Growth in the world of SUP takes shape in all forms and Ryan Witbeck's Carve Industries of Lyons, Colo. is making a bold statement through a line of handmade standup and surfboards made exclusively from wood of beetle-killed pine trees.
As climate change and a warming planet make the weather more hospitable to the dreaded pine beetle, it's continuing to lay waste to millions of trees across the west. Surrounded by a tremendous fire hazard, as well as an overwhelming surplus of perfectly good wood, land owners and the local bureau of management are eager to get rid of Wibeck’s favorite building material. The board builder is now taking advantage of an excess in supply to create a demand for artistically rendered SUP boards.
SUP mag: What made you decide to start making surf and standup boards?
Witbeck: One of the main things about the boards is their footprint, comparatively anyway. Obviously we know what foam boards are made with and for me, ever since my daughter was born I’ve been kind of against plastic and it’s effect on the ocean. I thought, ‘how can I preach this and then ride these boards at the same time we were building them?' So, I went through the process to try to eliminate whatever and wherever that impacts the environment.
All of our wood comes right out of Colorado. I know the latitude and longitude of a lot of our wood. Basically, we’re utilizing an environmental issue that we’re having here in Colorado and across the west where both drought and forest fire suppression have given these beetles, which are native, this smorgasbord of trees to choose from.
The beetles are just like the wolves and the caribou. They go after diseased and sick trees. And there’s been a huge movement to remove a lot of beetle kill, whether it’s private land or BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land.
So we’re taking advantage of a local source for wood. Not only that, it has these incredible colors. The tree is infected with this fungus that the beetle carries. That’s what actually kills the tree. It puts this blue stain in the wood. We’re actually getting what is otherwise white pine with this incredible blue color through it, which is just phenomenal.
SUP mag: Tell me about your production process.
Witbeck: The other thing that we do, which is really big in my mind, is the adhesive that we use is a plant-based adhesive. It’s a vegetable epoxy, but you don’t want to butter your bread with it. The durability factor will go as long as we have trees.
SUP mag: How do your boards perform compared to those that might be made from lighter weight materials that are synthetic?
Witbeck: There are some differences between them to be sure. Our boards are heavier. Our 10’6″ SUP is in the range of four to six pounds heavier than a foam board. So weight-wise we are heavier and weight does affect certain types of surfing or paddling. Generally, a lot of what we deal with here is flat water. What I tell most people is the only time you’re going to notice the weight is when you take it off the car and carry it.
There are some subtleties though. One of the benefits that I’ve noticed is when you paddle, wood absorbs vibration much better than foam. It’s unbelievable. Paddling in chop is a much smoother ride. And it's a quieter. Also, paddling that little extra weight I actually enjoy because you carry your speed better between strokes, which I think is fantastic. I'm surprised you don't see more wood boards in the racing world. I understand light and fast and I guess maybe it's harder to carry your board's momentum when the load is a little bit heavier, but it does seem to hold your speed a little bit better.
Our goal is to not to replace foam boards. It's adding up to this movement toward a more sustainable industry. With that said, the industry is doing certain things. There are companies out there that are using greener foams than what they used to use. Are they green? No, they're greener. We're not solving the world's problem by making wood surfboards, but we are at least trying to push it in that direction.
SUP mag: Are you offering anything special with regard to shapes, hull design or different lengths?
Witbeck: Right now we're in the process of revamping the whole line. We've got the 7'6" Alaia— basically that's a finless board —shortboards and a 9' longboard. As far as standup boards, we have the 10'6" and the 11'6". The 10'6" is pretty solid, kind of a hybrid between a flatwater and an open ocean board. It has a fair amount of rocker on it and can still handle a fairly steep face, but at the same time, as far as flatwater boards, it's just got great stability. At 30 inches wide and 5 inches thick it's a nice, stable board. It's been a great river surfer too because the rails round-over continuously, all the way down the side, so it's very forgiving with those downstream currents that otherwise are pretty grabby on hard rails.
We'll be coming out with an expedition board, kind of a multi-day self-supported system for touring. I'd like to see that come out before the summer, but you know, I always seem to be a little ambitious on how much we can do in a single season.
SUP mag: What's your production capacity?
Witbeck: Right now our production is pretty time consuming. We're anywhere from 60 to 80 hours per board, which doesn't sound like a lot, but there are cure times that slow us down so we try to do more than one board at a time. Thirty boards a year is where we are right now. If we could get ourselves up to 60 or 80 boards, or more, it really depends on manpower. But some of the key components we're trying to get through Kickstarter with the CNC machine could reduce our production time by 50 percent, which could be huge! If we find the demand we could probably increase that.
SUP mag: Are the retailers you're working with carrying your boards that they buy from wholesale or are they working as brokers in their shops?
Witbeck: We’re just establishing ourselves with a couple of different retailers now. The way it’s structured, they would have a demo board available. It seems to be the trend that customers want to try the board that they’re going to buy, at least in the SUP world. And then they’ll have one on the floor sale. We can also take customer orders. And some dealers we work on a consignment type deal. They don’t own the board but we can talk about selling it to them at wholesale if they have a buyer for it.
SUP mag: What are your ambitions for Carve?
Witbeck: We definitely want to grow. To what scale, it’s kind of hard to say. We don’t have a reputation nationally at this point. We are so new that if you went to the East Coast, aside from South Carolina or states where people know us, no one is going to know who we are. I think ultimately I’d like to see our boards in a select few retailers in coastal communities. I’d like to see wood boards become mainstream and I’d like to be part of that of course. I want to get away from just being a custom board operation. And as far as what production level that we reach, I’m not sure that I have expectations of hard numbers—it’s more like this general movement within the industry where we see big guys like SurfTech responding to what we’re doing. When they roll out a hollow wooden board, it's like, 'Yeah!' They get where we're coming from.
SUP mag: Is it fair to say that you’re most interested in producing boards that you love?
Witbeck: Absolutely! I think even with the movement toward the CNC with custom boards, when you’re working with wood there’s only so much a machine can do before human hands and the shaper’s eye have to get involved. Even foam boards require that.
I swear it’s hard because they get prettier and nicer. It’s the wood—every board is completely unique. It’s so cool to watch each one come together and watch the grains interact and the combination of colors. Every one of our boards I love to death and the people who share that enthusiasm kind of creates this synergy and you have a friendship with the customers. You already have this common bond because we came together over a board and shared the same feeling. —As told to James Mills
For more info, visit: CarveSurfboards.com