Bucks for blanks
By Greg Wiles
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Greg Wiles
Hawai'i surfboard makers scurrying for surfboard blanks in the wake of Clark Foam's shutdown might look no further than their computer screens. Foam slabs made by Clark are showing up on eBay with starting bid prices as much as 50 percent more than what they previously cost.
Last week, a 9-foot-1-inch longboard blank was listed with a starting price of $200, while a blank for a bigger board was listed at $250.
Demand for the specialized foam slabs that are shaped into surfboards soared on Monday when Clark Foam, the world's largest blank maker, announced without warning that it was closing immediately. Its shuttering reverberated in Hawai'i, where the state's estimable surf industry began a hurried search for new blank sources. While many O'ahu surf shops have since kept board prices unchanged, some have raised them by as much as $150.
"This industry that's filled with macho bravado, adventure-seeking risk-takers has been reduced to a bunch of panicked children," said Jimmy Watkins, 39, a part-time surfboard shaper who listed a blank for $50,000 as a gag on eBay. "It was my attempt at shedding some reasonability in a panicked situation."
While Watkins' auction was clearly a hoax, at least one potential buyer said he'd pay $1,500, or $750 a piece, when Watkins mentioned he had two longboard blanks he could sell. That's 10 times what he paid for them.
Watkins said he may sell the blanks at that price and donate the money to the Child Protection Coalition, a charity. "This is the oil embargo (of the 1970s) for the surfboard industry," Watkins said.
EBay, the world's largest Web marketplace, has become a popular venue for get-rich-quick artists selling items from infamous companies, including Enron Corp. and WorldCom Corp. Martha Stewart's brother tried to sell belongings that were previously owned by the queen of homemaking while she awaited sentencing last year for obstructing justice.
For board builders with small operations, obtaining more blanks is more than hooking onto surf memorabilia. Many in the business expect an exodus by some of the shapers, fiberglass laminators, airbrushers, sanders and others who have a hand in producing a surfboard.
"There's plenty of people scrambling right now," said Glenn Miyasaki, a Mo'ili'ili-based shaper who crafts up to 30 boards a month. Miyasaki is hanging onto his last 10 blanks while looking around for another foam source.
"I'm kind of fortunate because I've got a regular job also."
Surfboard makers and others said it may be months, if not longer, before Clark's former competitors can fill the gap left by the company's shutdown. Even at that, Makaha shaper David Parmenter believes the big manufacturers will have their orders filled first.
Parmenter this week said he and other craftsmen will miss Clark's unparalleled service, catalog breadth and the company's willingness to cater to small operations.
"There's a lot of talent that will be idled," Parmenter said.
The two Clark blanks offered by a San Diego-based seller going by the eBay screen name of "momoni" probably were purchased for $130 and $160, said Grant Ramey, manager of Foam E-Z, a Westminster, Calif.-company that's the largest independent distributor of Clark Foam blanks.
Ramey said he had to shut the business's doors within hours of Clark's announced closing on Monday because too many customers were crowding into the store trying to buy up blanks. He said he's been offered three times the regular $50 price for the Clark 6-foot-3 H blank, a popular size with shortboard builders.
Momoni declined to respond to e-mail questions from The Advertiser, replying only that he had time to respond "if you place the winning bid or provide me with a plane ticket to come and talk in person."
Neal Kido, operator of Surfboardshack.com, a used-surfboard classified site, said he was approached by a Hawai'i surfer living in Japan who wanted to buy up boards that were made by the state's best-known local shapers for resale in Japan. Kido said he had yet to see an unusual increase in prices being asked by sellers.
At Surf Garage, a King Street shop, prices on longboards were raised by $150 and on shortboards by $100. Owner Toru Yamaguchi said suppliers were raising prices. A smattering of other shops reported increasing prices by up to $50, while Town & Country Surf, one of the state's largest surf retailers, said it was keeping prices the same.
Clark closed its Laguna Niguel, Calif., factory on Monday, citing continuing problems with the Environmental Protection Agency and other government regulators. Among the chemicals used in the production of polyurethane foam blanks is toluene diisocyanate, a toxic chemical that the EPA says can severely irritate the eyes and skin and also cause nausea and vomiting among people who inhale it.
Clark's factory, in what used to be a rural area, now is surrounded by houses, some costing as much as $1 million, said Gary Linden, general manager of Clark competitor Walker Foam, which is working to ramp up production at a new 32,000-square-foot plant in China, about 40 minutes from Hong Kong.
"When he started out, it was an open space, and it became very costly real estate," said Linden. "They didn't want chemical manufacturing there."
Reach Greg Wiles at email@example.com.