As you may, or may not know, we at Surf Bunker have the reputation for being 'tighter than a duck's bottom', meaning we don't like to pay very much for things. Truly though , if something is produced with the same materials, production techniques and care to detail then why pay more than you should?
A while ago I wrote an article about how much it would cost to make your surfboard fins out of gold, silver or fiberglass and had a surprising result. The article was an attempt to either validate the prices of FCS fins or prove that you were mostly paying for Mick Fanning's cigars. During the research phase of this article I discovered how much of a messy, nasty and time consuming job making fins properly is. That's when I stumbled across Watermark Fins.
Oli, who is the founder, owner and general visionary behind Watermark fins has a very simple ethos. All of his products are 'priced with a surfer's budget in mind' and we love that. The 'duck's bottom tightness' makes Watermark a gravitational entity to us by putting price and quality up there together. So how can they do this? Is it because Mick's cigars have gotten expensive of late and Watermark don't have to worry about cigar prices?
Well we get a lot more than we bargained for when we contacted Oli for some words on everything fin.
SB: Hey Oli, thanks for you time. Are all the fins made in the US with your templates?
Oli: All of our fins are designed and extensively tested in California. The finalized designs are then sent to an extremely competent fiberglass composites company in Asia like most other fin companies to have the final design manufactured. We have been able to form a great relationship with this overseas company and have found their knowledge in composites to far surpass our expectations in the field of fiberglass composites and aerospace materials. As far as the design and fin templates go, we try not to go too far past the norm, but in saying that we continuously experiment with different foils and foil technology. Our main goal is to supply a fin set that is durable, well priced and performs as expected to enhance the ability of the surfer in the water. After all isn’t that what it’s all about?
SB: I have been doing a bit of research into what goes into making fins and it seems to be a not too pleasant process.
Oli: You are absolutely right in that area. Making fins in the past was not a happy experience for all concerned, especially for the sander / foiler. Hours and hours spent in the sanding room covered in fiberglass dust, not being able to see and coming out at the end of the day hoping that there was a wave so you could blast down to the surf and wash the dust away. Well lots has changed with the advent of new and exciting methods of manufacturing surfboard fins. In the early days, back in the late nineties, the generic plastic mass produced fin was introduced, which are super cheap to manufacture but are lacking in performance mainly due to their poor flex and weight characteristics. Since then most fin companies have moved on to more elaborate means of construction. The main construction method used in today’s construction is RTM (resin transfer molding). Basically the maker has a cavity mold the shape of the fin with one inlet for the resin and an exit hole for the resin to escape when full. This method is widely used by most companies however it has one drawback. That is you cannot overcome air entrapment in the composite and it is proven that the resin to fiberglass strength ratio is not optimal. Our fins are manufactured using a newer method which has been developed by our composite manufacturer and is widely used in the aerospace field. It uses a combination of vacuum and pressure to introduce the resin into the fin cavity and matrix ensuring almost complete air expulsion from the matrix when set.
We have found this method to be extremely strong while being able to control the flex characteristics in the composite material. Another important part of the equation is the quality of the materials used in the fin manufacturing process. Whilst most fin companies have their fins manufactured overseas and are quite well done there is a danger that some overseas manufacturers will opt to using cheaper local materials. We require proof of purchase for all of our materials that are used in manufacturing our fins from our manufacturer. Our fiberglass cloth is from France, our resin is from Japan and our lightweight core materials are from the Netherlands. I guess in summary, the fin manufacturing process has come a long way from the early days, and given the nature of each and every surfer out there that wants to perform at their very best and have the best available equipment, the search for more sophisticated manufacturing processes will only increase. I look forward to what the future holds in this field.
SB: What made you see the need of Watermark? Who had the idea?
Oli: Well I was sitting in a bar one night and the ice in my drink was melting. Every time I picked my glass up to take a drink I kept getting little drips come off the bottom of my glass. After finishing my drink I firmly placed it back on the bar top. Upon doing so I felt a strange sensation between my legs and looked down at my crotch where I noticed my it was soaking wet. I thought, shit I've pissed my pants, but then realized the watermark was from the drinking glass from which I was drinking. Then it hit me like a bolt of lightning, hey that’s a great name for a surf company and it just stuck.
