Shape Of Things To Come
Could the loss of Clark Foam actually be a good thing?
May 18, 2006
It's been five months since the Clark Foam factory in Laguna Niguel, California spit out its last polyurethane surfboard blank. Still no word on why the company shut its doors—federal officials insist that owner Grubby Clark's rambling Dec. 5, 2005 fax alleging "very large fines, civil lawsuits, and even time in prison" from massive environmental investigations should he stay open had no basis in reality.
But what about the effect of the closure? For four decades, Clark Foam was the surfboard blank provider. The company dominated the industry—where most manufacturers were lucky to churn out 400 blanks a week, Clark produced nearly 1,500 a day. There was no one anywhere in the world who made anywhere near the number of board blanks.
According to the guy who runs the free online classifieds website Mauiusedboards.com, the number of used surfboards advertised for sale on his site spiked after Clark shut down.
"It may be because more people have been hearing about the site," he said. "But in the last few months, 31 boards have been posted, and 17 have already sold."
"It's put a damper on everybody," said Neal Norris of Valley Isle Surfboards. "Limited availability has made it real hard on everybody."
Matt Kinoshita of Kazuma Surf agreed. "It's been kinda difficult for everybody," he said.
Well, not really everybody. Though Kinoshita has had to make adjustments, he said the loss of Clark Foam didn't hurt him at all.
"I've been lucky enough to have supplies from Australia," he said. "So it hasn't really affected me. It's been business as usual. But I feel bad for some of the other companies who didn't have supplies lined up. The companies in Australia are so busy now. If you weren't an existing customer [when Clark Foam closed], you're basically out of luck. I know for a fact that it's impossible to start accounts with Australian companies."
Indeed, Norris had just 46 blanks on hand when Clark shut down—less than a third of what he'd burn through in a week. But Norris' immediate response was vintage surfer.
"We got to take a break," Norris said. "The surf was really good. But now we're back to work. Usually I do 150-200 boards a year. This year I'll do about 100. That's just because of that three months of all surf, no work."
For Kinoshita, business has never been better.
"I average 40 boards a week," he said. "That hasn't changed in a couple of years. But the big difference now is that I'm exporting a whole lot of boards to Oregon, Virginia, places like that. The closure has hit the mainland 10 times more than here. They're willing to pay shipping costs—$50-60 per board—to get them there. It's not a problem, because they're willing to pay. This week we exported 15 boards to a North Carolina surf shop.
"My whole export business has increased," he added. "When everything's said and done, I'll have a lot more accounts than I started with."
Even so, Kinoshita is still having trouble meeting local demand.
"Shortboard blanks are coming in, but no one has longboard blanks," he said. "Longboards are really popular here. But you've either got a ton of import boards, Styrofoam boards or high-priced boards. I'm not sure what's going to happen."
Both shapers said their costs have gone up. Because of scarcity and the need for more imported boards, Kinoshita's costs have increased about $35 per board, while Norris has seen increases of $15 to $25 per board.
"Obviously everyone had to raise their prices," said Norris. "But I try to keep it affordable because surfers don't have a lot of money."
The boards themselves are changing, too. Clark used polyurethane, but there's not much of that lying around now. As a result, shapers are now dealing with other, very different materials.
"The majority of companies out there haven't been able to get supplies," said Kinoshita. "They're now using Styrofoam and epoxy resin. We're used to certain quality. Styrofoam might be a really good product, but visually it's not what we expect."
Norris has encountered similar problems with the batch of blanks he recently received from Argentina and Australia.
"There are a lot of gluing issues like dried glue on stringers," he said. "The quality is on the low side. I just got some Australian blanks. They seem to be higher quality, but you have to be super careful. Shaping machines tear the foam very easily. You have to go real super slow with a hand planer."
Yet this might not be such a bad thing. According to Norris, not all of the repercussions from the loss of Clark Foam's overwhelming influence on shaping may necessarily be bad.
"The most important point here is that [the new blanks are] really testing the shaper's ability," said Norris. "A lot of shapers got so used to Clark Foam blanks being low tolerance, meaning they're very close to the final shape. Blanks now are a bit older school. They require a lot more shaping.
"I've been shaping since the 1960's, so it's kinda fun for me," he continued. "But rookies are having a tough time. You really have to know how to work a planer. I usually have a smile on my face when I'm shaping, but a couple of times I was bummed out. But it will probably be corrected. Some guys just turned back the blanks. It was really testing their abilities."
Many shapers here and on the mainland have already looked to China, where whole factories are gearing up to replace the production numbers only Clark could put out. Cheaper boards produced there have filled outlet giants like Costco for years, leading some to question whether shapers can still work like artisans.
"Nothing will kill quality," said Kinoshita. "You can find the best quality, if you pay for it. I pay a premium price for what I know is the best. My reputation depends on it. Reputable companies will end up buying the best. This whole thing is probably good for the industry." MTW
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