PART 1 – Getting Started
I spent the previous two years living in Eastern Europe. I lived in an area where there was nowhere to paddle and nobody had kayaks. I’m sure nobody knew what a Stand-Up Paddleboard even was. I had been following friends back home and I knew as soon as I returned state-side I would have to try SUPing. In fact, I made it a priority. I first got on a SUP in early May and instantly loved it. It wasn’t long before I wanted my own board. The only problem was that they are incredibly expensive. I didn’t want to spend $1000 or more on a board.
The programs coordinator at Umiak Outdoor Outfitters, Max Post, mentioned the idea of building our own and it got me thinking. Was it possible to build one for less than the retail price of a board? Did I have the skills to properly build a board that would be strong enough to paddle on?
Jeremiah Johnson, a fellow employee at Umiak Outdoor Outfitters in Stowe, VT was also interested in the project. We started researching what it would take to build these huge paddle boards. We started by asking Umiak’s employees about what they knew of building boats & boards with fiberglass. Talking to each person gave us a better understanding of the task that lay ahead. Max Post was helpful with his previous experiences of building his own fiberglass snowboards. Steve Brownlee, the owner of Umiak, provided support throughout the process by recommending materials to use and advice on accessories to include. Joe Henry, the retail manager at Umiak, let us test paddle all of the boards in the retail store as well as share his knowledge of different board shapes. In addition to our helpful coworkers we were able to find a ton of articles on how to build a surfboard online. Although a SUP is much larger, the building process is about the same. With all this information at our fingertips we decided it was doable and it would be a fun learning experience resulting in our own boards. The basic plan was to start with a foam core and then fiberglass around it for strength.
Our first step was to decide what shape our boards would be. After testing all the boards in the retail shop, we each picked our favorite boards and tried to mimic their shapes. JJ decided to mimic his board after Riviera’s Voyager because he liked how it paddled and its overall stability. I decided to shape mine after Bic’s 12’6 Wing Ace-Tec due to its suitability for long paddling trips and its easy glide through the water. We each took measurements of our boards and traced out a pattern on a large piece of cardboard. We only did half of the pattern so that when we traced it onto the foam, we could just flip the pattern over and in theory our boards would be symmetrical.
PART 2 – Shaping
We purchased our foam from a local company in Waterbury, VT for $40 per sheet (8’x4’x3.75″). We figured it would take 3 sheets to make each board. Once we had our foam, we glued the sheets together to make one large rectangle (12’x4’x7.5”).
At this point Jeremiah inlaid four, 1” wooden dowels, each 4′ long into the foam before he glued them together to give him some needed strength where he would be standing. Once we both had a large rectangle, we used our patterns to trace an outline of our board onto the foam. We then used a hand saw to quickly get rid of the large amount of excess foam from around the edges. As we got closer and closer to our intended shape we used smaller and smaller cutting tools.
The last tool we used to get our final shapes was a SurForm. This was basically a giant cheese grater that scraped off the foam one very thin layer at a time. We used the SurForm to make our boards as smooth as possible and to shape the edges. Shaping the edges was a challenge. Ideally, you’d like the two sides to be identical, but we weren’t willing to put money into buying measuring tools so we did it all by eye. My best advice is to do a little bit on each side and switch back and forth until you reach your desired shape. If you just work on one side for a long period of time, it could be really difficult to get the other side to look just like it. By alternating sides it’s easier to avoid over-shaping one side.
The shaping of the board is where you want to spend the most time. Once you begin the fiberglassing process your shape is locked in. I made the mistake of thinking the fiberglass would cover up the small imperfections in the foam shape. After the first layer of glassing, I noticed this wasn’t true at all.
PART 3 – Fiberglassing
We tried to source the fiberglass cloth and epoxy resin (supposedly polyester resin will melt your foam) needed for our boards locally with no luck. Some stores didn’t have enough, while others had the wrong type. After some searching we decided to order it online from US Composites. They had the best prices we could find even after the shipping price was included. We bought enough 4oz glass cloth for two boards and the 3-to-1 epoxy resin to hardener set. We also ordered Liquid Colored Pigment to add to the epoxy. Everything came from US Composites in about a week and we started the process of fiberglassing.
I started with a full top coat of fiberglass that wrapped all the way around the rails to the bottom. You want to start by cutting the cloth to the desired shape and laying it on top of the board exactly where you want it. Once you have your cloth ready, and you are in a well ventilated area you can mix up some epoxy. We used small plastic tubs and added 9 squirts of epoxy and 3 squirts of hardener at a time. We noticed that the more you mixed up in one round, the quicker it hardened. With the two of us working together, one person would ready the epoxy while the other glasses their board in order to keep the epoxy and process moving along. We found that at about 65*F, we had 35-40 minutes of work time before the epoxy started to set-up. We also added a small bit of color to each tub. We should have been more exact with how much we added because my board has several different shades of teal throughout the board, although this is only true with darker colors. Jeremiah used white pigment and you can not see a difference anywhere on the board.
I started at the front of the board and made sure to completely soak the cloth as I went. I used up each tub of epoxy then wrapped the cloth around the edges and squeegeed any excess epoxy away from the board. The first layer I did seemed like it took forever because this was my first fiberglassing experience and I was learning as I went. I did my best, and then let the layer cure for 24 hours. Before starting the next layer I cut off and sanded down any unusually large bumps. The more time you spend making your board smooth in between layers, the smoother your board will be overall. I didn’t take much time and this resulting in having very bumpy seams. I did two layers total on the top and bottom. Each layer was wrapped all the way around the rails, to add extra strength to the most vulnerable area of the board. Looking back, I wish that I had added more layers to the nose as well as the rails.
PART 4 – Finishing Touches
Once I had all my layers of fiberglass and they were cured, I still had to add a handle, fin box and vent. We used a Dremel cutting tool to quickly cut out the fiberglass just big enough to fit the accessories. After cutting through the fiberglass, we used a chisel to take out just enough of the foam to slide the pieces into the holes. I accidentally took too much foam out of the handle space, so I had to add some back in before it was ready for installation. The less space there is between the foam and the accessory, the easier it will be to install. We covered the accessories with electrical tape so the epoxy wouldn’t seep into the middle, and then poured some epoxy into the hole and slid the accessories into place. Once the epoxy hardened (24 hours) we added a final layer of epoxy around the accessories to fill in any air bubble that appeared while it was drying.
As an additional step that only I had time for, I added some graphics to the bottom of my board. I used a huge piece of paper and cut my design out of it to make a stencil. Once I had my stencil I spray painted the board and then peeled the stencil off. I also used an acrylic paint pen to add text to the design. The spray paint stayed on just fine in the water, but the paint pen smudged just a little bit.
The final step was to add a deck pad and rigging to hold our gear on our boards. We bought foam pads which came with a peel and stick layer. All we had to do was cut the foam to our desired shape and stick it on. After several months of paddling our deck pads have not even started to peel off. We also wanted to add bungee to the top without spending at least $5 on each D-ring. Instead we used zip ties and zip tie mounts from Home Depot which totaled less than 50 cents per pair.
Our boards were finally completed the night before our 5 day river SUP on the Winooski River. Without having tested them we attached our gear an started off down the river. They worked great. The only modification we made was adding a little bit of superglue to the zip tie mounts that had the most stress on them to help hold them in place. We spent less than $500 and made our own boards that have held up on rivers and lakes all over Vermont. They may not be as fast as a professionally made board, but they have a way better story behind them!