What materials paddle boards are made of will influence your SUP board’s lifespan, performance, durability, and handling, not to mention its price. But when I looked into it, the variety of paddle board construction types and materials was a bit confusing at first. So I did a bunch of research into SUP construction techniques and the materials used to make paddle boards.
Here’s what I found.
What are paddle boards made of? Most solid paddle boards are made of fiberglass and epoxy resin layers over hollow wood or foam cores. Some inexpensive SUPs are made of all foam construction. Some high-end paddle boards are made of carbon fiber over foam cores. And inflatable paddle boards are made of strong PVC plastic outer layers over a drop-stitched core inflatable core.
If any of those terms are unfamiliar to you, we’ll clear that up in this article. Here’s what you need to know about paddle board construction in order to find a paddle board that’s right for you.
Paddle Board Design
3D SUP Design
Because the surfboard industry had so many years of manufacturing trial and error experience, SUP manufacturing evolution didn’t have to go through a long period of improvement. Paddle boards simply entered the market using the most efficient methods of manufacturing already researched and developed by the surfboard industry.
So today, most modern paddle boards are designed using computer 3D technology the same way surfboards are.
3D Paddle Board Design Advantages
In contrast to older and more traditional hand-shaping of surf boards, 3D computer graphics allows designers to test a SUP’s seaworthiness, buoyancy, and performance before a board’s ever built. In addition, 3D design is more precise and allows the manufacturing process to be streamlined. And that makes paddle board construction more efficient.
Using computer graphics programs, SUP manufacturers can:
- Develop new designs faster
- More consistently shape them from one board to another
- Make changes based on customer feedback more quickly
- Increase manufacturing efficiency and thus reduce consumer cost
Hand Shaping SUPs
Though hand-shaping is an older, slower, and more labor intensive way to make paddle boards, some SUPs are still hand-shaped at the final stages of production. In addition, independent shops and custom paddle board makers still practice hand-shaping techniques to make beautiful paddle boards from wood and/or fiberglass. Each SUP board is made one at a time into a truly unique work of art.
Paddle boards are constructed from several different types of materials. Solid boards are typically made from fiberglass-reinforced plastic and/or wood. And inflatable paddle boards are made from tough PVC plastic.
Most paddle boards are made of one of the following main materials:
- Plastic – Rotomolded one-piece plastic SUPs.
- Foam – Soft SUP boards are made mainly of foam with some parts being plastic.
- Wood – Wood SUP boards use a hollow core wood construction.
- Fiberglass and epoxy resin – These solid boards are typically made from fiberglass-reinforced plastic with polyester or epoxy resin over a foam core.
- Carbon Fiber – Carbon construction paddle boards use foam cores surrounded by carbon fiber layers instead of fiberglass.
- PVC and Polycarbonites – Almost all inflatable SUPs are made from tough PVC using drop-stitch technology (see below).
Paddle Board Construction
There are basically 2 types of paddle boards.
- Solid Paddle Boards – SUPs made to be one “solid” constructed board that remains the same size for use, transport, and storage. Solid SUPs are made using several different construction methods.
- Inflatable Paddle Boards – SUPs that are made to take up minimal space in storage and transport, and then inflated to full size for use.
Solid Paddle Board Construction
The most common paddle boards are solid and look like big surfboards. Modern solid paddle boarding materials and construction methods use EPS—Expanded Polystyrene Foam—as a core (called a blank). The that foam core is wrapped in several different types of materials, layering wood and/or PVC veneer, fiberglass, and epoxy materials for strength and durability.
Foam core density is what makes a paddle board light or heavy. Less dense core foam makes a paddle board light. But foam cores that aren’t very dense aren’t very tough either. So less dense core foam has to have much tougher materials around it.
Solid paddle boards can also be made of foam, solid plastic, wood, or carbon fiber layers.
Plastic SUP Construction
What are plastic paddle boards made of? Plastic SUPs are made one of two ways. Rotomolded where one piece of solid Polyethylene plastic rotated and “molded” to the shape of a paddle board. Or Thermoplastic paddle boards that are a hard molded PE plastic shell around a foam or hollow core.
You’ll find these SUP boards at Big 5 and Walmart and other big box retail stores.
Plastic SUP Construction Advantages and Disadvantages
- Cost and Availability – Inexpensive compared to other types of paddle boards, except foam, and widely available at sporting goods and bog box stores.
