The new cloth on the block
When it comes to making greener surfboards, fibreglass is the most overlooked part of the process.
Of a surfboard’s three major components: blank, resin, and fibre reinforcement, the latter is assumed to be the least noxious, so toxic foam and polyester resins are usually the first to go, swapped out for recycled blanks and various types of bio-resins, while it’s assumed that because fibreglass is derived from natural products - mostly silica but also limestone and other minerals - that it gets a pass mark on the green scorecard.
Yet despite its relative virtues, fibreglass has some questions to answer regarding production and manufacture.
For one, fibreglass is made by heating the aforementioned mix of silica and minerals, in the process releasing greenhouse gases such as nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide into the atmosphere.
Also, most of the fibreglass made in China is “baked glass”, meaning silicone is added before it’s woven and then baked off afterwards. Similarly, additives are used in Volan cloth. The trade name ‘Volan’ refers, not to the light green coloured fibreglass so admired by loggers and hipsters, but to the chemical added to make a heavy, flat weave cloth bond to a surface - in this case foam. Volan is made from Chromium (III) Methacrylate which is a known carcinogen.
The toxic properties of fibreglass aren’t unknown in the surf industry and over the last decade many shapers have been testing alternatives. Hemp cloth and flax cloth are two of the more common replacements though both have shortcomings in that they’re harder to sand and, most importantly, they lack the tensile strength of fibreglass. Durability has to be part of the eco equation.
To remedy this, many shapers wrap a board in one layer of hemp or flax cloth and then seal it with a layer of glass for strength. It’s not always apparent to the consumer that they’re riding a board with fibreglass as the glass is clear while the underlying hemp or flax is visible. Nor is it an ideal situation for the eco-minded shaper who’s forced into the compromise.
Basalt has been used as a fibreglass alternative for two decades, mainly for specialised work in aircraft and the aerospace industry, but more recently as a substitute for steel rebar to reinforce concrete owing to its exceptional tensile strength and low manufacturing cost.
Damien Bensley from Colan Fibreglass came across basalt cloth in 2011 while making a hybrid fabric for a swimming pool company. “Basalt isn’t as strong or as light as carbon, “says Damien, “but it’s definitely stronger than normal glass. In fact, it’s very similar to S-glass.”
The ‘S’ in S-glass stands for ‘strength’, it’s a high performance alternative to normal E-glass in surfboards.
Basalt cloth is similar to fibreglass in that they both rely on extractive industries, however as basalt is an igneous rock - formed from molten lava - it releases no greenhouse gases during the heating process. That smoke you see bellowing from volcanoes? Most of it is ash and steam but it also includes greenhouse gases released from molten rock. The absence of trapped gases in basalt make it inert and ideal to work with, while its volcanic origin makes basalt the most common rock on Earth.
It also takes less energy to turn basalt into cloth as the material only has to be heated once. There are approximately half as many steps as fibreglass manufacture.
Down at the factory level, basalt cloth, at least the small amount that’s been manufactured for surfboards, contains no additives like silicon or Volan.
To date, most of the basalt used by Colan was being turned into tapes and reinforcement patches. Dylan Perese from DP Surfboards has used them with great results, while Slater Designs has two models, the No Brainer and FRK, that use basalt cloth as reinforcement along the stringer. Most of the demand, however, was coming from the smaller board makers.
“About five years ago we started working with John from Sanded who was doing lots of research into basalt cloth,” says Damien. “Back then, the size of the basalt strand was similar to carbon so he wanted to replace it with basalt. Basalt is more durable than carbon, not as brittle. And it’s also cheaper.”
“With John’s encouragement, we then started to weave basalt strands into E-cloth,” explains Damien. “Just for specific areas where we wanted strength. And really, it’s gone from there.” Each time Colan has made a new basalt product it’s been eagerly picked up by board makers with a nose for alternatives.
“It wouldn’t have happened unless there was demand from the backyard eco guys,” says John Dowse from Sanded at Long Jetty on the Central Coast of NSW. “Of course there’d be a big uptake [in eco materials] if guys on the CT rode them, but we’ve got to this point simply by those smaller guys wanting better boards.”
As anyone who’s tried to market green products will tell you, goodwill will only get you so far. If the alternative doesn’t stack up in price and performance it’ll remain a niche product. But Damien and John’s early experiments with basalt were bearing fruit and that encouraged Damien to weave a full width cloth of basalt.
“John said we needed to be able to do a whole board,” says Damien. “So we managed to find a supplier that makes basalt thin enough and light enough to weave basalt cloth.” Late last year they produced their first roll of full width basalt cloth. They’ve made a few more since then, each one closer in feel and form to standard 4oz fibreglass cloth.
A year ago, Robbie Marshall at Soul Arch Surfboards took 18 months off board-building to concentrate on testing new materials before relaunching into the market. The developments in basalt were perfect timing.
“I’ve made five of six boards using basalt cloth and they’re second to none in strength,” says Robbie with obvious glee. So far he’s only used basalt with a layer of 4oz glass over the top but the strength exceeds two layers of 4oz fibreglass.
“I’m still testing, so haven’t done pure basalt yet,” explains Robbie. When it comes time to open the order books again, Robbie will primarily make timber veneer boards but he sees basalt as being complementary to the timber aesthetic. Basalt cloth is a copper colour which Robbie says matches cedar perfectly, so his aim is to retain the aesthetics while losing the weight of timber boards.
John Dowse is confident basalt can also make inroads at the other end of the market. “Basalt is stronger than S-glass and it’s light, so it lends itself to high performance boards.” To date he’s only made a basalt/innegra board but a full basalt cloth board - no fibreglass - is in the order book. Keep an eye on the comments below to see how it goes.
Theoretically there should be no difference in performance between basalt and fibreglass, so then what about the price? “It’s a little more expensive than E-glass,“ explains John, “but not as expensive as S-glass, and nowhere near as expensive as carbon.” In other words, it’s right there in the mix. Unlike other green alternatives the end price of basalt boards should be comparable to fibreglass boards.
If we’re looking for drawbacks, reasons basalt may not become popular, then it lies in the colour. Basalt cloth is coppery brown and, at this point, there’s no getting around the fact boards made with it will also be various shades of brown. Surprisingly, John Dowse isn’t perturbed by the earthy aesthetic.
“Years ago there’s no way people would have a brown board, but now people actually want them,” says John. The reason is that the smaller backyard shapers want to signify their eco credentials. And why not? They’ve been the impetus in this transition away from noxious materials so let those brown boards signify their effort.
Dylan Perese can see brown basalt catching on, but he can also see the limitations. “There’s only so many looks you can achieve with it,” says Dyl. “It’ll fit into everyone’s eco model but I’m not sure how it’d go across the range.”
However, surfboard consumers are a fickle bunch. We thought parabolic stringers looked odd when they first hit the market, likewise stringer-less boards, and each of those features became normal over time.
Basalt cloth hits all the marks on the green scorecard, while theory says it should perform as good as fibreglass, plus it’s got a price point to push it into the mainstream, but unfortunately it’ll be that most superficial criteria of all - how it looks - that’ll decide how many coppery brown boards we see at the beaches in years to come.