Designer: Martin Weiß
Label: BACKWOOD -sustainable-social-sports-supply
Field: Product design, skilled crafts
Location: Aachen, Germany
Martin is actually an architect. It was by chance that in 2009 he had the opportunity to make his first surfboards out of wood in an occupational therapy workshop. At the time, it was just a work project, and since 2013 he has been working in a cooperative workshop in Aachen. During the day he usually takes care of his children, which is why you can often find him in the workshop in the evenings. For the future, he hopes that he can have a mobile workshop he can take on the road or an exhibition space that is directly connected to his workshop. Then his workplace would look more like a surfer lounge. The quality of his work lies in the planning, in the CAD sketches and designs, which is the academic part of the developing process that is closer to the field of architecture. In contrast, he is also interested in the practical aspect of actually building the objects.
ökoRAUSCH: Why surfboards?
Martin: I myself love surfing. For me, riding the waves is about the feeling of being alive, passion and it has dictated my life for decades. Being one with nature and feeling the energy of the sun are very special things. At some point I thought that it would be cheaper to make my own board than to buy one. Which of course was nonsense for the first boards.
How do you connect surfing with sustainability?
In 2005 there was a big debate about Clark Foam, which was the leading producer of blank surfboards. They had to shut down because they couldn’t fulfil environmental requirements. That was a shock. What does it take to get a company shut down for that in the USA? After that, people started questioning whether or not it was reasonable to use such an environmentally unfriendly surfboard while enjoying the feeling of becoming one with nature.
When I go on a surfing vacation, I live very close to nature. At some point I asked myself how I could have something under my feet that couldn’t be recycled and that was very toxic in its production. That’s why I started looking for an alternative to plastic for my label and decided on wood. Surfboards used to be made out of wood and the hollow constructions I use for my boards has been around since the 1920s. Using plastic is often a lot faster and cheaper to use and eventually it drove wooden boards off the market. It is interesting to see that wooden boards are becoming competitive on the market again.
Sustainability has also arrived in other areas of surfing. There are a few organisations dedicated to environmental issues, for example the “Surf Riders Foundation” and “Surfers against Sewage”. You can only surf if you have good waves and climate change is ruining good surfing conditions. That’s why the environment and sustainability are obvious issues for surfers to be interested in. But there is still the issue of how you get to the waves. For example, some people just fly to Bali or Indonesia to surf for three weeks. The surfing tourism in Indonesia is also not sustainable for the people there. Or if you look at the surfing industry, for example the clothing companies that all have their clothing production in Asia. Some bigger labels have started to become interested in sustainability. Patagonia and Finnisterre from England have company concepts that you can identify with. Finnisterre, for example, publishes all of the information about the production process and integrates sustainable aspects into its production.
With my company, I want to help raise awareness about these issues, starting with wooden boards. I see myself as an ambassador to inform people about sustainability. And on top of that, the boards are just beautiful. I was one of the first producers of wooden boards in Europe. Now there are a few more producers on the market, which shows that the product is zeitgeisty.
What is the relation of costs to the lifespan of the product?
The production costs for one surfboard are very high. You can get a PU/Polyester board made in Asia for 200€ at a trade fair. As soon as the board has been signed by a famous shaper, you can be looking at around 1,000€. The market share of such boards is still very high. According to the magazine Surfers, these boards have a lifespan of about one year.
And the carbon footprint of the alternative made out of EPS/Epoxy might be higher, but its lifespan of five years is decidedly better. Epoxy resin is expensive and requires more work in the production process, which is why its market shares are rather small.
Recently, companies have started using wood as the sandwich-material whereby the board is comprised of a foam core with a wood veneer. This type of production, just like mine, has a very positive influence on the dynamics. The boards don’t break any more, you’re more likely to put a gash in it, which you can get fixed. Wooden boards are the most sustainable alternative but they aren’t mainstream yet. If you treat your board well, it can last a lifetime. Because the production is so much more time-consuming, they are a bit more expensive, prices start at around 700€.
How do you build your boards?
I build surfboards using hollow construction and they are completely made of wood. The frame gives it its shape and it is planked with 6 millimetres of solid wood. In order to get the best weight-durability ratio, I decided to laminate the boards with epoxy resin. I use the most sustainable resin on the market, it’s made mostly from recycled material. I would prefer to completely do without it, though. There is one producer who makes 100% wooden boards, he just oils them. But the lifespan of the product is drastically shortened because the user has to take care of the board very well, which is not usually the case. For me, laminating the board and ensuring a longer product lifespan is the best alternative. Four years ago I started using the epoxy resin “Supersep” by Andrew P. Risans made from recycled material. It’s still not a green product, that’s not yet possible. I try to continually make my production and materials more sustainable. There are always new products going on the market that I try out. In the case of resin, it’s often recycled products.
The choice of wood is an important factor. Because of its properties, I really like working with cedar. It’s beautiful but unfortunately it only grows in North America. I usually work with paulownia, which is light weight, easy to work with and grows in most climate zones, you can even find it in Germany now. It’s an ornamental tree and grows in parks. In some cities, including Bonn, there are large trial plantations because the tree is also interesting for the paper industry. It grows very quickly and can be logged after only nine to twelve years. So within the next few years I will be able to get my wood from Bonn. The wood used for surfboard production has to have certain properties to be used. For example, cottonwood cannot be used because it is susceptible to fungal attack and it isn’t very stable.
Is your work sustainable?
My work is divided into board building and giving workshops. I don’t only build surfboards, but also snowboards, kite-boards, stand-up-paddels and longboards. Germany isn’t really the land of the surfers. With a full-time job, I can produce 10 boards a month max. But then I’m really pushing it. I spend a lot of time putting on workshops where people build their own boards, which has also been the start of some friendships, I have even gone on vacation with former customers and I keep in touch with old customers. It’s always great if I can go out for a beer with some of them when I’m in Hamburg. That’s what keeps me going, even if I work too much sometimes.
I use my own surfing vacations for customer acquisition, which is the sustainable aspect because the critical part of surfing is the path to surfing. That’s when it makes sense to look for the next customers. They later buy a board that they saw me using. Most of the feedback comes from the product itself. People write to me because they meet my customers on vacation and love the story of the self-made board. Additionally, I want to find a way for more people to see my boards. Right now I am producing boards that I want to put up in the store so that I can sell them to people without making them wait.
At an early age I made it a goal to have made the world a little bit better during my lifetime. I don’t need to own a bunch of stuff and have a big career if I can say: I did something meaningful. And it’s great that my customers feel the same way.
This interview was conducted by Anika Paape and Christina Schütz, who were accompanied by photographer Frau Babic.