Colan – The beauty of advanced materials

Carbon fibre is strong, predictable and extremely lightweight and has a strength to weight ratio almost twice that of E Glass fibres and when used on the rails or tails can alter the flex pattern of a board.

Written by Kerryn Caulfield, Executive Director of Composites Australia Inc.

Surfing is a set of the physical principles of gravity, buoyancy, torque and waves enabled by lightweight low density materials. Surfers catching the perfect wave rely on years of experience and learned intuition to navigate wave turbulence that imposes chaotic hydrodynamic forces of their cherished surfboards. The choice of surf board design and input materials are a complex trade-off between board strength, flexibility (flex) and weight.

Colan Australia has specialised in weaving industrial textiles from technical fibres since 1954. It developed the first specialised fibreglass fabrics for boat builders and surfboard manufacturers, the earliest adopters to Glass Reinforced Plastics (GRP). The company’s Huntingwood mill in NSW is now Australia’s only manufacturer of advanced technical fabrics using Carbon, Basalt, Aramid (Kevlar) and Glass fibres for composite fabricating.

Damien Bensley, General Manager for Colan Australia, advises that “As an industrial textile manufacture we’ve always looked for fibre properties and fabric construction as a solution to performance in applications from submarines to surfboards. Surfcraft, be they surfboards, sail or kite boards, have a unique set of performance requirements.

Ideally, the board needs a balanced flex/strength ratio that provides a smooth ride, increased control and longevity. Key areas such as the rail and deck are subject to the most damage from impact and load forces so they need to be reinforced. The tail is used to generate speed by flexing and returning back to shape so this needs to have stiffness. We aim to create materials that will provide a combination of endurance as well as performance and aesthetics.”

Carbon fibre is strong, predictable and extremely lightweight and has a strength to weight ratio almost twice that of E Glass fibres and when used on the rails or tails can alter the flex pattern of a board. Damien says: “Different materials and how they are placed on a board will affect the hydrodynamic function. The direction the fibre should be laid to maximize strength and rigidity in a specific direction.

The stringers, both central and parabolic, provide a myriad of functional and compensatory qualities that address the competing challenges of board strength, flexibility (flex) and weight. The central stringer placement of fibres ensures the strength and rigidity of the board. The parabolic placement will reinforce the rails and provide flex memory that will make the board feel like new for much longer.

Most of the newer “stringerless” construction techs have incorporated carbon fibre as a feature, which looks fantastic, but is also critical to providing the lively performance which is expected from an EPS Epoxy board.”

Colan Australia was one of the first companies in the world to back Innegra™ fibre because of its light weight and toughness properties. Innegra™ is usually white or sometimes black and doesn’t go clear when wet out like glass. The weave pattern is consequently visible in clear laminates and becomes a design feature, particularly when woven as a hybrid with carbon fibre and or basalt. “Top surf brands like Chilli and JS are now using Innegra™ hybrids on every single board, not to mention a bunch more incorporating it into their tech constructions” said Damien. Over time, Colan has developed over 100 variants of cloths, tapes and non-crimp fabrics using Innegra™.

The surfcraft industry has always been drawn to the environment as well as being fuelled by independent resourcefulness. Sustainability involves opting for more organic, recycled, sustainable, ethical and durable input materials. Damien says, “We’re weaving with sustainable fibres such as Flax, Hemp, Recyled PET Polyester and Basalt which has great mechanical properties like S-glass but also a natural resistance to corrosive environments so it is well-suited to marine applications. Combined with a bio resins and recycled EPS foam, surfboards can be built using more environmentally conscious materials that still perform well and have a distinct “Eco” appearance.”

While the fibres are used primarily for their performance, a clear epoxy laminating system amplifies their beauty and makes them visually pop. But this comes with the responsibility that all fabrics, tapes and braids have to be woven to precision with no defects of variables, as any imperfections are also amplified.

Damien like me, geeks out on materials. There is no limit to the creative applications of hybrid fibre compositions in roll goods, tapes and braids – they simply make beautiful stuff.