A restless creativity: Hayden Cox
There was a period in time, and it doesn't feel that long ago, maybe just after the turn of the century, when surfboard design felt stagnant. Like it had reached a conclusion of sorts, a perfect form, and so it ceased moving forward. And surfboard designers said as much in their interviews, that progression from now on would be incremental, or that it was centred on external things like fins.
But they couldn't have been more wrong.
Because just a few years later, board design, and more particularly board manufacture, exploded. Under the influence of shapers such as Hayden Cox, but also Nev Hyman and Bert Burger, the idea of the surfboard was reimagined. Those shapers, and a handful of others, disassembled the traditional surfboard and began putting it back together in new and imaginative ways, and they used different materials, introduced unique manufacturing processes.
Hayden, who started the eponymous Haydenshapes label, mixes clever design with sharp marketing. He's never been afraid to include radical features in his boards - for instance, three of his models have sidecut rails - and though he's had great success with boards such as the Shred Sled and Hypto Krypto his eyes are always fixed further down the line looking for the next development in design or production.
A restless creative, Swellnet recently spent some time with Hayden to talk over his latest ideas.
The PE-C Stringer
The wooden stringer concept hasn't changed in fifty years. Recently, I looked at what could be improved on a stringer, and it was the lifespan of the flex pattern. That's one of the key things that our FutureFlex board does really well: it maintains its flex pattern for a lot longer than a board with traditional wooden stringer and polyester resin. Customers tell me all the time about their old FutureFlex's. "The board is still going great!"
So I applied that type of thinking to a wooden centreline stringer. I wanted to, firstly, reduce the weight of the stringer, and secondly, improve the flex while maintaining flexural memory a lot longer. The PE-C stringer is made from a high density foam, however it's not the foam that controls flex, but the carbon fibres on each side of it. That's what creates the flex. The foam is just the substrate.
Comparisons to FutureFlex
FutureFlex allows less rail line, with the carbon rails bringing it back to shape very fast, which gives those boards projection and a certain lively feeling under your feet. However, a centreline flex pattern works differently; it twists torsionally around the stringer. Say you lean on your toe side, then it will twist around the stringer rather than along the board. Also, it has a softer feel than the FutureFlex, so to get a board to maintain its memory, you've got to build a stringer that will really withstand that torsional twist, and be stiff enough to match what wooden stringers do already.
The materials we're using in the boards: carbon fibre, epoxy resins, and composite foams, create a flex pattern which is very similar to boards with a wooden stringer. But by using carbon, the flex response is faster, and the material lasts longer, probably three to four times longer in its flexural lifespan of the product - and it's also half the weight.
I hear pro surfers talk about magic boards say, "I got a hundred boards this year and only one of them was a magic one." And that's because the shape came out just right, the glass job was done well, the edge was put on beautifully, it was sanded nicely, and the stringer in the middle was a nice piece of wood: all of them variables in the board-building process, and the better you can control each individual variable, the more consistent your boards are gonna be.
So they're the things I've really focused on: choice of materials, the manufacturing processes, and quality control. It's a huge part of giving people boards they really love.
Beyond black and white
You know, I've never stopped building wooden stringer, polyurethane foam boards. Never went out there and said, "Hey, FutureFlex replaces the centre stringer board." I just brought out something new that worked, that I thought people would like, and subsequently those boards soaked up a big portion of our sales. So most people identify our brand with black-railed boards. And yeah, it is a big brand identifier, it stands out, you can see one a mile away down the beach. But that wasn't a consideration in the design process, it was just a byproduct of that process.
I start all my designs thinking about performance and functionality, and only later on do I try to refine and finesse the visual appeal of the board. Of course, looks are important; a board can go great but look terrible and people just won't be interested in it. So I put a lot of thought and process into that last 5%, which is the aesthetics of the board, and try to curate that and make it work with the brand. But there's no law to it. There are no rules that we have to follow.
I've got no plans to licence the PE-C stringer at this stage. I feel like, what we were able to do with FutureFlex [which was licensed] was show commercial success of a concept, bring it to market, and prove that it had a place in modern board building. That there was a way to do it on a custom board. Most modern epoxy boards, they're built using a similar set of materials as FutureFlex, but back when I launched it the brands didn't have the knowhow or the access to materials. It wasn't part of their repertoire.
The new materials are now made by Colan Fibreglass, but they weren't producing those materials when I designed FutureFlex. If the byproduct of me designing that technology and succesfully bringing it to market has inspired all the other brands to go out and release a carbon fibre solution, then that's a great thing. What it means though is that there's no real need to licence it anymore, because shapers are able to design their own carbon/EPS core board, using their own weaves and layup configurations.
I haven't made a polyester resin board since I launched FutureFlex. I instantly changed over from polyester resin to epoxy resin on all my boards - whether they be PU foam or EPS foam. I'm a big believer in epoxy resins as one of the best resin systems to use on surfboards. There are benefits for health, the factory doesn't stink, benefits on the lamination side, there are a lot of things there.
...but everything else goes
I'm open to all other components, like wooden stringers, composite stringers, polyurethane foam, EPS foam, a whole heap of other foams which I occasionally build boards out of but haven't put on the market. I imagine 70-80% of centre-stringer boards will have the PE-C but I'll never disregard wooden stringers. I'm always open.
The long march to sustainability
I'm at stage one of learning about being more environmentally friendly as a manufacturer. I'm learning, and questioning, about the materials that are available and the impact they actually have in the production process. For instance, is recycled EPS foam actually more beneficial for the environment? It takes more power to create it and it's a costly process to recycle the foam and return it into another blank, so it costs more and uses more power than virgin EPS, but it does save on landfill. So, there's all these for and against arguments that I'm learning about.
