06 December 2005

This Ain't Good

Clark Foam closes its doors

by Marcus Sanders

Monday December 5th, 2005 was a dark day at shaping bays and in surf shops around the country. Orange County-based Clark Foam -- far and away the world's largest supplier of surfboard blanks -- shut its doors after over 45 years in business due to a series of ongoing environmental and safety concerns.

The main issue, as outlined by Gordon 'Grubby' Clark in a seven-page fax that was circulated among shapers today, is a toxic chemical in use at Clark Foam called Toluene Di Isocynate, commonly called TDI. Most companies using this chemical have already left California; in 1999, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) implemented a slightly weaker version of California's existing anti-TDI law, while California itself instituted stronger laws. The Orange County Fire Authority repeatedly reported Clark Foam to other government agencies, including the 9th district of the EPA, who gave the blank manufacturer a 10-page citation that is still unresolved. "The seriousness of the citation could mean that I have to go to prison and be fined an astronomical amount of money," Clark writes in the fax.

Other issues contributing to the closure were, according to the fax, polyester resin, dust, trash, and the fact that almost all the technology inside the factory was designed and/or built by Clark specifically for making surfboard blanks. And due to the fact that all Clark's equipment is original, the EPA claims is does not meet industry standards.

"The only apology I will make to customers and employees is that I should have seen this coming many years sooner and closed in a slower, more predictable manner" Clark writes. "I waited far too long, being optimistic rather than realistic."

The fax is slightly cryptic, because, as Clark writes, "I have been advised by my attorney to say as little as possible. I do not want this document to be used as an admission of wrongdoing nor am I going to help the government prosecute me." But while its explanations were less that clear, its effects were immediately felt around the world.

San Diego-based boardmaker Rusty Preisendorfer received his regular shipment of blanks at noon today, and the fax came through at 2pm. "It was a really heavy afternoon," Rusty said. "And it was really sudden -- I wish he'd have given us a little warning. I have a whole warehouse of employees to think about, not to mention everyone else in the industry."

And it's not just a few SoCal surf companies or shapers that'll be affected, either -- anyone that buys surfboards will be hit. It's estimated that 90% of the world's blanks came from Clark Foam. Grubby developed, designed and built all his own technology and guarded it ferociously and his well-known aggressive business practices and unending pursuit of innovation assured him the lion's share of the market. Sure, there are other blank manufactures in Australia and a few here in the US, but no one is prepared to deal with the huge gap left by Clark Foam's closure. Surfboard prices will go up overnight and shapers still aren't quite sure what will happen next.

Ryan Sakal, of Sakal Surfboards in Huntington Beach is concerned. "I've never used anything other than Clark Foam," he says. "I don't have any backup or any contacts on how to get anything else."

Some folks think Clark Foam's closure is the beginning of the end. "The culture around the custom shaper is getting smaller," Allan Seymour, longtime industry observer, surf auction organizer and friend of Clark's explained. "This is definitely the end of an era."

"In the short term, it's a really big challenge," Rusty continued. "But I'm sure we'll find other sources of foam."

Other big name shapers are reeling but optimistic as well. Rich Harbour of Harbour surfboards posted the following on his website: "I have been on the phone non-stop for the past 6 hours. I have talked to many old friends in the industry and we all are confident that this billion-dollar industry will survive. There are many options, such as Australian foam, overseas foam and PVC foam. Over the next few days we will look into all of these and come up with some solutions. We have a stock of blanks on hand, but customers will have to be a little more flexible on their choices. In closing, Harbour Surfboards has been at this since 1959 and have no thoughts of quitting. There will be a solution, and we will find it."

Gordon Clark himself sees an end of an era. "When Clark Foam started it was a far different California," he writes. "Businesses like Clark Foam were very welcome and considered the leading edge of innovation and technology. Somewhere along the way, things have changed."

Stay tuned to Surfline as this story unfolds.


At 12/7/05, 8:05 AM, Blogger LBF (Left-Brain Female) said...

Glad to see someone else talking about this! See my thoughts at my blog here:

At 12/7/05, 3:48 PM, Anonymous Jason said...

Good thing you're well-stocked with boards!

I think the longboard shapers will be the hardest hit.

At 12/7/05, 4:21 PM, Blogger gracefullee said...

I'm glad I'm not looking at buying a board any time soon, but it looks like the boards I love tend to use the denser Walker blanks anyway. I do feel awful for the independent shapers who relied on Clark.


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