Best Stand Up Paddle Boards
Congratulations! You’ve found a comprehensive, easy to understand primer on stand up paddle board construction… the good, the bad, and the ugly. Sadly, there is a ton of confusing, and conflicting “mis-information” out there on the web. Good news - read this one page and you can knowledgably decide for yourself which is the best stand up paddle board for your intended use and budget.
At first glance, most people assume a paddle board is a paddle board. If they’ve looked around a little bit, they’ll be aware that there is a handful of different shapes and sizes, and of course dozens of brands. On the surface most of them really do just look like really big longboards (surfboards). It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that they’re pretty much all the same, aside from the branding… and of course the pricing! And why the heck are they so much more expensive than surfboards?
Stand up paddle board insides on traditional hard boards
The difficulty in differentiating one stand up paddle board from the next is that you can’t peer inside. Thus, as a prospective buyer, you’re left to sort thru the unfamiliar industry lingo which all kind of sounds the same. You’ll repeatedly hear terms thrown around like:
- Hand shaped
- CNC machined
- EPS foam (Expanded polystyrene, or beaded) cores of different densities
- XTR foam (extruded polystyrene, or solid shape) cores of different densities
- Glassing - double and triple top or bottom glassing of different weight glass (fiberglass cloth that gets resin added to it to form a reinforcing layer of strength)
- Biaxial glass
- Epoxy resins
- Wood veneers
- Sandwich wood construction
- Specialty high-density foam sandwich construction
- Vacuum bagging
Without getting into an overly technical discussion, it is still relatively easy to understand what is and is not a quality board. The below discussion will, in part, help you understand why one board costs $800 while another one of similar size that looks pretty much the same costs maybe $1600.
The rising popularity of inflatable paddle boards
Prior to 2011, pretty much every paddle board out there was a traditional hard board made out of epoxy resin and fiberglass. There were some 4" thick inflatables out there, but they were not rigid enough and thus rode thru the water like a banana. That meant they were slow and the whole ride was sort of an undulating ride. Not ideal. In 2012 in an effort to make inflatable paddle boards more rigid, we came out with one of the first 6" thick inflatable boards on the market. This changed everything. Suddenly inflatable boards were super rigid - as in they could support a 200 lb guy over a 8 foot span and barely flex at all. Suddenly, they were a viable replacement for hard boards. Within a few years, pretty much every SUP company out there was starting to make inflatables. The benefits are manyfold - check out this video for more details:
Distribution channel factor in the pricing
While price is generally a good indicator of quality for most products, differing distribution channels for SUP boards, both hard boards and inflatables muddies the water. In fact, a board you can buy for $800 from a direct to consumer brand is likely equivalent quality and cost construction to a board you’d pay $1200 retail for in a local surf, kayak, or outdoor shop. Sometimes this difference is $400-$500, but it's not that uncommon for over a $1000 delta on exotic boards. Before you can separate out construction quality factors and costs, it is essential to wrap your head around how the differing distribution channels in the stand up paddle board marketplace affect the pricing you see as a customer.
The traditional three-tier distribution channel brands
As stand up paddle boards originated from the surf industry, the vast majority of SUPs are sold thru a traditional three-tiered retail/wholesale/factory distribution channel. The customer is buying from a local surf shop, kayak shop, or outdoor retailer at a 40% retail mark-up. The retailer is buying from the brand (or wholesale middleman) at a 20% to 40% wholesale markup. The brand is buying from the factory, which also has a profit margin cooked into the pricing. And there are two (or sometimes three) levels of shipping costs built in here: the shipping from the factory to the distributor, the shipping from the distributor to the retailer, and (sometimes) the shipping from the retailer to the customer. Aside from private label brands purchased direct from the factory by a local retailer (which are rare), the brands you find in a local surf shop, kayak shop, or outdoor retailer ALL follow this three-tier distribution channel and the MSRP of the boards reflect it. These SUP brands typically don’t sell direct as they want to support their distribution partners, and not compete with them. It doesn’t always happen that way, but that’s the theory.
Direct to consumer brands
In the stand up paddle board market, there are a handful of direct to consumer brands that buy direct from the factory and then act as the retailer themselves to sell directly to consumers. There is no wholesale middle man in this distribution model. These are typically boutique brands that primarily serve their local markets and sometimes customers in other areas via the web. If a customer picks up a board locally there is only one level of shipping (from the factory) built in to the retail price. If the stand up paddle board is shipped to the customer, it will cost another $125 to $175 to ship across the country. Still there is no wholesaler to retailer shipping cost built into the retail price nor will the customer incur any sales tax, so part of this retail to consumer shipping cost is offset when you view the components of the direct MSRP holistically. In summary, you’re going to get an equivalent quality board at a lower cost here every time with the direct to consumer brands even when shipping is factored in. On standard boards, a customer will save around $400. On the very top-end boards, the customer can save from $600 to as high as $1000!
