pods for primates : a catalogue of surfboards in australia since 1900
home catalogue history references appendix

Return to History Menu surfresearch.com.au 
a brief history of surfboard design 
a brief history of surfboard design
2003 B.C. to 2003 A.D.
This page is currently being extensively revised in 2006 as two entries ...
1. the growth of surf-riding culture to 2006 C.E.
2. surf-riding - a technical and historical definition.

2003 B.C.   A Piece of Wood
Recreational wave riding , either body surfing or assisted by a small board, was practised throughout the Pacific Islands and probably predates the Polynesian migration from Asia, which began aroudnd 2000 B.C.

Their navigation skills took them to the Solomon Islands, around 1600 BC, and later to Fiji and Tonga.
By the beginning of the 1st millennium BC, most of Polynesia was a loose web of thriving cultures who settled on the islands' coasts and lived off the sea.
By 500 BC Micronesia was completely colonized.

Pre- Hawaii - Conjecture.
Exodus from Asia about....see
Debora Smith (Science Editor) : Earth's first beachcombers ended up in Australia.
Sydney Morning Herald : Weekend Edition, May 14-15 2005 News : Page 13.
Reporting research developments published in Science, 13 May 2005.

Initial migration by small groups across small distances in crude craft.
Travell would be directed at observable land masses, that is approximately 5 kilometres.
Craft could vary from a simple single log to a timber raft.

As distances between islands became longer, larger rafts would be required to carry larger numbers of passengers and or supplies.
On occassion rafts could possibly be wind driven by a simple square sail.

The development from this crude base to sophisticated sailing canoes was concurrent with the use of a simple board for personal transport over short distances.
The use of a small paddleboard  was to have two significant impacts on Polynesian culture....

1. It was adapted as a tool of recreation (exhilaration?) with the development of surfriding.

Plywood surfing, Barbados, circa 1988.
Photograph by Dave DiGirolamo
SURFER magazine
Volume 29 Number 12 page 113

2. Originally a floatation devise, board paddling became the basis for Polynesian swimming, incorporating an overarm stroke of the arms and a sissor-like kick by the legs.

Shooting on a board and in a canoe must have started further back than body shooting.
- Duke Kahanamoku, The Sun, Friday 8th January 1914.
Interview by W. F. Corbett.

At the start of the 20th century, the Polynesian style (often mis-labeled the Australian Crawl) was becoming the dominant competitive swimming stroke.
It was emphatically demonstrated by Duke Kahanamoku's 1908 Stockholm Olympic performance.

By the end of the 20th century surfing had spread to across the world's oceans (and Lakes!) and surfing culture had global significance

Whatever it's primitive origins, by 400 A.D. when the first settlers reached Hawaii, five principles had been firmly established...
1. wave riding is fun - the thrill of the ride in is greater than the effort of the paddle out.
2. wave riding can be dangerous
3. the surfer must paddle in the same direction as the wave to achieve take-off.
4. the ride is longer and faster if the surfer rides diagonally across the wave face.
5. a rigid board will improve  planning and paddling - but can also increase the danger factor.

400 A.D.The Paipo
Prone Board - Body Board - Belly Board - Knee Board

A  small wooden prone board used thoughout  the Pacific Islands, primarily as juvenile sport. In Tahiti and Hawaii the boards were ridden prone, kneeling and, occassionally, standing. Other Pacific Islands were restricted to prone riding only.

The origin of these boards is speculative, but broken sections from discarded canoes, outrigger floats or paddles (the blades) are  possible sources. 

Image right :
Hawaiian paddles, circa 1800.
Bishop Museum Collection. Holmes (1993) page 59.

The paddles (hoe) held by the Bishop Museum  have an average blade (laulau) length of 23 inches and a width of 12 inches.
The large bladed paddle to the left is a steering paddle (hoe uli).
It is 7ft 4'' long with a blade 38 inches x 16 inches.
Most blade shapes "are slightly convex on both sides" however there is some variation.

Note that the paddles were shaped from on piece of timber and a broken shaft would render the paddle unusable.
Any of the illustrated blades would make a suitable paipo board.

