Phil Byrne and the loss of gloss
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.