Colan Fibreglass: Woven Into Surfing's Fabric
Since COVID began wreaking havoc on the global economy, surfboard shapers have had to placate increasingly restless customers. What once took a shaper six weeks to deliver can now take upwards of six months. The root cause of the problem is an overwhelming reliance on imported goods such as blanks, fibreglass, and resin - the building blocks of every board.
During the first flush of COVID, a halt on the overseas production of those materials sent shockwaves through the supply chains causing instability and a global shortfall, and just as that was being rectified a simmering trade war with China caused another round of uncertainty and late deliveries.
What follows is a story about an Australian company who’ve supplied the surf industry since its 1960s infancy up until the present day, and who all the while retained their Australian manufacturing base. Yet there’s more to this story than Australian-made jingoism: They were also silent partners in the last big shift in surfboard manufacturing.
It could be argued that innovation is buried deep in the DNA of Colan Fibreglass. After all, in 1954 the company began its life, not making fibreglass, but weaving fabric for speaker covers. Started by Geoffrey Coghlan, then aged in his twenties, Colan soon switched from speaker fabric to fibreglass. The newly-discovered material was adopted by boat builders and surfboard making as their primary building material, and Coghlan followed the shift, also changing the name of his company to reflect the new focus - Colan Fibreglass was born.
During the sixties surf boom, boardmakers multiplied on Australia’s eastern seaboard with Colan Fibreglass servicing the growing market. They weren’t alone, early editions of Surfing World and Surfabout often featured ads for material suppliers such as Colan, but also Trevarno - makers of fine fibreglass fishing rods - Mulford Plastics, and Swift.
At first, Colan simply sold smaller quantities of the same fibreglass used by boat builders, which was promoted in boat industry magazines as having “greater bulk build up”. Yet surfboard makers have different needs than boat builders. For one, the fibreglass they use needs to be lighter, and it needs to follow tighter curves - think of the tight pinch of a board’s tail - and the product also requires a better finish. Despite the surfboard industry being smaller and less profitable than boats, Colan kept improving their cloth with weaves becoming lighter and more supple, in turn allowing surfboard makers to create better, more progressive boards. It was the company’s first instance of specialisation.
With that aspect of Colan’s history documented, the story now needs to skip a few decades into the future.
You see, while board design changed radically from the sixties to the nineties, not much happened in the way of board construction. At some point the industry settled on a standard of two layers of fibreglass on the deck with one on the bottom. Meanwhile, Colan kept supplying cloth from its Sydney factory, though globalisation was helping to reduce its market share with rival cloth imported from large factories in America, and increasingly from South East Asian countries exploiting their labour cost advantage.
When it came, experimentation consisted of altering the surfboard’s everyday ingredients. After the introduction of multi-fin setups, surfers wanted their boards lighter, with the weight savings usually found in the glassing process. For instance, four ounce cloth could replace six ounce, or a glasser could ditch the filler coat to leave a textured deck, and in the mid-eighties there were various versions of ‘Pro Light’ finish which were marketed as a way of making boards faster. Increased speed was a dubious claim in the water but it was true in the factory; by abandoning gloss and finish coats, Pro Light allowed manufacturers to speed up their turnaround times.
It’d be incorrect to say there was no experimentation with materials, but it was happening around the fringes and never garnered enough attention to challenge the orthodoxy. This slowly began to change in the eighties following the popularity of windsurfing which embraced alternative materials such as epoxy resin and also newly-discovered materials like carbon fibre.
Pinning down the first use of carbon fibre in surfboards is impossible, but by the late-eighties some shapers, such as Dave Byrne at Byrne Surfboards and Nev Hyman, were toying with the new fabric, applying it in limited means such as fin rovings, and then in 1992 it suddenly became the material du jour.
“I can’t recall when I first saw carbon strips running nose to tail,” says Greg Webber, “but it was probably on Kelly’s boards.” At the time, Webber was running Insight Surfboards and shaping for surfers such as World Champions Barton Lynch and Wendy Botha, plus Jamie Brisick, Michael Rommelse, and of course, Shane Herring.
Herring was Australia’s closest threat to Slater, and the rivalry not only elevated their performance levels, but also surfboard design - both Al Merrick and Webber pushed the limits of rocker and concave - and board construction was part of the equation too. “If [Slater] had an edge,” says Webber, “then I wanted to know about it.” In 1992, Merrick shaped Slater a quiver of boards with a series of carbon strips running parallel to the stringer. In response, Webber says he sourced carbon strips from Colan and began laying them up in a similar manner.
