The Basalt Board Project - Part 1
"I've had interest from all the eco board guys," says John Dowse from Sanded about the new basalt cloth, "that was to be expected. Yet a few older shapers, guys I never thought would take it up, have called me and ordered some." The attention his new product is receiving has taken John by surprise.
A few weeks back Swellnet wrote an article on basalt cloth. Developed by John and made by Colan Australia, it's an alternative to fibreglass cloth. Both basalt and fibreglass are made in a similar manner, each using an extracted mineral - silica for fibreglass, basalt for basalt, uh-huh - then heated and formed into malleable twine before being woven into cloth.
The differences are that, unlike silica, heating basalt uses less energy and it also releases no greenhouse gases. After all, basalt is volcanic rock so the noxious stuff was vented during eruption however many thousand years ago.
The other more noticeable difference is the colour. It's not clear like fibreglass, it's brown, and that limits the colour palette. In a recent discussion with Hayden Cox, who's been experimenting with basalt and flax, a combination that makes for black boards, he estimated he'd lose 90% of his customers if his boards were only offered in that colour. A similar result could be expected with brown boards.
On the flipside, the eco board makers love the colour as it gives an earthy feel and also compliments wooden boards wonderfully.
I'm not an eco board maker myself though I liked the colour of the basalt boards I'd seen, but more significantly I was curious about the concept. The last decade has seen a host of alternative materials hit the market, there's been all manner of foam blanks and resins to set the laminate, yet the options for cloth are limited. Carbon is hellishly expensive, innegra too, and while both hemp and flax are strong they require second coats of fibreglass to protect the cloth from fuzzing if it's hit with a sander.
Basalt presents a convincing case for a clean swap: it's the most abundant rock on Earth, the price point is the same as fibreglass, and it's apparently every bit as strong. So I ordered six metres of 4 ounce cloth and got to work.
Or rather, Stuart Paterson from Paterson surfboards got to work and I kept ringing him up and asking how much longer he'd be.
In the interim I spoke to Robbie from Soul Arch Surfboards on the NSW South Coast about his early experience with basalt. Robbie was an early adopter, teaming the basalt cloth with timber decks and panels for aesthetics, and digging the workability of the cloth.
"I actually think it's easier to work with than other cloths," says Robbie. "It wets out easily. And it has more tensile strength too."
The strength of the cloth became evident to Robbie while glassing an EPS blank. "I'd glassed the blank with basalt but the foam gassed out and created a delamination," explains Robbie. "There was nothing to do but strip the glass off the board." The cloth had been laid down 24 hours earlier and the resin was almost completely set.
"I pulled the glass up, but rather than come off in strips as fibreglass would, it lifted as one whole panel. The weave stayed together and I can only attribute that to its tensile strength."
Meanwhile, ten phone calls and two weeks later, Pato had finished my board. It was an exact replica of the last three boards I'd had from him, the only difference being the cloth. I was keen to find out what difference, if any, there was in performance between the materials.
However, with forty years of industry experience I was also curious about Pato's thoughts on the cloth. How, I asked him, does basalt differ from fibreglass?
"It's brown," deadpanned Pato.
"Nothing else...?" I pressed him further.
"No. It wets out the same as 4 ounce fibreglass. Rolls around the rails the same. I guess sanding might be harder because any hits are visible on the laps. You wouldn't see that with clear glass."
We agreed that doing the second deck layer with fibreglass would fix that, and it would also keep the whole board the same colour. But that's not what this experiment was about, and anyway, the two tone colour appeals: bronze on the bottom and a deep, rich chestnut on the deck. The subtle imperfections in the weave, which is present in all cloths but only visible in coloured ones, adds to the aesthetic.
I've yet to ride the board, yet to wax it in fact, but with swell on the way it won't be long till it's christened and I'll assess its performance. Other early adopters have told me not to expect any difference; it's apparently stronger than E-glass but rides the same as any other fibreglass board.
"It meets all the conditions for an alternative," says John Dowse. "It's just as strong, just as cheap, and just as easy to work with."
Because of this, John sees basalt cloth as being a stayer in the marketplace. "We've had various basalt rail tapes and mixed weaves and they've been popular, but this is the first time we've had full width cloth, and it's been selling really well."
Performance notwithstanding, the popularity of basalt cloth will ultimately hinge on acceptance of the colour. As Hayden Cox said, right now it would limit the sales reach, but fashion works in peculiar ways: what repelled us last year, attracts us the next.
Though for anyone indifferent to colour, or those who dig the complexion, basalt presents a workable alternative to fibreglass.
Ride report coming in a few weeks.