Confused distribution brands
Typically there is no wholesale middle man in the direct to consumer brand distribution model outlined above. I say “typically” because some confused distribution brands wholesale their product to retail surf shops, kayak shops, and outdoor retailers, AND also sell direct to consumers (typically to the chagrin of their retail partners – it’s called channel confusion). This is an important distinction, because IF they’re doing both then their “so-called” direct to consumer retail prices are obviously inflated to accommodate both a wholesale margin and a retail margin as they’re employing that channel as well. So, aside from the lip-service of claiming to be “direct to consumer”, in reality these brands pricing strategy is no different than that of the traditional three-tier distribution channel brands. As a rule, most major brands won’t sell direct AND thru the traditional distribution channel, so brands that use this confused distribution strategy tend to be off-brands. Additionally, as a rule, most major brands shy away from producing lesser quality product out of fear of damaging the strong brands they’ve established AND out of fear of alienating their retail partners with lower quality product that produces returns and such. Off brands that employ a confused distribution strategy are not constrained by these same fears, so they often times are the ones introducing low cost, low quality products to the market. That’s kind of where the SUP market is right now – some of the confused distribution brands have introduced SUP boards that are priced almost unbelievably low compared to the rest of the market. How do they do this? They are simply going as low quality as possible, where the brand conscious companies don’t dare tread.
Production cost versus quality
Aside from boards produced in the US (which feature some of the best craftsmanship you can find), historically most of the highest quality stand up paddle boards made overseas have all been made in the same 60,000 square foot factory in Thailand that has been producing surfboards, windsurfers, and such for about 30 years. A dozen different brands use this “gold standard” factory still today. Each of the brands is made to different specs and with slightly different construction techniques (most all use a base PVC sandwich construction), but as a group they have historically been producing boards of a much higher quality production build that boards made in the other major SUP factories, which are in China. The problem for consumers is that as this one factory controls so much of the SUP market share they have the ability to control prop-up pricing to a certain degree. The quality they produce is "better" but they have been charging a disproportionate premium for that quality advantage. If you shop around for many of the major brands, you'll notice their prices are higher than you would expect and their pricing is similar, even across brands. Because of this "price fixing" (see this SUP price fixing article in Fast Company, one of the world's leading business magazines), the door has opened for higher quality production in many Chinese factories at much lower costs, so the quality gap is closing and the prices to end consumers are slowing coming down.
With the growing popularity of inflatables (which are made in factories in China and South Korea), it's important to wrap your head around indicators of quality there too. The market is actually headed to a point where more people go the inflatable route. The high-quality boards can be pretty amazing from a durability prospective. It's also a lot easier to ascertain the quality level of an inflatable because brands can't hide how rigid a board is, or how cleanly the seams are and will hold up, or how the internal drop stitch pattern connects everything. There are a lot of reviews online, so check around and do your research on inflatables.
While there are a handful of assorted surfboard and boogie board manufacturers in China that have taken up stand up paddle board production in the last few years, production quality varies. As a brand, you can produce boards in these Chinese factories with lower quality targets at almost half the cost of using the gold standard factory in Thailand. Brands can now also produce very high quality boards in Chinese factories. It all depends on the factory, and I've seen the entire spectrum of factories. The discount boards you see available in the market primarily come out of smaller, and less experienced factories in China. They will also, almost always, be painted boards. I've seen some of these brand's boards mid-production and you can instantly recognize them by the yellow, patchy foam blanks lying all around before they get that shiny paint layer to cover it all up.
The takeaway here is that if you buy a board produced in Thailand, you can bet the quality is going to be solid. Likewise, if you buy a board made in the US, you can bet the quality and craftsmanship is second to none. If you buy a board in China, on the other hand, quality can be all over the map and thus it's much harder to discern. This doesn't mean it isn't of the highest quality (there are outstanding factories in China, a couple that I work with personally), but it varies.
High-quality versus low-quality SUP construction for hard boards
There are two basic types of SUP construction on hard boards:
Type 1: Traditional EPS/Epoxy Lay-up Construction - This is identical to traditional surfboard construction in that a foam blank is shaped and then layers of glassing are applied to the outside. The difference here is that with SUP boards a lighter and stronger EPS foam core is used (traditional surfboards use PU or polyurethane foam), which necessitates a more expensive epoxy resin is used in the glassing stage. In this EPS/Epoxy construction, blanks are shaped out of EPS foam, also called expanded polystyrene foam. Then swaths of fiberglass fabric are laid over the board and resin is poured over in a glassing stage. This step is repeated on the top and bottom multiple times with the rails overlapping each time. A lot of skilled craftsmanship is needed during the glassing process, so you can have good or bad glassing jobs. On clear coat boards, you can see the quality or lack thereof the glassing job directly. One thing you'll notice is that many SUP boards are painted. While sometimes this is a design feature, it is also very frequently a means to cover up shoddy glassing jobs. Once a board is painted, you have no clue as to the quality of the glassing job. The paint layer actually does nothing to strengthen the skin of a board and just adds weight. In low-end construction, you'll also run into issues of this epoxy paint chipping very easily with use. In general terms, this lay-up construction is less expensive than sandwich construction (detailed below). Note, however, that other type of materials such as carbon fiber can be used in place of fiberglass on this traditional construction, and this is what you'll find on some of the highest end (and lightest) boards on the market.
