|The closing of Clark Foam created panic for every surfboard manufacturer. Read here the reasons for the demise of Clark Foam and the technical problems it created for surfboard shapers.
THE CLARK FOAM FIASCO
December 5, 2005, a day that will go down in surfboard industry infamy. The shock wave that turned Infinity Surfboards topsi-turvie was repeated individually in each surfboard manufacturer throughout the USA. When I first heard the news that Clark Foam had closed, it was incomprehensible; it was akin to announcing that Ford Motor Company had closed, but much less likely. Clark Foam was the most solid, profitable enterprise in the industry. It was our benevolent monopoly.
I walked into my surf shop late in the afternoon after a full day of shaping. One of my employees said, “Hey, did you know that Clark Foam had closed?” “What?!” I said. “Yes,” he said, “my friend who is an employee over there told me that everyone has been laid off and all production has stopped.” My first thought was that Gordon Clark, the owner, was making a dramatic but temporary move to win some employment conflict with his workers or was making a point of protest to the county and state inspectors for their constant antagonistic intrusions. My first instinct was to take a mental stock of my blank supply. No problem, I thought, the 50 or so blanks in the storage room will easily last for the next five to ten days until this inconvenience is over. The idea that I would not receive my next order of blanks for perhaps a month was incomprehensible. I proceeded to finish some end of the day chores when Barrie, my wife, came down from the office carrying a fax just in from Clark Foam. This letter was many pages long and looked similar to the usual infomercials handed down from Gordon in the past. Summarized very briefly, he said that because of two employee lawsuits and a very detrimental new government finding that the chemicals used in making surfboard blanks caused cancer, he would no longer be able to continue in business. He stated that his decision was irreversible and that all the equipment and molds in his plant would be destroyed and removed immediately.
The next mornings addition of the Orange County Register announced the news of the demise of Clark Foam on the front page. I opened the shop as usual, but nothing for the next few hours was usual. We were innundated with phone calls from customers and from industry associates. I spent the first four hours responding to phone calls. When I finally walked out into the shop, I found a stampede of customers buying surfboards. By noon we had already sold as many boards as we normally sell in a whole week. It didn’t take long to realize that by the end of the week the shop would be empty and I may not be able to build more boards. I immediately raised the price $100, but that had no effect on sales. So I raised it again another $100 and sales only slowed down a little, so I raised the price of the boards a full $300. With that, only those guys visualizing the most cataclysmic effect on their surfing future would reluctantly buy a surfboard. Well, this is an effective way to preserve the inventory, but a dissasterous way to stay in business. Customers were driving from shop to shop looking for affordable prices. Shops who failed to raise their prices had nothing to sell the following week. A week later, after the panic subsided, I reduced the price $100 to where it remains at the time of this writing. Essentially, we now have a three-tiered price list dependent on the costs of blanks remaining from Clark Foam, Walker Foam, imported foam and EPS-epoxy technology.
Late that afternoon I made a call over to Clark Foam. It was unusual for Sara, Gordon’s daughter, to answer. I could immediately detect the sound of stress in her voice. I could also hear the background noise of what sounded like an office in shock. I had read Gordon’s lengthy explanation in his fax, so I didn’t need to ask what happened. I said that I had just called to say how sorry I was for their catastrophy. I asked if she had known this was coming. She said that no one had any idea about it. She was as shocked as everyone else. I asked, “Couldn’t your dad have fought harder to keep the company going?” She said that her dad loved the company and was heart broken over the situation. She said that she couldn’t talk about the legal circumstances that had swarmed over them.
The next day I made some long distance phone calls to Australia where there are several blank manufacturers. My conversation with Midget Farrely of Surf Blanks Australia was typical of the response I got. (Midget was the very first world champion surfer. I met him in the early ’60s and again at the Biarritz Surf Festival in 2000.) First off, it is the middle of their busy season; they are producing blanks at full capacity and can barely keep up with their local demand. Second, there is a deep-seated animosity toward the US surfboard industry, not only from worldwide competition, but also because of Clark Foam’s brutal, aggressive, monopolistic blocking of their entry into the US market. Midget stated that he was absolutely not interested in selling any blanks to the US. I pursued my need for blanks in the future by asking if he would consider selling blanks when his busy season was over and he had excess capacity. He said that his blanks were far superior to Clark Foam because they are much stronger, but the American shapers are so lazy and spoiled from shaping that soft Clark stuff that they could not handle his foam. I said, “Well, I will have nothing to shape in a couple of weeks and certainly would not mind a slight inconvenience.” He stated that his last adventure into the American market was so aggravating that he never again wanted to listen to a bitching American shaper and would not sell another blank here. So, “Nat is Nat and that is that” as the Aussies would say.
