There’s a central irony in surfing. The simple disconnect between actor and action, as Ryan Lynch sees it, comes down to the boards that we take surfing. “It’s the only sport on the planet where you are literally immersed in nature, submerged in a foreign ecosystem—passing through kelp forests and swimming with otters between waves—yet surfers ride these toxic nightmares,” says Lynch, blunt with his distaste for cheap foam surfboards. “The products that take us into this environment are some of the biggest contributors for killing it.”
In early 2018, after six years as an engineer at Tesla, Lynch was burnt out. “We worked in ‘dog years,’ just like a startup,” he recalls. “Everything was fast and furious. I learned a lot, like optimizing production flow and building for a service.” But realizing the need to work for himself, Lynch built a small tow-behind trailer, convinced his newlywed wife that they needed a honeymoon, and headed south. For six months they meandered on back roads and remote beaches all the way to Panama. Lynch then planned to return to Santa Cruz, CA, and start a business that aligned with his passions—combining woodworking, sustainability, and design with the sport he loved, surfing.
“The surf industry started exclusively with wooden boards, but at a certain point the idea of a good product became something that was cheap, repeatable, and consumable,” Lynch explains of surfboards’ evolution to mass-production, utilizing a petroleum-derived base, namely polyurethane foam, and more recently expanded polystyrene foam. “Add to that a few layers of fiberglass, polyester, or epoxy resin and the product becomes a chemical mess that’s leaching micro-plastics into the ocean with every use.”
Lynch went the other way, “making eco-friendly boards that didn’t cost a fortune.” To do that, he looked at the entire process—finding the right suppliers, cutting down on waste, using better materials, and creating a product that would last. “When you do all of the math on a product’s impact, the biggest variable is durability. Most surfers replace their main board every two to three years. Making boards that will last a lifetime has been a goal from the start.” In late 2018, Lynch launched his company, Timber Surf Co.
His first year was dedicated to better understanding of hydrodynamics, developing a shape and contour set. “I wanted to keep the process in the hands of the craftsman, and not automate any of it,” he says. Despite their complexity, Lynch stuck to making high-end wooden boards, hoping to inspire others to search out eco-friendly options, too. Using wood was a good start—it’s organic, abundant, robust, biodegradable, and often upcycled or downcycled. And most importantly, it feeds our atmosphere with oxygen. The polyurethane foam that provides the base material for most mass-produced boards, however, is none of those things. It is made in a lab, often outside the U.S. and its EPA production standards. It is shipped all over the world, zero percent recyclable, and will literally never break down in a landfill. Due to its abundance and infinite nature, it kills animals, reefs, and the ocean itself.
Lynch’s first boards had no foam at all, yet he found the process challenging and laborious, with each board requiring dozens of man-hours to build. His business started flat, forcing him to rethink the strategy within the first year.
Today Timber Surf uses a combination of redwood and cork to complete the board exterior, which protects the recyclable polystyrene (EPS) foam on the inside (and protects it from leaching anything out into the ocean). With responsible sourcing, Lynch claims that no trees are cut down to produce his boards. Using a vacuum-bag process, he secures the redwood skin and cork skin to the foam, creating a finish that’s unique and nearly impossible to replicate. He seals it with bio-based epoxy, which utilizes a 35 percent tree-sap base, cutting down the non-natural content to a significant degree.
The focus on process and materials has lead to Lynch’s latest Splinter series of boards, built with an EPS core and wooden exterior. This integration keeps them affordable without sacrificing quality, though takes more planning. And with sustainability atop the priority list, Lynch starts with the manufacturing plant itself, where the majority of the foam blanks are cut to shape on-site. “This allows all of the waste from the board-shaping process to be captured at the source,” Lynch says, “and recycled back into the supply chain, instead of being sent into a landfill.”
Once Timber receives the foam blanks, Lynch pairs it with the right wood. He’s developed a partnership with a local mill that deals only in fallen trees. The mill will cut redwood skins to an incredible level of specificity, designed specifically for Lynch’s boards. “The key is that we stay away from wood veneer, which is more paper and glue than wood. We use slab-cut redwood, from trees right here in the Santa Cruz mountains.”
Then comes the tricky part, actually shaping the board for performance in the water. For those unfamiliar, many of the design elements may seem like another language. “I had to learn all the considerations for each specific model—the outline, wide point, rocker, rocker apex, rail transition, rail apex, center of mass, bottom contours, tail width and shape, fin placement, cant, toe, and array, flex, and more.”
The new Splinter series parlayed his goals of sustainable manufacturing into something that scales better with a price point (ranging from $925-$1,450, depending on length/model) that reaches the mainstream surf market. Lynch doubts he’ll ever be a major surfboard maker, though Timber will likely grow large enough to force others to change. “Surfers care about the ocean and I want to give them a better option. I don’t expect to upset any major supply chains, but I do hope to prove that surfers care about their playground.”
The challenge in this small-scale, hands-on business model, Lynch says, is that surfboards, even cheap ones, are incredibly underpriced. While most consumers have no problem spending $5,000 on a mountain bike that’s made off-tool in a large factory assembly line, surfboards like those made by Timber are entirely by hand and one at a time. “Sometimes I wonder if it’s a fool’s errand to compete with the big brands manufacturing overseas,” he says. “The challenge for us isn’t making eco-friendly boards, it’s making a sustainable business.”
Looking into the future, Lynch’s vision continues to grow. “A big desire of mine is empowering people to build their own surf-craft, and we are gearing up to do that soon with a shippable do-it-yourself surfboard kit.” DIY kits have long been a staple in paddlesports (see below), though are a bit harder to find in the surf world, with a few notables out there currently. “We hope that’ll democratize the landscape a lot.”
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