While I was in California visiting the Surf Ranch, I also had a chance to stop by the Bahne & Company/Fins Unlimited factory, which makes a bunch of the fins that we stock here at Hawaiian South Shore, including our Kanoa Dahlin and Joel Tudor fins. We send them fabric and they lay the fins up for us in their factory, which is a really cool process that was a treat to get to watch.
Fins Unlimited has been around since 1964, although Bill Bahne made boards as early as the 1950s. The company started working with removable fin boxes in the mid-1960s, and then made some upgrades to the system in around 1969, creating what has become the industry standard for the past 50 years. It also started making skateboards, single skis for snow, and snowboards. Bill and Bob Bahne were inducted into the skateboard hall of fame two years ago, and Tony Hawk’s first skateboard is even said to be a Bahne skateboard that Tony eventually donated to the Smithsonian.
During the heyday of the skateboard revolution, Bahne was making around 1000 skateboards per day. But luckily for us, they also make some of the best surfboard fins on the market and have helped drive the evolution of the modern surfboard. While I was there touring the factory, I got to watch how they lay up a fin, and I gotta tell you, it’s pretty radical! They start by laminating sheets of fiberglass in different colors and sizes, then either hand-cut it or take the laminated glass to a CNC machine for cutting. A regular fin has around 40 layers of fiberglass, which are laid out and laminated at around 5 layers at a time, sometimes incorporating colors and laminates (such as our customized HSS laminates!). It takes around half an hour to lay out a 40-layer sheet, which then hardens overnight before heading to the cutting room.
The glass is thinned down in a machine to get it to a standard, set thickness (depending on the type of fins that are being made), and then the templates are hand-scribed onto the glass, which is then cut using a band saw or a CNC machine. The cut fins are then foiled (which creates the contours on the sides of the fins), creating a variety of different types of fins, such as flex fins, stiff tow fins, etc. Then the fins head to the spray room, where they are sprayed either for a gloss coat or a matte finish.
I had no idea how much effort goes into making surfboard fins, but after touring the Fins Unlimited factory I have a newfound respect for the rudders that allow us to maneuver our boards and the amount of artistry that goes into them. Next time you are putting fins in a board—whether it’s a single fin or a thruster—take a moment and appreciate the shape of the fins and the effort that goes into making them. These perfectly foiled chunks of fiberglass are literally the reason we can steer our surfboards.