Perhaps the two bits of blame that I point toward Gordon Clark was his aggressive success in keeping all other blank makers out of the US market. This was done in two ways. First, to our benefit, when a foreign or small domestic competitor like Walker Foam, Foss Foam or Rogers Foam would open up with a limited selection of blanks for sale, Clark would lower the price of his own blanks that were similar to the competitor’s blanks. He would use these loss leaders to slowly strangle their sales. Second, and more deadly, if a competitor made a strong headway into the blank purchases of a major surfboard manufacturer, Clark would delay or stop his own blank shipments to that shop. This would make it nearly impossible for that shop to obtain the wide range of blanks (available only from Clark) necessary to satisfy all his customers. In building this powerful Clark monopoly, there is an inherent responsibility to not abandon his customers without an immediate viable source of blanks. Gordon actually destroyed all of his blank molds rather than give them away to a competitor like Walker Foam who could have then more easily filled the giant gap left in the surfboard industry. He claimed that he could be liable for any future damages caused by blanks made from those molds, even after he was out of business. You can only guess what dire consequences his lawyers predicted if he were to remain in business. Alternatively, Gordon may have given some indication to his customers that we should stock up and begin making contacts for alternate sources of supply. To put it bluntly, Gordon Clark shit on the industry that made him rich.
To understand the impact of losing Clark Foam; Clark produced 1,200 blanks per day, supplying 90% of the US market. The only other domestic blank maker, Walker Foam, in response to new demand has quadrupled its production up from 100 blanks per week to 400 blanks per week. Surfboard shapers are waiting weeks to get only a one day supply.
Later that afternoon, George Mayou, a sales rep from Island Style, a South African company, stopped by to say that Safari Blanks of South Africa was accepting orders for blanks. The only economical way to bring blanks in from another country is by shipping container. I went to the Safari web site to view their offering of blanks. They had about ten blanks to offer, 10% of my Clark Foam choices. (They are making an additional 20 molds, ready this spring). I had no choice of rockers or stringers, an incomprehensible prospect from my point of view. Furthermore, a container of blanks will cost about $60,000 and I would need to pay 60 percent in advance and all of it before the container left the dock. Later, in March I placed an order for a container (700 blanks) from Safari Blanks.
Over the years I have shaped many paddleboards out of EPS foam (expanded polystyrene) and it was only coincidental that in the month previous I began working more seriously in EPS to make wave skis. Compared to urethane (Clark Foam), EPS is much harder to shape, and it must be glassed with epoxy resin. In addition, it cannot be airbrushed very well. For these reasons, EPS-epoxy has been largely ignored for making surfboards even though epoxy resin has perhaps five times the strength of polyester because of it’s molecular bonding.
As I was considering my options to remain in the surfboard business, EPS-epoxy became an important option. The reason for this is that as some people know, Infinity builds a giant variety of surfboards. Our repertoire of sizes and shapes is unequaled by any other shop. For this reason we need a wide variety of fairly unusual blanks that were available only at Clark Foam. Urethane blanks from other sources will eventually work for our normal size boards, but for tandem boards, the Secret Weapon, big guy boards and wave skis there will be nothing available. I began immediately designing and making side profile rockers for my specialty blanks to be hot wire cut from EPS. To better explain why this side profile rocker is so important, I will go into the history of blank design a bit.
After the hollow “kook-box” and solid redwood surfboard era, the first shapeable surfboard blanks were balsa wood. If you look carefully at any of the early balsa wood boards, you will see that they had absolutely no deck rocker, no kick in the nose. The rocker was restricted by the dimentions of the 3.25 thick standard balsa wood plank. Shapers literally did not think outside of the balsa wood box that was in those days a rectangular blank In the late 1950s when Gordon Clark and Hobie Alter first started experimenting with urethane foam as a shapeable blank for surfboards, the foam blanks were so flexible that they sagged on the shaping rack like a foam rubber mattress. Gorden Duane of Gordie Surfboards (www.gordiesurfboards.com) bought one of these new urethane blanks and was first to glue a wood stringer into it to give it rigidity. A while later, Gordies friend Harold Walker learned from his friend Chuck Foss (who later started Foss Foam blanks) how to blow urethane foam. Now there were two start-up surfboard blank companies, Clark Foam and Walker Foam. But still, blank makers and shapers did not think outside the box. For years they made urethane blanks without any rocker or kick in the nose, just like the balsa wood blanks that they were used to. Around 1960, Dale Velzy was the first to make an easy riding board with a significant kick in the nose by bending the foam blank up in the nose with the wooden stringer (which had now become standard). These boards were much easier to ride, but were considered beginner boards by the more experienced but narrow minded surfers. This valuable leap forward in design was lost for the next several years until the late 1960s, when Hawiian guns and the new noserider designs started incorporating kick in the nose for specialty performance. In a conversation a few years ago with Phil Edwards, a premier shaper of the ’60s, I was surprised when he said that in those days they had no idea how to measure rocker and not much thought about what it did. They thought in terms of symmetry, the top and bottom of the board was shaped essentially the same. Water flow along the bottom just wasnt considered.
