In Conversation: Jaxon Surfboards

Published by Oceanographic Magazine and shot in collaboration with Oliver Couch

When was the last time you thought about your surfboard and the process behind making it? We’re all guilty of it, taking our plastic planks down to the sea, splashing about for a few hours before loading them back in the car and driving home for dinner. It’s something we don’t usually think about, but maybe we should? With ocean pollution awareness growing, as surfers, we have a responsibility to protect and promote healthy practices. In search of performance are we perpetuating the need for ever more fragile surfboards which break, depositing microplastics and polluting the ocean? With the surfboard industry expected to grow 12% a year for the next 3 years, we went down to speak to Jaxon to learn more about the process behind the boards, the materials used and what the next few years of board development might look like.

His idyllic countryside setting overlooking rolling green fields is enough to make anyone forget their troubles for an afternoon but for Jaxon it all began whilst he was studying a boat design course in Falmouth. With the freedom to use the course workshop, he was making boards for himself and friends and after getting a few orders he started a shaping course alongside a university technician. Now a couple of miles from Falmouth he still teaches workshops alongside designing custom boards for many of the UK’s best surfers. Here’s what he had to say.

Have you found that people are becoming more interested in the process?

The workshops have definitely become more popular, you get a greater appreciation for what goes into a board as well as how hard it is to make one, especially if you’re someone that's not particularly good with tools. People enjoy that each day of the workshop is different and each part is a new process and skill, for example, a lot of people haven’t worked with foam before or find the fiberglassing process quite alien. When you shape a board you’re sculpting a piece of art and making it functional which is really rewarding and the better you know your own board, the better you’ll be in the water. I think ultimately it’s more about finding out what works well for you. A lot of people have this perception of what they should be riding because of what they see others on, but it’s so dependent on your local area and your own style.

Is there a part of the process that concerns you, or that you can see changing?

The whole process, it’s awful! The materials used are the worst thing you could possibly make surfboards out of. Whilst there’s definitely an increasing amount of awareness amongst surfers it’s hard because no one really wants to change how their boards ride. The waste output from the process is especially bad and has a large impact on me, I’m always looking for ways to cut it down. I probably produce fifty to sixty boards and output two tonnes of waste plastic each year. People are rarely aware that a lot of the disposables (mixing sticks, pots, gloves etc) are part of the manufacturing process, they don’t think about that when they buy a board. I do think when people get a new board they should understand and take responsibility for the whole process, not just the finished product.

Is there a solution?

With the materials at the moment, there isn’t a clear solution that allows the same performance but also makes the process sustainable. Wooden boards, for example, are still fibreglassed, super heavy and really expensive to make. No ones prepared to spend “X” amount more for a board that’s doesn’t perform as well as its plastic counterpart. I’m really focusing my efforts on making boards last longer and implementing new, more sustainable materials, wherever possible. It’s about trying to bridge the performance gap using the properties and materials I think will provide a viable alternative.

I do think you can still make the argument for the foam boards people learn on. Although they’re shipped from halfway across the world they can take a punch and so many more surfs without breaking. I also really like the membership model which Open Surf in St Agnes is doing where you pay a monthly fee and can try different boards made by shapers from all around the world, without paying a massive premium rate to buy your own.

You’re currently trying some new techniques?

I’ve always had an interest in sustainable composites, it’s what I studied so I’ve made a few boards from them in the past. More and more money has gone into the R&D of these materials and the technology is much better than when I started out. I think people are now more open to experimentation with their boards and trust that these new materials are viable. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel but instead find different materials we can substitute that will perform well, be durable and are more sustainable. You don’t want a sustainably crafted surfboard that breaks after a months use or that you can’t sell to anyone because it performs so badly.

We’re predominantly focused on the deck and making that the strongest part but we’re also reinforcing the rails. Surfers don't like their boards to lose pop as the foam squashes or they get compression marks and these new materials deal better with those issues and also stop the boards yellowing. Whilst the production costs are £100 more per board, it’s part of a better process and lasts a lot longer.


Jaxon’s Materials

There are two main cores to consider; PU (Polyurethane) or EPS (expanded polystyrene), these come as blanks and are then shaped. They are then wrapped in a reinforcement for which he uses one layer of fibreglass then a second layer of either linen, bamboo or carbon. On top of this goes the matrix which binds it all together, resin. Here it’s a choice of Epoxy or Polyester (composites of different materials reacting together to enhance their properties alone) to finish the board.


Could you tell us about the materials used?

We’re using an EPS core because it’s a lot lighter than PU and you can recycle a higher content of it. We’re then putting on a higher grade, more durable glass with one layer on top and bottom instead of the conventional two. We’re then substituting one of those conventional fibreglass layers for a sustainable alternative like carbon, linen or bamboo. I don’t think you can rely on natural fibres alone so I’m still settled on using the initial layer of fibreglass to wrap the boards in an give them strength.

The new epoxy’s, like the super-sap we’re using, are getting more affordable and there are others I’d like to try. We’re also putting a cork deck on the boards which adds some buoyancy, protects the deck from UV stability and adds traction, so that you don’t have to use wax. The cork itself is great because it’s just bark on a tree so you can shave it off and it’ll grow back over time. It’s also easy to source locally with suppliers selling different thicknesses and densities. Beyond that it’s just a nice material to work with, it sands nicely and is easy to manipulate and cut.

What’s the feedback been so far?

