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Greenlight Surfboard Building Guide A-Z

Introduction

We understand that making surfboards can be very intimidating for the first-timer. Truth is, with a little bit of patience, some good tools, and some proven technique tips, it isn't that hard to turn out a good board on your first try. Our goal at Greenlight has always been to break down the intimidation factor and make board building attainable to those of us who aren't "master craftspeople." (Yet)
How to Make a Surfboard

Greenlight's Surfboard Building A to Z gathers the most effective, proven techniques from veteran board builders and organizes them in an easy-to-follow, easy-to-search format. While there is a substantial amount of information here, we have broken the board building process down to 8 basic components, 3 of which are optional.

All of the information is presented in the order that it typically occurs when building a surfboard. If you are about to embark on building your first board, we strongly recommend that you read the entire guide start to finish, then re-read each section just prior to performing that step. You may want to copy sections of this guide into a word processing program and print them out. They make great bathroom reading, and you can keep it close by in your shaping space for quick reference on the fly. Also consider getting Greenlight's Masterclass Instructional Video Series which were created with the first time shaper in mind and demonstrate the board building process in step-by-step, fool-proof manner.

Part 1: Preparation

Making surfboards requires a modest but fairly specialized set of tools. Some of these tools are easy to find at home centers or your local hardware store, but some are trickier to find and only available at specialty board-building suppliers like Greenlight.

We strongly recommend shaping your first few surfboards by hand without power tools (except a trim router for fin box installs...). If you want to be successful and make great, fun to ride boards that you can be super proud of, it is important to FEEL what you're shaping through your hand tools. Once you get a power tool like a power planer between you and the foam it's pretty much a disaster and you'll end up with a board that doesn't look right or work right. Don't be fooled into thinking just because you see a shaper on Youtube use power tools it's the right way to do it (it's actually the most difficult way to shape). Learning how to build surfboards is a process and we've made it as simple as possible. You don't need to learn how to use power tools on delicate materials while you're learning to shape.  

Here is a list of tools that you need to maximize your chances of getting a good end result.

These shaping tools can be used for both EPS and Polyurethane foam:

Shaping Tools

OPTIONAL TOOLS:
  • G-square (clear plastic width measuring and fin placement)
  • Shaper's Pencil (for marking measurements and signing your blank)
  • Rocker Stick (long, straight piece of wood/metal to measure rocker)
  • Yard-stick or 2'+ straight edge (for measuring bottom flatness and/or concaves)
  • Drywall Hand Saw (if you are cutting a swallow tail)
  • Round Rasp (for shaping the "butt-crack" of a swallow tail)
  • Dust Mask
  • Protective Glasses

Glassing Tools

OPTIONAL:

Fin/Leash Plug Install Tools

Sanding Tools

Gloss/Polish Tools

Greenlight's prices are better than hardware stores/home centers, plus we also have many of the specialized tools (sanding pads, spoke shave, G-square, etc.) that you WON'T find at local hardware stores or home centers.

Bottom line, you can find most of this stuff if you hunt around the internet or drive around to hardware stores all day. This is what we did before starting Greenlight and designing surfboard shaping specific tools and equipment. It is much easier and cheaper just to get everything you need from one place. You save on shipping, gas, hassle and time, and you are assured that all of this stuff is tested and proven for surfboard building.

Once you have your tool situation sorted, it is time to determine what type of surfboard you are going to make, including several key dimensions and design attributes that will act as guide points for you as you shape. 

We believe it's very important to know WHAT you're going to shape before you dive in and start shaping. Undoubtedly your boards will surf really well if you learn the basic design concepts from our Surfboard Design Guide and apply them to your shape. 

Surfboard Design Guide

You can also go to a good surf shop and take a good hard look at the boards on the rack. Check out the rockers, rail shapes, bottom contours, and measurements (usually written on the bottom stringer). Focus on boards that are right-sized for your height/weight and the wave conditions you will use the board in. Really good surf shops will have calipers and measuring tapes so you can get more important measurements like thickness at various stages of the board and width in the nose and tail. Before you know it, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what type of board you’d like to make and a pretty good feel for ballpark dimensions. 

Before you get overwhelmed with design theory, it’s probably a good idea to mention that you should KEEP IT SIMPLE for your first few boards. Don’t go for a triple-wing swallow Bonzer on your first shot. We suggest a shape with clean lines, simple (flat or subtle vee/concave) bottom contours, and no extreme curves in rocker or outline for your first shape. Most beginner shapers choose a small-wave type design for their first board, because they are relatively simple shapes (flat and wide), and the physical consequences of an ill-designed small wave board are certainly less substantial than those of a funky Mavericks Gun.

