Surfboard Shapes 101 / The Ultimate Guide to Modern Surfboards

photo via Almond Surfboards

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.




surfboard ancient surfing
photo by A. R. Gurrey, National Geographic

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.

surfboard 1920s
Top: California Redwood surfboard from 1920. Bottom: a polystyrene core laminated surfboard with a mahogany veneer sealed with fiberglass and resin made by Bob Simmons in 1949 / photo via Surfing Heritage/TASCHEN

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.

surfboard 1960s
1960 Jersey Surf Club / photo by Roger Mansfield/Taschen

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.






surfboard longboard

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 surfboard 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.

surfboard longboard outline
Bing Lovebird by Chris Del Moro

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. Check out our roundup of longboard surfboards for some inspiration for your next log.




surfboard mini mal

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.

surfboard mini longboard
The Collector by Bing Surfboards

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.




surfboard shortboard

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.

surfboard thruster
Black and White Al Merrick Thruster by Channel Island Surfboards

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.




surfboard groveler
Hunter Lysaught on The Cloud Groveler by Degree 33 Surfboards

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.

surfboard best grovelers
Left: Pyzel Rat Skull | Middle: JS Psycho Nitro | Right: Lost Puddle Jumper HP

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.




surfboard hybrid
Hanalei Reponty with a Hayden Shapes Plunder / photo by Hayden Cox

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.

surfboard hybrid
Superbrand Tazer

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.




surfboard step up

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.

surfboard step up
FCD Surfboards KMRP® 2 step up

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.




surfboard fish
The Pescado by The Guild Surfboards

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.

surfboard fish outline
The wildly popular Go Fish by Firewire x Machado Surfboards

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.




surfboard funboard
A line up of Degree 33 funboards 

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.

surfboard funboard outline
The Hydro Hull by Stewart Surfboards

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.




surfboard midlength
A collection of stylish midlengths by Ryan Lovelace

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.

surfboard midlength
The Joy midlength by Almond Surfboards

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.




surfboard mini simmons
Tyler Warren on his Simmons-inspired Bar of Soap model

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.

surfboard mini simmons
The Puck by Bing Surfboards

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.




surfboard bonzer
A line up of some rad bonzer surfboards, courtesy of Campbell Brothers Surfboards

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.

surfboard bonzer
The Shelter bonzer 5 fin by The Campbell Brothers

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.




surfboard gun
Greg Long gearing up for Nazaré / photo via Chris Christenson Surfboards

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.

surfboard gun outline
Mako Class and Elephant Gun, both by Gerry Lopez

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.




surfboard foamy
Foamy Surfboards (use discount code ‘LUSH’ for 10% off!)

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.

surfboard soft top
The indisputable most popular soft top on the planet, The Wave Storm

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.


Want more surfboard goodness? (Of course you do!) Check out:

14 Surfboard Brands with Epic Style >>

Shortboard Buyer’s Guide / How to Find Your Next Magic Stick >>

Longboard Surfboard Roundup / 34 Badass Longboards for Your Quiver >>

The Best Beginner Surfboards >>

Soft Top Surfboard Guide >>



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Leave a Reply

This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. Rock

    I enjoyed your great description of boards for surfing styles .More information than a surf shop .

    1. Tara

      Thanks! Happy you found it helpful.

  2. par

    Great article! I have been riding a wave storm for a year now. I’m still not that great, since I wasn’t going often. When the waves are more than 3 or 4 feet and steep, I tend to nose dive and also unable to duck dive. I’m thinking of buying another board but undecided. I surf a few miles north of Santa Cruz in California. I’m 5.38 tall and 125 lbs, thank you!

    1. Tara

      Awesome, Par – happy you found it helpful. When you’re ready to level up from your Wave Storm, check out this guide to the Best Beginner Surfboards. This guide will give you more info on buying your next surfboard. Cheers!

  3. chris

    Hello, what do you think about electrical boards? Are you familiar with them, what do you think?

    1. Tara

      Hey Chris, happy you enjoyed the article! Electrical boards are obviously very different than normal surfboards, and I suppose it goes back to what kind of experience you’re looking for and why you’re considering an electrical board (whether you live inland or in an area without many waves, etc).
      I definitely wouldn’t recommend taking an electrical board into a lineup with other surfers. If you have an electrical board it would be best to keep your distance and find your own little peaks away from others. I’ve ridden an electrical board a couple of times in flat conditions and they are fun, but they are a completely different experience than normal surfing. I would liken them to like a motorized stand-up paddleboard, as you’re typically standing most of the time.
      I have a friend who bought a really expensive motorized surfboard and it broke down ALL THE TIME and the company was very far away so it was pain to try to get it fixed, etc. Also, it broke down one time when he was far out in the ocean and literally started sinking! He was lucky that some nearby people helped him out, but he almost saw $13,000 sink to the bottom of the ocean!!! If you’re considering buying one, I would do some serious research and especially consider their warranty and return policy because I think they are prone to going kaput. Is there a specific brand you are considering?

      1. chris

        Hello, Tara! Thanks for the comprehensive answer. Regarding your question of which brand I have stopped I looked pretty but definitely stopped on this, they seem reliable to me. What do you think of them I will be grateful for your opinion!

        1. Tara

          Hi Chris! My pleasure. I wish I could help more, but honestly, I don’t know the brand and I’m not familiar enough to give you guidance on motorized surfboards beyond what I previously wrote. Motorized surfboards are a pretty new category in general, so there isn’t much information out there on them. If you’re interested in this company and they look good, as I mentioned I would really make sure they have a good warranty because I think those things are privy to breaking down in general.

          It depends on your reasons for wanting a motorized surfboard, but alternatively, you could always put that money toward a couple of awesome surf trips 🙂

      2. Nick

        Hi Tara,

        Yep, there is a big difference in experience between the boards as described in this blog as to motorized ones (electric DFI, whatever). They are not for the purists. But now you make me curious about the board that broke down. 13K oefff. Tough on to suck it up.
        Was it Jet Surf?
        Let me know.


        1. Tara

          Hey Nick – yep, it was Jet Surf! I see you created their website 🙂 You probably know more about motorized surfboards than most!

  4. Bill Mangan

    Thanks that was a great article! I changed from balsa boards to foam in 1961 and the first time out with foam core boards my partner and I were surprised with the sound of the whitewater hitting the board on the way out! It was so different and louder than our woodies! Does anyone else remember that? We were in Hermosa Beach, Ca. Thanks again

    1. Eric

      Thanks, glad you like the article! Wow, what an awesome memory, Bill! That was long before my time, haha, but I’d love to get the chance to take out one of those old wooden boards someday. I’m sure I’d be terrible at dealing with the extra weight and it would be a whole new experience of surfing. Good times and thanks for sharing. Cheers

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