Sustainable Surfing: SF’s Hess Surfboards Builds Better, Cleaner Boards


Danny Hess’ studio is painted blue to offer a uniform background, against which he can see the silhouette of the board taking shape.

For nearly a decade, Danny Hess has been on a quest to build a sustainable hollow wooden surfboard. It’s not an easy task to create a wooden board that’s as lightweight, responsive and watertight as its conventional fiberglass-and-foam counterpart, but Hess’ trial-and-error method has paid off. “I’m an endless tinkerer and I’ve basically tweaked out in my shop for many years, obsessing about building a better surfboard,” says the Sunset District–based Hess, who estimates he spent 140 hours building his first board in 2000. “I rode that board for a couple years and during that time I probably built 50 or 60 of them as I refined the process.”

Riding his homemade boards at nearby Ocean Beach, Hess generated enough interest to start taking orders for custom boards. While working as a contractor and custom furniture designer, he built boards on the side. Hess’ proprietary design and technology evolved over the years as he and his surfer friends tested out each prototype on various waves. In 2005, with more surfboard orders than contracting bids, he decided to make Hess Surfboards his full-time gig. “First I was using a studio I had in the East Bay, but it seemed wrong to have to drive inland to build a surfboard,” says Hess. “So I moved into a shed for a while and then into my basement.”

Today, Hess’ studio is on the mezzanine of a Noriega Street storefront space he shares with three other craftsmen. His shaping room is painted blue—a water-hued background wall is an industry standard—with a pegboard wall filled with tools and lights that illuminate the board from all angles. From here, he constructs and shapes about 12 to 16 high-performance boards per month, named either for loved ones or his neighborhood streets: The Lola (in honor of his dog), Kunkel Fish (after his wife, photographer Erin Kunkel), Moraga, Noriega. Starting with a perimeter frame that defines the size, shape and curvature of the board, Hess then creates an internal structure from wooden framing, filled in with 80-percent-recycled-content EPS foam. After contouring this assemblage by hand, Hess vacuum-molds two thin wooden skins—usually poplar or Douglas fir—onto either side. At this point, the perimeter frame is shaped with a router to determine the thickness and profile of the rails (edges of the board).

Hess’ driving force has always been to build a better, cleaner, longer-lasting board. Although he currently sends his boards out to be “glassed” with a minimal layer of fiberglass bonded with epoxy resin, the goal is to move toward healthier materials that don’t contain any petrochemicals. He sometimes uses a bio-epoxy made with refined tree sap and he offers a line of boogie boards molded from offcuts of solid poplar and finished with a mixture of linseed and tung oils. “The ultimate goal is to build a hollow, wood-shelled board with only a linseed oil seal, but the engineering and technology is a bit tricky,” says Hess, who studied sustainable design at the San Francisco Institute of Architecture. “I’ve made a couple of these that I ride myself but there’s not a huge market for them just yet.” It may only be a matter of time; sustainable surfboards have been a hot topic since 2005, when the EPA forced the closure of Orange County–based Clark Foam, the manufacturer of 90 percent of all polystyrene surfboard blanks (the core material of almost every board made since the 1950s) in the US.

Apart from the toxic impact of foam, Hess has another issue with foam surfboard blanks. “Foam is inert, it’s basically a floppy noodle without the shell,” he explains. “But wood has a memory—it wants to spring back. By understanding intimately the types of wood I’m using and how they move, I can specify where and how much I want the board to flex.” He explains how a big-wave board, called a “gun,” needs to be stiffer than a board designed to turn and maneuver through smaller waves, and it’s clear that Hess also intimately understands the needs of a surfer. Having grown up surfing, bodysurfing and lifeguarding at Point Mugu naval base near Ventura, he’s been riding waves his whole life. “The feedback I get when someone demos a board is invaluable,” he says. “But I also trust my own instincts. I love to surf, so I get a lot of testing time in the water.”

Simply by sticking to his long-time motto, “to build a better board,” Hess has developed a name for himself—both in and out of the insular surf world—as a shaper with skill and integrity. He’s been celebrated in print, video and a spot in the 2008 Pasadena Museum’s California Design Biennial. He’s collaborated with artists, pro surfers and an expert shaper; his boards are distributed by Mollusk Surf Shop and Patagonia, but success hasn’t changed the vibe of his business. Instead, surfers file into the gallery at the front of his studio, fondling the demo boards and hollering up to him, asking to take one out. He discusses their skill levels and preferences and makes recommendations. He crafts every board by hand to the specifications of each client, which means the price tag is high and the wait is long. But the surfers don’t seem to mind—he’s currently got a six-month backorder.

Joseph Caccamo, a San Francisco surfer of 15 years, waited five months to pick up his poplar 7′ 4″ Moraga. “When I took it out for an inaugural session, the board was everything I’d hoped for—responsive, easy to paddle, fast down the line, but most of all, it was gorgeous,” says Caccamo. “It might be three times as expensive as a typical board, but the craftsmanship is spectacular and it’s sustainable; I justify the expense by knowing I supported an artist.”

Hess Surfboards, 3725 Noriega St., SF, 415-867-3214,

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