While the market for second-hand boards is healthy, longboards (because of the sheer scale and skill involved in making them) are costly, and so it’s crucial to find the right board for you.
The biggest asset of a longboard (nine feet plus in length) of course is that it provides extra volume, meaning more planing surface to catch waves, polish your style and most importantly, have fun. So here are some tips that might help when getting your hands on a beautiful new longboard.
Although there are countless variations, we can break longboards down into three basic shapes evident from the outline, which is the overall perimeter of the longboard when viewed from the deck or bottom. These three shapes represent designs first used in the longboard boom of the 1950s and 1960s, then further developed and refined from the longboard renaissance in the 1980s until today. These outlines are benchmarks in the design process, and while many boards will blend various features from all three, most boards can fit into one of these broad categories.
The three shapes are: the California-influenced ‘classic’ or ‘traditional’ ‘log’ boards with the wide point in the middle, a wide nose and a wide tail; the Australia influenced ‘involvement surfing’ boards with the wide point further back, a wide tail and a narrower nose; and the Hawaii influenced ‘speed shape’ with a pulled in tail and a more pointed nose.
The board you choose will be influenced mostly by the typical conditions you ride, but also by your height, weight and preferred style of surfing. You don’t want your longboarding to be held back by investing in equipment that simply doesn’t suit the waves you ride . For example, steep or big waves are great for less board with more rocker (for the takeoff drop and turn) and a narrow tail, while small rollers are best for bigger, flatter, wider tailed boards that will perform with ease in less powerful conditions.
The California influenced classic or traditional log is generally a soft-railed, wide, flat and heavy single fin that incorporates the trim, glide and flow features of the early 1960s boards, with a host of modern design characteristics to enhance performance. Don’t get too hung up on nostalgia however. Remember that these boards were limited by materials and techniques available at the time, so were often crude and unresponsive to ride. Imagine what the 1960s stylemasters might have done on the refined logs of today. And of course it’s perfectly acceptable to have lightweight classic or traditional boards. If you are small, you may prefer something that is easy to transport and lively under your feet.
The classic longboards evolved to ride the smooth peeling, open faced waves of southern California, and their modern cousins are best suited to surfing effortlessly in small waves through quick trim speed, cross-step walking and noseriding. Many riders prefer a heavier glass job to connect wave sections with these designs. However, the overall flatness and length of these boards mean that they do not fit the curves of steeper waves so easily, therefore some surfers will be frustrated by their lack of turning ability or control in heavier conditions.
The Australia-influenced involvement surfing boards (with wide point back, a wide tail and a narrower nose) emerged in the mid to late 1960s to enable more dynamic manoeuvring on the sucky pointbreaks of Australia (paving the way for the shortboard revolution). Taking the wide point further back, rolling the bottom contours and using thinner knife-like rail edges, improved the turning capability of the boards.
In Malibu, California the ‘pig’ shape (and ‘Malibu chip’) had already been developed with this in mind, taking the wide point back to provide a more exciting turning radius.
The Australian movement added breakthroughs in rail shape, bottom contour and fin design to allow surfers to become more ‘involved’ in the critical power pocket of the wave. Today these outlines are now fused with a host of new shaping knowledge and present a more performance-focused single fin that both allows critical noseriding and a radical turning arc in quality longboard conditions, such as small sucky clean waves and pointbreaks.
Both the classic soft-railer longboards and the involvement designs get their speed from tensions pushing against the board from within the wave. The wave wants to push the board towards the shore, while the deep single fin (and maybe hips towards the tail) fight the wave and hold the board in trim. This tension pushes the boards through the water and across the wave, which helps the board to noseride close to the pocket, and often accelerate on the nose.
Hawaiian speed shape
The Hawaii influenced speed shape with hard rails, a pulled-in tail and more pointy nose was first developed as the big wave gun for North Shore waves. Then as longboarders re-emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, many sought excitement in refining the nine-footer as far as possible. This meant cutting down on weight and volume, adding rocker, whilst retaining the ability to noseride with wider nose templates.
Hence, ‘performance’ or ‘progressive’ longboarding emerged, incorporating shortboard style manoeuvres (on narrow tailed hard railed designs) with cross-step walking and noserides. Progressive longboards are lighter and thinner than classic traditional logs, with hard release rail edges through the tail (meeting softer rails in the middle) often with three fin set-ups (in a two plus one set up so the centre fin is larger than the side fins) to provide a carving, driving turn, rather than the pivot of a single fin.
These designs are suited to bigger waves and more critical sections when surfing from the tail.
They generate speed from the steepness of the wave and planing. Because they slow down when you are on the nose, they noseride best out on the shoulder and in soft sections where they are skimming over the surface of the wave with the board pointing 45 degrees towards the shore (rather than locked in trim like the classic designs). The limitations are that when noseriding in steep sections, the performance longboard can slide out. But for short noserides, these designs are actually quite easy to hang five on because they work on the shoulder of the wave. And when ridden from the middle and tail, many surfers love the sense of control and ease of movement from these more lively designs.
