Phil Byrne and the loss of gloss

Stu Nettle picture
Stu Nettle (stunet)
The Rearview Mirror

Since Californian Dave Sweet first made a foam and fibreglass surfboard in 1953, the process has barely changed. A polyurethane foam core is strengthened by wrapping it in layers of fibreglass soaked with polyester resin. This provides a watertight shell with a crude finish. From there a filler coat may be added to level any imperfections and seal pin holes, and that's the last material added for performance.

The final coat is the finish coat, or gloss coat, which plays no part in the board's handling or strength. It's only added for appearance. Board makers knew this, but surfers were convinced the virtues of the mirror sheen extended beyond the showroom floor. If it looks good, it must go good, right?

In the early 1980s, Byrne Surfboards was one of the world's leading boardmakers, making boards for Tom Carroll and Critta Byrne - who was world #8 in 1980 - and also making boards under license for Town and Country and Shaun Tomson Surfboards. It was a performance-first factory and the gloss coast, a relic of the longboard age, just didn't sit well with Phil.

Swellnet: A gloss coat was once the universal finish for surfboards, but you changed that process. You changed how boards got made.
Phil Byrne: Yeah, that's right. We copped a bit of flak from certain people about it too.

I’m sure you would’ve, and we’ll get to that. First up though, what year are we talking?
It was right around when Tom Carroll was winning his world titles.

So about 1983?
Yeah. In '83.*

And prior to that, all your boards were finish coated. Tell us about that process.
So you had the finish coat, and finish coating involved building a special room that was dust-proof. We had a room that actually had a water vent in front of it, so that no dust could get into the room.

How did that work?
It was like a little rain wall. A little sprinkler sort of thing. And the guy that worked in there used to have to have to work with no shirt on so nothing would drop onto the finish coat.

You had to go to great lengths to keep dust out, all of which cost money. How much longer did finish coats add to the lead time?
Well, it took two days to finish coat. ‘Cos you do only one side, wait for it to dry, then flip and do the other side. Of course you can't flip it too early or it’d get marks on it.

What we usually did was get a routine going where we’d have six, or even eight boards, in racks to finish coat. So we'd put it on, lift them up, and then the guy would come back the next day, and do the opposite side.

It was laborious.
Yeah. And then we had to polish them, and that’s another day. So it's probably three days added during full production.

Phil cutting back at Sandon point in the early-80s (Photo Greg Button)

You stopped doing finish coats when Tom Carroll was winning his world titles. Was he involved?
It was spawned from Tom Carroll, and I guess all the rest of the guys who we sponsored then - we were doing a fair few boards for sponsored guys at the time. We stopped doing finish coats for them. Just wet-rubbed them as the last step.

To save time and money?
Yeah, we did save the expense, but that’s not why we started doing it. It made their boards come through quicker.

So you originally did it for a fast turnaround on boards?

Were you ever worried that they might not perform as good?
No, because they always performed well. They actually performed better.

Is that a known fact?
Well, look at it this way: We could've got Tom and Critta’s boards, and all the pros that we were doing boards for, and gone back to finish coating them and every single one of those surfers would’ve said, "Nah, I want it wet-rubbed."

All the pros felt that their board went better when it was just wet-rubbed and not finish coated. And the other thing is, if you look at yachting, they wet-rub the hulls. Not gloss them. I think technically it's faster.

So why did we have gloss coats beforehand?
We simply inherited finish coats from the longboards. You know, longboards were always put in the shops to look beautiful. Racks of beautiful, gleaming boards. Polished, shiny, you know what I mean?

What happened was that when surfing moved into the professional era, surfers thought less about how pretty their boards were and more about their performance; more about the design. That become more important for the customer. The shiny thing didn't matter as much.

Nevertheless, you were trying to change thirty years of history.

Did you get some blowback from the public?
Not too much from the public. You know how it is, they'd seen all the boards the pros were riding, and they went, "I want one the same as his!”

So who gave you grief about it then?
It came from the other boardmakers who were still selling their boards based on the pretty factor.

On the shine.
The shiny factor, right? And if they didn’t have a strong team to sell it for them then they weren’t competitive in that area because the general public no longer wanted it.

Did they criticise you?
Oh yeah! They’d come out saying things like, “Oh, it makes the boards weaker.”

And does it..?
No...c’mon, the finish coat is this fricken thin [Phil holds his thumb and forefinger up, a nanometer of space between the two]. And then it's polished, so it's not like there’s much of it left.

Well, if you were saying your boards were faster, you were also implying that their boards were slower.
Well, yeah. But they didn't want to go that way, because that way they competed with us. So they said their boards were better quality.