Dick Brewer in Hawaii brought surfboard design out of the dark ages when he started applying aerodynamic foils to surfboards. Essentially, the top side (lifting side) of an airplane wing was applied to the bottom side of a surfboard. In addition, the thickness flow of an airplane wing (thickness forward) was applied to a surfboard profile. For the first time, the rocker in the bottom of a surfboard, including tail rocker and kick in the nose, was correlated to speed and performance. In this process, Brewer developed the baby gun and this led to the modern short board. In trying to coax more performance out of their shapes, the best shapers in Hawaii would call Clark Foam and order adjustments to the rocker in a standard blank. The original rocker in a blank became known as the natural rocker and the modified rocker would be known as a separate name. To be consistent from one shape to the next, shapers learned to measure the rocker in their shapes. I, for example, have kept notes of the rockers that I have used on team riders’ boards and on boards that I have liked or disliked. To make a consistently predicable riding model, it is absolutely necessary to replicate the rocker time after time.
Most shapers each developed secret rockers for their favorite Clark blanks. This became a great advantage to Clark Foam because, by offering a variety of rockers for each single blank, they would not need to produce as many different blanks. Clarks Private Rocker Program included sometimes hundreds of different rockers for each blank they made. These rockers were designed by request from the many different shapers who used that blank and the private rocker name remained secret between that shaper and Clark Foam. This rocker was available to all shapers ordering from the Clark rocker catalogue, but with a generic name. The Clark rocker catalogue is what allows individuality between shapers’ designs and also allows new ideas in design to develop quickly without having to create a new blank as trends change.
The shapers of the US have been devastated because, even though a trickle of blanks is starting to flow in from South Africa, Europe and Australia and domestically from Walker Foam and new start up companies, only their natural rockers are now available. Even Walker Foam will not put a custom rocker into one of their blanks because they are so overwhelmed by demand that they cannot deal with the additional time in developing custom private rockers. For example, we make four different models from the Clark 101Y blank and we use four different rockers to create those shapes. We are unable to remain true to the performance of all of these models, even though we may be able to obtain a limited supply of 10 ft. blanks from alternate sources. It may take several years of trial and error with each new blank company (we may be using three) for each shaper to have a variety of suitable rockers for his models. This is why EPS-epoxy technology is so immediately necessary to me. Using EPS, I can design a blank with my personal rocker that will fill the requirements of each specialty model I make. The problem is duplicating exactly the Clark blank with my private rocker. The sure way to do this would be to take the Clark blank, saw it in half down the center next to the stringer and copy that rocker and thickness flow onto another piece of wood. This, of course, would destroy a very valuable Clark blank.
I called Clark Foam, reaching Patty, their office manager, and asked if I could come and copy my private rockers onto pieces of stringer wood. She said that at that very moment, most of the machinery and tools at Clark Foam were dismantled and they could not accommodate my request. She also said that on the following Friday, Clark Foam would be closed forever. She indicated that there were requests from several other shapers for their rockers as well and that she would call me back when they decided what to do to help us. The next day Patty called and asked for a list of the rockers I wanted. She said that they were going to copy them onto butcher paper for all of us. A few days later, the Clark delivery truck stopped by with the paper rockers. I have perhaps 80 pieces of stringer wood in my shop that I use for nose blocks. I can also use these to make rocker templates. I quickly found that it is nearly impossible to accurately copy a rocker from paper to wood because of the flexibility of the paper and the difficulty of tracing with a pen next to the soft paper.