Type 2: PVC Sandwich Construction - Whereas traditional EPS/Epoxy lay-up construction uses multiple layers of the same fiberglass to create a shell, PVC sandwich construction uses a sandwich with three layers - say an inner layer of fiberglass, a middle layer PVC (or high-density foam), and then another layer of outer fiberglass. All things being equal, this sandwich construction is more expensive to produce and creates a stronger shell. Note, however, that there are many degrees of quality and materials used in sandwich construction. Typically sandwich construction involves creating the outer shell in a mold, and then the foam is blown in.
If a board is clear coat finish (where you can see thru a translucent outer layer to the foam), you can first hand see the quality of construction. you won't have to worry about paint chipping as there is no paint layer. The exterior will be as strong as the quality of the glassing job, the number and weight of the cloth layers used, the type of cloth used (fiberglass, carbon fiber, carbon cross link, other), the quality of the resin used, and the craftsmanship in the sanding job.
If a board is painted, you really don't even know what the construction underneath is. Also the quality and propensity of the paint job to chip can vary. Better paint jobs tend to have a protective clear coat epoxy finish over the paint to minimize chipping. The board construction underneath can be the very highest quality sandwich construction, or it can e high quality lay-up construction, or it can be the lowest quality lay-up construction. If it's sandwich construction, odds are it's a fair quality board. If it's lay-up construction, it varies.
One of the best judges of quality is actually price and brand. Of course this is only when considering boards that are sold thru similar distribution channel. A direct to consumer brand can sell a comparable quality board, regardless of construction type, for between $400 to $1000 cheaper than brands that sell thru the traditional 3-tier distribution channel.
The density rating of a foam core is measured in pounds per cubic foot or kilograms per cubic meter. A cubic foot (12 inch x 12 inch x 12 inch block) of 1 lb density foam would weigh 1 lb. While not an absolute correlation, in general, the higher the density of the foam, the harder and more rigid it is, and thus harder it is to get pressure dings from standing on the board and bumping the board into random objects. On the flip side, the higher the density of the foam, the heavier it is. With stand up paddle boards (which weigh between 20 and 35 lbs), the trick is to figure out how to get the most strength from the least weight. If you create a really strong outer shell, you can get away with using lighter foam in the core and thus lighter overall board. This is what you'll find with higher quality construction. Brands that try to produce lower quality boards with this same low-weight strategy (but without the quality exterior) can produce boards that ding easy, get pressure dings easy, and even potentially snap in the waves. If instead they opt for higher density (and heavier) foam to cover the strength shortfalls of their shell, it results in a much heavier board - it won't snap or pressure ding as easy, but the shell is still easy to penetrate which means you boards is in the repair shop often. This is what you'll frequently find in low price point boards.
Typical surfboard foam
Surfboards have historically been produced using a polyurethane foam core (also called a PU foam core). The density of typical surfboard foam is about 2.3 lbs per cubic foot (or 37 kg per cubic meter, as foam core densities are quoted). In surfboard construction, the polyurethane foam blank is shaped to its final surfboard shape and then coated by one or two layers of fiberglass woven cloth and hardened with a polyurethane resin.
While it’s possible to make a stand up paddle board using PU foam, the result due to the massive size of SUPs would be a very heavy board. SUPs, and many modern surfboards, typically use EPS foam (expanded polystyrene, beaded foam pressed together - think of the foam used on a cheap cooler), which is lighter (typically 12-20 kg per cubic meter, versus 37 for PU foam), and are then (typically, and by all means should be) reinforced with more than just one or two thin layers of glassing you’d find of a traditional surfboard. When EPS foam is used, you can only use epoxy resin, not polyurethane. Epoxy resin is stronger and more ding resistant that polyester resin.
A great resource on board construction
High-quality versus low-quality on iSUP construction
First off, you want to avoid 4" thick iSUPs at all costs. Yes, they are a lot cheaper to buy, but there is a reason these were around for 5 years and no one was riding them. Only when 6" thick boards came onto the market did inflatable SUPs become a viable product. Stick with 6" boards, or even 8" thick when you go to a racing/touring shape. The next thing you want to avoid is gray colored iSUPs. There is a base gray layer that the drop stitch material always comes in and so the cheaper gray boards on the market are just that with edges on it. There are no more reinforcement layers. To endure use over time, you need multiple layers reinforcing one another, especially around the rails and over the seams. The last thing you want to look for is a crisscross pattern of indents on the surface of the board which you can see when the boards are inflated. Each indent is a cross-stitch filament that connects the top of the board to the bottom. By crisscrossing them, triangulation comes into play. This is the strongest structure. You will see some cheaper inflatables with parallel aligned structure. Stay away from these. Other than those basics, definitely check out reviews and inflatable prove their quality over time with use, not merely by someone looking at them or by quoting specs. Shop around.
Hope you enjoyed this article!