- Transportation and Storage – Somewhat harder to transport than other solid SUPs as they are heavier, and they take up the same space to store them.
- Durability – Plastic SUPs are tough. They can take dings and scratches and still perform.
- Weight – Plastic SUPs are heavier than most other paddles boards.
- Maneuverability and Speed – These SUPs are slower and less maneuverable than most other boards.
Best Use – Beginning paddle boarders, camps, resorts, outfitters and families looking for a tough SUP that doesn’t cost too much.
Foam SUP Construction
Foam SUPs are made almost entirely of wood stringers inside a molded foam or foam-based EPS core. Then high density polyethylene foam is heat laminated—not glued—to the top and bottom of the core. Sometimes foam paddle boards are called “soft top” paddle boards.
Foam SUP Construction Advantages and Disadvantages
- Cost and Availability – Foam SUPs cost less than most other paddle boards and are widely available at sporting goods and bog box stores.
- Transportation and Storage – Somewhat easier to transport than other solid SUPs as they are lighter, but still take up the same space to store them.
- Durability – Foam paddle boards can get easily dented, scratched, and lose small “chunks”. But the foam in these SUPs is waterproof. If you dent them they won’t absorb water.
- Weight – They weigh less than plastic SUP and many fiberglass SUPs.
- Maneuverability and Speed – Foam SUPs are less maneuverable than most other paddle boards, but perform better than hard plastic SUPs. They’re also slower than epoxy SUPs.
Best Use – Foam SUP’s are great for SUP beginners that plan on paddling on flat water lakes and bays.
Wood Paddle Board Construction
What are wooden paddle boards made of? Hollow core wooden paddle boards are made of a hollow wooden frame. Then strips of cedar, pine, paulownia, cypress or other wood types are glued to the frame creating the tops and bottoms of the board. After that, the entire paddle board is covered in a layer of fiberglass cloth and epoxy resin to make it waterproof.
Wood SUP Construction Advantages and Disadvantages
- Cost and Availability – Due to the nature of their custom construction, wood SUPs cost more than most other paddle boards. (i.e. they’re expensive) Wood paddle boards are generally available through custom SUP shops and direct purchase online.
- Transportation and Storage – Wood paddle boards are heavier than most paddle boards and their delicate finish makes them more difficult to transport safely and store.
- Durability – Fiberglass covered wood core paddle boards are relatively tough, but dings and scratches are hard to repair and expose the core to water which can rot the unprotected wood.
- Weight – They weigh more than most other types of paddle boards, except plastic.
- Maneuverability and Speed – Wood SUPS, depending on their builds are smooth and fast.
Best Use – Custom wood SUP’s are great for smooth paddling, speed, and hanging on your wall to look cool.
Fiberglass SUP Construction
What are fiberglass paddle boards made of? Layered fiberglass paddle boards are made of an EPS—Expanded Polystyrene—core foam blank. That foam blank is wrapped in fiberglass fabric strips held in place with epoxy resin. Then a veneer of wood is placed over it, and then finally more fiberglass and resin. These sandwiched layers give the fiberglass paddle board its strength and durability.
Wood Sandwich Fiberglass Construction
Wood sandwich is the most common fiberglass SUP construction method. A wood veneer layer is used as one of the sandwiched layers.
Wood sandwich construction is made with some PVC construction in the middle of the board where you stand. This is to add strength to the section that carries the most weight. After that’s added, more alternating layers of fiberglass, wood and veneer go on.
Stringers—reinforcing strips that run the length of a paddle board—can be added for end to end strength. Stingers are usually made of wood or carbon.
Wood Sandwich Layers
- EPS Core Blank
- Wood Veneer
- More Fiberglass
AST – Advanced Sandwich Technology Fiberglass Construction
One of the main differences from wood sandwich to AST is that there’s no PVC used in this method. Advanced sandwich constructed paddle boards are made using the same layered approach to paddle board building as wood sandwich does. An EPS foam core, then sandwiched fiberglass, wood, and fiberglass again go over the EPS core on the top and bottom.
- EPS Core Blank
- Fiberglass – Fiberglass layers are laid on lengthwise and width-wise.
- Wood Veneer – A wood veneer is used for the standing area instead of PVC.