Why’d you call it Pro-tech Finish?
Well first of all, Pro-tech isn’t just a wet-rub like we were doing for Tom and Critta’s boards. What happened was that we’d just wet-rub their boards, right? Nothing else. But we were hesitant about throwing the general consumer that.

So you came up with Pro-tech Finish?
Yeah. You see, one thing a finish coat does, is it seals a board up. If you've got any pin-holes in the glassing you're going to get water getting into the foam.

We realised you can spray a board really quick. So Pro-tech Finish was actually an acrylic lacquer, sprayed on a board to seal it up in place of a finish coat.

And it looked similar to the wet-rub?
Yeah, but it was sealed.

You had Pro-tech Finish. Glenn Minami at Blue Hawaii, he had Speed Finish. Terry Fitzgerald had something similar too.
[Smiles] Yeah, he just rebranded it. One of our workers was Terry Cooper. He was our sprayer, and Terry was very good with paint - paint mixing and all that - and with his cooperation and our paint supplier, we'd come up with this thing, and they mixed it for us, and gave it to us in tins. And that was Pro-tech Finish.

Shortly after, all these other board makers started ringing me up going, "Phil, what are you doing there?"

And I’d say, "Look, I can sell you some Pro-tech Finish."

So we started selling the Pro-tech Finish.

As a product?
As a product to the other board makers. And we sold it as that, and so a lot of the other board makers around the place had Pro-tech Finish, but that only lasted about a year.

They'd buy a tin of Pro-tech Finish and take it along to their paint guy who’d analyse what it was, and then they'd go, "Pro-tech..? Mate, we can just sell this stuff straight to you.”

So after a while, when everyone had caught on to how we actually did it, it sort of slowed down. We'd just use it ourselves.

But then later on when the general public had gotten used to the Pro-tech Finish, they realised that it was slightly different to what Tom Carroll's boards had - which was just a wet-rub. So they’d come in and say, "Oh, I want mine done like that. Not Pro-tech."

And it's gone full circle now, as I can look over and see your retro range and they’re all shiny and gloss-coated.
We've gone back to it, yes. But, we don't do it the way we did. We've worked out a way of doing it where we don't actually use finish coat, we use another product. I'm not going to say what it is.

Parrish [Phil’s eldest son and current head shaper at Byrne] came up with it actually. And he sprays it, and then we just really quickly buff it. And it comes up unreal.

It looks unreal.
And it’s an easier process than what finish coating and polishing is.

Still innovating, even on the retro boards.

*Just before publishing this interview, Swellnet saw a wholesale price list for Byrne Surfboards dated November 1984. There was no mention of Pro-tech Finish. Phil thinks there must've been a gap between when they began wet and dry finishing Tom Carroll's boards and marketing Pro-tech, and this is when the price list was made.

Byrne Surfboards website


Blowin's picture
Blowin's picture
Blowin Tuesday, 30 Apr 2019 at 11:51am

Gloss boards never did it for me. My youthfull rebellion and rejection of the works and arts of the generation before manifested itself in a hearty dislike of the gloss coat which I maintain to this day. The fact that it was superfluous was a pleasant bonus.

Latter life brought an appreciation of many things proceeding my time , but never the gloss coat.

Thank you Byrne surfboards.

Thanks also for the great boards over the years. Particularly a 6’5” 6 channel you sent to WA in ‘98. That thing was magic.

helmet-not-hose's picture
helmet-not-hose's picture
helmet-not-hose Tuesday, 30 Apr 2019 at 12:03pm

It's funny reading about this now. When pro-tech came out Phil was saying in interviews that he was "Pro-teching his boards" which made it sound like an important stage in the build that we'd all overlooked. I was working at Strapper and we laughed at Phil thinking it was another gimmick. A year later we'd abandoned finish coats on all our boards and so had nearly everyone else!

Lanky Dean's picture
Lanky Dean's picture
Lanky Dean Tuesday, 30 Apr 2019 at 12:55pm

Great article !

GuySmiley's picture
GuySmiley's picture
GuySmiley Tuesday, 30 Apr 2019 at 3:09pm

still love a gloss and 6 ounce

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet Tuesday, 30 Apr 2019 at 4:25pm

Here we go, an alternative to the flat matte finish of the spray on Pro-tech.

'Shiny Seal Pro Finish' by Gravelle on a mid-80s belly channel Thruster.

