hollow surfboard

Type of wooden surfboard/paddleboard popular in the 1930s and '40s; invented and almost single-handedly developed by Wisconsin-born surfer and board designer Tom Blake.

Judged on its wave-handing characteristics, the hollow board was at best a lateral step in the surfboard's design evolution. But because it was lighter than the solid-wood plank boards used in the early decades of the 20th century—the average plank weighed about 60 pounds, while a 12-foot hollow weighed about 45 pounds—surfing became accessible to those who otherwise might not have had the muscle to get a board from the parking lot to the water.

Blake made a hollow board of sorts in 1926 by drilling hundreds of holes through the deck of a plank, then sealing the board with a thin wood veneer. Three years later, in an effort to built a faster paddleboard, Blake designed the "chambered" hollow, bisecting a finished board, carving out the interior, and gluing the two pieces back together. In 1932 he introduced the transversely braced hollow, with wooden ribs in a design similar to that used in airplane wings. Blake added a last refinement to the hollow board in the early '40s, replacing the squared-off edges with a rounded-rail design.

Hollow surfboards (which often doubled as lifeguard rescue boards) were manufactured commercially from 1932 to the early '50s; thousands of additional hollows were made in garages and backyards, and as school projects. As listed in a 1939 Popular Science magazine do-it-yourself article, a 13'9" by 21 3/4" combination paddleboard/surfboard could be made from either cedar, mahogany, spruce, redwood, or pine, along with 18 flathead brass screws, four gross of three-quarter-inch screws, a pint of marine glue, a brass yacht deck plug, and a quart of spar varnish. Nearly all hollow boards had a pointed tail, and a rounded nose; as a rule, boards 12 feet and under were thought of as surfboards; those over 12 feet were used primarily as paddleboards.

Beginning and intermediate surfers in the '30s and early '40s for the most part preferred the hollow board; advanced surfers were split between the hollow and the plank, but favored the latter. The plank was slower to paddle, but smoother riding and easier to control once on the wave. The lighter hollow caught waves with ease, but was tippy and skittish. Hollows, also, were more fragile. A photo from a 1942 Popular Mechanics article, "Hitch-Hiking on the Big Waves," shows a dejected California surfer standing next to his splintered and peeled hollow board that had just received a "going over" from a big wave. An undetected crack or small hole in a hollow, moreover, meant the board would slowly fill up with water, and have to be drained regularly.

By the mid-'30s, planks were being made of balsa, and were nearly as light as the hollows, and in 1937 the narrow-tailed hot curl solid board was developed, offering greatly improved handling over the plank. Board design after World War II was almost exclusively in the hands of Malibu-based surfers, who rejected outright the hollow board, and soon developed the finned balsa-fiberglass chip, which in turn led to a prototype of today's longboard. Hollow boards continued to be used by lifeguards and paddlers into the late '50s.

The hollow was known almost immediately as a "cigar board" or "cigar box," as it resembled a cigar in outline. By the late '40s, as the hollow was being phased out, it was often dismissed as a "kook box." In Australia, surfers forswore planks and used hollows (known there as "toothpicks" or "pencils") almost exclusively from the late '30s until 1956.

By the early 1990s, hollow boards had become highly prized by surfboard collectors; in Surf's Up: Collecting the Longboard Era, a coffee-table book published in 2002, Blake hollows from the '30s were estimated to be worth between $6,000 and $12,000.