Danny Hess has spent the last decade turning surfboard design on its head by designing from the outside-in, rather than inside-out. Most shapers start with a non-recyclable foam blank, and work outwards; Danny instead uses sustainably harvested wood, and builds a frame of poplar and amapolato wood to create an outer shell by sealing the frame with a deck and a bottom. He is one of the world's premiere wooden surfboard shapers. Even with global recognition and distribution partnerships with Mollusk Surf Shop and Patagonia, this innovative designer is far from declaring victory, and still strives to make the ultimate sustainable surfboard, as he shared in this exclusive Inhabitat interview.
His boards are often described by the surfers who ride them as “magical.” His website shows the broad range of boards he makes, from small summer fishes to big wave guns, all captured in stunning photographs by his wife Erin Kunkel. At $1295 they are almost double what a typical board costs, but the strength of the wooden design makes them potentially able to last ten times longer. The boards are fast, maneuverable, strong, and incredibly beautiful. They are just as much pieces of art as they are surfboards
“It’s taken me about 11 years to fully evolve this board’s design,” Danny explained to me when I met with him at the Woodshop, a work space in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset that he shares with three other artisans. “I feel really good about the whole package — the board’s performance, strength, durability, and aesthetic. The technology has come to full fruition. But I think that this design has gone as far as it can go.”
With his high-demand custom boards on a back-order of about 6 months, and professional surfers like Dan Malloy gracing the cover The Surfers Journal while riding one of Danny’s creations, you might think Danny would settle. He’s made it, after all: he’s a successful surfboard shaper, respected by surfers and other woodworkers alike.
Instead, he continues to push his boards and his thinking, at least when he has time. Between shaping and surfing, he is deeply involved in experimenting with new methods to make longer lasting, sustainable surfboards.
That’s a lot easier said than done in an industry that has for decades relied upon toxic, non-recyclable materials. The overwhelming majority of boards in the water today rely on several inherently unsustainable, non-recyclable materials: the foam core, which is molded to define the board’s shape, and the combination of fiberglass and resin used to glass the board and give it strength. And this is not to say that Danny is the only one experimenting with more sustainable boards. We’ve talked about the viability of eco-surfboards in the past. And there are some really novel approaches out there, like the beer-can surfboard. But almost all designs rely upon a heavy coating of resin glass to ensure the strength of the board, and Danny’s continual pursuit puts him in a class of his own.
Danny’s current manifestation has eliminated a large reliance on those materials, but not all of them. The wooden rails and skins, which are vacuum sealed together, provide most of the board’s strength. To fill in the hollow board, Danny uses 100% recycled expanded polystyrene, or EPS. He glasses his boards with resin from Entropy, a company that utilizes waste from the milling industry and makes a resin made of 70% pine sap.
Image © Danny Hess
While these steps make his boards much more sustainable than most, he knows there is still room for increased sustainability. As he sees it, there are essentially two possible ways to improve upon his current model, without sacrificing the board’s performance. The first would be to incorporate “a bio-based foam core that is water-soluble to ultimately replace EPS. I’ve heard of a lot of testing with corn-starch, and soy-based foams that are used in other products, but they often end up too spongy, or are water-soluble. But I’m hopeful that something will be out there some day.”
The other option is to eliminate the foam core and the glassing all together. In Danny’s eyes, that’s the ultimate goal: a wood-shelled surfboard that’s not glassed, uses no foam…and actually works. Sort of like the handplanes that he makes for bodysurfing, except bigger. He’s actively tinkering with both possibilities.
Image © Danny Hess
With the first approach, Danny has spent the last year building a board that expands on the use of recycled EPS as a foam base, with wooden skins attached to the top and the bottom. It’s sort of like surfing’s hybrid, in its combined use of wood and foam. The cost of one of these boards, which for now he just calls “my newer technology,” is $795, making them more accessible to what surfers are used to paying for their boards. And if bio-foam eventually becomes a realistic replacement for recycled EPS, this model has potential to become something really special.
On the other side of the spectrum, he actually has a working prototype of the coveted foam-free, glass-free, wooden board. I was lucky enough to see it in person when I visited him. You can tell from knocking on the deck that it’s totally hollow, and the lack of glass was almost disorienting. I didn’t realize how much I’m used to seeing glassed surfboards. The board wasn’t even waxed, because the unglassed wood, while polished, has a natural stickiness to it, and Danny didn’t think he needed wax when he tested it out in the water.
“I surfed this board out at Ocean Beach, and it kind of worked,” Danny admitted. “The problem is that it’s way too heavy. It’s almost 11 pounds, and most of my boards of this size are only around 7.5 pounds. The first thing I need to do is cut the weight down in order to make this perform better, but I have some ideas on how to do that.
Image © Erin Kunkel
Danny claims to do some of his best thinking when he least intends to, like when he’s asleep. His original board design came to him one night while he was engrossed in a cabinet project as a contractor. He woke up, and just knew how to make his board.
I think I speak for a lot of surfers when I say that I’m looking forward to his next midnight epiphany.
Lead image © Erin Kunkel