No that's a joke mate. :)
Watermark came about from a surfboard addiction I deal with. I was buying boards like a crazy man for years, then I hurt my back and put on a bunch of weight and had to up my volume so I sold all my boards and had all this dough.
I decided to start a brand, make a few boards for me and my mates. I contacted a couple of solid local shapers and asked if they would help make my surfboard Ideas a reality. We made a couple and they were very well received.. We just wrote down names non stop for like a week until Watermark came up and sounded just right.
I got into the fin industry after having a terrible experience with a local fin supplier here in So Cal. Knowing I was being taken for a ride by these guys I started researching the industry to find out who’s leading the production in this field. This is how I was introduced to our current manufacturer. Watermark is brand created by surfers for surfers. Our goal is to offer great quality products at prices that everyone can afford. and be stoked on. Watermark is a labor of love, and becoming huge and rich is not the goal. Just being profitable and providing people with great boards and fins at prices they can afford without any stress. Our motto is “ priced with a surfer's budget in mind” and we are sticking to that.
SB: Your fins are priced very reasonably and the quality looks to be similar to leading brands. How do you do this?
Oli: You have to have a very close working relationship with your design team, surfers and also the composite company that manufactures the product. We have lower overheads and are not trying to rule the world and certainly not after every surfers money. It all comes down to management, a steady growth plan that's not greedy and a good eye for detail in respect to the product.
SB: You are doing FCS2.0 compatible fins I can see from your website?
Oli: At this point in time we have been testing some different variations to the already available FCS2 fins and whilst we think it is a great advancement to already available systems on the market, our design team and manufacturer have already developed a universal fin system, which once installed in a board, will allow the surfer to install any aftermarket fin, including the two most popular fins on the market today. T his I believe is the way to go in the future. Most surfers have always wondered over many years what his board would have performed like with another brand of fins in it, but they could only do this if they changed out the whole fin system to allow a different brand of fin to be used. With a universal fin system you could use any fin from any manufacturer in the same board, which would greatly improve the chances of the surfer finding exactly the right type of fin that suited best. Especially great for the pro surfer.
SB: Could you describe quickly the process of making fins from design to finished product? (Not many people know how much work goes into fins)
Oli: It all starts with the design of the fin. Most surfers like to use familiar templates that already exist on the market and are proven performers. At Watermark we don’t stray too far from the normal basic templates for this reason. However, we take most templates and modify them where we feel it can increase the performance aspect of the fin. Best example of this is the new inside foils we currently use, these foils are not your typical inside foil mainly because most surfers say that inside foil works good in small waves but not so good in bigger better surf.
For this reason we opted to use a more subtle foil arrangement which has a smaller inside concave and directs the water flow from the base towards the tip of the fin which creates direct drive off the tip of the fin.
This is all done on a 3D Cad program to ensure 100 % accuracy and then the part files are sent to our manufacturer. Our manufacturer then directly machines the cavities into solid billet aluminum mold bases. This process can then take up to two weeks to get exactly right. Once done, the mold is then inserted with all the injection lines and the vacuum lines necessary for molding. A pre-approval sample is then sent back to us and we evaluate if there needs to be any changes to the design. Once we decide, the design is manufactured according to the original specifications and we then place it in the hands of test pilots who then rigorously test the new design in the water. After full testing is done and we are happy with the performance we then move onto the area of fit and finish of the final product. We notify the manufacturer of any changes to the overall fit and finish at which time the manufacturer will make the necessary changes to the finished product and send our company another bunch of sample to re-evaluate.
The testing starts again until we are more than happy with the results. At this stage we the advise our manufacturer to construct several similar molds ready for production. The whole process to introduce a new design can take anywhere up to 2 months.
Then the fun begins i.e. retail appeal / overall look of the product and presentation.
SB: A Great thanks to Oli for the insight into the world of fins and for having such a responsible approach to doing business. Buying Watermark fins means more cigar money for you and the best thing is you don't substitute performance, looks or image.
We intend to get our hands on some Watermark fins for testing purposes and will right back at you with a head to head review completed by average surfers (if we can find any).