Once you’ve chosen a certain type of shape, there are several ways to refine your idea into a concrete set of dimensions and final design:

HOW TO SET UP YOUR SURFBOARD BUILDING ROOM

SHAPING RACKS AND GLASSING STANDS 

It is possible to shape a surfboard on a pair of saw horses in a pinch. However, your results will be better and you'll have an easier time if you take the time to build some functional shaping and glassing racks. Material costs are low, and decent racks will greatly improve your chances of getting good results.

Greenlight has developed simple, free plans for both shaping racks and glassing stands that allow you to make functional, simple racks with 2x4s, basic fasteners, plastic buckets, sand or Quickcrete, and masking tape. We also sell ready to assemble shaping rack stands if want to skip building them from scratch. We understand that most of you don’t have a permanent shaping space, so our racks are designed to be portable and move into storage when not in use. We strongly suggest you print out our free shaping rack and glassing stand plans and build your own. Feel free to improvise on these designs if you think you can do a better job, just make sure you cover the basic requirements for both type of racks:

Click to download our Surfboard Shaping Rack Plans:


Click to download our Surfboard Glassing Stands:

 

WORK SPACE

In a perfect world, you would have access to a real shaping and glassing room (along with all of the tools and a private tutor telling you everything you need to do along the way). We are going to make the assumption that you do not have such luck, (unless you get a surfboard shaping starter kit and subscribe to the Masterclass Video Series) and you will be shaping in a temporary space such as a garage or basement. You can also shape outside in the backyard if you wish.

You can certainly make great boards in your garage or basement; the following things help make the process easier with better results. They are not mandatory:

  1. Lighting (Great to have but not essential until you start making money shaping for your friends)
  2. Adequate Space 
  3. Dust Protection  
  4. Tool Space

LIGHTING 

Experienced shapers use what is called “side lighting,” which are fluorescent tube lights running on each side of the board lengthwise, parallel to the board at a few inches above the height of the board. These side lights have been proven to cast helpful shadows along the rail of the board, making it easy to see imperfections or high/low spots that need to be worked on.

It is possible to make side-lighting without having to invest in a permanent shaping room. You can buy a couple 4-foot LED light fixtures and hang them on temporary supports. We suggest you do a web- search and you will find some ingenious/affordable methods of creating temporary side lights.

If you don’t want to spend the time/money on side lights, the next best thing is to get a hand-held fluorescent work light. You can carry this light and shine it around the rails of the board (with the rest of the room lights off) to identify what areas of the board need additional work. You can see how well this works in the rail shaping section of our Masterclass Videos.

 

ADEQUATE SPACE

To shape and glass a board, you need to figure at least 2 feet of open space around the circumference of the blank you are shaping. So for a six foot blank, try to have a space at least 10 feet long and 6 feet wide. 

Professional shaping rooms typically have all the walls painted a dark color (royal blue) which contrasts well with white surfboard blanks. If you don’t have a dedicated room, you can hang blue tarps from the ceiling to create this contrast, and just as importantly, help contain the dust that you will make.

You can shape surfboards and sand glass-jobs in cold weather (a garage). Epoxy resin will take longer to cure in colder temperatures but who's in a rush anyway? Epoxy doesn’t smell bad or emit meaningful toxic vapors, so we recommend you glass your board inside during cold weather if you don’t have a temperature controlled glassing room. It's nice to have a little heat in the area you're glassing in and we recommend using a cheap oil burning portable radiator to keep the temp up and resin flowing niceley. If you put a plastic tarp below your glassing stands, your floors will be protected and glassing inside is a low-impact exercise. It is not recommended to glass inside if you are using polyester resin. Your house will never smell the same again. If you must glass with polyester resin in cold temperatures, we recommend you use UV-Cure resin as it will cure when exposed to sunlight regardless of outside temperature.

 

DUST PROTECTION

You are going to make a little mess when you are shaping a surfboard (but much, much less if hand shaping a custom designed close tolerance blank). Dust and foam will be flying when you are planing and sanding your blank. If you are shaping in a garage or basement with other stuff in the immediate vicinity, you should cover all of these things with tarps, or better yet, hang four tarps from the ceiling to create a temporary shaping room that contains all of the blank debris.

Get a shop-vac and suck up all of the debris at the end of each shaping or sanding session. This will minimize the amount of dust floating around the room. This becomes very important when you are glassing, because you don’t want airborne dust/foam particles fouling up your glass job.

You also need to consider what you are wearing while shaping and glassing. We suggest using the same ratty old t-shirt/jeans/sneakers over and over again because they will get covered in dust. Another tip is to take off your dusty shaping clothes in your shaping space and leave them there when you are done shaping. If you wear them inside, you will get dust EVERYWHERE. This has led to tensions in many a relationship and should be avoided at all costs.

