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Production of Surfboards Overseas Expected to Swell

Times Staff Writer

This week’s closure of Clark Foam will help fuel the offshore production of surfboards, a trend that has been accelerating in recent years, industry experts say.

The Laguna Niguel factory’s closure Monday roiled the surfing world, leading to price hikes and a run on surfboards amid fears of shortages.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Dec. 09, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday December 09, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Surfboard production -- An article in Thursday’s Business section about the effects of the closure of Clark Foam, a maker of surfboard materials, misstated the size of the retail surfboard market. Retail sales were $200 million nationwide in 2003, not $22 million, according to the Surf Industry Manufacturers Assn.

Some surfing enthusiasts say the shutdown could threaten a California tradition of custom surfboard shaping if the industry shifted toward boards that use polystyrene foam and epoxy resin, known as epoxy boards, mass-produced in Asia.

“It’s inevitable,” said Isabelle “Izzy” Tihanyi, co-owner of Surf Diva Inc., a women’s surf school in La Jolla that sells surfboards and apparel. Having a shaper “who knows how you ride your board, who surfs with you, is really a luxury of the past, unfortunately.”

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In a letter to customers Monday, industry pioneer Gordon “Grubby” Clark said he would close his factory after 44 years in business. Clark Foam churns out the polyurethane foam blanks for two-thirds of the surfboards made in the United States.

Clark said that state and federal regulation drove him out of business, an allegation denied by environmental regulators.

On Wednesday, surfers rushed to secure surfboards, fearing the factory’s shutdown could spark shortages.

Jack’s Surfboards in Huntington Beach, which on a good day sells four boards, sold 25 to 30, salesman Joey Fumar said.

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“People are buying them, like five, seven at a time,” he said. The average board usually sells for $550 to $600, but Jacks raised prices by $100 on Tuesday and $50 more Wednesday, Fumar said.

Killer Dana Inc. in Dana Point, which typically sells a board or two a day, sold 15 on Wednesday -- even after posting a sign limiting sales to one board per person, co-owner Chris Andrews said. The shop didn’t raise prices because it didn’t want to appear as if it was gouging customers, he said.

“I don’t want to feel like I’m ripping off the customers, you know, like the gas prices went up because of [Hurricane] Katrina,” he said.

Many small surfboard makers were scrambling to find polyurethane foam blanks, which are roughly cut in surfboard shapes.

Clark Foam’s closure created new opportunities for some businesses, including Walker Foam, a Wilmington company that has seen demand for its polyurethane foam blanks explode.

“We’ve just been inundated with phone calls,” said Gary Linden, a surfboard shaper who works for Walker Foam.

Although California has been the heart of surfboard shaping, many dealers produce at least some of their products abroad.

Walker Foam, for example, is ramping up production in Wilmington to meet an onslaught of demand even as it prepares to make foam blanks in China.

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Surf Diva said it would get its first shipment of epoxy boards from Thailand in January.

Surftech Inc. in Santa Cruz, which uses polystyrene foam, produces thousands of boards in Thailand for sale worldwide.

“Surftech now officially owns the marketplace as far as I’m concerned,” said Dave Hollander, co-owner of Becker Surf & Sport, a Hermosa Beach-based surf shop operator that recently struck a deal to sell Surftech boards online.

Many surfers find changes in the industry hard to accept.

“Surfers hate to see surfboards at Costco that were made in China,” Tihanyi said. “There’s no soul in those boards.”

Sue Bowers, general manager of Southern California Sports Industries Inc. in Lake Forest, which has made surfboards in China for two years, said moving more production abroad would hit the local economy.

“It’s going to cost a lot of jobs initially and those jobs can’t really go anywhere else,” she said. “It is kind of sad.”

“I know a lot of people aren’t happy to see surfboards made in China, because it is pretty much a California kind of thing,” she said. “We certainly can’t complain about getting more business, but it’s not exactly the way we would want to get it.”

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At the center of the surfboard industry’s turmoil is one of the men who helped pioneer it. A woman who answered the telephone Wednesday at Clark Foam said Clark declined to comment. She said employees were “doing paperwork” but the business remained closed.

Surfboard sales -- which amounted to $22 million in the U.S. in 2003 -- are a small part of revenue in the surf industry. But they are a pivotal part of the retail market because surfers use and promote a number of products, including board shorts, T-shirts and sunglasses, said Marie Case, managing director of Board-Trac, a market research firm in Trabuco Canyon.

“I think five years from now we’ll have more surfers because of the demographic swell coming up. Then you have the old guys -- in their 40s, 50s and 60s -- who are still in the water,” she said. “So there’s potentially a lot of money there from these guys buying boards every year.”

Although some boards made overseas are produced in a mold, California doesn’t have the monopoly on board shaping. Factory workers in China hand-shape surfboards produced for Southern California Sports Industries, Bowers said. Its Doyle brand boards are named for shaper Mike Doyle, who licensed his name to it.

“They’re actually shaping the board just like they do here in California,” she said.


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