On Thursday I called back to Clark Foam again. I talked to Patty, who I had been ordering blanks from for over 30 years, and said I need a special favor. I explained my problem and asked if I could get special permission to come over and copy my rocker templates onto actual pieces of wood. She said that she would ask Gordon. I was hoping for an affirmative answer because over the years I have had a good personal relationship with Gordon and even shaped his favorite personal board which he called “Baby”. Patty called back in a few minutes and said that I would have to get there immediately because tomorrow, the last day, would be too chaotic. I loaded up several strips of stringer wood, arrived at Clark Foam, was graciously helped in locating my rockers and began copying each one. As I was working, I noticed that Gordon was walking around the plant overseeing various aspects of its dismantling. I knew that he was personally not taking phone calls (he had turned into a veritable Howard Hughes) and I assumed rightly that his disposition must be at least severely distraught. I pretended not to notice him so as not to force him to deal with yet one more inquisitor. I was surprised when he walked over and greeted me warmly. He then walked me around the plant showing me how all the specialty machinery had been dismantled and explained that it would be auctioned off in a condition unusable for making blanks. As we wandered among the racks and shelves custom built for holding stringer wood and blanks, he explained how overbearing and meddling the county inspectors were. He pointed out a very simple set of welded metal shelves made for holding stringers that collectively could weigh no more than 40 pounds. He said that the inspector had insisted on an engineered report of the weight capacity of each shelf, even though the shelves were overbuilt probably 500 percent. Each fixture or piece of equipment required an engineered report and a lengthy intended use report. He said that these burdensome requirements could be multiplied one hundred times over when applied to his pneumatic gluing clamps, saws, foam mixers and molds. Gordon didnt say, but being an employer myself, I know that his workers compensation insurance may have become exceedingly expensive or even unattainable because of two lawsuits from previous employees who developed cancer. A recent finding by the US government that the vapors released when urethane blanks are made causes cancer has laid way to what could become a frenzy of lawsuits against him. If he were to continue to make blanks, he could be shown as recklessly damaging the health of his employees. I could see that Gordon, who has earned millions from the blank business looked tired and ready to retire to his home in Hawaii. If he were a young man instead of age 75, I think that he may have continued the battle. But personally, I think that he just didnt need to and the risk of loosing all his assets was too great.
With hard copys of my private rockers I have been able to create the same and often improved blank designs for the Infinity models out of EPS blanks. Just as our last Clark blanks became extinct, the new EPS blanks began arriving from my two new EPS suppliers. We have been able to nearly seamlessly continue making our most popular models. Customers have been wounderful in adapting the new color restrictions of EPS-epoxy and the new higher costs. In exchange for higher costs, they get the correct rocker shape and a lighter, stronger board. (At the end of this article I will include an explanation of EPS/epoxy technology.)
The costs of making a surfboard may never be as low as it was before December 5, 2005. For example, a Clark blank that we used to pay $75 for now (if it could be found) will cost $300. A similar blank from overseas now costs $150. And domestically, from Walker Foam when available, it would cost about $130. In addition, glassing prices are going to go up because of the ever-increasing cost of petroleum. As for as EPS-epoxy, that same blank is about $130, but the cost of the epoxy glass job is $150 more. A drum of polyester resin costs $975, while a drum of epoxy resin costs $3,000. That adds up to over $200 more to make an EPS-epoxy board. We have seen our surfboard sales cut in half so far this year because of the price increase, even though we have only passed on the additional cost while decreasing our percent of profit. For a while, surfers will try make their boards last longer, but eventually we will all have to adjust to the new reality if we want to continue surfing. One thing good to come of this is that Infinity Surfboards, for one, is making a stronger, lighter board with the EPS-epoxy technology we have been forced to embrace. In the future, we will probably continue to offer a variety of urethane-polyester and EPS-epoxy hand shaped surfboards.
I have talked with several people who are trying to get into the blank business. One is a chemist who knows how to make a non-toxic urethane foam that the inspectors and EPA will love. The only problem is that right now he can only make it in a light yellow color. He thinks that he will soon be able to make this non-toxic foam white. Here is a list of the new blank companies that we now have to deal with. Seem confusing? Oh, I miss Clark Foam!
Arimo Foam Inc.
