Mark Riley makes the strongest surfboards around - touch wood

Stu Nettle picture
Stu Nettle (stunet)
Design Outline

Mark Riley has all the requisite qualities of an exacting tradsman. He posseses a keen eye, skilled hands, and wherever he goes a small cloud of sawdust follows. Mark puts his talent to good use crafting some of the most beautiful, strong, and environmentally friendly surfboards on the market. Swellnet recently spoke with the fella behind Riley Balsawood Surfboards.

Swellnet: How long have you been making balsa surfboards?
Mark Riley: Since 1996.

You're an early adopter. The push to alternative materials came quite a bit after 1996.
Yeah, but I wasn't even making polyurethane boards before that. It happened that I was travelling in '96, I travelled from Mexico down to Chile and stopped in at Ecuador. I knew about Ecuadorian balsa, so I looked up some balsa and and brought some back here and started making boards. Basically I've never made a polyurethane board. I started with balsa because I knew the qualities of it, I also knew how weak polyurethane boards were and how toxic they were.

Was there much of a market when you started?
No. It was a brand new market, I was starting from scratch. It was a hard slog there for the first five years. One, I was experimenting around with materials, but also building a new niche market and educating people in what's so good about them. You know, they're durable, they're unique, they're hand built, they're environmentally friendly, that'll you'll have them for the rest of your life, they're Australian made - all those things.


You've been helped along by the movement away from PU/PE boards, in part because of the 2005 closure of Clark Foam which forced people to find new materials.
When that happened, Clark Foam closing down, the authorities in California put so much pressure on Grubby Clark to, you know, clean up his act, but he couldn't. He was trying, but he couldn't really make it any cleaner, so he just closed his doors. The whole world just went, “Wow, there is something wrong here, there is something very toxic and bad.” That helped my business.

Did you feel vindicated?
Of course. That reinforced that what I was doing was good. Ever since then it's been going well.

What characteristics does balsa have that makes for good a surfboard?
The strength to weight ratio is the big factor. It's light, although not as light as polyurethane foam, but compared to the strength...the strength of balsa is a lot higher. Therefore you don't need to use as much balsa, you don't need to use as much glass, and you don't need to use as much resin to get that strength. So that's why I don't need stringers in my boards. We're using a recycled polystyrene core with balsa laminate deck and bottom which is about 2.5 mm thick. That's all you need, no other stringers or anything. I've never had a board snap in the 19 years...

No way.
None. Only when I've dropped weights on it or whatever. I put a guarantee on the boards if someone breaks it out in the surf in the first twelve months I'll replace it for nothing.

I've never heard that guarantee before.
I don't know anyone else who puts that sort of a challenge or guarantee on their boards. I've made 600...let's see [reaches over and sees number scrawled on bottom of a board] 652 boards and I've never had one broken.


OK, I'm a shortboarder, are balsa shortboards functional?
Of course. They're as light as a regular board but they've got that extra strength added.

But can you shape in all the exact measurements and design features of high performance shortboards?
Yep, anything you want. What were doing is pre-shaping the polystyrene foam, putting in concaves or vees or whatever into our foam, then glueing on the bottom, vacuum bagging the balsa bottom onto the foam. Letting that dry, pulling it out, then shaping the deck rolls on it.

So you know the contours of the board, concave or what have you, before you put the balsa on? You're not there deep sanding afterwards?
No. I'll do a clean up sand, just some refining, but generally the foam has gotta be spot on before you start glueing your balsa. We're cutting planshapes and glueing solid rails on, you can see those lines there, that's basically a solid rail where we can roll our rail over.

Here's my two kilo killer, which weighs in without fins at 2.2 kilos and this is a 6'1” by nearly 19 inches, it's light but super strong. You start doing that [Mark raps his knuckles on the bottom louder than a copper knocking on a suspects door] on a polyurethane board and you'd put dents all over it. Shapers would be screaming.


In front of me now are boards of all shapes and stripes, what's your favourite size to ride?
I'm a shortboarder myself, but I shape a lot of minimal or longboard because there is a bigger market there. But I ride shortboards and fishes myself. Fishes for small days, I like playing around with them. There's quite a big market for fishes also.