By 1993, a deep concave, high rocker, sub-18 inch shooter with black carbon strips was the vanguard of design and construction. A gorgeously refined form with continuous curves running from nose to tail and from rail to rail, and an irresistible aesthetic of jet black carbon set against snow white foam
“Yet it was all nonsense,” laughs Webber. “We were convinced that carbon was this almost magical new fibre. That was the false information that steered the use of carbon back then.”
“You see,” continues Webber, “it’s not until you use it in multiple layers and mix it with epoxy, or apply it under compression with heat, that carbon becomes the superior choice. There are lots of caveats that we didn’t know then.”
“The boards looked good though,” chuckles Webber. Fashion aside, by 1995 the use of carbon for longitudinal strength had largely disappeared, though every shaper in the world was now aware of it. However, at around the time Webber was renouncing carbon, Colan showed him another material that impressed him much more. It was a five-ounce cloth that wasn’t woven, as traditional fibreglass is, but instead laid flat with unidirectional strands lightly stitched together.
“It had great longitudinal strength but not much compression, “explains Webber. “So we used it on the bottom of the board.”
“Colan came up with it on their own, but it proved excellent for surfboards,” Webber continues. “That cloth was so strong for its weight, and they didn’t have to burn off the silane [a substance used to weave cloth] so no fibres were destroyed, and nor were any fibres damaged in the weaving - a triple bonus!”
Though invisible in the finished board, and hence unknown to the average punter, the flat five cloth left an impression on Webber. It also hinted at the future for the Colan factory. “It’s funny looking back and knowing all the experimentation that was yet to come with cloths, but Colan came to us with the early ideas.”
But first, a disruption.
Around the turn of the century a number of surfboard companies appeared that challenged PU/PE dominance and stringer-centric construction. Three of them in particular: Firewire, Salomon and Surftech, were well-funded. Surftech’s Tuflite boards were molded epoxy - in essence, just more advanced versions of Bob McTavish’s Pro Circuit Boards - while Salomon S-Core were hollow blanks with central ribs and a carbon shell, and Firewire had a mix of constructions, though all were foam sandwich with epoxy resin and, at least in the early days, parabolic stringers.
West Australian shaper Bert Burger is generally considered the first surfer to use parabolic stringers - where the surfboard gains its longitudinal integrity from stiffness in the rails rather than the centreline. A few years into the new millennium, Burger’s boards caught the eye of Nev Hyman and together they created Firewire, drafting construction guru Josh Dowling onto the team.
Surftech and Salomon also had a list of heavy hitters willing their respective technologies along. Between them the list of licensed shapers included Al Merrick, Eric Arakawa, Rusty Priesendorfer, Simon Anderson, and Greg Webber. If the boards worked they’d get immediate props from these most influential of shapers. Never had the orthodoxy been so challenged.
The campaigns spilled into the media, where the promotion of Firewire, Surftech, and Salomon saw the boards diagrammatically pulled apart with readers viewing the insides of each technology. They were presented in cross-section, the constituent materials disbanded, and explained to us as separate units with individual qualities. Salomon even ran tests, wiring up booties for Keiran Perrow and Dan Ross to slip their feet into, thereby measuring the forces exerted on the board when turning. A surfboard was no longer considered a mix of static parts: nose, tail, deck, bottom, but now consisted of many, smaller, active regions.
Of the three companies, only Firewire came close to realising their early vision. Surftech were generally considered too corky, though they plugged away with reduced market share, while Salomon were expensive without offering durability - they broke just as easily as traditional PU/PE boards. After pouring millions into R&D, Salomon licked their wounds and returned to the snow.
It would be easy to consider these experiments in alternative construction a comprehensive failure, except for the effect it had on shapers who were exposed to a new way of thinking about their boards. Put that way, it shouldn't have been a surprise that when it came time to put the pieces of the surfboard back together, the materials now embodied this new way of thinking.
Meanwhile, Colan was having its own disruption of sorts. Just after the turn of the century, Geoffrey Goghlan retired from running the business with his daughter Genelle taking over - a position she holds to this day. More specifically, at least for the telling of our story, things were looking grim in the surf department.
“Back in those pre-GFC years, our share in surf really shrunk,” says Damian Bensley, current General Manager of Colan. “Marine and aerospace were booming, but surfing represented single digits to us. In fact, we had a year there when we had a stocktake and we threw out pallets of surfboard cloth. The people working sales at the time decided that surfing just wasn’t worth our time.”