 

TOOL SPACE

Do yourself a favor and make sure there is a workbench, shelf, or table very close to your shaping rack where you can keep all of the required tools handy for the task at hand. It can be very frustrating and time consuming to hunt around for tools as you are shaping or glassing. Plan this in advance, before you start. This can be particularly important when you are glassing, as curing resin means time is of the essence.

Pro Shapers typically have shelves right above their side-lights. The shelves serve to direct the light toward the rails of the board being shaped, and also to hold all of the necessary tools within arm’s-length.

 

PLANNING YOUR TIME

The amount of time it takes to build a surfboard varies from surfer to surfer and is dependent on your skill set and personality. Some people shape their first board in as little as 3 hours, other may take a full day (5-8 hours) just to carve their first shape if being super careful and taking their time.Your second board will probably be completed in ½ to 1/3rd of the time. The learning curve in shaping surfboards is very steep. By your third or fourth board, you will be able to complete the shaping stage in about 2-4 hours. Pros typically shape a shortboard in under an hour. If you start with a custom surfboard blank all you have to do is shape the bottom contours and rails so it should take you less than an hour as well.

Glassing a board requires fewer labor hours, but you will spend more time waiting for your resin to cure than actually glassing the board. With Greenlight Marine Grade Epoxy Resin with SLOW Hardener it takes about 4 hours for resin to cure enough to flip the board and glass the other side. (Fast Hardener is 2 1/2 hours) As a rule, epoxy cures slower in colder temperatures and faster in warmer temperatures. Plan on more than one day to laminate and seal coat both sides of a board. You can also use a heated space and crank the temperature up to cure the epoxy even faster. 

Resin Research Quick Kick epoxy, which has “flip times” as fast as 30 minutes in warm temps (90F) and under two hours in cooler temps (70F). With Quick Kick, you can pretty easily laminate and seal coat both sides of a board in a single day (3 flips). As a beginner, you may want to use regular the Greenlight Marine Grade Epoxy System with SLOW Hardener, especially in warmer temperatures, as it gives you longer working time.

Fin box installs take amateurs about 1/2 hour (for a quad), plus the time it takes for the resin to cure. Leash plug installs only take about 10-15 minutes, plus the time it takes the resin to cure.

Sanding your glass job will take 1-2 hours, depending on how much you do with a power sander and how much you do by hand. It is almost guaranteed that you will “burn-through” the seal coat and expose glass weave during your first few sand jobs. Exposed weave will suck water, so you need to re-coat those burn-through areas or even add a second entire seal coat if you have multiple burn-throughs. 

At Greenlight we're pushing to eliminate sanding from the surfboard building process. Who likes dust anyway? We've proven over years of surfing un-sanded boards the performance is not different than a sanded board. The additional bonus is the board retains it's shiny gloss if you don't sand! All you need to do is scrape a little rail resin and tail area with a Razor Lap Cutter / Scraper Tool. Check out how to eliminate sanding in our Masterclass Videos.

Adding a gloss coat to your board is pretty quick: only 20 minutes or so to apply each side, plus the time it takes for each side to cure. Final sanding and polishing of your board should take 1-2 hours on your first shot.

So to plan your time for making a surfboard, consider the following:

 

Day 1: Shaping Blank, installing pre-glass fin boxes [FCSIIFCS Fusion or Futures Style] (1.5-8 total hours depending on your personality)

Day 2: Laminate bottom and top, seal coat top (1-2 hours labor; 9-12 hours cure time)*

Day 3: Seal coat bottom, install post-glass fin boxes [FACTORY  or FCS X-2 plugs, Longboard centerfin box] (1 hour labor; 6-8 hours cure time)*

Day 4: Install leash plug, sand top and bottom or scrape resin (1-2 hours labor; 3-4 hours cure time)*

Day 5: OPTIONAL : 2nd seal coat or gloss coat, final sanding/polishing (1-2 hours labor; 3-8 hours cure time)*

  

HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT BLANK FOR YOUR SURFBOARD SHAPE

Here we go. Now you’ve got the tools, the design, the template, and the workspace. It is time to choose a blank and get busy mowing foam. The first step in the process is choosing the correct blank. Most surfboards are made with either Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) or Polyurethane (PU) foam blanks. Greenlight carries both EPS and PU Blanks in a variety of shapes and sizes. Your first task is to choose EPS or PU as a blank material.

EPS BLANKS

EPS foam blanks have been used in surfboard construction since the early 1980's but is quickly gaining popularity since advancements in foam technology has made EPS easier to work with and producing lighter, stronger boards. Surfboards shaped with EPS and glassed with Epoxy Resin have proven to have superior strength/weight ratios to PU/Polyester boards (about 3X stronger). EPS boards have been particularly popular for small-wave boards, where light-weight is important, and also are gaining popularity in big-wave guns, and performance longboards, and high performance shortboards, where strength/weight ratio is important. EPS foam is very durable and much more impact resistant than PU foam which means less dings and your board will keep it's lively flex and rebound feel for many years.