Do you think the day will come when the market will expand for high performance shortboards in materials such as balsa?
I haven't pushed shortboards too hard. Previously all the balsa was coming from Ecuador. But now that the balsa is coming from Papua New Guinea it's lighter in weight which is great for shortboards. So I started with solid longboards, began experimenting with foam cores to get the lightness down, and now the balsa itself is getting lighter so the boards are down around 2 kilos.

But shortboards are another market that I haven't really explored. I just sent out one of these boards to test [points to a high performance shortboard], he'll come back in the next week or two with results. But shortboards...that's a whole different advertising path to go down if I want to. But do I really need to...?

Why are you getting the balsa from Papua New Guinea?
I've had probably 10 or 15 containers come from Ecuador, but the balsa wasn't as light as what I would've liked and then several companies in Papua New Guinea had been contacting me. They'd send stuff out but I wasn't really happy with it. I got onto this one company and they sent me a sample, probably two years ago now, and it was beautiful wood. I said, “If you can send me a container with 1000 pieces like this quality you got yourself some business.” He sent me the container about a year ago and it was beautiful stuff. I couldn't believe it. A stick that's 70mm by 120mm by 3m long weighs about 1.5 kilos. I really haven't looked back to Ecuador.

I'm also growing some up in Port Douglas. I bought a tree down so I've got some Australian balsa if someone says they want a completely Australian made board. I pulled down an old tree that fell down in cyclone Yasi in 2010. It's a little bit hard because it's a 10 year old tree. We've got a plantation up there now that's going on 4 years old. We're planting 100 trees every year, we've got a cycle happening. I'm going up there at the end of June. We've already cut a couple of trees down which are currently air drying, so I'm going up to look at the quality. I'll bring a few sticks back and play around with them. Hopefully in 2 years time well have a regular cycle going where we cut down 100 trees so the boards are completely Australian made.

Check the Riley Balsawood Surfboards website. For the DIY folk Mark also sells ready-to-shape balsa blanks in a variety of sizes and construction methods (solid, foam core, stringers etc). Again, check his website.


zenagain's picture
zenagain's picture
zenagain Friday, 23 May 2014 at 4:43pm

Who wouldn't want a completely hand shaped, made in Australia Balsa board?

Apart from the fact they look beautiful they're functionl too.

Great interview and great to read of a small business success story. I wish him continued success.

wellymon's picture
wellymon's picture
wellymon Friday, 23 May 2014 at 5:36pm

Beautiful shit there MR (I bet you love that acronym)

finback's picture
finback's picture
finback Friday, 23 May 2014 at 6:04pm

I know what I'll get my 2 daughters , husbands, grandkids and wife to get me for my 60th birthday at the end of the year. Only rode a mal in the late 60's and said I wouldn't ride another one until I turned 60 and retired. Currently have two MR's, 7' 6" singlefin retro gun, 7' 2" tri gun and 6'6" will Webber Quad turbo.

ethereal's picture
ethereal's picture
ethereal Saturday, 24 May 2014 at 1:21pm

Lets not forget the plethora of Paulownia (even stronger than balsa) builders out there that don't use any glass (zero VOCs) - kudos to Mark and all sustainable wooden builders (check out Fish Fry for a list) for delivering a product that lasts well beyond one season on a new PU board.....

rablex's picture
rablex's picture
rablex Tuesday, 30 Dec 2014 at 2:36pm

"strongest surfboards around"............... snapped mine on its 3rd surf. The "triple stringer" had an interesting design. I'll let you know how Mark Riley Inc. abides by their replacement warranty.

udo's picture
udo's picture
udo Tuesday, 30 Dec 2014 at 2:47pm

What sort of break...nose ,tail or clean in half ?

rablex's picture
rablex's picture
rablex Wednesday, 28 Jan 2015 at 11:35am

Clean in half! nothing like the feeling of pulling on your legrope and half a board comes back. Mark has actually been really nice and has shaped a replacement already. very easy to organise the replacement too. He guarantees its the first break in 18 years. I was having a bad run and snapped two boards in 1 month, hopefully bad things dont come in threes.