Still looks like a spray seal, but it's gloss.

velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno Tuesday, 30 Apr 2019 at 4:36pm

Maybe shiny seal pro finish is the stuff then. I have an old Simon Mollusc from the BASE era which is still in really good condition, and it has this glossy finish without being a gloss. Perhaps some variant of an acrylic spray and buff.

With acrylic clear coats, it's like painting a model plane... would much rather go through an acrylic coat finish rather than have to: gloss, turn over, other side, let dry, use a razor blade to fine the join line, fine wet & dry if I remember right, out comes the polisher and auto polish finish, green goo goes everywhere, you end up filthy and satisfied with a mirror finish.
Acrylic is generally nicer on the chemical front as well.

So maybe the acrylic is what makes my old Simon so nice?

Alien8's picture
Alien8's picture
Alien8 Wednesday, 1 May 2019 at 7:00am

Hi velocityjohnno,
Your BASE era Simon is actually just a fine machine sanded filler coat. At that point in time a small team of really skilled board builders in addition to some techniques that were really well guarded was what produced that style of finish. Those Simon boards were NOT being made in the main BASE factory, the woeful quality shit show that it was.

velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno Wednesday, 1 May 2019 at 4:30pm

Thanks Alien8 for the response, given how the board has held up there is no doubt that quality workmanship was put into it, not a single part of the coat where the glass weave shows through. Serial 26592 if that makes any difference, maybe Simon was numbering his shapes at that stage. Cheers for sharing that, great technique. This model of board makes an excellent choice as a 2nd hand shortboard if you want a bit more volume, or want a first shortboard on a budget.

There's probably a story in why these were made offsite, and the team that made them for Stu to add to the BASE saga.

Alien8's picture
Alien8's picture
Alien8 Thursday, 2 May 2019 at 8:42am

Not much to tell to be honest. I can't comment on the finer details of the agreement Simon and BASE management had reached at that time because I was not privy to those particular conversations...but what I do know is that Simon was set up with a smaller 3-4 man operation away from the main BASE Burleigh factory to finish his boards exclusively. The shaping bays remained at the Burleigh factory though. The Simon factory was located in a tiny shed behind Kirra at first and then moved to a larger factory at Reedy Creek with 2 more eventual employees. I assumed it was to keep a much tighter control on quality than what the main BASE factory was producing at the time. A couple of the other BASE shapers had attempted to get boards finished through the Simon factory and had been denied with the exception of some of Mick's team boards from Darren. Was a funny dynamic back then. When BASE folded the Simon factory was shut down too.

zenagain's picture
zenagain's picture
zenagain Tuesday, 30 Apr 2019 at 4:35pm

Remembering back, I think they marketed the flat finish as a kinda way to go faster by reducing surface tension. Or that's how it was spun.

Salty98's picture
Salty98's picture
Salty98 Wednesday, 1 May 2019 at 8:49am

Wet rub is easier for ding repairs. Doesn't matter what it looks like as long as it goes well.

nolocal's picture
nolocal's picture
nolocal Wednesday, 1 May 2019 at 9:48am

wouldn't mind a wet rub.

tangles 65's picture
tangles 65's picture
tangles 65 Wednesday, 1 May 2019 at 12:17pm

I remember back in 1986, when buying a new custom board off Phil Byrne , he said that they organised Wollongong Uni do some tests on the pro tech finished boards, and that water rinsed off faster (or something similar) according to the results.

A couple of years later I was working for their paint supplier, and one of my jobs was to mix clear automotive acrylic lacquer with flatting paste, then re-label it for them ...

Spuddups's picture
Spuddups's picture
Spuddups Wednesday, 1 May 2019 at 12:23pm

To get a decent sand job with a hot-coat only, with no sand-throughs to the glass, takes a great deal of skill. the shaping, glassing and sanding all have to be of the highest quality. If you're getting sand-throughs to the glass there's three options really. 1/ Another hot coat, 2/ Gloss Coat or 3/ A clear spray of some kind.

I have shaped and glassed 52 surfboards, and I've never been able to sand a board without exposing at least some glass. I'm just not skilled/patient enough. I have done all three of the above to remedy the situation, but in the end an acrylic clear spray works best for me. Also a using satin finish can hide a multitude of sins ha ha!

Anyway, much respect to those board builders out there who are able to sand a hot-coat without exposing some cloth.

velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno Wednesday, 1 May 2019 at 4:33pm

Totally agree.

mugofsunshine's picture
mugofsunshine's picture
mugofsunshine Wednesday, 1 May 2019 at 6:05pm

I'm on 63 and I've just managed my first one :) I spent ages poring over in disbelief.

