Phil Edwards, patron saint of power surfing, was the last of the greats to switch from balsa to poly. He didn’t like the smell of foam, didn’t like industrial blank-blowing process, and especially didn’t like the way the new boards felt underfoot. “Good on wood, spastic on plastic,” as Edwards liked to say. In 1957 or ’58, just as foam was taking over as the boardmaker’s core material of choice, Edwards made himself a new balsa, and loved it enough to name it “Baby.” He kept that board year after year, even as he slowly, reluctantly, made the change to foam. Fixed the dings, brought it to Hawaii and Australia. In Bruce Brown’s 1962 movie Surfing Hollow Days, Bruce introduces Edwards, who squats down in his backyard next to a trio of shiny new multi-stringer foam boards of his own design. “He makes beautiful boards, but the board he still likes to ride best of all”—here Brown cuts to a shot of Edwards almost sheepishly holding his battered favorite— “is an old balsa wood he calls Baby.”
In his book You Should Have Been Here an Hour Ago, Edwards offers another reason for love of wood over foam.
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It was 1953, and I was so broke you wouldn’t believe it.
For one thing, I was living that summer in Doheny State Park. The forest rangers sort of looked the other way and it was a special time for a kid. By day we surfed; by night—after everyone had left and gone home—I would have the park all to myself and wander through it, through an aisle of still-smoldering campfires and half-eaten hot dogs. And I had this girlfriend who would come down on her horse and we would sit there together on the beach and stare out into the black Pacific and dream about the time when we would all be rich and famous. A state park has an air of special enchantment about it at night.
By night—and by day—I collected pop bottles and sold them back to stores for two cents each. In fact, I had a supercollection and more pop bottles than you have ever seen in your life. One of my buddies had a Model A pickup truck that wheezed along because, for one thing, it had a thrown rod which he could not afford to get fixed. But the thing about a Model A is that it will run along nicely, but slowly, on a thrown rod or two. Slowly: we would drive from Doheny to Oceanside and I would keep a lookout at the sides of the road for pop bottles. I would step out, pick them up and toss them into the back of the truck and he would never stop driving at, what was for the truck, full speed.
Still, the rangers had certain rules—and when I opened a surfboard reshaping emporium in the park, they had to draw the line. They chased me out. Not all the way out—but I moved the business under the bridge, where I set up boxes and reshaped boards under there and glued noses back on—those were the days when noses were popping off, remember?—and through it all made enough money to get by.
Along a parallel course, Hobie Alter had begun building balsa boards in his garage and selling them. From the start, Hobie had a sort of magic touch. More and more surfers were swinging over to the Hobie boards. He finally got to the point—at $65 per board— where he could open up a shop at Dana Point.
First thing I did was move in. We made surfboards by day, Hobie and I, and by night I would throw an unfinished board across two sawhorses, lie down and pull a blanket over me, and sleep. Balsa boards are really not all that bad for sleeping on; after a few nights, you get so you can roll over; sleep on your side, stomach or back without falling off. If nothing else, it gives you a certain feel for surfboards; you know their every nuance of bend and shape. You haven’t lived until you have slept on one.
I suppose it’s a little like Henry Moore pulling up a blanket and sleeping on one of his huge sculptures, the better to soak in through his pores the soaring sweep and gentle arc of them. One of Moore’s sculptures sits in the middle of the fountain at Lincoln Center in New York City. I don’t know if he ever slept on it or not. He could have. Not far away, on Avenue of the Americas, there is this building—the J. C. Penney Building—with a massive, undulating sculpture sunk into a sort of patio out in front. It looks a little like a whale in ecstasy; and by squinting your eyes just right, you can see yourself lying on the top of it, a ratty old blanket pulled over you, wearing Levis, your bare feet sticking out the bottom.
All this taught me several things: (1) how to shape surfboards better, (2) how to scare away burglars—the sight of a guy rising off a surfboard with blanket draped around him was a little like a corpse rising off a slab, and it scared the hell out of them every time, and (3) it is better if you put each leg of the sawhorse into a bucket of water to keep scorpions and other bugs from climbing up and eating you at night.
[After] working for Hobie a year, I had some money saved. Only one place to go. I took everything I owned to Hawaii. One suitcase full of surfing trunks and one board under the other arm.