Ancient Hawaiian surfboard building

This feature was kindly contributed by one of our featured surf artists, Ron Croci. Ron was the Lead Designer at the Hawaii Maritime Museum, the largest maritime museum in the Pacific, and designed the majority of the exhibits on display at the Museums opening. His studies of Hawaiian history, as well as creating exhibits of ancient surfboards, borrowed from the Bishop Museum, led Ron to ask the question:

How did they make surfboards?

Through Ron’s research on many of the Hawaiian crafts, such as canoe building, seeing partially made antique surfboards, and interviews with Hawaiians who have studied this historic subject — Ron concluded that the method shown here was the method common to surfboard builders in the pre-contact days of ancient Hawaii.

Alas, missionaries, as well as termites, have ruined the majority of antique surfboards — so we cannot fully appreciate all the aspects of the invention of making surfboards in old Hawaii.

Ancient Hawaiian surfboards

In the early days of surfing in ancient Hawaii. Surfing was a deeply spiritual affair, from the art of riding waves itself to praying for good surf, to rituals surrounding building a surfboard. Surfing was not only a recreational activity but also a training exercise for Hawaiian chiefs and a means of conflict resolution.

An Ali’i ordering a new surfboard. Art by Ron Croci

There were two kinds of surfboard in those times:

  • An Olo (rode by chiefs or noblemen known as the Ali’i — see art above).
  • An Alaia (rode by commoners).

The wooden surfboards were made using Wili Wili, Ula, and Koa trees. They ranged from 10-16 feet long depending on social class. 10-12 feet for commoners. And 14-16 feet for noblemen and chiefs.

The following illustrations by Ron, take you through the steps the ancient Hawaiian’s went through to build their surfboards and tools.

Creating an Adz blade for shaping the Koa wood blank. It is shaped by chipping at it with a Hammerstone. The blade is made of hardened Basalt.

Grinding the Adz head on a grindstone, using various grades of sand.

Attaching the shaped Adz blade to a pre-formed wooden handle, using Coconut Senet to tie it with.

Splitting a Koa log. Hawaiians used the center portion of a Koa log for their canoes, and the sides split off for surfboard blanks, as well as many other applications. Koa wood has the interesting property, in that, it is very hard, but is also brittle, and splits very clean.

Shaping the Koa blank with an Adz.

The initial smoothing was done with various grades of coral blocks, as well as some charring with fire, and scraping.

Next came rubbing with different grades of sand.

Finally sanding with water, and sharkskin.

Then, a coat of Kukui nut oil was applied with a Pandanas kernel, that was pounded to make a brush.

A proud Hawaiian with his new surfboard.

An unusual, hollow left at Queens.

Hawaiians at a beach Hale, claiming pecking order rights.

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