- Reading time 7 minutes -
By Laura Nederkorn
Clark Foam, 2005: the California-based manufacturer of surfboard blanks had to close unexpectedly. Clark Foam was considered the best-known supplier of surfboard blanks of its time, both in the American market and internationally, until 2005. The reason for the closure was the use of polyurethane (PU), as highly toxic chemicals must be used to process this material.
The resulting complaints from employees and U.S. environmental protection agencies ultimately led to the closure of the factory and, beyond that, to a rethinking of surfing history...
For the first time, the industry and surfers were aware of the environmentally harmful boards under their feet. The foundation for more sustainability in the surf world was laid. This was also the case in Aachen, where Martin (a trained architect) started looking for a more sustainable alternative for foam boards. He was successful. Martin began shaping a wide variety of wooden boards, hollow in construction, from surfboards to SUPs to kites, and also offering workshops.
How Backwood came into being, what the label stands for and what role a book from the flea market played in all of this, we clarify in this interview.
How did your interest in surfing come about?
I had my first contact with surfing at the end of the 80s as a child. For years we went with the family to the Atlantic coast in Brittany (today my second home), that's where the enthusiasm began. At that time surfing was a marginal sport, but it fascinated me in a playful way. A while after I lost sight of surfing for some time, until I made a round trip through Iberia during my studies, which also led me to Portugal. This was the beginning of my career as a shaper.
And what happened next?
I was really into surfing again and wanted to buy a board, but I didn't have any money. Used boards were too expensive or too broken. As a self-taught person, I had an idea; "when I'm at home, I'll build a board myself". At the time we had plastics projects in college and constructed furniture out of foam and epoxy. I found Foamshaping super exciting.
At a flea market I found a book from the 80s. At that time there was a big windsurfing scene of people in Germany who built boards themselves. The book was about building windsurfing boards and I tried to transfer the knowledge to a surfboard. I still remember how funny the first shape looked, but it was definitely not a cheaper option to buying a second hand board.
My ambition was to do it better and better. On every vacation I tried to build as many boards as possible and one thing led to another... until the Clark Foam story in 2005.
That's where the idea for Backwood came from?
Backwood is an accidental product of my hobby and was not originally intended as a job. I am a trained architect but my heart beats for surfing.
The Clark Foam story was the first time I thought, "Shit, our sports equipment is not very sustainable. It’s a piece of hazardous waste”. After some research (by now there was the internet) I found a few projects in Australia that built hollow wooden surfboards. I loved this realisation because, a. I found wood very exciting as a material and, b (which was crucial). I found the craft challenging and final product awesome. But I had no workshop, no materials and no connections…
I happened to ask a very good friend, who was an occupational therapist in a psychiatric clinic, about wood. One thing led to another as they told me they had a lot of patients, but not enough projects...
"...and then I built surfboards with mentally ill patients.”
As a result, people became aware of my work and then in 2013 I started my own company.
What do you associate with surfing?
For me, it's not the sport, but the basic idea of surfing that's in the foreground. For me, it's the experience of being in the water. Breast-high, clean waves and watching the sunrise - that's more my idea of the whole thing.
How sustainable are wooden surfboards?
I don’t say "I'm going to make a 100% green product now" - because I can't. But I use wood to talk about the sustainability issue. I chose paulownia wood because it grows pretty fast everywhere and sequesters a lot of CO2. However, it is planted in plantation agriculture, which is not super sustainable either. Nowadays, unfortunately, the basic idea is not to make something better, but to act like you are. For example, you hear people saying "wooden boards and sustainability are trendy and that's why I'm doing this and I'm a world saver”. I think that’s bullshit.
"I'm not saving the world by buying a wooden surfboard, I'm saving the world by flying to Bali 3x less a year."
The advantage I see with wooden surfboards is the value, especially if you build it yourself in the workshop. It's relatively durable, but even if it's no longer surfable, you hang it on your wall as a souvenir, because you personally associate a lot with it. And that's the most sustainable thing you can do, not creating waste.
My favorite board is the second wooden board I built and it's 15 years old, I still surf that. It’s a longboard. I'm a longboarder by age.
That means you like surfing longboard the most?
For me, the whole surf culture has a lot to do with art and expression, I can't get much aesthetics out of shortboard hacking. I can watch a good longboarder for hours, it's not so hectic. I do think shortboarding can be fascinating. You have to react very quickly, but I quite like that I have a bit more time on the longboard.
How does a wooden board surf compared to conventional boards?
Very difficult question. It's different. Not all wooden boards are the same. The bottom line is still the shape, but a wooden board is different to surf because it is constructive. The hollow boards have more buoyancy than the foam boards. You're a little higher in the water, you get into the wave faster, you're faster paddling. That's always a big advantage, especially if you don't have loads of paddle power.
You will never see a wooden board in the WSL contest, as it depends on other things. Every piece of wood is different, so it's hard to set a standard.
What shapes do you recommend to your customers?
In principle I shape everything, but mainly lean towards the retro shape style. A shortboard is definitely more difficult to make in wood than a longboard. Custom shapes are also possible. I want to deliver a board that is right for the customer. Customers like to overestimate themselves and surf boards that are too small. Everyone claims they can surf like a champ.
"But there is no such thing as being able to surf.”
At what point can you surf? When someone asks me, I always say "I've been doing this for a very long time and totally enjoy it, but surfing is not my highest skill." A lot of people think they have to reach the shortboarding level, and that's bullshit. You're not getting anything out of it and you're never going to get anywhere if you don't get a proper wave.
Are there any shapers who inspire you?
I'm fascinated by the early 60s and 70s, where there was a very experimental phase. Freaky stuff. Something like flextail stories, displacement hull stuff. The great shapers still inspire me too: Stuart, McTavish... the old guys. What also inspires me at the moment is not the shape itself but the artistic expression behind it - in the overall work of creating surf culture.
Finally, best tip for an aspiring shaper?
The worst idea is to say: "I'm going to become a shaper because that's my career aspiration". If you're up for it, you shouldn't combine it with your career idea. Try it out for yourself and don't expect it to be the perfect board. It takes time and experience to understand certain things that make up a surfboard. And I agree that you have to surf yourself to understand what you are building. I'm not going to say you can only build a working board after 1000 tries, but it does take a bit of time and experience.
Thank you Martin for your inspiring views and your almost unstoppable flow of words.