“That was almost it for Colan and surfing,” says Bensley. “It really was that close.” Shortly afterwards, however, two things occured that caused Colan to again pivot towards surfing. The first was the GFC, which hit capital-heavy industries like marine and aerospace hard, and the second was the arrival of a surfer/shaper from Sydney’s Northern Beaches called Hayden Cox.
In 2004, four years after he began shaping, Hayden Cox opened his HaydenShapes factory at Mona Vale. This was amid the Surftech, Salomon, and Firewire disruption, the air was heavy with experimentation, an environment that proved ripe for Hayden’s keen sense of curiosity. Without having heard of Bert Burger, nor Burger’s earlier experiments in parabolic rails, Hayden bought a number of dual-density blanks from the US that featured parabolic wooden stringers.
“That was the first board I built using that flex pattern and it was great,” says Hayden, “however the flaw was that you had to glue up every single blank - it wasn’t commercially viable.” Not easily deterred, Hayden pursued the idea, next shaping a similar version using vertical carbon fibre instead of wooden parabolic stringers. Once again it couldn’t be scaled up, but this version had its own blessing: it opened his eyes to carbon.
“That was my first feeling of carbon fibre in a parabolic flex, and I liked it,” says Hayden. “It was snappy. I rode that board at The Basin [Mona Vale] and it was so zappy. It didn’t flex and return like other boards, I knew I was onto something.”
If this were a story about foam and not fibreglass, it’d take a lengthy digression here to describe Hayden’s travails getting an EPS core to match the weight of a regular polyurethane blank. At the time, PU blanks were around 42 kilos per cubic metre, while EPS was only available in 24 or 28. For many months Hayden went back and forth with a manufacturer to create a new foam with a higher density, making it both stronger and a similar feel to existing PU boards.
Meanwhile, he persisted with prototypes, putting them under the feet of team riders Craig Anderson and Marti Paradisis. “They couldn’t be faulted for performance and durability,” says Hayden, but they were too expensive and too hard to scale. “I said to myself,” says Hayden mimicking his thoughts back then, “OK, let’s remove all the complexity. Let’s create a parabolic carbon fibre rail, but not within the board, let’s put it on the outside.”
And so he did, creating a frame around the rail that curved from the horizontal plane to the vertical and back, while also curving from nose to tail - or at least it was supposed to. “The carbon we got from Colan wasn’t made for surfboards,” explains Cox, “I had to cut it from a large sheet. It wasn’t meant to curve so it wouldn’t follow the curve of the boards. It wrinkled. It overlapped. It was messy as anything, it looked horrible, but God they surfed well.”
The experience was enough for Hayden to apply for a patent of FibreFlex (later called FutureFlex), which he received in 2007. At the time, Hayden was dealing, not with Colan, but a third party distributor, and that slowed down the development work. “It was a game of Chinese whispers,” says Damien Bensley. “What Hayden would request would differ from the instructions we’d receive.” It didn’t help that the distributor had no experience working with niche products, more commonly taking bulk orders for cloth used in very different applications to surfboards.
In time, Hayden went directly to Colan: “I said to them, ‘You’ve got to trust me. This is a commercially viable idea, but I need your support to develop a new tape’.” Taking a leap of faith, Colan once again put their focus back into surf. They then spent around a year developing a carbon tape Hayden was happy with, and in so doing he’d pushed Colan into unfamiliar territory.
Till then, they’d only been able to create 6K tape - meaning each ‘tow’ or strand was composed of 6,000 individual carbon filaments. Together they got that down to 3,000, making it thinner and easier to work with, while retaining enough strength. Also, rather than a flat sheet, they made a 65mm tape that could spread around the rail and also follow the planshape without overlapping. Each side of the tape had a ‘tracing arm’ used to line up with the parabolic path and give a clean edge to the black rail.
The last obstacle was to remove all loose carbon filaments from the carbon tows. Out of all Colan’s customers, surfboard manufacturers are alone in their consideration of aesthetics, so when small black carbon filaments break off in the laminating process, as they are wont to do, they’d blemish the white blank and potentially affect sales. Rather than viewing Hayden as a difficult customer - after all, his demands far exceeded those of other customers - Colan instead set to work creating a carbon tape that retained every fibre - all 3,000 of them! - in the tow. With the tape finished, Colan and Hayden put their mind to the lamination.
For decades, glassers have known that laying a sheet of fibreglass cloth at 45° to the stringer line maximised strength across the board to help resist breakage. Doing so, however, meant turning normal cloth skewiff and cutting to size - thereby wasting cloth. Actual double bias cloth - as it’s now called - was unheard of, but again, Colan created a cloth that stitched a layer of fibre running at +45° to a layer running at -45°.