- More Fiberglass – Fiberglass layers run lengthwise to the board to give it added strength. There are no stringers for strength in this type of SUP construction.
Fiberglass SUP Construction Advantages and Disadvantages
- Cost and Availability – Fiberglass SUPs’ costs are higher because construction requires custom painting and some hand labor. Epoxy fiberglass SUPs are sold at sporting goods stores, marine stores, and online retailers.
- Transportation and Storage – Fiberglass boards are the most difficult to transport and store.
- Durability – Fiberglass SUPs are less durable and can be dinged and cracked pretty easily.
- Weight – Fiberglass layered SUPs weigh more than Carbon fiber and foam paddle boards, but less than most other boards.
- Maneuverability and Speed – Fiberglass SUPS are smooth, paddle fast, and are super maneuverable.
Best Use – Fiberglass layered SUP’s are great for more serious recreational paddlers, SUP surfing and racing, and/or long-distance paddle boarding.
Carbon fiber constructed paddle boards use foam cores, but they use carbon fiber layering instead of fiberglass layers. Some carbon SUP boards have a fiberglass layer over the carbon fiber. This is so the board can be sanded down to a smooth finish.
At the end, a layer of paint is applied over the carbon fiber shell to reflect sunlight and keep the SUP board from overheating.
Carbon Fiber SUP Construction Advantages and Disadvantages
- Cost and Availability – Carbon fiber material isn’t cheap, so carbon fiber reinforced SUPs cost significantly more than other SUPs made of different materials. Carbon SUP boards are generally available through custom paddle board shops.
- Transportation and Storage – Because they’re so lightweight, carbon SUPs are easier to lift up onto car racks and hand carry to the water. And storage is easier because of this as well.
- Durability – Carbon fiber SUPs are stronger and stiffer than fiberglass. But carbon fiber is easily damaged. It’s relatively brittle and needs to be covered or protected with another material.
- Weight – Carbon boards weighs a lot less because carbon fiber can be single-layered to reinforce the core and still have the same strength as multiple fiberglass layers.
- Maneuverability and Speed – Carbon fiber SUPs are more maneuverable and responsive because of their stiffness and light weight. And carbon fiber is unmatched for sheer speed.
Best Use – Carbon fiber reinforced SUP’s are great for SUP racing pros who’s primary concern is speed.
Inflatable Paddle Board Construction
What are inflatable paddle boards made of? Inflatable paddle boards are made by “drop stitching” 2 layers of polyester fabric together with thousands of polyester threads. Then an air-tight coating goes over the outside surfaces of both sides of the material. The SUP sidewall material is made of polyester fabric that’s coated on both sides. Finally, wide-seam tape is glued over each seam to make an air-tight board.
Simply put, drop stitching is a process that uses up to 400 individual needles on a drop stitching machine to sew tens of thousands of fine threads between two separate layers of fabric.
The resulting length of flexibly-joined fabric materials create a very strong product that expands and contracts to the shape of a paddle board. The end product is capable of withstanding the high inflation pressures needed to make an inflatable SUP rigid enough to stand and paddle on.
Single Layer Inflatable SUP Boards
Single-layer SUP boards are made of one layer of drop stitch core that’s sewn together and then joined with a layer of PVC material. These inflatable SUPs are lightweight and more affordable.
Double Layer Inflatable SUP Boards
Double-layer inflatable SUP boards have that same drop stitched core. But the first layer of material is reinforced with another layer of PVC. Double layer SUPs are heavier and harder. But these inflatable SUPs age poorly.
Inflatable SUP Construction Advantages and Disadvantages
- Cost and Availability – Depending on quality and type of layering, these SUPs can cost as little as foam and low end fiberglass boards are as much as high-end fiberglass.
- Transportation and Storage – Because these SUPs can be deflated to a fraction of their usable size, storage and transport are much easier.
- Durability – Inflatables are pretty durable for light to moderate use conditions, but keep in mind any puncture means you’re done paddling until you can patch the hole.
- Weight – Inflatable SUPs are typically lighter than plastic, fiberglass, and wood paddle boards.
- Maneuverability and Speed – Because of the nature of inflatable materials and the finish of PVC, these SUPs are in the mid-range of speed and performance.
Best Use – Inflatable paddle boards can be used for cruising and touring on flat water and even on whitewater. They’re not ideal for surf because of their rounded edges.