The oldest surfboards date to the 6th century, when early Hawaiians practiced he’e nalu, what we call surfing today. Common-folk islanders rode the waves on 10- to 12-foot wooden alaia boards made from native koa trees. Chiefs surfed on olos, which could be as long as 24 feet and as heavy as 200 pounds. Captain Cook’s diaries from 1777 describe Hawaiians surfing, but missionaries in the 1800s frowned on the activity—by the end of the 19th century, surfing had been all but wiped out.
One of the first people in the 20th century to revive the sport was a Hawaiian named George Freeth, who, in 1907, cut his heavy, traditional, 16-foot board in half. The resulting shorter board sparked renewed interest in surfing. The sport got an even bigger boost when in the 1910s and 1920s, Hawaiian-born Olympic gold and silver swimming medalist Duke Kahanamoku made surfing demonstrations a part of his swimming exhibitions on the mainland.
In 1929, a fellow swimmer living in Santa Monica named Tom Blake made the first hollow-body wood surfboard, based on templates he had created in 1926 after restoring a number of ancient boards for the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. Blake’s surfboard, which was constructed like an airplane wing and nicknamed the "cigar box," weighed half as much as a solid-wood board, thus opening the sport to many more people when these new boards were mass-produced—a first for surfboards.
Blake was also the first person to put a fin on a surfboard, but his shape was still very old-school. Los Angeles native Bob Simmons changed all that in the 1940s by experimenting with a board’s rocker, which is the amount of curve a board has from nose to tail. The Simmons Spoon, as one of these boards was called, curved up at the nose, but its most radical difference was its material—balsa wood.
Lightweight, South America balsa wood had been around the surf scene since the early 1930s, and Simmons was not the first to use it. But he was the first to combine it with other lightweight materials—in particular, styrofoam and fiberglass. By 1949, Simmons had produced a board with a Styrofoam core, balsa rails (the edges of a surfboard), and a plywood top and bottom, all encased in fiberglass. The boards were light and fast, and the era of modern surfboards and surfing was born.
One of the people who helped Simmons was a surfer named Joe Quigg, who, along with Matt Kivlin, created the Malibu, a surfboard that was popular throughout the 1950s. Dave Sweet was another builder in the postwar period: he built his first board in 1946 and opened Dave Sweet Surfboards in Santa Monica in 1956.
The 1950s were also the decade that Gordie Duane launched Gordie Surfboards. His vintage surfboards from the 1960s include the Mark V, Lizard, and Assassin. Hermosa Beach got Bing Surfboards in 1959, and by 1961, San Diego became the home of Gordon & Smith, whose team members included Skip Frye and Mike Hynson, one of the surfers in the seminal 1966 surf film The Endless Summer...
Of course, no mention of surfing in the 1950s would be complete without paying homage to surfer and shaper Hobart Alter, who opened Hobie Surfboards in Dana Point in 1954. Like his contemporaries, Alter began making boards out of balsa, but by 1958, he was firmly in the thrall of foam and fiberglass. Surfboards had never been lighter, more responsive, or more a part of the popular culture.
The 1960s were an incredible decade for surfboards and, consequently, for vintage surfboard collectors. Weber Surfboards of Venice Beach opened in 1960. Its Performer model from the mid-1960s is perhaps the best selling surfboard of all time. Surfer Greg Noll, who opened his Hermosa Beach shop in the late 1950s and was famous for surfing impossible locations like Oahu’s feared Banzai Pipeline, made big boards called guns—his Da Bull and Da Cat boards from the 1960s are highly prized today.
But not all vintage boards were longboards designed to navigate enormous Hawaiian waves. Hawaii-based surfer and shaper Dick Brewer is generally credited with fashioning the shorter boards that would take the surfing world by a storm in the 1970s. After bailing on partnerships with John Price of Surfboards Hawaii, followed by an acrimonious split with Hobie, Brewer moved to Maui in 1967 and founded Lahaina Surfing Design (it is assumed that the company’s initials were not an accident).
There, Brewer devised lighter, shorter (under seven feet) boards—some were dubbed "mini-guns"—with teardrop outlines and narrow pintails. Some of these boards would get two or even three fins at their tails, others featured subtle V-indentations in their otherwise flat bottoms. Brewer’s short boards were fast, they were maneuverable (a skilled surfer could ride one in the pocket of a wave), and they anticipated the current crop of short surfboards that dominate the market today.