Surfboards were not always 5 to 6 feet thrusters. Those are only the distant child of a long lineage of boards whose shapes have evolved over decades. In the early XXth century, when surfing arrived from Hawaii to occidental countries, iconic surfers such as George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku were riding traditional all-wooden “plank boards”, measuring up to 17 feet, and what is called a “longboard” nowadays was simply known as a “board” until the late 1960s.
Thanks to their knowledge passed on from one generation to the next, visionary shapers have invented new shapes, humbly inspired and forever indebted to the innovations and wisdom of elderly craftsmen. Each of them contributes to the history of surfboard design, made of trials, errors, discoveries and revolutions.
From Tom Blake’s Hollow Board (1932) and Bob Simmons’ Planing Hull (1950), to the Mini-Simmons (2006) — the latest shape invented — we introduce in our Heritage of Surfboard Design series a selection of iconic boards that set the foundations of modern-day shaping and surf.
As the surf culture was slowly spreading through the US, a young American named Tom Blake (1902-1994) visited Hawaii and studied the traditional “olo” and “alaia” boards to start shaping his own. His main concern was to reduce the weight to gain some speed. So in 1926, he drilled holes through the deck of a 15 feet olo and covered the top and bottom with a thin skin of plywood. Later, he carved out the inside of an opened board before glueing the two pieces back together.
In 1932, Blake came up with a “skin-on-frame” design on wooden ribs. His Hollow boards were mainly 12 feet or longer, with flat deck and bottom, a pointed tail, a rounded nose and boxy square rails. They weighed as little as 18 kilos, allowing him to glide faster than anyone before. More people could now carry, paddle, and control a surfboard, becoming more and more popular. The last touch will later be added when he ditched the squared-off edges for a rounded-rail design.
Yet, the Hollow was difficult to manoeuvre. Without sufficient drag, the board would spin out as the swell got stronger. Dragging a foot in the water alongside the board’s tail or playing with the rider’s weight were the only means to gain a small amount of control.
Hoping to remedy this issue, a group of Hawaiian surfers (John Kelly, Fran Heath and Wall Frosieth) shaved off parts of the rail and tail of one of their Planks boards, forming a “V” shape. This adaptation got called the “Hot Curl”.
Taking notes, Blake tried another idea: he attached a keel from an old speedboat to the tail of his board and invented the first fin, aka the most significant contribution ever made to surfing at the time and a complete game-changer for Blake himself:
“When I first paddled out the board felt like it was much easier to keep in a straight line, although I thought I might be imagining it. My first wave revealed the truth. Never before had I experienced such control and stability. The board didn’t spin out, it steered easily and it turned any way you wanted it.” Tom Blake
Nowadays, many have tried to recreate Tom Blake’s iconic hollow board. Projects such as Nole Cossart — pictured in Ben Weiland’s movie “Mr Kookbox” — who not only build them but also ride them with unexpected ease, take us right back to the 1930s.
In 2018, Nico build up a 10 feet replica at the Wavegliders factory, now displayed in our surf shop in Ericeira. Come check it out, as well as our selection of history books to learn more about Tom Blake and the surfboard design pioneers.