A couple of things that I believe in, and I know 100% that they make a big difference. One is making your product last longer. It's the most environmental thing that you can do. Make a board that's going to last five years versus two, and you've saved an extra one and a half boards going into the marketplace and a whole heap of materials and power and water waste. And look, there's people out there who'll go, "I got one of Hayden's boards and I snapped it." Yes, that can happen - happens to every bloody shaper. But our boards are holding up, and we've got supporting data through platforms like Awayco to prove that. Through them we know exactly how many times that a board is being surfed and what the state of the board is. Our boards are going great.
That's probably the most environmentally friendly way that I can make an impact at this point in time; design a product that's going to stay underneath people's feet for longer. Another one is, our factory in Mona Vale is now 80% powered on solar, and we've been starting to implement ways to reuse more of the byproduct. That concept is really at ground zero, but an example is that we're using all the offcuts of fibreglass, laminating them into glass panels, and hand-foiling fins out of it. So rather than putting that waste into landfill, we're reusing it, and I feel like there's some really great ideas there to continue doing that. Firewire did a great example of that, of up-cycling their EPS foam wastage and make it into little blocks that you can use to build things like pathways.
I feel that these concepts would be great if they were industry wide. That way we could make an impact as an industry, rather than just one or two brands. If say, we could work with Future Fins or FCS, and they develop a fin - and I've pitched this to them - that uses all our offcuts of masking tape and resin and glass fibre, and mill it down and then mould a fin, an entry-level fin that still surfs good, that's helping every surfboard manufacturer reduce their footprint in this industry. That would be just one way to tackle the environmental side of things as an industry.
Two to tango
It's one thing for manufacturers to be environmentally friendly, another to have customers pay for it. Yet it feels to me like there's a bit more acceptance to pay a hundred bucks extra or whatever it costs for manufacturers to make better boards. Firewire are doing an amazing job in this regard, like using wool in the lamination and other initiatives. They've got lots of cool and creative ideas, and they're a brand that has really flown the flag for environmentally sustainable boards. I'm sure they've learned a lot over the years about what their actual impact is. Now I'm going down that path too, but following my own sort of personal interest in design ideas.
I've built boards without any fibreglass, just purely basalt and flax, using bio-epoxy resin and recycled EPS foam. I've got a programme now with the first ten coming through. That's a construction which surfs really good under my feet, but the challenge right now is that they're all black. Commercially, that would wipe out 90% of my customers.
I've also played around with a completely different set of materials to see what is achievable both at the manufacturing level and also commercially. Maybe we could release that to our global audience?
Like all of my design projects, there's no timeline. When I land on something I'm super psyched with I have to run through some considerations. One, I have to understand what impact it has. Two, it has to surf really good. And three, we have to be able to build it at a mass level. Servicing twenty customers a year doesn't really make that much of an impact. It needs to be that all our retail partners are able to get access to it, they can sell it, and they can educate their customers about it. That's where the impact really starts to take effect.
Making the surf industry great again
We've got eight apprentices in the Australian factory at Mona Vale. The apprenticeship programme got turned on almost two years ago and we started hiring apprentices and began a training programme. It's really exciting, but it also soaks up a lot of time for a lot of people, training people up and teaching them how we build our boards. Then again, it's future-proofing the Haydenshapes brand, 'cause it's really hard to find enough board builders who are passionate and want to stay in the industry and build boards in a modern way.
One of the big things I've learned is that the most successful manufacturing businesses have the best training programmes in place. For example, Audi has their own apprenticeship programme, and they're very proud of it. They teach mechanics how to work on Audi cars in the Audi way, and that's the level of pride that I have about the Haydenshapes apprenticeship programme.
It's really cool to see the guys progress. It can be a headache, but it's an important investment and teaching other people how to build boards is something we really doing enjoy,
Those boards are made under license at the Cobra factory. My relationship with Cobra started nine years ago now, and I've always managed the quality, the materials, and how my boards have been built there. All that's happened is the distribution has changed. The manufacturing partnership hasn't changed, but the distribution changed from GSI to Surftech. Essentially just the sales force and the distribution force.
It means that there's now eight models in the marketplace as well, rather than two. So that's a really exciting thing, and it includes our Hypto Krypto Future Flex softboard...
A parabolic rail softboard
I designed that thing when I was living in Bondi. Made myself one and it went so damn good! It's got the carbon frame inside the soft board so it rides like a legit surfboard, but it's soft. The rail shapes are perfect, really nice bottom tucks. It's more positioned as a board for the family, maybe your kid's going to ride it 80% of the time, but parents can jump on it too. Throw it in the back of the car and it won't get dented and dinged, but it rides amazing.
Plus Gromflex technology!
I've always felt that to progress as a surfer, you need good boards to progress on. If you're on a board which is hard for a good surfer to bottom turn, how the hell is a beginner going to bottom turn on it? A product needs to be designed in a certain way to allow surfers to progress, and still have that level of performance to them. It's another tech that I'm really excited about. Gromflex technology integrates a flex design for surfers 40 kilos and below, which has been exciting to bring to market.
It's a combination of carbon and urethane stringer, and it has flex response for the 35 - 40 kilo kid. One that's starting to go top to bottom. Not for the entry level kid, but one that's riding boardriders and winning his heats. Oscar Langbourne has been riding it and loving how it feels, and he's a great case of someone who still rides a 4'10" short board. The flex is feeling really in synch with his weight and his height and the size boards and he's riding.