All hail the surfboard, AKA the coolest wave riding toy in the Universe. To many ocean-loving water pagans, a surfboard is the ultimate conduit of good times and fun. Surfing gives us unforgettable memories and amazing experiences that give meaning to the saying, “only a surfer knows the feeling.”
At the dawn of surfing, there weren’t a lot of options in the surfboard department. It was either a huge tall heavy piece of wood or a different species of tree for that huge tall heavy piece of wood. Well hallelujah for technology because nowadays surfboards come in all shapes, sizes, and materials.
Modern surfboards have been influenced by nearly a century of surfboard design and we now have dozens of different shapes, styles, and categories. We could write a book on surfboard shapes but for now, we’ve put together a somewhat comprehensive yet abbreviated guide to surfboard shapes.
From the longboard to fish to the bonzer and everything in between, here’s a little slice of surfboard history and the lowdown on different surfboard shapes.
THE SURFBOARD – A BRIEF HISTORY
The first surfboard documented in history was in ancient Hawaii by English explorer Captain James Cook. According to journal entries dating back to 1778, Captain Cook witnessed the Polynesians riding large wooden planks on the faces of waves.
These wooden surfboards were 12-25 feet long, finless, and carved from single log Koa trees and other types of wood. Depending on the length of the plank, a surfboard in this era could easily weigh 150-200 pounds. Imagine lugging that log to the beach!
Through the 1800s and early 1900s, traditional solid wood surfboards were the only boards that existed. Surfing wasn’t even introduced to California until 1885 when a few Hawaiian royals surfed Santa Cruz for the first time. Surfing didn’t catch on in Cali until the early 1900s.
Tom Blake, an American athlete, author, and inventor created the first hollow wooden surfboard in 1926. In an effort to make surfboards lighter and more manageable, Tom drilled hundreds of small holes into a 15 feet long, 19 inches wide, and 4 inches thick solid wood surfboard. He finished the board by covering it with an outer layer of two super thin pieces of wood to keep water out of the holes.
By 1930, the hollow surfboard started to get quite popular and became the first surfboard ever to be mass-produced. At this time, surfboards were still very long commonly in the 10-15 foot range. In the mid-1930s, Tom was also credited with inventing the first surfboard fin (aka, “skeg”).
On the mainland (California and beyond), back in the early surfboard shaping days, boards were mostly made out of redwood. Redwood is strong and durable and made for a great material, but it is also very heavy. So in the 1930s, board makers started to integrate the use of balsa wood (which was much lighter) for the core. Since the materials were difficult to import from South America and redwood is much more durable than balsa, redwood remained the wood of choice for the outer shell.
During this period, surfboards got significantly lighter going from about 80-100 pounds down to 40-50 pounds which made them easier to control and drastically changed the landscape for what can be done on a wave.
In the 1940s various surfboard shapers were experimenting with different materials and combinations of fiberglass and wood, and entirely wooden surfboards started to phase out. By the 50s, wood boards were of the past and polyurethane (foam or PU) surfboards were the new norm and the wave of the future. This was another huge milestone for surfboards getting lighter.
Fast forward until today, and modern surfboards are a fraction of weight and come in all types of shapes, sizes, and materials. While polyurethane and epoxy surfboards are the norms, wooden surfboards are coming back and all sorts of alternative materials are being used to make surfboards.
Surfboard design is a fascinating art, and it’s a downright blast to experiment with riding different types of boards. With more surfboard shapes, creativity, and new technology than ever before, it’s an awesome time to be a surfer.
THE LONGBOARD SURFBOARD
Longboards typically run from about 9 to 12 feet in length with a width of around 20 to 24 inches. One of the most prominent characteristics of the longboard is its full and round nose. These long and wide surfboards make for easy paddling and are the board of choice when it comes to learning how to surf.
Although basic longboards make for great beginner surfboards, they have a cult following of intermediate to pro level surfers who would prefer surfing a longboard over a shortboard any day of the week.