White Hot Foam
Excell Foam – China
King-Mac Blanks – Mexico
Homeblown – the UK
Bennitt Foam – Australia
Pacifica Foam – Brazil
Buford Foam – Australia
Surf Blanks – Australia
Safari Foam – South Africa
Some people say that we will be awash in blanks by next year. That may be true, but they will never equal the quality, price, and service that Clark Foam offered. Instead of getting blanks from one source in five days, we will have to order our favorite blanks from many different companies with unpredictable supply. Many refuse to deliver, so we have to drive; often half a day to pick them up and we will always have to pay for shipping from out of the country. We will have to develop private rockers in countries around the world and order those rockers months in advance (if at all possible). Green Valley lumber Mill in Ocean Side, California, bought Clarks stringer cutting equipment and all of the private rockers. Some importers will be bringing in blanks without stringers, enabling them to glue in our private rockers. Most of the new start up blank makers plan on buying their stringers from Green Valley Mill. This all sounds good, but in reality, it will add weeks to us getting our blank orders,
The difficulty of making surfboards with precise rockers and custom stringers has been multiplied many times over. Many of the old time board makers may just drop out of the business. Even before Clark quit, we were finding very few young workers learning to shape and glass surfboards. Because of a lack of talented shapers, most shops now only use a shaping machine to replicate identical boards. The prospect of you buying a custom board with your personal preferences is quickly disappearing. Molded and cheap machine shaped surfboards from China are invading the US market. The availability of a top quality hand shaped surfboard to the average surfer is shrinking.
You might think; well, why not just make only EPS-epoxy boards? There are three reasons: 1. The foam is much tougher than urethane foam, therefore harder to shape. Epoxy resin cures much slower than polyester, therefore adding one whole day to the glassing process. This is a big deal if you are glassing 80 boards per week. 2. EPS-epoxy costs about $200 more for the raw materials and labor to produce. EPS foam cannot be airbrushed well. The epoxy resin can be colored with opaque pigments, so nice traditional colors can be applied. We love making surfboards, but we need to make a living doing it. 3. The profit in making EPS-epoxy is much lower because the additional price we charge does not compensate for the additional expense. Therefore, we are only making the surfboard models in EPS-epoxy for which there is no longer a urethane blank available.
All polystyrene foam is formed in big “buns” usually 24″ to 36″ wide, 36″ high and varying lengths. A rocker template is fastened to each side of the bun and then a hot wire is pulled through the bun along the rocker template to cut out the side profile shape of a surfboard. You could think of it as using a wire cheese slicer to cut cheese with a template to control the shape of the piece of cheese created. The bigger EPS shops use a computer guided hot wire cutter.
There are three types of polystyrene foam available: EPS – (steam expanded polystyrene); Extruded – molded in buns under pressure; XTR – also molded under pressure. In the past, these foams developed a bad name because of their failure of durability for surfboards. Many surfers have become leery of epoxy. The extruded foam is so dense that the resin does not penetrate enough to bond to the foam and the board delaminates. The XTR foam contains gasses that expand in the sun causing the board to blow up like a balloon. Some users drill tiny holes into their XTR surfboard to let the gas out, but this, in turn, sucks water in when the board is taken from the hot sun into the cold ocean. EPS foam comes in many weights. For years small time shapers have built extremely light boards out of the 1 lb. density foam, but the boards were very weak, causing the board to self-destruct. For the first time in 2006, we are now using a 2.5 lb. EPS foam that is stronger than urethane foam with slightly less weight. Urethane foam is crisp and somewhat brittl, making it sand easily, while EPS foam is somewhat rubbery making it difficult to sand. This rubbery-ness, however, makes it dent and ding resistant because it springs back into position. In addition, epoxy resin, because of its longer molecule chain, is a somewhat rubbery resin compared to polyester, which is brittle and weaker. This rubbery-ness makes an EPS-epoxy board bounce back when hit like a rubber car bumper instead of a steel car bumper.
Shaping an EPS blank presents new hurdles. First, the blank is completely flat across the deck and bottom (the rail is the same thickness as the center). You can dome the deck by hand with your planer, but it is very difficult to do accurately and it takes a long time. I created a jig with a curved track for a router. The jig can be slid back and forth on the deck of the blank, allowing the router blade to cut progressively deeper. This will put a very symmetric dome on an EPS blank.
Next, the regular planer blades tend to rip EPS foam, so I installed a $450 abrasive drum into my Skill Planer. Next, a Sureform will not cut EPS; I have to use special sandpaper on a soft pad with a power sander. We have had to completely change our fine sanding and rail cupping techniques. Naturally, since it takes about 1/3 longer to shape an EPS blank, the shapers get paid $20 more.
If you’ve just gotta have a Secret Weapon, a tandem board or wave ski, we can only make them out of EPS-epoxy. Most of our other models are available in either polyester or epoxy.