Great! It’s still really early on and I need to do a lot more experimentation with the process. I need as much feedback as possible from all different levels and abilities which is why we’re doing these as demo boards for people to come and try. We’ve only tested four new materials and just doing the research for this project has opened my eyes to some of the new stuff available. For example, we’re getting some cork blanks to try out and there’s also a foam that's made from 100% recycled plastic bottles that we’re looking into. It doesn’t yet come in a thick core material or a density that would be suitable for surfboards but hopefully soon.

Are there any negatives of these new materials?

For sure, the blanks we’re using are so far from where I’d like them to be. Whilst you can recycle a higher content of the EPS blanks they’re still just big cells of foam which crumble away when a board is damaged, those beads are really nasty and end up on beaches all the time. The carbon vector net is working well and makes the boards stronger but can leave a small pattern through the deck so we’re working on minimising that. The linen and other natural fibres tend to soak up more of the resin which adds weight to the boards and bamboo creates a few more disposables, but both of these are better ecologically than the traditional layer of glass. The industry is still so far from the perfect solution but these are a step forward, it needs more consumer demand and experimentation from shapers.

Do you think surfers have become disconnected from the boards?

I think boards have become so cheap now with an abundance of them shipping from across the world that they’ve become almost disposable. If we can start sourcing more locally, using better materials and people are happy to pay more then change will start to come. I really admire the kind of business model that brands like Patagonia use with their free repairs and lifetime warranty. We’ve set up something similar with the free ding repairs but also try to encourage people to change the way they look at their boards and understand the process behind them.

The trouble is trying to make them super light and perform better tends to reduce the strength of the boards and people look to competitors on the world tour and want to surf like them. You find yourself wanting the boards they ride so you can surf like them, which inevitably drives everyone towards these high performance and fragile shortboards. If they can set a precedent and use their influence to promote more sustainable manufacturing and travel it would be great. Imagine if they were only allowed 3 boards per event and if you snapped them you’re out, how cool would that be? Surfing, in general, is just nowhere near as sustainable as it’s often portrayed.


A note on the World Surf League

Surfers look to the World Surf League (WSL) like the footballers look to the premier league, its influence is huge and drives major changes in global markets from clothing to tourism. In 2016 they launched “WSL PURE” an ocean health foundation which looked at raising the profile of issues such as climate change and plastic waste whilst funding scientific research and greener projects. On the 1st April 2019, the WSL pledged to be carbon neutral by the end of the year by offsetting travel, business operations, and commuting emissions. However, it’s no secret that the dream tour comes bundled with huge air-miles and plenty of snapped boards and some critics have labelled WSL PURE as “greenwashing” (a term for the process of making a company seem more environmentally friendly than it is).

Read more about the foundation on their website here.


Is there anything you think is a big misconception about shaping?

I think the level of craftsmanship involved. When you buy these mass-produced boards they’re often getting made by machines or someone who’s not even necessarily seen the sea, they’ve just been shown one part of the process and production line. Shapers spend so much time and money with the process of learning the craft. You invest a lot with boards that you mess up and materials you try that don’t work. I think it’s just the appreciation of what goes into it, the working space you need and energy you put into each board to get what comes out at the end. I also think the shaping process is more of a skill than people think, it’s a constant learning curve.

What keeps you coming back to shaping?

It’s really the love of surfing and building things, it’s nice being creative and making with your hands for a change. I like how flexible it is with the way you can adapt designs and try new things with each board. I love teaching as well, showing others what I know and passing on the tips and tricks I’ve learnt through the process. I don’t think shaping should be this closed community where a lot of people hold back information. I want to show others what I enjoy about it and help them to understand the process behind the boards they ride.


Jaxon’s Favourites

Boards?

Fishes at the moment, predominantly a little 5’6 fish. It’s a great all rounder but I’ll take something a bit slimmer out if it’s getting overhead as you have a bit more kick in those. As a shaper you kind of have to follow the trends as well, at the end of the day you’re trying to supply as well as make custom boards. At the moment I think twin fins are definitely in, the last two years have been mad for them!

I also feel like people are more concentrated on really enjoying themselves in the water now. Surfing isn’t getting any less popular and you’ll never beat the crowds but you can get more waves sat a bit further out on a fish, even though it’s not always the obvious or best choice. It helps at spots like Godrevey but also at reef and point breaks like Levy where everyone is sat in one spot on high-performance boards.

Shapers?

I’d say Jeff McCallum at the moment, he’s a Californian based shaper and works with this glasser called @superwolf on Instagram whos glass jobs I really like, they’re such a high level. Tris Cokes the founder of Homeblown who manufactures the blanks always inspired me, he never really went with the times and would stick to his really old school retro designs which I loved. He helped me out a lot when I got going, I could go for any kind of advice and he was always happy to share his skills and expertise. Besides that, just being more experimental and working with different shapes I’ve seen like the step decks has influenced my designs. You can hide quite a lot of foam in the board and still maintain performance with them.

Surfers?

I’ve always like Shaun Thompson, old school guy, rides a lot of retro shapes but I love his style. Tom Curran, really liked his style as well. I don’t really like big aerial surfing as much, I appreciate it and think it's cool and exciting to watch but it gets a bit samey after a while. I think there’s a lot of style in getting some nice big turns and carves in, the more old-school stuff!

Waves?

3-4ft clean offshore, same as anyone really! I like how changeable Cornwall is being on the peninsula and that we have two coasts to bounce between. In one day you could surf 10 different spots if you wanted, all with varying conditions.