What the Hell Is a Wool Surfboard?
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Humans use wool for all sorts of products: clothing, insulation, carpeting, blankets, technical garments and on, and on. We can add “surfboard” to that ever-growing list, now that Firewire Surfboards is bringing to market a peculiar idea from New Zealand surfboard shaper Paul Barron that replaces the fiberglass fabric of a board with ovine fiber. The technology is called Woolight, and Firewire is manufacturing a limited initial quantity to test the market acceptance, all of them in the company’s most popular shape, the Rob Machado Seaside.
Woolight’s origins are humble: nearly ten years ago Barron spilled resin on a sweater of his, but instead of the resin dripping off as he expected it to, it settled into the soft material. A cerebral light bulb clicked on, and he got to work. Years later, Barron brought the concept to Firewire, a surf company (owned in part by Kelly Slater) that has a reputation for using non-traditional processes to make surfboards. In its first board design, which debuted in 2006, Firewire removed the wood stringer from the middle of a board’s foam core and placed it instead parabolically around the outer edge of to create a more torsional flex pattern.
The use of wool continues that tradition of innovation, but also hits on another issue that plagues the surf industry: sustainability. “People with ideas around sustainability who can’t commercialize it for any number of reasons approach us all the time asking if we want to bring it to market,” Firewire CEO Mark Price says. “Paul was aware of all the things we’ve done and are doing, and he approached us two and a half, three years ago. We were just excited by it. It’s a natural fiber that grows, so to speak, in a very environmentally-friendly way.”
The types of boards everyday surfers ride have typically been dictated by what professional surfers have under their feet. The surf industry plays heavily on marketing what less than one percent of the surfing population can actually do on a wave, and surfers can be stubborn to adopt something different without seeing it in action. But the one thing that has stayed consistent since the conception of professional surfing in the 1970s is the materials used to make surfboards.
Surfboard construction has remained mostly unchanged since the introduction of fiberglass and polyurethane (PU) after World War II. The 1960s and 70s, a time colloquially referred to as the Shortboard Revolution, saw board designs get shorter than the old 10-foot planks so that they could become much more maneuverable. There have been size and shape developments since then, but that polyurethane foam core and fiberglass-fabric-with-resin construction is still what floats surfers over waves around the globe today.
Surf companies have only recently begun to explore the use of new materials. Carbon fiber, recycled timber, cork and bio-resins are beginning to make their way into more prominent shapes. In many instances though, different materials provide different riding experiences on a wave, and for creatures of habit like surfers, changes may not always produce the desired characteristic in a surfboard. For surfboard manufacturers looking to move away from the toxic resins and the large carbon footprints associated with petroleum-derived polyurethane surfboard blanks, that stubbornness creates a difficult hurdle.
Firewire has always approached surfboard making differently though. The company utilizes sandwich construction on all its boards, including the Woolight board. Sandwich construction starts with an expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam core covered by a high-density aerospace composite deck skin, which enhances durability. This is then wrapped with deck sandwich cloth, which is typically made of epoxy and resin but, in the Woolight’s case, is wool. This is then sealed through exterior lamination with an entropy bio-epoxy resin to create the hard outer shell.
To replace the bread in that sandwich with wool, Firewire went to Barron’s home: New Zealand. The company partnered with a co-op of sheep farms in the country that’s overseen by New Zealand Merino, a company that has helped brands like Allbirds and Smartwool to get the materials they need ethically. Price and the Firewire team visited the farms and found it was vastly different from the traditional sheep farm: “The traditional sheep farming industry is pretty ugly,” Price said, regarding the shearing process. “Most factory farms rely on a system whereby when shearing sheep, if they kill or maim a certain percentage of them, but get it done faster, that’s just the cost of doing business.”
To change that paradigm, New Zealand Merino enacts limits on the number of sheep per hectare and how many animals can be sheared per hour to ensure animal welfare, responsibility and land conservation. New Zealand Merino also audits the farms every six months to make sure farms are consistently meeting its ethical standards.
When Firewire receives the wool, it is minimally processed and quite raw, not woven like a sweater. To apply the wool to the surfboard, Firewire uses proprietary factory processes that include a vacuum-sealing technique for the exterior lamination procedure. The vacuum bagging method allows for the thinnest amount of resin while still offering the highest strength-to-weight ratio possible. Firewire uses bio-epoxy resin in this process, along with the wool and EPS foam. The recipe qualifies the Woolight board for an ECOBOARD Level One rating from Sustainable Surf, which is an independent, third-party “eco-label” for surfboards that have become the standard in the industry.
“Overall, the use of natural materials in surfboards is a good thing,” Sustainable Surf Cofounder Kevin Whilden says. “Especially if it doesn’t affect other qualities such as surfboard performance, look, feel and durability.”
For the past few months, I’ve been surfing one of these Woolight boards at my local beach breaks in New York and New Jersey. Winter has been transforming into spring, and water temperatures have been lifting from the 30s to the 40s and now to the 50s, but the extra millimeters of neoprene hasn’t hindered how the board paddles.
