Please introduce yourself and briefly tell us about Lyster Surfcraft?
My name is Duncan Lyster, founder of Lyster Surfcraft. Making lightweight, and environmentally-friendly hollow wooden surfboards, as a long-lasting, commercially available alternative to plastic-foam based surfboards.
When did you become interested in surfing and what sparked that interest?
I came to surfing quite late, my first ever surf was in north Devon on a family holiday when I was 14, I really got into it when I came to uni though. The Exeter Uni surf club was second to none, a really inclusive and exciting group ran the committee in my first year and I’m sure without that encouraging atmosphere surfing would have fallen to the side-lines for me. They got me heading out in bigger and better conditions, and with organized trips almost every weekend, and lifts available in the week when the forecast was more promising than the lecture slides, there was plenty of opportunity to get out and improve.
What was it like transitioning to shaping/designing boards full time?
It’s been a gradual and fairly natural process, I think like most shapers I started off as a hobbyist just making boards for myself for a few years (all wood, of course). Even after my first board I started thinking about the challenge of making a lightweight wooden board though, and at that stage it became an engineering challenge. Going from being a student with a cushion of government funding, to a job-less graduate hasn’t been easy, but I’ve had a lot of very generous support from my University start-up team which has allowed me to work full time on the R&D stages of designing the board construction without having to devote my time to another full-time job.
What did you do before?
I went straight from uni to starting the business (well, with quite a bit of overlap). I did MPhys Physics at the University of Exeter, in my final project I was using the met-office supercomputer to simulate dust in the atmospheres of tidally locked exoplanets! Four years of that was enough for now though, but I won’t rule out a PhD at some point in the future.
Where did the idea for crafting modern surfboards out of wood come from?
Since foam was introduced to surfing in the late 1950’s the different types of woods available around the world have exploded, we can now get French-grown paulownia in the UK, aircraft grade plywoods barely 1mm thick, and all kinds of clever composites. In addition, our understanding of engineered structures has improved dramatically, so when I first started making wooden boards I was pretty surprised to discover that the main method used hasn’t changed since the 1930’s! It became a personal challenge to make a wooden board that was the same weight as a foam-based board, and that performed well, and didn’t degrade over time (ie, no compression dings).
How long does it take you to make a wood board? Did you start by shaping normal plastic based boards or have you always designed wooden ones? Is there any waste and what do you do with it?
I’ve now got the process down to a couple of days, a big part of the design process has been attempting to reduce the time taken, because if it takes you two weeks to build a board you’re going to have to sell it for a correspondingly high price. I want to sell the boards at a price that normal surfers can afford, because you can’t make a big difference with only a handful of customers.
I’ve always made wooden boards, but I’ve repaired lots of foam boards, and even made folding boards in the past!
I keep waste as minimal as possible, but there’s always a bit. It’s divided into wood waste (which can be used as firewood/kindling), recycling, and landfill. In total, it’s about 1 bin bag per board, probably about 1/3rd of that goes to landfill. I’m still looking for ways to reduce the waste.
What were some of the best/worst early designs? Pros/cons to those?
Haha where do I start? I still sometimes surf the first board I ever made, it was a weird retro fish sort of shape and it weighed nearly 10kg! I made that in the workshop with my Dad, he’s a cabinet maker, so all the joins are perfect, but we didn’t do a lot to reduce the weight, and you can tell it was made by an inexperienced shaper.
I’ve had boards that took on litres of water on their first outing, boards that had internal structures that were too weak, and a balsa board that I actually put my foot through the deck of!
Surfboards were originally made wood but has there been any push back from the surfing community with your modern wood design?
There’s not so much a push-back as a preconception that a board made of wood must be really heavy. Fortunately, this is easily remedied by giving someone a board to pick up. People who’ve felt a wooden board before are normally visibly shocked by how light they are.
Outside of the obvious difference of your boards being wood based, what other differences are there between your boards and the regular polyurethane/fibreglass based boards?
The biggest difference you notice is the look, obviously being made of wood they look gorgeous and stand out on the beach. They’re also much longer lasting, they don’t get compression dings, so there’s no steady degradation, essentially the only way you can end the life of a wooden board is a really big collision, or a land based accident. Saying that though, one of my demo boards was reversed over by a car a few months ago, and aside from the fins snapping off the board was completely undamaged.
Other than making wooden more sustainable surfboards, do you have any other initiatives or involvement in reducing plastic waste/aiding in keeping our oceans clean?
I do my bit where I can, if I’m on the beach I’ll do a quick little beach clean, and I think it’s really important to keep spreading the message. There are still people who will just leave all their picnic rubbish on the beach on a day out! I think a lot of people are still totally unaware of the challenges we face, and the most important thing is to get everyone involved in changing their own actions (without preaching!).
How have you personally experienced the impact plastics have had on the environment i.e. the ocean?
To be honest, in the UK I’m normally really impressed by how clean the beaches are, you can always find enough plastic to make a difference in a 5-minute beach clean but you often have to look quite hard. I’ve seen how bad it can be though, surfing in Indonesia in the rainy season I’ve had to paddle through water that’s literally thick with plastic bags, food wrappers and tampons! I remember at one point having to get off the board to pull all the waste off my fins because it was dragging so much, that really brought the problem home to me.
What came first for you: the desire to reduce plastics or surfing?
Surfing came before I really had an understanding of the scale of plastic pollution, and really the wider understanding of the impact we have on the environment. I lived in Australia for a year and was skint the whole time so couldn’t afford a board, instead I found broken boards and repaired them. One of the best boards I had was a brand-new JS Monsta 6 I found snapped in half on the beach, I glued it back together and surfed it for 6 months before it went again. At this stage I realized how big the impact of surfing can be when surfers don’t take care of the environment and decided it was time to change that.
What are your next steps/future goals for Lyster Surfcraft? Where do you what to take the company? (Both in a business sense and eco-friendly way).
Now I’ve got an internal structure that works I’ll be taking my first orders over the next couple of weeks. I’m hoping to be able to build Lyster Surfcraft into a business that can have a real impact, and provide a more sustainable contender to the biggest board brands. I genuinely believe that my boards will be a better choice than almost everything out there, so I have no problem with doing my best to get them into as many hands as possible.
Finally where is your favourite places to surf in England?
Aha… I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you! Jokes aside, of the more popular beaches I love Bantham (south Devon) in a good swell, and it’s hard to beat low tide Croyde (North Devon) when it’s pumping!