre realizing that Clark wasnt that good,” Saunders opines.
The loss of Clark three years ago greatly affected every aspect of the surfing community. It turned some small foam producers into big-hitters and sent other companies plummeting over the edge. Surfers tried out new boards as shapers were forced to obtain their blanks from new manufacturers using new materials. In short, by disappearing from the scene, Clark, which was once the biggest name in surfboard foam production, opened the door to new materials and development. Although the future of surfboard production is still unclear, surfboard manufacturers are finally getting the recognition they deserve.
Blank producers, shapers, retailers, and even surfers concur that the loss of a surfboard monopoly has made the public realize that surfboard shaping is truly an art. As a result, surfers can now choose from a vast array of artists to design personal surfboard masterpieces.
In effect, says Brouwer, “[Shapers] are creating a custom product and the [boards] are finally costing what they should.”