In terms of performance, I haven’t noticed any signs that it’s an abnormal surfboard that functions lesser than a traditional PU one. In fact, it’s an incredibly progressive board that rises to the level of performance I need in in the different conditions that I often encounter in the Northeast. That may be primarily due to the shape of the board itself (the surfing I like to do fits naturally with a progressive fish that has a double vee concave), but the fact that the materials match those levels is a testament to wool’s ability to replace fiberglass in the lamination process.
During my first session with it, I rode the board on a blustery New Jersey day with few surfers around, one of the early waves I caught presented a long, clean wall about shoulder high. After an initial check turn, I wrapped a roundhouse cutback. These moves tend to be a little drawn out, but to my surprise, I was back in the whitewater of the wave much sooner than I anticipated and was able to bounce off it and redirect back down the line of the righthand wave fast enough to keep riding for a couple more moves down the line.
The board proved that it handles well in the barrel and allows for finesse, drive and complete control, returning energy throughout turns and various maneuvers. That a surfboard can come out of a move without losing speed is essential, and in this the Woolight board shined, retaining all speed (and at times generating more out of a move) to continue down the line of a wave.
While paddling, I often looked down at the board and recognized individual wool fibers in its cloudy blue surface. It was a real, physical reminder that Woolight is different, something new. But on a wave, with the board under my feet, the place where performance is more crucial than appearances, I didn’t think about the wool at all. I couldn’t feel any difference; the board offers the typical flex patterns and riding capabilities you’d find in any regular surfboard. So, to answer the question on every skeptical surfer’s mind, does the Woolight board surf any differently from a normal one? No, and ultimately, that’s the point.
The Good: Buoyancy, performance and durability aren’t affected by the replacement of fiberglass with wool. Simply put, the Woolight surfboard rides exactly like a regular fiberglass surfboard. According to the compression testing that Firewire performed in its factory, it found the durability and tensile strength of wool to be comparable to fiberglass too. This is aided by the sandwich construction deck skin, which also helps keep the deck of the surfboard less susceptible to heel marks and divots that tend to happen immediately with fiberglass. After four months of testing, I didn’t notice any heel marks or dings.
Who It’s For: Surfers looking for a sustainable alternative to the toxic boards that are the current industry norm.
Watch Out For: If you’re looking for an eco-friendly surfboard there are alternatives with smaller carbon footprints, but the Level One ECOBOARD rating is still commendable. While using the bio-epoxy resin is a huge plus for the board, the EPS core keeps it from qualifying for the Gold Level. Plus, the wool doesn’t reduce the carbon footprint as much as you’d think because sheep emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
As Sustainable Surf Cofounder Kevin Whilden told us, “Wool actually has about a ten-times higher carbon footprint than fiberglass. Firewire certainly did their homework in sourcing wool from a very sustainable sheep ranching operation, which supports that local community. However, I think it was a bit of a surprise that a natural material like wool has a higher footprint than an inorganic material like fiberglass. That’s a counter-intuitive result, and it speaks to the importance of conducting formal lifecycle analysis when deciding which materials are more sustainable.” On the other hand, fiberglass is not a renewable material, and its application in a board is far more toxic than wool.
On the performance side, lets’ note that Firewire’s Seaside model is the only shape Woolight is currently available in. The Seaside comes with a quad fin setup, unlike most traditional surfboards these days that offer the versatility of five fin boxes to allow for riding the board as a thruster or a quad. As someone who rides lots of twin fin setups, I opted to ride the Seaside Woolight with a twinzer setup (two smaller knub fins in front and two bigger twin fins in the back). While this board might lack a stabilizing center fin, it still offers versatility if you get creative.
Alternatives: One direct alternative to Woolight is Lost Surfboards’s C4 Technology, which uses cork in a similar sandwich construction. Firewire’s own Timbertek, which uses sustainably-grown Paulownia wood deck skins, is also up there, and has a Gold Level ECOBOARD rating. Other companies like Grain Surfboards and Agave Surfboards use wood as the major material in their boards. The ECOBOARD Project offers a comprehensive list of companies that offer sustainably-built surfboards, which you can view here. Almost all sustainably-built boards cost $700 or more.
Verdict: Early signs show that wool might be a direct replacement for fiberglass, with potential to expand far beyond surfboards. Woolight, or something like it, might be used wherever fiberglass is present, like in boats, housing, automobiles and more.
That futuristic and potentially game-changing premise is a lot to wrap your head around, but take all that away, and Firewire’s Seaside Woolight surfboard handily proves that wool, whether it changes manufacturing or not, can produce a surfboard that competes with the best of them. The Woolight board isn’t quite the greenest surfboard you can buy, but it serves as a potent example of how surfboard makers can change their thinking about the materials they work with, without sacrificing anything that surfers want from a board.
Key Specs: Firewire Seaside Woolight Surfboard
Ridden Dimensions: 5’2” x 20” x 2 5/16”
Ridden Volume: 26.5L
Firewire Surfboards provided this product for review.
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