Do you want a longboard built especially to your specifications, perhaps supporting a local shaper, or working with a famous shaper you know and love? Or do you want a signature model that will have been designed, tried and tested by the best, and may be available to demo from a shaper or shop? Or perhaps you want to find something you like the look and feel of straight from the rack of longboards available in the store? If you are really uncertain, try the second-hand market first.
Handling longboards off the rack is a great opportunity to find out how easy they fit under your arm, or rest on your hip, or head (if that’s the way you prefer to carry them). At nine feet plus, you must be sure that you can transport and store them. If you are purely interested in performance, you might want to spend your money on the shape and design that suits you. Or you might want to consider the overall aesthetics, like a colour spray that puts a smile on your face, or classic features such as a triple stringer, resin tint, glass-on fins, wooden tail and nose blocks, or artwork across the deck.
Polyurethane foam blanks known as ‘PU’ (usually with a wooden stringer to add strength) are laminated in varying weights of fibreglass resin, but still retain a great deal of flex and responsive performance qualities. By contrast, epoxy longboards use epoxy resin during the lamination (glassing) process, rather than polyester resin, while the blank will be polystyrene (or expandable polystyrene known as ‘EPS’) usually without a wooden stringer.
Epoxy-built longboards are lighter, stronger, stiffer and more buoyant.
Some surfers prefer the flexy and lively feeling of pliable, silica-based fibreglass fabric and polyurethane foam. Others prefer the stiffer, stronger and more buoyant epoxy. Many favour epoxy for bigger and smaller extremes in wave conditions because it is lively and strong, while others like the opportunity to feel flex or additional glassing weight in polyurethane longboards. Certainly, stronger epoxy is the best bet for bigger wave longboards that can easily break in heavy surf. And carbon fibre is an exciting new aspect to surfboard design, with Thunderbolt Technology pioneering carbon fibre (and carbon fibre stringers) with EPS cores to make strong and flexy longboards with the ability to add extra weight and stiffness where required.
Wood is also a brilliant option for longboards, ranging from solid to hollow, and wood-skinned. Popular materials include paulownia, balsa, redwood, cedar, pine and poplar. Solid wood longboards, known as alaias and olos in Hawaii, are shaped from either a whole piece of wood, or glued up strips. Hollow wood longboards have an internal wood skeleton frame covered by wood planks. The rocker, thickness, outline, and rails are defined by the internal structure. As the deck and bottom planks are glued together, the board takes shape. The board is then sanded, sealed, and glassed. Chambered longboards are made by shaping a wood blank just like you would a foam one, taking it apart and adding air chambers to each section (to reduce weight), and finishing it with glass, oil, or some other sealing method. Wood-skinned longboards use a thin wood layer, veneer, or ‘skin’ over some type of core – typically EPS foam, and notable in the Firewire Timber Tek boards that use paulownia and balsa laminates.
Rail, nose and tail
The rail is the longboard’s rounded perimeter; elliptical on both axes, from nose to tail and from deck to bottom surface. Rails are a fundamental element in longboard design, along with outline thickness, bottom contour, and volume distribution. Soft rails are good in small waves, getting speed from tensions pushing against the longboard from within the wave. The wave wants to push the longboard towards the shore, while the deep single fin fights the wave’s desire and holds the longboard in place. This tension pushes the soft-railer through the water and across the wave face. Having hips (wide points) towards the tail makes the longboard ride more parallel to the wave, meaning faster, longer noserides. The flatter or straighter the longboard, the more parallel it can ride. Hips create more flotation and volume, generating further tension with the big single fin, and thus speed as well as countering the suction created by soft rails and tail lift.
Hard rails (known as ‘tucked’, or ‘down’ rails, depending on how ‘hard’ the angle is) turn better than the soft-railer, as they ‘cut’ into the wave when the board is on an angle. When on the nose, toll through the bottom of the longboard will suck it to the wave, while the knife-like, less buoyant rails easily cut into the wave, but still let water suck over the rail. Most of the longboard will be within the wave for stable noserides. But the tail and fin will be hanging out of the back because the board will not be parallel with the wave, instead, pointing towards the shore. This is its noseriding limitation. It doesn’t suck to the wave or ride as parallel as the soft-railer.
Tail width is measured at right angles to the board’s stringer, one foot up from the back. Wide tails or wide points back (in the longboard outline) are generally better for noseriding. Narrow tails are better for bigger waves. Tail shape is the outline the board takes in the last few inches, such as a squaretail, squashtail, swallowtail and pintail. Wider shapes help with speed in smaller waves, and narrower tails for stiffness and control in bigger waves.