See Holmes Chapter 7 : Paddles.

Paipo/prone board dimensions ranged from 3 feet x 12 inches (the smallest example in the Bishop Museum, Honolulu. Catalogue Number :C.5966) to 6 feet x 9 inch boards in Aotearoa (New Zealand).

With the development of an adult surfing culture, prone boards  became essential in acquiring basic surf skills. In the 20th century,  the Paipo has been re-invented several times ...
- the Surf-o-plane,
- the Bellyboard,
- the Kneeboard,
- the Spoon,
- the Coolite
- the Mat, and the most successful (in sales, performance and safety)  Tom Morey's
 Booggie Board, 1971.

Further principles were established...
6. Width is limited to the width of the ridder's shoulders.
8. The longer the board, the greater the paddling speed.
9. The lighter the board the greater the floatation
10. The nose is rounded and turned up - for cutting and take off
11. The tail is wide and square.-  for maximum planning area and maximum safety.
12. Don't let go of the board.

1000 The Alaia

The Polynesians arrived in Hawaii with an unequalled maritime knowledge and skills to the finest surfing location on the planet. Not only was there consistant swell and a tropical climate, but a previously untapped store of timber. Unihabited for X0000 million years, the Hawiian Islands had produced a massive store of surfboard building materials - trees large enough to build sixty foot canoes.

Dimensions vary between 6 feet and 12 feet in length, average 18 inches in width, and  between half an inch and an inch and a half thick. The nose is round and turned up, the tail square. The deck and the bottom are convex,  tapering to thin rounded rails. This cross-section would maintain maximum strength along the centre of the board and the rounded bottom gave directional stability, a crucial factor as the boards did not have fins.

Any discussion of the performance capabilities is largely speculation. Contemporary accounts definitely confirm that Alaia were ridden prone, kneeling and standing; and that the riders cut diagonally across the wave. Details of wave size, wave shape, stance and/or manouvres are, as would be expected, overlooked by most non-surfing observers. Most early illustrations of surfing simply fail to represent any understanding of the mechanics of wave riding. Modern surfing experience would suggest that high performance surfing is limited more by skill than equipment. It is a distinct probablity that ancient surfers rode large hollow waves deep in the curl - certainly prone, and on occassions standing.

By 1000 A.D these principles were confirmed...
13. Large waves are faster than small waves.-  a larger board is easier to achieve take off.
14. Steep waves are faster than flat waves.- a smaller board is easier to control at take off.
15. Control is more important than speed
16. Surfboards are precious.

1300  The Olo

Very large boards whose use was restricted, by tradition, to royalty. This may have been due to a heirachical social structure, but it would also to restrict access to certain surfing locations and to the largest available trees. Although there are reports that wlli willi was the preferred timber, the only two examples from this period are koa. As in the case of the Alaia, it's light weight of made it unlikely that  willi willi  boards would  survive until the 20th century. The only other known example, acquired  from the collection of Prince Kuhio in 18xx, is imported pine.

There are no contemporary accounts of how the boards were ridden, but it is most likely that the design was specifically for riding large swells on outside reefs, rather than on breaking or curling waves. In 1961, Tom Blake suggested that the Olo may have been ridden prone.

In the 1920's, Tom Blake and Duke Kahanamoku reproduced the design  in a hollowed version to radically reduce the weight. See #5xx, below

1910 Redwood Alaia

After European settlement of the Hawaiian Islands in 18xx, Hawaiian culture suffered serious decline. Various factors including the development of a cash economy, introduced diseases, and the moral conservatism of Christian missionaries are commonly cited as causes. For surfing, the crucial factors were the massive decline in population (almost 80% between 1778 and 1900) and the ravaging of the native forests by timber merhants.
By 1900, the traditional surfboard woods had virtually disappeared and any new boards were built from imported timbers. These usually were short (seven to eight foot)  boards ridden close to shore and crude in design and construction.

Surfing's international status was boosted in October 1907 with publication in A Woman's Home Companion (of  "A Royal Sport : Surfing at Waikiki" by Jack London. Jack London was a noted travel writer and the article was reprinted as a chapter in his book The Cruise of the Snark, 1911,  His enthusistic  instuctor was Alexander Hume Ford.

