Yesterday I reread William Finnegan’s 2006 “Blank Monday” article for the New Yorker, all about Grubby Clark and the fabled Clark Foam implosion. So good. I’d nearly forgotten about the “Blank Monday” piece; it was like finding a 7,000-word chunk of Pulitzer under the couch cushion. One of the things Finnegan does incredibly well is illustrate, swiftly and vividly, objects and processes that other writers will pass over as too dull to bother with. Here we get a short abstract on the blank-making craft.
To make a blank, the main components of polyurethane are mixed together and poured into a two-and-a-half ton concrete mold, roughly surfboard-shaped, where they froth and rapidly expand. Innumerable things can go wrong—air bubbles, soft spots, hard spots, pour streaks. Clark’s tinkering was meticulous and tireless. Much was made of his “formula,” which he refined constantly. He also wrote long, fantastically detailed manuals for his workforce, which grew to more than 100. In an interview with an obscure surf magazine in 1972—the last formal interview [with Clark] I’ve been able to find—he said, “It takes a long time to develop your particular process and it’s just a lot of little two-bit tricks.” He added, “There’s no romanticism in foam . . . . It’s dirty, messy, and it’s hard work.”
It’s also hazardous. Clark made his own resins, in a polyol reactor, from isocyanates that he bought by the ton. Bill Bahne told me, “The polyol reactor was like an A-bomb. You really wouldn’t want to have a reactor without the safeguards and knowledge that Gordon had.” Bahne, contemplating starting a foam-blank company himself, once showed part of Clark’s polyurethane formula to a polymer chemist at a major company. “And they said, ‘This is dangerous. This is for a guy who can drive an 8,000-horsepower dragster.’ Gordon could do it. But these polychemists said [to me], ‘No way. Do not.”
Of the blanks produced by the various early manufacturers, Clark’s were not the easiest to work with. Chuck Foss made big, soft, powdery blanks that shaped like butter but lacked strength. Harold Walker’s were creamy, spongy, and a pleasure to have in the shaping bay. “Grubby’s blanks were brittle, and mean to work with,” one early shaper told me. “But they had the best cell structure: small and tight. And he listened to shapers.“
Finnegan’s mention of Chuck Foss had me scuttling back to the stacks, looking for old Foss Foam magazine ads, which I remembered as being colorful and kind of silly. Knowing what we now know about Clark and Hobie, and the stranglehold they had on the foam market, you gotta feel bad for Foss and any other poor soul who not only made the decision to go into this fume-filled hazardous-waste-making business, but quickly found themselves playing on a business field that was slanted heavily in favor of what was already being called the Dana Point Mafia. Chuck Foss tried, though. Went big on the advertising, taking out full-pager color ads in Surfing all through 1965 and 1966. But what good, really, does advertising in a surf mag do for a foamer? As if Kelly Q. Boardbuyer gives a shit about the core material of his next board. Clark Foam, as I recall, didn’t advertise. Why bother? Hobie, Hansen, and Bing were all locked in, and kept the Clark molds jumping. (Walker, it should be noted, made a serious play for market share—Weber, Jacobs, G&S, and Harbour, all bought Walker Foam.)
With Foss, you could smell desperation coming off the brand like methyl ethyl ketone peroxide. Nearly every ad brought a new slogan: “The Mark of Quality,” “Always a Leader,” “A Name to Remember.” They tried earnest: “The finest materials and integrity—these are things to be found in every surfboard made of Foss Foam.” They tried comedy, with a twist of alliteration: “Santa Says: Surf with Foss Foam,” and here comes your cartoon Foss-riding Saint Nick, hanging ten. Then an arrow fired against the mighty Clark fortress: “A surfer wants to know that he is protected by materials that won’t ‘sell-out’ when the going gets tough.” Did Foss try sexy? Yes! A satin-glove-wearing model purring into her ’66 Mustang, with a three-stringer Foss-cored noserider leaning against the hood. One ad shows a knight in full-rig jousting gear holding a Foss blank while a minx in bright orange lipstick lays at his feet. Provocative, but off-message, maybe? I didn’t get that one.
Last and saddest of all, a full-page ad filled with boardmakers’ logos, and a headline reading “These are only a few of the many that use Foss Foam.” Brands like Felker, Olympic, Autin-Baird, Collier, and Aquarail, whose combined shipped-unit figure for 1966 had to be less than Hobie’s output on any given month.
I’m having a laugh at Foss. But not really. None of the ads are that bad (the knight one maybe is). Mostly what strikes me here is the futility of going up against Grubby Clark and Hobie Alter—although I realize of course that this view is clear only in hindsight, and that all things must have seemed possible to young Chuck Foss in 1965. To his credit, he got out of surfboard blanks and into boat rudders, and apparently did alright for himself. Maybe somebody out there knows, did Chuck Foss became the Grubby Clark of boat rudders? That would be awesome.