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6/27/17

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.

  • Bob Feigel

    In addition to my earlier comment about the Foss adverts in Surfguide: Foss became one of Surfguide Magazine’s major advertisers in the mid-60s, taking the inside-front-cover spot. Surfguide’s Larry Stevenson was the force behind the Surf Fairs, so when I got promoted to advertising director of Surfguide I was asked to come up with a special display for the Foss exhibit at the ’65 Surf Fair in the Santa Monica Civic.

    There was some new technology I’d heard about and it sounded perfect. It looked like a big television screen, but in reality it was a slide projector that projected slides from the back so the images showed on the screen, just like a big TV. Foss already had some professionally taken shots of the foam making process at their factory, but I took more photos to bring people and boards into the presentation.

    The beauty of this technology is that I could record the narration on a tape that allowed me to insert a magnetic signal that would trigger the slide mechanism to advance to the next slide. And so on. I wrote a script with cues for the slide changes and after a few false starts finally got it done. Then I designed the Foss exhibit with a couple of boards and a blank, some enlarged photos and a banner with their logo. The slide projector and speakers sat in the middle. My theory was that very few people could pass by a television screen without looking at it and that’s what happened.

    Without a person manning the exhibit it always had an audience of people watching the presentation. I had to replenish their brochures several times and it ended up winning the award for the best exhibit and the thanks of the Foss family, who were delighted.

    That Christmas I sent out cards plus a few special gifts to our most valuable advertisers. But I only received a few cards from those advertisers, one being from the Foss family containing a one hundred dollar bill and a thank you from them. Even without the unexpected gift I found them to be a genuinely nice couple in an industry where nice wasn’t always the case.

  • Bob Feigel

    I’ve got full page Surfguide advertisements that are different from those. And I remember an older couple owning Foss. Well older than me at the time. I’d have been in my early-20s.

  • Paul Conibear

    cool bit of surf history

  • John Hughes

    As a side note: Bill Feinburg, who owned Oceanside Surfboards in Cocoa Beach, was the 3rd largest buyer of Walker Foam in the US in 1964-65.
    https://youtu.be/IUWiVGtCYOQ

  • freerider

    Didn’t get the knight one?–“A quality board for a quality shape.” Well–the “lady” (the minx)–laying on the ‘finished board’–Does seem to have a “quality’ shape to her.–

    • freerider

      Cleaned out a old storage locker I’ve had for about 15 years–found a “6′ 11″ A 1st quality Superblue” Clark blank in it. Got it under my house now. Think someday I’m gonna make a wall hanger out of it–just the way it is–unshaped….

      • Matt Warshaw

        Remember a few weeks, or a few months, after Clark imploded, those blanks were selling for hundreds of dollars each. At this point, yes, put it on display. Like a brick from the Berlin Wall. Send a pic!

        • freerider

          I will–but I’m totally tech. clueless. I took a couple pics. with my smart phone though. Can you tell me where to (a link or something) or how to send them. Thanks…

          • Matt Warshaw

            try sending to: mattwarshaw@comcast.net

          • freerider

            Gonna try to send it in just a bit. I even need help to send it with my smart phone. Maybe I’ll catch up with the 21st century someday…

          • Matt Warshaw

            Got it. Thanks!

          • freerider

            OK, I think I got it sent. Not sure if I put a subject on it though. There’s a little surface dirt and dust on it, gonna lightly clean some of that off without touching the logos and send another pic. Peace…

          • freerider

            Not sure what the ‘hand written’ numbers are on the (right?) left side towards the nose are aside from the 6’11”, they were on their when I got the blank. It has my name written before the 6’11’. I put a piece of tape over it for anonymity. Never, ever thought I might own a little piece of surf history. Peace….

  • Aviva Rosenthal

    Had to read this twice to get all the threads sorted out in my head. This history prof of mine once pointed out that ‘we understand E=mc2 in the same sense that Bodo the serf understood the holy trinity,’ and whenever we get an overlap of science plus economics plus surf world undercurrents of acceptability, I get that sensation too.

    Two in one day, though, nice. Off to soak my brain in ice water now.

    • Matt Warshaw

      more on the way. Will try to make less taxing and less thread-y.

      • Aviva Rosenthal

        Don’t you dare. I need the exercise!

  • Aviva Rosenthal

    Planned obsolescence. An unbreakable board won’t need replacing. I think the Smithsonian has an entire wing dedicated to the Edsels of American technology.

  • Celya723

    Never fails to amaze what details you unearth and craft into intelligible visually appealing commentary. I love it!