The squaretail or squashtail is the most common on longboard designs. The two square (or slightly rounded in the squashtail) edges act as a pair of release points for water flowing off the back of the longboard that allows for easy turns in small to medium surf. This is the go-to tail design for all-rounders, and the wider surface area behind the fin in the square or squashtail allows important noseriding features, such as tail lift and tail concave.
Roundtails have less surface area making it easier to initiate a turn. The longboard feels looser, but also smooth and drawn out through the turns because the tail doesn’t have a sharp or abrupt release point for the water flowing off the board. In a swallowtail (or fishtail) the ‘v’ cut creates a pair of pin tails that bite in and out of turns. Meanwhile the wide over-all tail outline helps generate trim speed through slow sections. Pintails enable the most hold in bigger more powerful waves. But this hold can mean less manoeuvrability, particularly evident in smaller waves with less power. But, of course, in big surf you want maximum control. Asymmetric tails are unusual on longboards, but offer a way to maximise the difference between front and backside turns, namely the smoother toe-side turns and sharper heelside turns. Normal features include a round tail for heel-side turns and a sharper square or fishtail for toe-side turns.
Rocker and contour
Rocker is the curve of a longboard from nose to tail, as viewed side-on. Variables such as foil, rail design, and bottom configuration will influence the way the rocker acts, but its hydrodynamic effect at a base level is easy to define: less rocker means greater speed and reduced manoeuvrability, while more rocker means greater manoeuvrability and reduced speed. So, a flat longboard will trim fast, but be hard to turn, while a high-rockered longboard will trim slowly, but be easy to turn in steep waves.
The contour refers to the design characteristics on the bottom of the longboard. This goes by the same principle that a flat surface is fast and relatively stable. So, a concave shape improves speed, but reduces control, while a convex shape improves manoeuvrability, but reduces speed. Longboards enjoy a certain amount of rocker to prevent nosedives and perform in the steep pocket, so a lot of bottom contours are designed to add flat surfaces for trim speed where the board touches the water. Many longboards have a concave under the nose to create additional lift for noseriding. But more important for noseriding is the design of the tail, and many noseriders have wide tails with concave and tail lift behind the fin to allow hold in the pocket for noseriding. While bottom design has always been a hot topic among shapers and surfers, the deck’s design has generally been a matter of increasing or decreasing a longboard’s flotation: greater convexity (or ‘dome’) to increase buoyancy, near-flat to reduce buoyancy.
All of these design features will impact on the volume of the board (more board equals more volume) and the foil, which is the distribution of thickness in the longboard from nose to tail, as viewed from the side. The thickest point is almost always located just forward of the centre, under the chest while paddling. From this area, the longboard usually becomes thinner in all directions – towards the nose, tail and rails – primarily to make the longboard lighter and easier to turn.
Fin performance is generally affected by the base length and the rake or sweep. A longer base is going to provide you with more drive and speed down the line, while a shorter base will be easier to turn quickly. With regards to rake and sweep, a more upright fin will provide a very focused pivot point and a smaller turning radius, while fins with a larger sweep will feel smoother in turns due to the larger pivot area, and therefore be more controlled and stable in critical, steeper waves.
The simplest longboard fin is the D-fin, often used in the early 1960s. This offers stability and hold, good for trim, cross-step control and noseriding, but limiting for critical pivot turns. A refinement from the D-fin is the hatchet fin, also developed in the 1960s, providing improved turning ability. Both these designs have a wide base and large profile so the longboard holds a trim line and stays very stable through cross-stepping and noseriding. But you need to get right over the tail to turn these fins, and heavier weighted boards can provide the momentum to help bring these fins to life.
In the mid to late 1960s, George Greenough revolutionised surfboard fins inspired by the dorsal fin of the dolphin. These raked fins still remain the blueprint for most fin designs. Decreased surface area, and rake radically improved turning ability, and the flex helped to accelerate out of manoeuvres. Overall, these fins have a large sweep, wide base, and narrow tip. The wide base provides drive, while the narrow tip provides flex in-and-out of turns. The pivot fin emerged as a less extreme version of the flex fin, with a more upright sweep and a wider profile.
Before you even change fins, remember just moving the position of the fin within the box will have an impact. Further forward is looser turning, while further back is stiffer and better for noseriding. Because the fin provides directional stability, control and manoeuvrability, a bigger fin will be stiffer and better for noseriding, while a smaller fin will be looser. Most people use a single fin between 9 and 11 inches in varying shapes. Over all, wider tailed boards operate best with bigger fins, and narrow tails with smaller fins. Also, smaller people might prefer less fin, while larger, heavier people more fin. Some longboarders prefer three fins to provide additional grip and drive in steeper waves and carving rail turns. Others even enjoy the four-fin quad that is super loose turning, but lacks the hold for noseriding.