A transformative tale of three local shapers
Wave-smoothing kelp beds, world class point breaks, and a relatively protected southwest-facing bay together tailor Santa Cruz into a high-performance surfing mecca. Marry nature’s bounty with the ingenuity of three local shapers at the forefront of producing red-hot, light and durable custom boards out of expanded polystyrene (EPS), and you’ve got one potent combination.
Photo Credit, Kelly V
Ward Coffey, William “Stretch” Riedel and M10’s Geoff Rashe, and their respective team riders, fiercely compete in the water as well as in their shaping rooms. Still, each had the foresight to cooperate when it came to new materials and shaping technology.
EPS is a material very similar to that found in styrofoam to-go cups offered at any convenience store. Despite its superior buoyancy and lighter weight, early attempts to coax EPS into windsurfing and surfboard production were fraught with bonding and quality-control issues that often led to severe de-lamination and dejection.
As Coffey tells the tale, Greg Loehr of Cocoa Beach, Florida, and John Bradbury of Santa Barbara were the early pioneers who led the charge into EPS in the mid-1980s with stringer-less, two-pound core blanks (foam density per cubic foot). “This process created lighter and stronger boards than the heavier ‘glossed and polished’ polyester boards being built, but the epoxy resins at the time were not user-friendly and not accepted,” Coffey explains. “The industry simply went to Ultralite polyester foam and sanded four-ounce glass jobs, but this also just made for very fragile boards.”
Along came “sandwich” construction and vacuum-formed sail and surfboards constructed of EPS/epoxy (think Randy French at Surftech). Stretch and Coffey used that process to crank out sailboards and fill a growing demand for kiteboards. But the sandwich process was painfully time consuming, costly and complex, despite obvious strength advantages. Coffey was convinced there had to be an easier way.
He ultimately stumbled upon a cheaper and simpler solution by chance. In the mid-’90s, when his supplier mistakenly sent him some denser two-pound foam, rather than the one-pound variety he had been using, Coffey called Loehr, the East Coast shaper who formed Resin Research and eventually ironed out the early cantankerous problems with EPS. He asked if he could use the heavier foam, and was informed, in fact, that that was what he should be using for surfboards.
For years in the late-’90s, Ward Coffey built EPS/epoxy boards for his personal use and select team riders. They were ideal for clean waves up to head high. But it wasn’t until he dialed in the blank density and adopted Greg Loehr’s superior resins that he gained the confidence to break out these “stealth” boards for mainstream surfers. He vividly recalls shaping one for local surfer Cole Barthel in 1997, who as a junior-high schooler went on to claim the California Championship on the board, in a dominant performance that vindicated Ward’s faith in the combination. A photo of the event still hangs on his wall as a symbol of that progression.
Having outsourced the bulk of his glassing to Stretch in 2003 and tiring of the laborious sandwich lamination process, Coffey brought by a couple of his refined two-pound EPS blanks and had to convince Stretch to glass them stoutly in epoxy. “You sure about this, babe?” Stretch responded with skepticism. But team riders Josh Mulcoy, Jason “Ratboy” Collins and Josh Loya were psyched on the snappy feel and neutral buoyancy compared to the corkier sandwich version. Pretty soon everyone had to have one of these light-but-livelier boards.
Compared to sandwich construction, finishing an EPS/epoxy board cut the required man hours down from 26 to a mere six to eight hours. Then in late-2005, Gordon “Grubby” Clark unceremoniously exited the polyester blank business that accounted for nearly 90 percent of surfboard blanks used up to that time.
While everyone else was hoarding Clark blanks in the “AC” (After Clark) period, Coffey soon found himself furiously swapping order tickets over to EPS. He just rolls his eyes now when customers ask if he “does EPS” like Stretch and Rashe, since he was instrumental in convincing them to embrace that change at just the right time.
Stretch came to champion the new process and has become the largest dedicated EPS/epoxy board factory in Northern California. Meanwhile, Geoff Rashe at M10 fully bought into the EPS/epoxy combo as well, while being an early adopter of custom computer design and shaping. Both Stretch and Rashe now almost exclusively produce EPS/epoxy boards.
Moreover, Rashe touts his factory as “zero emissions, emitting little enough V.O.C. (volatile organic compound) that the air pollution control can’t even make us get a permit; and it is not carcinogenic. Our EPS foam is recyclable and its expansion process is way less toxic than polyurethane.”
It’s all further proof that three shaper-innovators have transformed Santa Cruz into a cleaner and leaner “EPS Triangle”—raising the performance bar and sustainability of our wave-rich region.
Photo Credit 1, Dave Aumentado – Photo Credit 2,Kelly V
For more information, go to wardcoffeyshapes.com, stretchboards.com or m10surfboards.com.