The world of surfboard fins is a big place. I kind of stumbled across it like you stumble across a dinosaur that has been sleeping on your doorstep. What I am trying to say is that now I think about it, it has been staring me in the face all along and I never even noticed. I kind of feel stupid. At the same time, this world of surfing that we live in is little explained, I think, to the end user. The surfer.
We (as surfers) quest to find a truth, but what contact to do we have apart from the surf shops, most of which have been told to tell you the same industry hype. The commercial surf mags all just want to sell you stuff and their reviews are just what they are told to say. It’s a consumers world out there. Buy. More. New.
I have often wondered how it can be that main brand fins can be so expensive to buy in your local surf shop, or even online. I have written stuff about having to pay more to keep Fanning in cigars or Knosty in guitar strings and won’t harp on about that any longer. What I also found out was that making fins is a messy, time consuming and not too pleasant job, and that the best in the game are some guys who still believe in doing things the proper way, by hand.
Among those who know, and those who stock them, Alkali fins are the at top of the game, hand made and hand foiled the way it should be. We wanted to find out more and contacted Nathan who is the chief at Alkali to ask him some questions.
SB: Hey Nathan, thanks for sparing the time for us. Where are you guys based and how did Alkali come into being?
Nathan: We have a factory in Ballina, which is 20 minutes south of Byron Bay on the North Coast of New South Wales.
Alkali was formed by myself and good friend Craig. My stepfather Phil had been making fins since we were young, originally from the garage of our house, which was the birth of Phil's original brand Fluid Foils. Phil made great handmade fins for 20 years under the Fluid Foils brand before getting kinda screwed on a deal from FCS and letting the name go. Craig and I saw a real resurgence in the appreciation of quality surfboards made by humans and we knew that applied to fins too. We approached Phil to use his great skills with fin foiling, moved into the old Fluid Foils factory and got to work.
SB: Why is having a hand made and foiled fin so much better than a machined fin?
Nathan: The traditional method of laying up a fin panel, cutting the template and foiling the fin is still the best way to get a great flex and response in a fin, which in turn performs better. It's possible to customise flex patterns depending on the size of the surfer or how they like to surf. Some bigger guys like less flex in the tip as they have the power to drive through turns, where as a smaller person may need a little more flex to get that springy feeling out of turns.
The problem with molded fins and the ones you see with fancy honeycomb inside is that they only have a few layers of cloth on each side and are filled with resin. Resin by itself doesn't flex so it's just filler, The fins are stiff, but stiffness isn't flex, stiffness doesn't give back well through a turn. It's a real feeling you get from glass fins with correct foil that is hard to replicate. Also, most of the cnc foiled fins from China have terrible foils . You also have a stronger fin, you can re-sand and fix it easily if you hit a rock just give it a quick sand and you're away.
SB: I have heard it can be messy making fins, can you describe the process thoroughly?
Nathan: Anything to do with making surfboards is messy, stinky and dusty. Fins especially so.
We hand lay big fiberglass panels, which are laminated with resin. The panels are then cut into the shape of the fin, and then sanded (foiled) to create the shape and foil desired. It's a process that not many people in the world can do well anymore, a dying craft nearly. We are trying to resurrect that, getting guys training under Phil to learn the trade.
SB: I have noticed most of the top board shapers use your fins, what makes your fins better?
Nathan: We enjoy working with the shapers, they let us know what they like and we customise foils, colours and templates to suit their boards. In turn, they help us develop better fins with feedback and testing new stuff.
SB: What is the timescale between starting to make a fin and the end result?
Nathan: There is around 15 processes involved all up. One fin would amount to at least an hours work I would estimate.
SB: Do you have your own fin templates as well as using old classics, like the Greenough 4a etc?
Nathan: We have thousands of templates in our factory. The factory is over 25 years old and most good shapers from Australia and abroad have got fins from us or Phil in that time.We draw on templates that work and develop subtle changes that we think will help the fin perform better. Our version of the 4A is slightly different to what George has developed, but there has been no complaints so far. George got so many things right with fin design that it's hard not to draw off those as a base, and I don't thing George is seeing it as a bad thing, it's for the better of surfing.
We encourage surfers and shapers we know to come in work on new stuff, we make it and they can go ride it and work on it again. We have been doing this successfully with guys like Ellis Ericson, who has been playing with some great designs the last few years.
SB: How do you get rider feedback from you own tweeks you might put on a classic design?
Nathan: Getting good, open minded surfers to ride lots of waves on them, then letting us know if they suck or not.
SB: Where do you see the world of surfing going with the Olympics and wavepools?
Nathan: Don't really care, it's not really my version of surfing. I love watching surf comps in good waves, but surfing to me is cruising down to my local spots with friends and having fun.
SB: Great thanks to Nathan for his time and awesome knowledge of fins. It's integral that people with skills like Nathan pass them on by training up future generations less they be lost for good in the quagmire of automation.
Let me clear, there is nothing wrong with machined fins, its just they are not as good. I think we can appreciate the difference ourselves and machined are cheaper, a lot cheaper.
There is room in this world for both products, just as there is room for a Toyota Prius and a Ford Mustang. Different markets, not everyone can afford a hand made fins. It's all relevant, if you have just spent $1500-$2000 on a classic hand shaped surfboard then I would imagine you would be more open to the idea of chucking in an amazing handmade and foiled fin. Otherwise it like putting a pair of eco re-mould tyres on an Formula One (European Nascar) car.
Lets sweep this conversation into a tidy pile so its easy to understand. Both machined and handmade fins are good, it just depends what you can afford. We will be testing a whole bunch of fins together very soon including plastic fins made from recycled car engine plastics, hand made and foiled and cnc machined. Article coming soon so stay tuned.