There are many different processes and materials available to construct a paddleboard. Each has benefits and challenges. Here, I’ll outline the most common ones, give a basic understanding and some good tips to use when searching for a board. Like most things in life, it’s all about the thoughtful compromise. I have spent a great deal of time working on our designs and the materials we use to build our boards. I enjoy solving the riddles of what gives you the most for the time, money and space that it occupies.
Take a look at a good shop, do some research (books, online, etc.) and talk to some people about board materials. You will soon find out that there are a lot of opinions and reasons why one is better than another. I don’t think there are any free lunches, so to speak, lying around. For example, you can’t just place a very good looking piece of carbon fiber on a board and make a difference in durability, price, and performance. A truly well designed board takes into account the particular structural benefits of a given material and the most efficient way to make use of them. Carbon fiber is a unique material. It behaves similar to glass with a higher tensile strength. If you take a strand of carbon fiber and hang a weight from it, it is very strong and has low elongation (little stretch). But flex it from the side while under load and it will fracture easily. This is why we can use it to make a board more rigid for a smaller weight penalty, but it does not make the board indestructible.
Back to the main classes of construction. From least expensive to most, they are…
EPS foam wrapped with and outer skin
Composite or hybrid plastics
EPS, epoxy and woven goods
EPS foam wrapped with thin EVA foam and sheet plastic skins are the least expensive. The EPS foam is shaped and the sheet goods are glued on. The production process is quick and uses very inexpensive materials. Benefits of this type of construction is a very light weight and they are very inexpensive. The durability is very low and they may not last a season. They flex a great deal over their length. This makes them less efficient to paddle and less fun. The leash attachment and bungee tie down points are lower strength. The shapes of the boards can be limited due to the way the materials are joined. None the less, if you just want to get on the water for the least amount of cash, and have a super light board this is where to start.
Rotomolded polyethylene (plastic) SUPs are basically made of the same material that your milk jug is, just thicker. They are typically hollow. To make poly rigid enough to paddle, it needs to be thick and this is where the high weight comes in. These boards are a bear to carry and weight 15-20 lbs more than a similar size EPS/Epoxy board. They will have lots of curves and shapes on their deck and bottom to minimize flexing (because they are hollow). This can limit your foot placement options and make them uncomfortable to carry, climb on to or perform rescues with. They are extremely durable. If you are going to use them where they will get abused (some rental locations, whitewater, etc.), a rotomolded SUP will take most you can throw at it. The cost is also very low.
Composite and hybrid plastics are where things can get very interesting from a value stand point. Designed and built properly, they yield high durability, are able to be designed in almost any shape and can be very rigid/efficient to paddle. For example our StrongSUP material is a polycarbonate and abs sheet laminate. We heat form it to a shape and it is assembled over an EPS core. We then reinforce the rail seams with kevlar and an exterior PVC tape. The result is a more durable, more aesthetically appealing, lightweight board with superior rigidity. If you want to test other types of Composite or hybrid plastic boards, take one for a paddle, jump up and down see how much it flexes. Also, take a look at how it deals with dings. You want a board that is strong enough to resist dings from the common mishaps during paddling (hitting your paddle on the rail, taking a knee, falling on the board, transport, etc.). You can also check the weight. If it is 40 lbs and flexes, keep looking. A properly designed Comp/hybrid will weigh similar to an EPS/composite board.
Inflatable Paddleboards have some unique qualities. You can pack them down to a suitcase size which makes them easy to store and transport. For tiny cars, condos, and flights to far flung places, this can be a huge benefit. It does come at a cost, performance. Due to the way inflatable Paddleboards are built, very little can be done to design specific rail profiles or shape. This leads to generally lower paddling performance. Think, less glide, less responsiveness and more flex than a good hard board. These things can be mitigated if an inflatable has a very good design and is built from the highest quality materials available. Sadly the vast majority of inflatable SUPs are not. Cost savings leads to poor designs. Don’t assume that just because it has a high “price” that is slashed on sale, it must be a good deal, it probably, is not. When shopping, look for the best of the best. We use and recommend a prelaminated drop stitch material like our Strongflate technology. It allows our designs more rigidity at lower inflation pressures. This means less time to inflate and better performance. The outline shape of an inflatable and rocker (curve of the bottom) will also greatly effect the performance of the material and should not be ignored. In the end, a very well designed inflatable SUP will be very lightweight and give you a good platform to get out there on the water for yoga, fishing, whitewater, touring, and even some surf.
Our last type of construction, EPS/epoxy/composite, is a vast array of materials. Let’s keep it simple. An EPS foam core, wood stringer (if it is designed to last and perform), fiberglass cloth, epoxy resin and bamboo, foam, or carbon reinforcement. These boards can range from light (28 lbs) to very lightweight (19 lbs) for average size boards (9’6-11’6). This is a huge advantage of this construction. They are also relatively easy to repair with easy to obtain materials. Which makes them last a long time, if they are designed well and taken care of. Hint, they like air and water. Anything else they touch needs to happen slowly and with padding. Two things to look for are a wood stringer (you may have to ask) and a vacuum bag layup. A wood stringer reduces flex and gives a board durability. It also helps ensure our shapes come out exactly how we design them, by not flexing as much during the critical shaping and lamination process that hardens epoxy over the laminates. The vacuum bag process allows us and others who use it to reduce the amount of resin used and to increase the density of the layup. This equals strength. To test, grab the rails of a board and give them a firm squeeze. If they flex a lot, it is an inexpensive light (read less) glass layup. Go ahead, squeeze our rails, you’ll feel the difference.
You can pay too little, get low durability and performance and regret it for a long time. You can pay too much (which may even appear to be the same dollar amount as another board) and not get the quality, durability, and design you deserve. At Bishop Boards, we will always strive to give you the most for your money. We think that is how it should be.