Further, the cloth layers aren’t woven together, over and under, but stitched together. “The difference,” says Hayden, “is that the fibres are sitting flat. You get a straighter fibre, and that means you get better strength, and importantly for me, better flex.” With a stringer-free EPS blank, 3K carbon tape from Colan, and double bias cloth, also from Colan, the pieces of the jigsaw were in place. They’d created a new process for making boards, one that was scalable, flexible (so that custom orders could be included), and came in at the right price point.
Early marketing for FibreFlex showed diagrams of the boards in cross-section, much like those old ads for Surftech and Salomon. Hayden was actively showing how different his boards were to the PU/PE orthodoxy, using customised materials for functions many surfers hadn’t yet considered. And like the Merrick/Insight boards of the early-nineties, HaydenShapes came to define the vanguard of board design and aesthetics in the 2010s.
The licensing of FiberFlex was a short-lived diversion. “Chilli and ...lost were the first two to jump on it,” says Hayden. “Then Channel Islands - Yaden Nicol had some success on them - Simon [Anderson] shaped a bunch of boards, Mick Mackie too.” Hayden thinks around thirty shapers played around with FibreFlex but, according to Hayden, licensing the technology didn’t work out.
“Commercially, there were things I needed to do differently to support that [business] model” says Hayden. “It was my design, so I figured ‘Why not keep it exclusive to HaydenShapes?’ The rest of the industry can participate in the supply chain side of the materials.” In the years that followed, almost every label of renown created their own carbon solution, with Colan supplying the vast majority of materials.
However, the first label to knock on Colan’s door after Hayden weren’t after rail tape but something different. “We began using tail patches on our boards in 2007,” says Paul Stacey, Factory Manager at JS Industries. “At first it was only on pro boards which have just one layer of six ounce on the deck. The patches reinforced the tail without adding too much weight or affecting tail flex. Joel was great for destroying boards without tail patches, Andy too.”
Damien Bensley said the experience with Hayden taught him the benefits of working closely with individual labels. “JS had their own requirements both in terms of what they wanted, but also how it had to fit into their production line - they make lots of boards.” The relationship with JS began with tail patches for pro boards, which filtered down to JS stock boards, and then in 2014 they introduced HyFi - hybrid fibre reinforcement - first on tail pads and then as a complete construction process. Much like the experience with Hayden, HyFi involved much back and forth to tailor the material to JS’ exacting specifications. Also like Hayden, the weaves were exclusive to JS - no-one else could use them.
Between tail patches - which became an industry standard - and individual carbon solutions, shapers were beating a path to Colan’s door, the results obvious in most surfer’s quivers with all manner of weaves and materials appearing. Fibreglass, carbon, Innegra, basalt, flax, PET, sometimes a combination of the above, and woven in all manner of ways. Boards that were once uniform from nose to tail and rail to rail, were divided into smaller regions, with shapers seeking materials with properties specific to each part of the board.
Similarly, the results were also obvious in Colan’s P&L reports. “From being down in the single digits, surfing now represents 20% of the work we do,” says Damien Bensley. And as shapers think more expansively about how their boards work, the number of cloth weaves continues to grow. At present, Colan make upwards of 300 exclusive weaves, each of them created by shapers.
“I think it’s a really cool thing that we’re able to do,” continues Damien. “In the past, no-one wanted to do what we do; it’s too small a scale, a lot of lead time is involved. The big weaving companies just want long lines of boring weave, because that’s where the profits are at. Colan is small compared to those companies, so we figured, why not help these guys out and do something creative.”
The boards are getting noticed overseas too. Of course, Hayden sold his boards around the world, the Hypto Krypto is a repeated crowd favourite, but large foreign labels such as Pukas in Spain and Matt Biolos in the US now also source their weaves from Colan. From supplying the domestic industry, they’ve expanded into an export operation.
And the future? COVID has been a boon for shapers, with many calling 2020 their best year ever. The sales have energised the industry with more labels approaching Colan to weave their ideas into reality. As for Hayden Cox, he’s working on a way to recycle carbon and fibreglass offcuts and run it back through Colan’s looms. So far, he’s collected two tonnes of waste that was heading to landfill, and if he and Colan succeed they’ll divert a whole lot more.
“I’ve already used some of the recycled cloth on my surfboards,” says Hayden, “but theoretically it could also be used in boats, on caravans, and in other industries too. We’ve got a fair bit of work to do but I've got no reason to believe it can’t be done.”
// STU NETTLE