Stretch Riedel: Share a cigar with a modern master
William 'Stretch' Riedel is a fun guy to talk to. Engaging, hilarious. The Santa Cruz shaper is of slight build, tall but lanky, and with his partially paralysed right arm - the result of a windsurfing accident in '88 - he cuts a diminutive figure. But when Stretch starts talking his presence fills the room.
And that's 'cos the fella has opinions and conviction. A seeming mass of contradictions - he works with environmentally friendly materials but is rarely seen without a cigar, his gig is alternative but his goal is high performance - Stretch is American Individualism personified.
Stretch is currently in Australia on a shaping tour (you can contact him here) so Swellnet sat him down for a chat. Note: this is a short excerpt from a much longer design-oriented conversation. Keep an eye out for the full transcript in coming weeks.
Swellnet: When did you start shaping?
Stretch: Ahhh....in '78.
And you started with traditional material, standard polyester and so forth?
You've made a name for yourself using alternative materials. When did that start?
I started working with epoxy in '82.
How'd you come across epoxy so early?
Long story....let me start over...I was born in Malibu but we moved out to the Valley, then right after high school we moved to Santa Cruz. Lived there for a year or two and started shaping there. Then moved back down to Hermosa Beach and my first job was working at a furniture place called Feather Tree where we made bar tops. We were doing bar tops with polyester, but the bar top guys were also doing super high end epoxy bar tops – amazing work.
In my spare time I was shaping, building boards for myself, and because the furniture guys started using epoxy on the bar tops, I became familiar with epoxy. Then I left the furniture place and went next door to Hap Jacobs surfboards to glass boards there. It was there I started messing around with epoxy surfboards. I messed around with pretty much every epoxy I've ever heard of.
Why? What's drawn you towards it?
At first it was that I just wanted a lighter board, and with the bar tops I really saw that it wouldn’t shatter the way that polyester does. So not having shatter dings, and using lighter foam to make a lighter, stronger board. That's the path that everyone has followed. Some have been more successful than others, but that's the path.
Did you meet much resistance in the early days?
Absolutely! The customers didn't want it. I was just making them for myself and a few friends that I had convinced. Some people didn’t like the way it looked, others didn't like the way it felt. It does have faster cyclical rate with standard epoxy construction. So if you take a poly construction technique and apply it to epoxy it has a faster cyclical rate.
What's the cyclical rate?
The cyclical rate is the measurement by which a board flexes and returns to its original form. That is the cyclical rate, or the harmonic vibration. As soon as you start thinking outside the box, as soon as you just throw the normal construction techniques out the door and start over, it doesn't take long before you can figure out how to slow the cyclical rate down.
Why is faster cyclical rate a problem?
Human reaction time is fairly slow, so the slow rebound that polyester has is more conducive to human reaction. Epoxy being faster it unloads before you can utilise that energy. So the idea is to slow it down so you can utilise it.
Pro surfers have faster reaction times, couldn't they make better use of faster cyclical rates?
Sometimes, some places, yes. But what you have to do before testing whether fast or slow cyclical rates work is to control it. So we came up with techniques to control it using different materials, using cork, using bamboo, multiple layer laminations rather than just single bottom.
What year would you have been conducting these experiments?
Those experiments in how to slow it down started in the mid- to late-90s. Natural materials seemed to be the way. Every performance craft ridden by people at the top in their sport i.e snowboards, snowskis, waterskis, these things all flex and someone is riding on them: So what is the best material? What is the best core...?
Wooden core! Across the board. Best there is. OK! So lets start putting wood in there. So we started doing veneers, bamboo, paulownia, all different kinds of skins. Cork came along recently and proved to be very advantageous.
I want to talk about Clark Foam closing down in 2005 and the effect that had on your surfboard label.
Yeah, that's a great story, I love that story. So Grubby [Gordon 'Grubby' Clark – owner of Clark Foam] does a press release in the afternoon after I've gone home. I'm at home in my garden and my general manager Dave calls me up and my wife gets me on the phone. [Stretch starts to imitate a conversation between he and Dave.]
“Whats up Dave, you never call me at home ever?”
“Clark Foam just closed their doors.”
“Shut up, what are you talking about?”
