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Meet the maker: A Q&A with Chris Hetem, a Mount Maunganui local making cardboard surfboards

Over eight million tonnes of plastic enters the ocean each year, with many calling for those who do water sports to be more mindful of it.

One way to do this is to use recyclable, eco-friendly materials. For some it may come as a surprise that cardboard surfboards do exist and are completely useable, they’re just not very commonly seen in the outdoors.

Mount Maunganui local and iOS developer Chris Hetem decided to try his hand at following online instructions and create a cardboard surfboard.

Though the material of choice seems counterintuitive (water and cardboard don’t mix well) the polyurethane coating and fibreglass layer around the outside of the board seals the cardboard in and makes it watertight.

Hetem has also been experimenting with replacing some of the fibreglass with flax cloth.

Check out our Q&A with him about the design process below.

How common are cardboard surfboards in New Zealand? Where did you first hear about them?

I don’t believe cardboard surfboards are very common at all, whether that’s in New Zealand or elsewhere. They’ve been around for a while and there’s a few variations of them, but they’re still pretty rare to see. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one ‘in the wild’ – just occasionally on social media. I first heard about them maybe two years ago and it’s something I’ve wanted to try making myself since then.

What is the purpose/advantage of a cardboard surfboard as an alternative material? Are they more environmentally friendly?

The main drawcard for me is the environmental friendliness and recyclability of it. Traditional surfboards are made from polyurethane foam and more recently EPS foam (expanded polystyrene aka styrofoam). Polyurethane is a highly toxic material both for the person using it and for the environment when it eventually ends up in the landfill. EPS isn’t quite as bad and can actually be recycled (though it often isn’t) and there are even surfboard blanks you can get that are made from recycled styrofoam which is really cool to see happening in the surf industry. Cardboard though is widely accepted at recycling facilities and often times compostable. So, the main benefit of using cardboard is less toxicity for the builder and the environment as a whole. That said, it’s still wrapped in fibreglass and saturated with an epoxy resin so there’s still room for improvement.

They also have quite a unique look about them, almost like beeswax. Is this one of the drawcards of them?

The look of them is definitely unique as you’ve said and is certainly a drawcard. They’re not completely see-through but with the sun shining behind them it’s really amazing to see the transparency of it and the internal honeycomb structure.

How do they differ in comparison to a normal fibreglass board?

The only real difference is the core material. As mentioned, traditional surfboards are made from polyurethane or EPS foam. So the cardboard replaces the foam, but the rest remains the same.

 What instructions were you following?

The instructions came from Mike Sheldrake. He’s got a few different surfboard models, but the process is pretty much the same for all of them. The first step is to use various CAD designs to laser cut cardboard into over 100 little pieces. You then put these together, sort of like a puzzle, and form the skeleton of the board. Next comes  the glassing, but since the board is hollow the first lamination needs to be done with a paintbrush rather than just the resin being poured on as would normally happen. The hollow nature of the board doesn’t allow for that so a slow, patience-testing process of painting on the first layer is needed. Once the first layer is down and you’ve got a  solid board, you can finish it off as you would any other board. The instructions from Mike Sheldrake may seem a little confusing or overwhelming at first, but are actually pretty detailed and helpful once you get into it. You can find more info about each of the steps here.

 What were some of the challenges faced along the way?

There were quite a few challenges I faced, starting right from the beginning. Finding someone with a laser cutter that was willing to cut cardboard was the first obstacle. Turns out most laser cutters around here (Mount Maunganui) are industrial sized lasers and are built for cutting wood, steel, and other “tough” materials. Basically, they would’ve burned right through the cardboard. The other obstacles I faced came mostly from glassing the board. I’ve never actually glassed a board before, so that alone was an obstacle. I spent plenty of time reading up and watching videos on how to do it which definitely helped, but there’s no comparison to hands on experience. The fact that the board is hollow certainly didn’t make it any easier either.

The trickiest parts I’d say were each of the tips (nose and tail) and the fins. Unfortunately when doing the first lamination I didn’t completely cover the tips of the tail, so patching those without any support from what would normally be foam was really tricky. Putting in the fin boxes was also a tricky one. Normally you would route out the foam and have a nice snug fit for the fin box to sit in, but that wasn’t the case here as it is mostly hollow. I ended up cutting away bits of cardboard with a knife and using extra fibreglass and resin to help reinforce it. It seemed to do the trick with keeping the fin boxes in place, but I’ve definitely got ideas about how I’d do it differently next time. Or maybe glass-ons are the way to go.

 How did it go when you took it out for a ride? Any hiccups?

The first ride started out really well! The board paddled and caught waves just fine and was really fast and fun with great maneuverability. Shortly into my surf though I realized a bit of water being taken on. I quickly got out and drained it really well and luckily the cardboard was still fully intact. It turns out there were little tiny pinholes near the fin boxes that were pretty much invisible, but just big enough to let water slowly seep in. I just let it dry out for a few days, patched it up, and got back out there. It seemed to go much better the next couple times around, but eventually gave way again at the fins and unfortunately I ended up taking on too much water this time around with the cardboard getting too wet to maintain its strength. I owe this major hiccup more to my being a beginner at glassing more so than the durability of the cardboard. It’s all part of the process though and I’ve learned a lot since then.

The Hive. #madeofcardboard

A post shared by Chris Hetem (@c.hetem) on

What other alternative materials and designs have you been experimenting with for surfboards?

Besides using cardboard, a more ‘traditional’ board I’d make would consist of a bio-based epoxy resin, EPS foam (preferably recycled), and I’d replace some of the fibreglass with another type of cloth such as flax cloth. I’ve got my eyes set on other materials such as paulownia and cork which you see being used more and more. I’ve also considered messing around with 3D printing fins using an algae-based filament, but haven’t had a chance to dive into that one yet. Beyond that, I’m just trying to keep an open mind about different materials that can be used and different ways to reduce the carbon footprint of each board. There’s some amazing stuff happening around the world that with just a little bit of extra effort can keep heaps of waste from going to landfill.

 Will you be creating cardboard surfboards for anyone else in the near future, or thought about turning this into a business?

I don’t intend to be making cardboard surfboards on a regular basis, but if anyone were interested I’d certainly be willing to supply a kit for the DIY board builder. It was such a blast to make and I’d definitely recommend it for a fun project if you’ve got some spare time. It’s just such a cool looking board and you really can’t beat surfing a board you’ve built yourself!

 What do you do as a day job, and does this relate at all to the surfboards or is that more of a passion project?

My day job is as an iOS app developer and I do the occasional web design/development project as a freelancer, so this doesn’t really relate to that very much at all. Surfing has always been a passion of mine though and this is where a lot of my free time gets spent. I’ve only just recently got into building surfboards, but am loving every minute of it. Combining the use of modern technology, friendlier materials, and a more sustainable building process seems to be a nice convergence of my technical background, love for surfing and the ocean, and the amazing feeling of working with your hands when it’s not typically part of your day-to-day.

Elly is Idealog's editor and resident dog enthusiast. She enjoys travelling, tea, good books, and writing about exciting ideas and cool entrepreneurs.

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