Disturbingnews rolls in for surfboard industry: Clark Foam closure big changefor shapers

ByChris Dixon

Friday,December9, 2005

Edition:FINAL, Section: LOCAL & STATE, Page B1


Gordon"Grubby" Clark stunned surfers from Honolulu to the Lowcountry whenhe announced the closure of his surfboard foam factory near LagunaBeach, Calif., earlier this week.

For more than 40years, Clark Foam has held a near monopoly on the lightweightpolyurethane foam cores, better known as blanks, that form the basisfor the modern, hand-shaped surfboard. Running an operation that wasestimated to have produced 1,000 blanks a day, Clark supplied nearlyall the foam for the big surfboard shapers, such as California'sRusty Priesendorfer and Al Merrick, and the medium and small SouthCarolina shapers, such as Garden City's Kelly Richards and MountPleasant's Kai Dilling.

Surfboardmanufacturing has always been a dirty business, so dirty in fact,that Clark claimed in an eight-page letter posted Tuesday to surf Websites that the Environmental Protection Agency was basically shuttinghim down and threatening him with trials and jail for releasingtoxins into the environment.

Richards, ownerof Perfection Surfboards, has supplied a great many hand-shapedPerfection surfboards to Charleston-area surfers for several decades —more than 1,000 per year. "It's a mess," he said. "I don't think thesurfing public realizes just how big a mess it is."

For Richards andother shapers, the Clark closure left a scramble for supply.Typically, Richards said he will order a month's worth of blanks at atime, but on Wednesday, he took out a home equity loan to pay for ayear's worth of blanks from a new supplier. Richards said he waslikely to only produce 400 to 500 boards this year and would have tocharge a higher price for them.

While moredifficult than traditional fiberglass and foam boards to hand-shape,epoxy boards are today increasingly popular among mass manufacturers,such as Santa Cruz California's Surftech. Shaped in China by machineand computer, and environmentally cleaner to produce, Surftech boardsare scoffed at by purists, who say their feel and performance do notcompare to boards made the old-fashioned way with fiberglass andClark Foam.

On Folly Beach,McKevlin's Surf Shop proudly advertises that it sells no epoxyboards, but should supply dry up entirely, owner Tim McKevlin mightbe looking at a difficult stretch in the coming months. McKevlin saidthat although sales were up these past few days, he had not yet seenthe run on boards that has left many surf shops in California, NorthCarolina and Florida charging up to $100 extra per board.

To McKevlin andRichards, Clark's announcement bodes ill for the custom shaper andsmall fiberglass factory. Some who relied on small orders from ClarkFoam might not survive, McKevlin said.

"The big shapersare jetting all over the world right now," he said. "Matt Biolas fromLost surfboards was just in Australia, and others are going to SouthAfrica trying to hook up new accounts. And everywhere, blanks aregoing to be more expensive if they're coming from overseas with dutyand shipping costs."

At Beach Town'sSurf Shak in Mount Pleasant, shaper Dilling said he was grateful thatthe hundred or so "Sol Shapes" surfboards he hand-shapes every yearare only a supplemental income to his shop and surf school. "The last10 years, Clark Foam is all I've used," he said.

Dilling said hehas about 30 blanks on hand, but it will likely be impossible for himto get the 50 or so he was hoping for when a surfing trade show comesto Orlando, Fla., in January.

Like Richards andMcKevlin, Dilling said Clark's sudden closure initially would bepainful to smaller shapers, but the shakeout would eventually lead todifferent suppliers, more competition and innovative foamsdiscouraged by the Clark monopoly. "I feel like it's going tojump-start some progress," he said.

Contact Chris Dixonat 745-5855 or cdixon@postandcourier.com.