JoeBlowin's picture
JoeBlowin's picture
JoeBlowin Sunday, 5 May 2019 at 4:01am

I agree with you 100%. I have just made my first 15 boards and burn through are hard to avoid. I did buy a softer pad and that made a big difference. Guy at panel beater supplies tried to sell me 2 pac. He said he was doing clear cloats for very well known board maker. Stuff is poison. I don't have a booth with extractor fans. Also found orbital sander with soft pad works well, it's slower than the big buffer. Use Farecla 3 cutting compound, gives the hot coat a surprisingly shiny finish.

gavin007's picture
gavin007's picture
gavin007 Wednesday, 1 May 2019 at 1:06pm

So what if the board performs 0.000005% less than a non-glossy looking board?
I'm sure the average surf-dude likes a board that looks nice and pretty. Give me a shiny coat any day!
If only the core would not go yellow with age....

Salty98's picture
Salty98's picture
Salty98 Wednesday, 1 May 2019 at 1:34pm

Paint the whole board stops deterioration of the foam. 15 year old board no yellow foam cant see it.

memlasurf's picture
memlasurf's picture
memlasurf Wednesday, 1 May 2019 at 2:02pm

Bean at Balin is back to doing hot coats with a super light wet rub reckons they are better than acrylic spray. They certainly don't get as dirty as acrylic's do (the matt acrylic finish loves dirt) and have a great satin look.

Surfalot67's picture
Surfalot67's picture
Surfalot67 Wednesday, 1 May 2019 at 5:42pm

Horses for courses. l picked up an ACSOD longboard with pigment run and a Two Fangs both with full polish and couldn't be happier with the finish - hats off to The Glass Lab fellas, faultless quality and they look like they'll last forever. My all-rounder with no polish still looks great though - it just feels like the polished boards will last longer. I do remember someone at a shop in Torquay, maybe Gash, telling us back in the day that pro tech was supposed to replicate a dolphins skin to make the board faster - umm, okay...

OHV500's picture
OHV500's picture
OHV500 Thursday, 2 May 2019 at 8:50am

Love a gloss coat - they just look faster :) although saying that I surf MC's and he only does matt :(
Have a look at Eastern Light - Mick Pierce - just beautiful finishing, a master craftsman.

thermalben's picture
thermalben's picture
thermalben Thursday, 2 May 2019 at 8:56am

I recall - as a grom - being told that the pro tech finish allowed water particles to fill in between the roughness, which created more of a 'water on water' scenario whilst surfing (instead of fiberglass on water) - which made it go much faster.

Not sure if I ever felt the speed difference at Middleton though.

JoeBlowin's picture
JoeBlowin's picture
JoeBlowin Sunday, 5 May 2019 at 4:09am

Read an article on experimenting with hull surfaces for Sydney to Hobart yachts. Their results were that smoother the surface the better speed. Using car wax was said to cause drag. Guy I surf with builds boats. Company he works for thinks 800 wet and dry is best, sanding in one direction only, back to front. Who knows? The Sydney to Hobart people have plenty of money to spend on testing

PCS PeterPan's picture
PCS PeterPan's picture
PCS PeterPan Thursday, 2 May 2019 at 11:24pm

laminar flow versus turbular flow . Wet rub is "laminar flow" . When your new board comes with a 400 grade wet rub , a thin film of water stays stuck to the surface . This
means less drag cause water is flowing over water .
Then after a while your board starts to look shitty and old , with dirty wax marks and zinc cream off your grubby hands .

bigtreeman's picture
bigtreeman's picture
bigtreeman Thursday, 9 May 2019 at 2:27pm

For finishing I found guitar epoxy finishing on utube. Works great on woodies and I'm sure it would work with plastic.

I've been using a metal cabinet scraper for the resin spreading. This method uses minimal resin for least sanding and best finish.
I put on lanolin and polish which leaves a matte wax finish with high surface tension for improved water flow and sticky on the deck so you don't need surf wax. Not sure if you really want the water to 'stick'. Lanolin is being used on boats for anti-foul so you won't get barnacles on yr board.
Clean off old lanolin with the cabinet scrapper, laundry soaker and high pressure hose to do repairs.
Looks like there's two schools of thought about sticking to the water or not, probably need to ask some scientists.

R00ney's picture
R00ney's picture
R00ney Saturday, 17 Apr 2021 at 10:52am

I can remember the argument of the gloss yellowing. We didn't like that.
Ditch the gloss, lighter boards! Then started with the white sprays.
Didn't help me surf any better but probably thought i did!
4oz with 6 and a patch on the deck never lasted too long anyway.