EPS blanks have a consistent density throughout the blank, so there is no worry of over-shaping the blank and exposing a weaker inner core. Most beginner shapers choose EPS blanks, as they are easiest to shape and produce a durable but still lightweight board. Greenlight's Engineered EPS blanks are the best quality and most consistent foam on the market. We recommend shaping EPS with our Greenlight Tool pack which we designed to be the most effective and easiest way to shape surfboards.

You can purchase a Greenlight Stock EPS blank in a variety of sizes and styles. We've categorized each type of blank in a "Series" so you can easily choose the right style blank for the type of board you're building (Fish, High Performance Shortboard, Longboard, Wakesurf, etc.)

We also offer a custom close tolerance blank cutting service which greatly reduces the amount of labor and dust created in your workspace while providing a perfectly cut outline, foil, and rocker based on your design. All you have to do is shape the rails and bottom contours. Combining technology and soulful hand shaping it the smartest way to shape in our opinion and definitely provides the best results.

One last comment of EPS foam, it MUST be glassed with epoxy resin! Polyester resin will melt the foam! Please do not make this mistake.

PU BLANKS

PU blanks have been the go-to core for the surfboard industry since the 60s. You can laminate them with epoxy or polyester resin. PU blanks are typically more dense and heavier than EPS blanks. Most PU blanks have a density of 3 lbs per cubic foot, while Greenlight EPS blanks are a specially engineered 2# per cubic foot density. PU foam shapes nicely and takes paint well for artwork. 

Another unique characteristic of PU blanks is that they are denser in the “outer skin” than the “inner core.” When shaping PU, most shapers use “close tolerance” blanks, where they don’t have to shape deeper than the outer skin to preserve the most durable component of the blank. If you shape too far into a PU blank, the soft inner core will be exposed and your board is more likely to get pressure dings and delaminations in these areas. For this reason, EPS blanks are usually a safer, and stronger bet for beginner shapers.

Boards shaped with polyurethane foam will have a shorter lifespan and will deteriorate over time, losing it's flex and rebound characteristics and eventually break or buckle. But they surf nicely...

CHOOSING THE RIGHT SIZE BLANK

Once you have decided on PU or EPS, you need to choose the appropriately sized blank for your planned design. The three things you need to consider are:

  1. Length
  2. Width
  3. Rocker Profile

When choosing a blank length, in general, the blank should be at least 1/4" inch longer, but not more than 6 inches longer than your intended final shape. Greenlight's Engineered EPS blanks are designed 1/4" longer than the nominal length so you can fit the board you want in the blank (provided the rocker is what you're aiming for - more on that below). Too short and you won’t be able to fit your shape on the blank, too long and you will have trouble getting the correct rocker shaped. So if you are going to shape a 6’0” fish, make sure you start with a blank that is at least 6’0 1/4"+ and not longer than 6’6”. Although you can shape a 6'0" board from a 6'0" blank with no room for rocker adjustment, or a 6'0" from a 9'3" blank and cut a few feet off either (or both ends). Remember your surfboard is sitting somewhere inside the blank, it's your job to bring it out.

When choosing a blank width, you need to primarily make sure that your blank is wide enough in all key dimensions: 12” from the nose, in the wide point, and 12” from the tail. Greenlight stock EPS blanks come in rectangular outlines that are 24" wide, so width isn’t an issue, but other blanks usually come in more compact “shortboard” profiles where the nose and tail are relatively narrow, or “fish/hybrid/longboard” profiles, where the nose and tail are wider and more suitable for these shapes. So if you’re making a short fish, make sure the blank is wide enough in the nose/tail area. Many “shortboard” blanks won’t work for fish shapes.

Finally, you need to make sure you can carve out the appropriate rocker from your blank. While some blank manufacturers offer custom rockers, as a beginner, you will most likely be choosing a “stock” rocker profile for your first board. Stock rockers usually fall in two categories: more curvy, shortboard rockers, or flatter fish rockers. The shortboard rockers usually have higher, thinner nose and tail curve, while the fish rockers have lower, thicker nose and tail curves.

If you have designed your board in the AKUShaper program, you will have all of the measurements needed to determine if a blank is suitable for your design: thickness in the center, nose, and tail; plus rocker in the nose and tail area. Every blank maker has a spec sheet for each blank which identifies the key measurements of the blank. If you have not designed with a CAD program, you just need to make sure you choose a “shortboard” rocker for making a shortboard or a “fish rocker” for making any type of low-rocker board. When in doubt, the crew at Greenlight can always steer you toward the most appropriate blank for your intended design.