From ancient times until the 1940s, surfboards were made entirely from wood.
The earliest written accounts of wave riding were of body surfers and prone board surfers in Tahiti in 1769 by Joseph Banks aboard the HMS Endeavor during Captain James Cook’s first voyage through the Pacific. The first drawings of stand-up surfing came nearly 10 years later from explorer John Webber during one of Cook’s stops in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) aboard the Resolution. And so it’s always been Hawaii that has been credited with a more advanced form of stand-up surfing and surfboards.
Antique Hawaiian Surfboards
Hawaiian papahe’enalu (surfboards) were made of a single solid piece of wood. They were usually carved from wiliwili (a low density, balsa type wood), ulu, also known as breadfruit (a lightweight bug resistant wood), or koa-acacia, commonly referred to simply as koa (a heavier, more dense wood). Prior to European contact, four main types of boards existed in Hawaii. In order of size starting with the smallest were the paipo, alaia, kiko’o and olo.
Duke Kahanamoku and Redwood “Plank” Surfboards
In the early 1900s as the sport of surfing began to be discovered by the outside world, the construction and design of the boards started to transform. Duke Kahanamoku and other beach boys at Waikiki began surfing on and popularizing a board that was larger than the standard of the time. They were hybrids of the ancient kiko’o and alaia – most often made of vertical grain redwood.
There are some that suggest surfing may have taken place somewhere on the US mainland in the mid to late 1800s but around it was documented than in 1885, three Hawaiian princes surfed the Santa Cruz area while attending school in San Mateo. And in 1907, George Freeth gave surfing demonstrations in southern California.
However, most agree that Duke Kahanamoku, the record breaking Olympic swimmer and ambassador from Hawaii, popularized the sport across the US and elsewhere. In 1912, he gave surfing exhibitions in New Jersey’s Atlantic City and Southern California. And in 1914-15, he introduced the Hawaiian brand of surfing to Australia and New Zealand.
Tom Blake and The Hollow Surfboard
In 1926, 24-year-old adventurer/inventor Thomas Edward Blake began experimenting with the idea of making surfboards hollow to reduce their weight.
In 1935, Blake published the first book dedicated entirely to surfing and surfboards. Hawaiian Surfboard featured almost exclusively his new ‘lightweight’ surfboards manufactured by the Robert Mitchell Co. In 1983, Blake’s book found a renewed popularity, particularly among collectors who were unable to locate an original copy, and it was reprinted.
Hollow boards became very fashionable and were not only used for surfing but also as fishing platforms, life-saving equipment and for racing. Paddleboard events had become a favorite water sport in Hawaii and California. Being considerably faster than solid planks, these newly-designed, cavernous craft were supremely suited for competition, and were quickly embraced by watermen of the day.
The four most well-known companies to build Blake’s hollow boards were Thomas Rogers Co. 1932-39, Robert Mitchell Manufacturing Co. 1934-1939, Los Angeles Ladder Co. 1940-1942, and the Catalina Equipment Co. 1946-1950. Another company that made hollow boards was Pacific Systems Homes (circa 1929 – 1940). Though their main focus was on solid wood surfboards.
Mixed Wood – Balsa, Redwood, Pine, Mahogany, Spruce and Koa Surfboards
As waterproof glues improved, it became possible to make surfboards using strips of wood. This allowed builders to use lighter woods such as balsa. The first company to produce these avant-garde mixed-wood hybrids was Pacific System Homes in 1929 – 30. PSH’s earliest models had a swastika emblem which, at the time, was a symbol that represented life, sun, power, strength and good luck. After Hitler came into power and perverted the symbol, Pacific System Homes changed their logo to the Waikiki Surfboards label.
Influential Surfers Of The Wood Surfboards Era
Beside Duke Kahanamoku (and his five brothers and three sisters) and Tom Blake, other recognized surfers from the wood surfboard era would include, Hiram Anahu, Joe Akuna, “Panama Dave” Babtiste, John “Doc” Ball, Woody Brown, George David “Dad” Center, “Chick” Daniels, George Downing, Ron Drummond, Alexander Hume Ford, George Freeth, Wally Froiseth, Allen Gomes, LeRoy “Granny” Grannis, Alfred R. Gurrey, Luis “Sally” Hale, Lorin “Whitey” Harrison, Fran Heath, Tommy Holmes, “Scooter Boy” Kaopuiki, Pua Kealoha, “Rabbit” Kekai, John Kelly, Ludy Langer, Peanuts Larsen, “Turkey” Love, “Splash” Lyons,Clarence Maki, “Blue” Makua, “Steamboat” Mokuahi, Preston “Pete” Peterson, Gene ‘Tarzan’ Smith and Dale Velzy.