Longboards come in a variety of designs from more performance shapes that cater to maneuverability and versatility to specialty boards like noseriders that cater to, you guessed it, noseriding. Longboards are also commonly referred to as a ‘log’ or ‘malibu’ surfboard.
MINI LONGBOARD OR MINI MAL SURFBOARD
Mini mal is short for mini-malibu, and a ‘malibu’ is the name used to describe a certain type of classic California point break type longboard. So mini mal is the same thing as a mini longboard. Mini longboards have all the same characteristics as their larger counterparts but are scaled down to roughly the 7’0” to 8’10” range.
A mini mal is an awesome surfboard to have in your quiver because they bridge the gap between a longboard and a shortboard. They paddle great and are very versatile surfboards. Depending on your skills you can still walk the board, play around with cheater fives and nose-rides, and turn the surfboard a lot easier than your typical longboard.
SHORTBOARD SURFBOARD AKA ‘THRUSTER’
The shortboard surfboard is the most common board you’ll see around the world today. Shortboards typically range from about 5’5” to 6’5” in length and 17” to 19” in width (depending on the surfer’s height) and have a pointy nose and somewhat narrow tail.
Shortboards are the surfboards of choice for aggressive, high-performance style surfing, so they are best suited for the advanced surfer and are what the pros and competitive surfers ride in high-performance surf contests. You can push shortboards the hardest and surf them in the most critical of waves. Your typical performance shortboard is not a good option for learning how to surf or for surfing in small, mushy, or average conditions.
While the term ‘thruster’ is specifically reserved for a shortboard surfboard with 3 fins (2 side fins and a center fin), many shortboards these days come with 5-fin boxes which give you the option to set up your surfboard as a thruster (with 3 fins) or a quad (with 4 fins). Check out our Shortboard Buyer’s Guide for an in-depth look at shortboard design and some of the best-selling shortboards on the market.
GROVELER OR SMALL WAVE SURFBOARD
A groveler surfboard is a smaller, wider, thicker, flatter, and fuller shortboard template. Grovelers are essentially shortboards that are specifically built to perform in small to average surf.
Grovelers come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes–from designs that might be hard to tell the difference from an ordinary shortboard, to full on fat, round, and stumpy looking things that will have you wondering how to describe it.
A hybrid surfboard is a blend of two or more different types of surfboards. So a hybrid can also be used to describe a groveler or a funboard.
A very common and clear example of this is if you were to blend a fish with your typical performance shortboard. What would you come out with? A pretty cool groveler like the Superbrand Tazer shown above. So there’s definitely a lot of overlap in the hybrid category.
STEP UP / SEMI-GUN SURFBOARD
When the waves are too big for the ordinary surfer on an ordinary shortboard, that’s when step up surfboards come in handy. A step up is a stretched out version of a shortboard made for bigger waves, like a groveler is a fatter condensed version of a shortboard made for smaller waves.
Step ups often start around 6’6” and can go up to 8’ or so. But on the note of board length, it very much depends on the surfer’s height. For example, if a surfer is 5’8” tall, then a step up surfboard to that surfer would likely be around 6’2” to 6’4” whereas that same surfboard size could easily qualify as a shortboard for someone who is 6’2” tall.
However, step ups often have some defining characteristics such as more narrow outlines and pulled in tails so they can handle more critical drops and steeper faces of waves. The extra length in a step up surfboard makes it easier for a surfer to catch a larger wave that is moving at a faster velocity.
If you’re used to riding smaller surfboards you might think you’ll have a hard time turning a 6’10” or 7’ step up. But once you get a board that size on bigger waves, they turn just as easy as a smaller board in normal waves.
Fish surfboards are all about speed, style, and flow, and can be a super fun everyday surfboard for many surfers. They are extremely versatile and can be used in anything from knee high mush to hollow overhead barrels. Fish surfboards are defined by their short wide outlines, flat rocker, and fishy swallow tail shapes.
