Wave Arcade Fin Materials & Challenges

Wave Arcade Fin Iterations
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Wave Arcade has been in a state of constant evolution from the start.

It’s always had a set of core components to guide the way: eco-friendly materials, handcrafted products, experimentation, fun. But how those components have been realized are constantly in flux.

With the fins, my goal is to create something made from sustainable/low-impact materials that looks cool, can be produced locally, and is fun to surf.

Maybe this is my own ego talking, but I also want to do something different than what’s already out there.

So, what follows here is a brief overview of some of Wave Arcade’s major fin explorations, materials, and challenges along the way.

Wave Arcade Fin Iterations
Left to right: 3D printed PLA, hand-split bamboo, ply + molded base, bamboo ply + fiberglass base, solid ply glassed, ply + carbon fiber base glassed, ply + carbon fiber base sealed…

Experiments & Explorations in Handcrafted (Mostly) Surf Fins

Check out some of the fin making methods that the Wave Arcade project has experimented with below. If you’re making a few fins, any of these can be worthy methods. The real challenges emerge when you try to batch and scale your fins.

Each method below presents its own production challenges and performance characteristics. If you’re interested in how fins are made or making your own fins, feel free to use some of these ideas as inspiration.

3D Printed Surf Fins

3D printed surfboard fins is where it all began for Wave Arcade.

This was when I was in Salt Lake City, Utah and finishing up some classes at the University of Utah. With no surf, I had been occupying myself with surf “research.” One of the areas I dove pretty deep into was fins.

Around the same time, I had stumbled upon the University’s maker space, which had a bay of 3D printers.

Pretty soon I combined my interest in fins with my curiosity of the 3D printers at the U.

I started getting myself familiar with CAD and CAM programs, g-code, and 3D modeling.

I was finally ready to print a fin for the first time, and… about 3 hours later I had a fin that was scaled too small.

Luckily the place had a pool table, so I was able to keep myself occupied while I waited.

3D printing surf fins is certainly fun to experiment with if you have an interest in 3D printing and precise 3D modeling. If you’re mostly interested in fins, there are much better methods.

The pros with 3D printing fins include:

  • The ability to make things to super accurate specs.
  • Experimentation with alternatives filament materials.
  • Easy way to accurately make fin bases.

The cons, which in my opinion outweight the pros here, include:

  • Relatively slow production times.
  • Fins that are too bendy.
  • Risk of print failures.

100% Handcrafted Bamboo Fins

This was the next iteration in fin design, and the thing that really jump-started the Wave Arcade project.

I’d moved back to San Diego at this point and had sort of tabled the 3D printing.

I still had fins on my mind, but wasn’t really sure where to go from there.

Walking my dog, I noticed a patch of bamboo on an abandoned lot and it got me thinking.

I took the dog home, and I returned on my bicycle with a hacksaw.

I hacked off a 10-foot pole of bamboo and wheeled it back to my yard.

After cutting it into more manageable sections, I went to work splitting the pole into strips with a machete.

The work went pretty smoothly, but was extremely tiring and time consuming to get the strips uniform.

Finally, I had enough bamboo strips to glue together into a sheet. I glued it and clamped it and cut a fin out.

From there it was a matter of foiling and glassing, and the fin that was once a stalk of bamboo growing nearby was complete.

I took it out and it felt magic. I was convinced that I needed to make more fins like this. (Man, I was foolish).

And I set out to do it – I filled my Jetta with as much bamboo as I could and got to work splitting and flattening it.

I probably stripped down close to 100 stalks of bamboo. My garage was filled with storage bins of the stuff. Once that was complete, I started glueing them into sheets. This part was where I started to run into problems.

Anyway, after all that work, I only ended up with a handful of surfable fins.

In the process, I got blisters all over my hands, pissed off my neighbors, dulled up a bunch of my tools, and became pretty deflated about the project for a bit.

But I was hanging on to some hope due to the fact that these fins were extremely fun to surf.

So here’s what worked:

  • Super lightweight.
  • Really, really cool looking.
  • Great flex properties.

Here’s what sucked:

  • Extremely labor intensive.
  • Requires a lot of bamboo stock.
  • Clamping up large sheets is challenging without industrial equipment.
  • The laminations are prone to breakage during the foiling process.

If you want to try to make one of two fins this way, it’s certainly worthy of a fun weekend project. It wasn’t going to work for Wave Arcade.