“No really, Clark Foam just closed their doors, there's no more blanks being manufactured and no-one is selling the blanks. They're going to hold all the blanks.”
I went silent for, I don't know, thirty second to a minute, then I said, “OK, double our order of EPS foam.” ….and we didn't skip a beat.
Then we called all our customers and told them Clark Foam has closed its doors and that they have the option of cancelling their order or getting an EPS board. Across the board every single one of them ordered an EPS.
“No problem,” I said, “your board will be on time. Thank you very much.”
After Clark Foam closed we never looked back. I believe it was December Grubby closed his doors and our plan was that the following June, in the middle of our summer, we'd discontinue with polyester boards. We just didn't want to make it anymore. Clark Foam closing simply brought our timeline six months forward.
You guys were at an advantage 'cos you were already using other materials. Other people had to transition from a standing start.
Yeah they were behind the 8 ball. Most definitely.
In the post-Clark Foam era there's a plethora of materials and construction techniques to choose from. What have you guys been working on?
We've been refining the things we learned from earlier experiments such as how to control the flex. Deck channels came along. Greg Lohr told me about them, he's kind of the guy who invented it. We didn't really utilise deck channels much then, if at all, but when Nathan [Fletcher] came to ride for me then it really became an influence and we saw that by tapering that channel, its depth and its contour, you could really stiffen and strengthen the forward section while leaving the tail as flexy as you wanted. That was one component of it.
Also, because EPS tends to be lighter and people complain about the buoyancy sometimes. You could simply overglass the boards. A PU board, a nice light PU, is 5.5 pounds and an equal epoxy is going to weight 4.5 pounds. So put another pound of glass on it! You'll have a stronger board, the material cost is pretty minimal. Now the buoyancy is the same because the myth that epoxy is more buoyant then polyester is scientifically impossible. Buoyancy is just how much water is being displaced by something that weighs x amount. So if it weighs a pound less it has that much more buoyancy, and will float, not just a pound more – because you are live weight, you're not dead weight – it'll float probably 5 pounds more. So if you want equal buoyancy then we can just make a stronger board.
It happens that you work with environmentally friendly material and have done so since 1982. How much do those credentials mean to you or is it more about their performance?
It is strictly the performance. I live in the forest, I've been an outdoorsman forever. I believe that the use of carbon fuels should be reduced, but not because of what governments worldwide are saying. I believe that todays environmental movement, that the climate change movement is a scam that governments are putting on people. We should definitely take care of our environment but paying governments to do it? Each and every one of us needs to be responsible for ourselves and keep government out of our lives.
(long silence from both of us)
Ha ha ha ha ha ha...(Stretch's maniacal laugh cuts the silence)
Get me off the box!
Well that was a very earnest, heartfelt answer Stretch. Back to boards though: what direction are shortboard shapes going? Short and wide boards appear to have had their time, what's your take on the next 5 years?
I don't think we really went into the shorter board as far as we could.
You don't think so?
We went shorter, and to increase the amount of efficiency - the lift - created by the board we widened the board. But rather than going wider why don't we make the bottom more efficient? If we can increase the attack angle you're going to become more efficient. And as we can increase the attack angle it becomes more efficient exponentially.
Can you explain angle of attack in terms of bottom contours?
Well, water is moving up the wave face, it isn't travelling straight parallel to the stringer. It's moving across the board at anywhere from zero to 30 degrees. And the board is almost never – with the exception of gong straight down the wave – running with its bottom surface parallel to the water. Now if I want a really deep single or double concave I'm increasing surface area – i.e increasing the lift – and as I turn that rail down and into the water I'm increasing the angle of attack.
Then if I can...it's difficult to explain without drawing it but there's quite a bit of fin placement work, and on that note the fin companies are really letting us down with the quality of fins they supply. Anyway, those things there, bottom contour and fins, between them you can ride a really small board in really big waves and surf really top to bottom. The guys I work with have been surfing 5'5”, 5'6” in double overhead waves. None of them - Koa Smith, Miki Picon, Nathan Fletcher - will go back to the shorter Kelly Slater-style boards. They're at 18 ¾ or 18 ½ wide boards, but they're only 5'5”.
So there's plenty of experimentation left within short boards?
Nathan Fletcher riding a Stretch Mr Buzz in the movie 'Chromatic'.