Your typical fish surfboard ranges from about 5’2” to 6’2” in length and 19” to 23” in width, however, there are now plenty of super fish and mega fish shapes easily going into the 7’, 8’, and 9’+ range. Many of these larger fish shapes can also be considered funboards and hybrids. Fish most commonly come in quad fin or twin fin set ups.
The funboard category of surfboards is very broad and can include a variety of other shapes and categories such as mini longboards or mini mals, oversized fish surfboards, egg shape surfboards, perhaps some mid-lengths, and hybrids.
But for the sake of giving the funboard a basic description, when most people refer to the category, they are talking about a board that is roughly in the 7’ to 8’ range with a wider outline, plenty of volume (buoyancy), and something that is super user-friendly.
A mid-length surfboard will typically run in the 6’8” to 8’8” range, plus or minus a few inches. Mid-lengths often come in the shape of an egg, a mini longboard, and various 70s inspired retro shapes, making it easy for them to overlap with some of the other categories already mentioned like funboards and mini-mals. It just depends who you’re talking to. Mid-lengths are typically great boards for a wide variety of conditions from knee high mush to good overhead surf.
The fin set up is one key characteristic of the mid-length surfboard. Mid-length surfboards typically come as a single fin or 2+1 (single fin with 2 side bites), as opposed to a standard tri-fin or quad set up found on many funboards.
Another distinctive quality of modern-day mid-lengths are the bottom contours and rails on the surfboard, but let’s save those details for another article because it’s a lot to cover.
MINI SIMMONS SURFBOARD
A mini simmons more or less looks like a longboard cut in half. With a short and wide outline and a full longboard shaped nose, the mini simmons surfboard is an unmistakable surfboard shape. They usually run from about 4’10” to 5’10” in length and 21” to 23” in width, with a length of 5’2” to 5’6” being the sweet spot for most surfers.
The ‘planing hull’ or mini simmons surfboard is an engineering masterpiece invented by Bob Simmons (aka the father of the modern surfboard) in the 1940s. It is insanely fast down the line and flies through flat sections with ease making it a great option on mushy days, although it can hold its own in hollow surf too. It has a loose feel and often comes as twin fin or quad for added control and maneuverability.
The bonzer surfboard is more of a specific fin set up than a certain surfboard outline. You can get grovelers, retro shapes, midlength boards, and more as a bonzer. The 3- and 5- fin setups have a single larger center fin with smaller more shallow glassed in side fins positioned at specific angles to harness the energy of the water flow as it passes under the board.
This unique fin system delivers continuous speed and momentum through maneuvers like cutbacks and bottom turns to provide excellent rail to rail transitions. Bonzer’s have a lot of history in which The Campbell brothers played a large role. You can read more about it here.
Designed for surfing extra large waves, a gun is a special type of surfboard. We’re talking waves of serious consequence that are double to quadruple overhead on up. Guns are often custom ordered with the rider and region, type of wave, or specific break in mind. The size of a gun surfboard can vary drastically from about 6’6” to 11’ in length and 18” to 22” inches wide.
Guns are generally long, pointy, thick, and narrow. The gun will have a lot more rocker or flip in the nose of the surfboard to help the surfer make more critical, steep, and late drops. The added length and thickness of guns give surfers the ability to gain more momentum when paddling into large waves, since they need to match the speed of the wave in order to have a chance at catching it.
FOAM OR SOFT TOP SURFBOARD
Foam surfboards (commonly referred to as ‘foamies’) come in all shapes and sizes. You can find soft top fish, funboards, longboards, hybrids and more. Good luck finding a gun, although I’ve heard that Wave Storms go great as a step up in double overhead Pipeline. Just ask J.O.B. (In case you don’t know I’m kidding… I’m kidding. Don’t try that).
Foam longboards are really the perfect beginner surfboards because they’re super user-friendly. They catch waves easily, are very stable, and they won’t bang you up so much while you’re learning the ropes.
However, foamies are also just super fun surfboards for surfers of any level. More advanced surfers will have a blast messing around in dumpy beach break barrels and all sorts of conditions. Check out our Soft Top Surfboard Guide for some of the best foam boards on the market.
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