In California the exposure was more direct - George Freeth, considered one of the top riders, was commissioned to demonstate surfriding as a promotion for a land sale at Renaldo Beach in 1907. His enthusiasm and ability encouraged locals to take up the sport,  and this was given further impetus with demonstations by Duke Kahanamoku in 1912, both on the West and East coasts. Duke Kahanamoku extended surfing's influence with visits to Australia and New Zealand in 1914-1915.

Surfing was limited to a very small number of native Hawaiians, but increasingly some Europeans became board riding enthusiasts. This was typified by the formation of the Outrigger Canoe Club by Alexander Hume Ford in 1908 at Waikiki. Ford enthusuiastically supported the traditional skills of surfboard riding and paddling outrigger canoes, and was Jack London's instructor.

To encourage young surfer's, entry fees were set at a minimum and boards were supplied for use or purchase ($2.00 in 1909). Developments continued with the appointment of Dad Center as Club Captain and the membership of  Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku in 1917.

The formation of the  Outrigger Canoe Club encouraged other surfing clubs, most noteably the Hui Nui whose members included the Kahanamoku Brothers. Duke Kanhanmoku is credited with taking the sport to new levels of performance and with developing the 10 ft board. Using imported Californian redwood or sugar pine, he made thicker, wider and longer boards to compensate for the lighter native timbers of traditional boards. His basic design would be used around the world for the next 35 years.

1920 Laminated Alaia
1928 Tom Blake Experimental Hollow

Around 1926, Tom Blake attempted to recreate some of the larger ancient Hawaiian solid wood Olo designs that he had restored for the Bishop Museum, Honolulu.
See 1830 Chief Paki's Olo 15ft 7'' #502
"Strange as it may seem, three old-style Hawaiian surfboards of huge dimensions and weight have hung on the walls of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu for twenty years or more without anyone doing more than wonder how in the world these great boards were used, as they were too heavy and long to be practicable."
Blake, page 59.

Tom Blake's First Experimental Hollow  1926 -1928 14 ft. 6 inches
"hollow - length, 14 1/2 feet; width 20 inches; weight 120 pounds"
Image cropped from a photograph by Thomas Edward Blake,  1930
"Waves and Thrills at Waikiki "
National Geograghic Magazine May 1935 Volume 47 Number 5  page 597
 "I too wondered about these boards in the museum, wondered so much that in 1926 I built a duplicate of them as an experiment, my object being to find not a better board, but to find a faster board to use in the annual and popular surfboard paddling races held in California each summer."
Blake, page 59

This board successfully performed to Blake's expectactions, however the extreme weight was a major difficulty. His first experiment, hollowing out a solid board, had been attempted previously -

"As early as as 1918 Claude West had experimented to make a hollow board, chippig and gouging out a solid redwood slab and fitting a small sealed and screwed deck.
The experiment was not a success; plywoods were not yet, nor plastic glues, timbers were sun dried intead of kiln dried as now, and sun-cracks quickly gaped to let in water.
'Snowy' McAllister of Manly...also experimented with chipped out boards.
He, too, was unsuccessful, though he improved on the West model, also steamling the tail in the hope of gaining more speed."
Maxwell , pages 239-240.

Probably similar attempts at hollowing boards had been made by other surfers before Tom Blake...
however a combination of drilled holes and extended curing  made a noticable difference in weight

"This surfboard was sixteen feet long and weight 120 pounds."  Blake, page 59
Blake also reported the length of this board as 14 ft 6 inches in 1935, see above.
Nat Young personally interviewed Tom Blake for his recollections of this period, published in 1983's The History of Surfing, and although the length varies from  Blake's 1935 notes, the account is detailed...