Molded Bases Fins

I moved away from splitting and laminating bamboo myself, because, well, that’s crazy.

I picked up some bamboo ply (which has some downsides of its own) and set to work on a new method.

This time, I knew I’d need a system for accurately making bases for the various fin systems. Here’s where I made the mistake of falling into the trap of applying someone else’s solution.

The molded base method requires making silicone molds of the fin base you want to create, setting up a jig, and casting your wood fin in epoxy and fiberglass strands.

This method works if you want to make a few fins for yourself – when you’re doing big batches, not so much.

I made a whole much of different molds and got to work casting my fins.

Long story short, there were a ton of issues and many of the fins were again, unsurfable.

Fiberglass Bases Fins

Here’s where I thought I finally got it. I thought this was the foolproof solution that would allow me to retrofit some of my previous attempts as well as make things easy and accurate moving forward.

At first, this worked pretty well.

I was making fiberglass panels just like you would for a fiberglass fin and I was cutting bases out of them.

From there, I’d use alignment dowels, epoxy, and fiberglass to bond the bases with the fins.

Here’s where I started running into challenges. First, I was having alignment issues when it came time to attach the base. Next, and most frustrating, I kept screwing up my widths. There was a lot of post-clean up work that needed to be completed on these fins.

But, I powered through, and ended up with some fins to test out. And they worked great! I figured I had done it. Many of these fins were up for sale, and quite a few sold.

Then, one weekend when I was surfing one of the fins, it snapped off. It was a small day, and I figured I must have hit the bottom or something. Then, a few days later, it happened again with another fin. Uh-oh.

I pulled them all down off the website, and had a few new fins I needed to get made for folks.

While this method resulted in a fin that was fairly easy to make for removable systems and looked really cool, it was mostly negatives.

  • The fiberglass base added weight back.
  • The design I made had a critical weak point that caused the fin to easily snap right at the base.
  • These still required quite a bit of fiberglass and epoxy to make.

It was back to the drawing board.

Solid Ply Fins

After my fiberglass base failures, I had realized that my fins were straying away from my goals of sustainability and eco-friendly construction.

I had also realized I fell victim to not starting from first principles in my designs. I was skipping simpler iterations of designs because I was assuming they wouldn’t work. That’s a terrible mistake to make.

I wondered why I couldn’t just make the fin and the base as one solid ply core. So I tried it out.

The bases came out more accurate that ever before. The fins were extremely light, and looked great too.

The singles surfed well, the Futures bases surfed well, but I didn’t have an FCS board to test at the time.

A friend was looking for some FCS keels for his twin, so I made him some.

Three waves in, one of the fins broke on a bottom turn. Shit.

Ply + Carbon Fiber Fins

So now I knew the FCS bases needed reinforcements. Not a huge deal.

I solved this by adding carbon fiber rods to the bases. The singles and Futures don’t really need it, but I figured I’d keep things consistent, plus they worked to stiffen up the bases a bit.

I picked up a used board with FCS plugs and started doing some extensive testing of these new fins.

I surfed these fins as much as I possibly could. I was exhausted. But they worked!

Hemp Glassed Fins

Next up was figuring out how to get back to a more eco-friendly fin.

The outliers here were the fiberglass and carbon fiber. At that point, the carbon fiber was a necessary part of the design. It was there to stay for now.

So I started looking into fiberglass alternatives. I settled on hemp.

I made some test fins, swapping fiberglass with hemp cloth, and learned real quick about some of the challenges there.

Lamination with hemp cloth works, but it’s quite a process. I ended up making a good batch of different fins this way – they surf really great and these hemp fins are up for sale at a discount until they run out!

But, I needed a new method for the next batch.

Epoxy-only Ply Fins

I decided to simplify yet again.

No fiberglass, no hemp. Just wood, carbon fiber base supports, bio-based epoxy resin.

I made a few test fins for each base system, and went back to the testing grounds.

These were the lightest fins yet. A little flexier than their glassed counterparts, but still had a snappy recoil.

I made a nice production batch of these wood fins in a flex single, a pivot single, and a thruster and quad for both Futures and FCS. All available for sale until supplies run out.

I’m pretty happy with these, but in my endless experimentation of experience, I’m already onto something new.

Coming soon. This next one is my favorite method so far. Stay tuned by keeping an eye on wavearcade.com or following @wave_arcade on Instagram.

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