" He purchased a solid slab of redwood 16' long, 2' wide and 4" thick.
It weighed around 150 pounds - too heavy to be of service as a surfboard, even when shaped.
So to lighten it he drilled hundreds of holes in it from top to bottom, each hole removing a cylinder of wood four inches long.
Then he left the holey board season for a month.
After the wood had fully dried he covered the top and bottom surfaces with a thin layer of wood, sealing the holes. I
t finished up 15' long, 19" wide and 4" thick, looking like a cigar.
It's weight was only 100 lbs, because it was partly hollow."
Nat History page 49

The second edition of History of Surfing (1994) is dedicated to Tom Blake who died May 5, 1994, aged 92.

The complete photograph, see below, notes a third length for this board of 14 ft 6 inches.
There is some confusion as to these board's actual lengths.
It is possible that the board's length was reduced between 1926 and 1930, due to modifications or repairs - it certainly reduced in weight..

The board's paddling performance was demonstrated in 1928 when, after a slow start, Tom Blake emphatically won the 880 yards paddling race at the Pacific Coast Surfing Contest, Balboa, California. Blake, page 59.

The  long white board above was the first reproduction of the ancient Hawaiian OLO chiefs board, however it was hollow to lighten it. Duke Kahanamoku also rode this board. Thos. Blake"

Uncredited photograph and hand written notes by Tom Blake from a copy of Hawaiian Surfboard, 1935.
Hawaiian Historical Society.
reproduced in Lueras,  page 83.

1930 Tom Blake Hollow Paddleboard
Encouraged by his initial experiments, Tom Blake's second proto-type was a major advance...

"In the later part of 1929, after three years of experimenting, I introduced at Waikiki  a new type of surfboard;...but in reality the design was taken from the ancient Hawaiian type of board, also from the English racing shell."
Blake, page 51

 "a light, hollow 16 footer, broke all paddle-race records at Waikiki."
Tom Blake's  Hollow Paddle board, 16 ft  60 pounds1929
Image cropped from a photograph by Thomas Edward Blake,  1930
"Waves and Thrills at Waikiki "
National Geograghic Magazine
May 1935 Volume 47 Number 5  page 597
The construction of this board is unclear, in Blake's notes does "English racing shell " refer to the template, the ribbed construction or both?
It may have used...
- the drilled hole technique
- laminated with chambered strips, or
- built form a timber frame and covered with a layer of the newly developed marine grade ply- wood, in the manner of racing shells or canoes of the period.
or some combination of these methods.
Given the reported weight of only 60 pounds, one of the latter methods seems most likely.

The template of this board was radically streamlined compared to it's predecessor.

The application of a light skin over a ridgid frame for boats dates back to the Irish chonicle or the Innuit kayak.

"It was called a 'cigar board', because a newspaper reporter thought it was shaped like a giant cigar. This board was really graceful and beautiful to look at, and in performance so so good that officials of the Annual surfboard Paddling Championship immediately..."
Blake, pages 51 - 52.

1930 Laminated Alaia : Wakiki Model

1930 Laminated Alaia : Swastika Model

1935 Tom Blake Hollow : Production Model

1935 Hot Curl

1942 Bob Simmons' Scarfed Swastika
1946 Fibreglassed Board
1948 Bob Simmons' Laminate

1952 George Downing's Balsa Wood Finned Gun
1953 Bob Simmons' Spoon

1956 Balsa Wood Malibu : Hobie Surfboards #317

1958 Velzy Pig : Surfboards by Velzy and Jacobs

1964 Phil Edwards Model : Hobie Surfboards 

1964 Hawaiian Gun by Dick Brewer : Hobie Surfboards 
1966 Sam by Nat Young : Gordon Woods Surfboards 
1966 da Cat by Mickey Dora : Greg Noll Surfboards

1966 Velo I by George Greenough

1967 Surfboard La Jolla Twin-Pin & Twin Fin
1967 Pipeliner by Richard Brewer : Bing Surfboards

1967 Performer : Weber Surfboards 

1967 Vee Bottom by Midget Farrelly : Farrelly Surfboards 
1967 Vee Bottom Gun by Bob McTavish : Keyo Surfboards
1968 Tracker by Bob McTavish : Morey-Pope Surfboards
1967 Little Red by Ted Spencer : Shane Surfboards
1968 Double-Ender by Wayne Lynch : John Arnold Surfboards

Return to History Menu

home catalogue history references appendix