Best Stand Up Paddle Boards
Welcome to our 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 with a focus on how the SUP is constructed.
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 long board 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?
The "insides" of hard board paddle boards
The difficulty in differentiating between one stand up paddle board from the next paddleboard is that you can’t look inside. That, and you're probably not a hard core stand up paddleboard industry insider that understands all the nuances. Thus, as a prospective buyer, you’re left to sort thru 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 paddleboard costs $800 while another SUP of similar size that looks pretty much the same costs maybe $1600. We go into more detail on our paddle board price page here.
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 inflatable SUPs 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 2011 in an effort to make inflatable paddle boards more rigid, we started prototyping iSUP innovations and in 2012 we rolled out one of the first 6" thick inflatable boards on the market.
Six inch thick inflatable paddle boards changed everything. Suddenly iSUPs 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 inflatable paddle boards.
As Tower was one of the pioneers in the iSUP space, we've become an industry leader:
2015 - Tower iSUPs were named "one of the 10 most impressive products in the US on the INC 500"
2016 - Tower was named one of the top 5 paddle board brands in the world in 2016
2017 - Robb Report named Tower's Chris Craft iSUP the #1 best stand up paddle board worldwide over $2400 & $3400 competitor SUPs
The benefits of inflatable paddle boards are many - 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 inflatable paddle boards 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 standup paddleboards. 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 roughly 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 paddle board 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 stand up paddle board 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. Tower Paddle Boards is a leader in this space, and we sell worldwide. 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 a hard board and shipped to the customer, it will cost another $125 to $175 to ship across the country. Inflatable paddle boards ship for under $30 because they can be sent via UPS. Still there is no wholesaler to retailer shipping cost built into the retail price nor will the customer incur any sales tax in many states, 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! This is Tower Paddle Boards business model, and why we've been had a great deal of success including:
• In 2014, we were named the #1 fastest growing private company in San Diego (any company type, even tech companies and VC funded companies)
• People Magazine named us one of the biggest success stories in the history of ABC's Shark Tank with over $34 Million in sales, and we're Mark Cuban's best investment from the show as well.
• In 2015, we ranked #239 on the INC 500 list of America's fastest growing companies
Confused distribution SUP 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). Seeing the significant success of Tower Paddle Boards direct to consumer business model, there were a lot of brands that tried to copy what we were doing, so a lot of companies started to tout themselves as also selling "direct to consumer".
The difference for many, however, is that they weren't "direct to consumer only", so their pricing had to factor in their wholesale channel. 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 has gone the past few years – some of the confused distribution brands have introduced SUP boards that are priced almost unbelievably low compared to the rest of the market because they are just focusing on selling really low quality stuff. Same thing is happening on Amazon with Chinese non-brands selling cheap inflatable paddle boards of questionable quality at low price points. 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
In the early days of the SUP boom (2010-2013) most of the highest quality hard board stand up paddle boards made overseas were all made in the same 60,000 square foot factory in Thailand that has been producing surfboards, windsurfers, and such for about 30 years. Many 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 had historically been producing boards of a much higher quality production build that boards made in the other major SUP factories, which were in China. As the stand up paddle board boom blossomed, the Chinese factories quickly caught up to the quality on hard board SUPs and today you can find quality in both markets.
The problem for consumers during the early SUP boom was that as this one factory controlled so much of the SUP market share they had the ability to control prop-up pricing to a certain degree. The quality they produced was "better" but they had 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 paddle board price fixing article I authored for Fast Company in 2013, one of the world's leading business magazines), the door opened for higher quality production in many Chinese factories at much lower costs, so the quality gap closed pretty fast and the prices to end consumers slowing started coming down. Today, nearly a decade into the SUP craze, there are several Chinese factories producing molded boards on par with their Thai counterparts.
With the growing popularity of inflatable paddle boards (where the best iSUPs have always been 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 SUP 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 low-quality inflatable because brands can't hide how rigid a board is, or how cleanly the seams are made 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 if you want to learn what makes the best inflatable SUP boards better than lesser iSUPs.
High versus low-quality SUP construction for hard boards
There are two basic types of SUP construction on hard boards:
SUP Construction 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 standup paddleboards 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) paddleboards on the market.
SUP Construction 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 of high-density foam (or wood laminate), 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. Our beautiful wood paddle boards are made using sandwich construction with an attractive wood laminate. These boards are very durable paddleboards.
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. So this is all to say it's more transparent to see quality in clear coat finished boards. We tend to stick to these at Tower Paddle Boards in our hard board SUPs.
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 take away is look for at the distribution strategy of the brand. Your best value is always going to be when buying direct to consumer.
Hard board foam density
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 hard board paddle board construction is a site called The Board Lady.
Inflatable Paddle Board Construction: High versus low-quality
#1 - Avoid 4" thick inflatable paddle boards
You want to avoid 4" thick inflatable paddle boards at all costs. Yes, they are a lot cheaper to buy, but there is a reason these were around for 5 years already, and no one was riding them, when we started prototyping 6" and 8" thick inflatable paddleboards at Tower in 2011. Only when 6" thick boards came onto the market did inflatable SUPs become a viable product. The SUP market literally changed overnight. Inflatable paddle boards went from less than 1% of the market, to well over 70% in a period of about 5 years. Stick with 6" boards, or even 8" thick iSUPs when you go to a racing/touring shape.
#2 - Avoid gray inflatable paddle boards
There is a base gray layer that a good percentage of the drop stitch material always comes in and so the cheaper gray boards on the market are just that with edges on it. They are a single layer board with no reinforcement layers. To endure use over time, you need multiple layers reinforcing one another, especially around the rails and over the seams. Any high-quality inflatable paddle board will be double layer and hand glued, which results in up to 4 overlapping layers at the critical seam points. YOu want to avoid these boards.
#3 - Avoid single layer and machine fused iSUPS
There is an iSUP construction method that goes by various names (fusion, machine laminated, something techy, etc.) so it's often hard to spot. Basically after producing inflatable for years out of multiple layers of PVC and carefully hand laminating a second specific color layer onto the base gray layer (which has the drop stitch fibers embedded into it), in about 2015 some Chinese factories figured out that they could basically machine laminate the graphics directly onto the base layer, and save the materials costs of a 2nd layer. This is typical as the Chinese always look for ways to make things cheaper to increase their factory margins, and often overlook quality in the process. This also made the iSUPs lighter because it's less material. So production became substantially cheaper and lighter. This was all pitched as an advance in iSUP construction and quality, but it wasn't, not by a mile. The downside is that these inflatable paddle boards are much less durable. Sure, they are cheaper to produce, but they are far less quality, and in fact not sufficient quality for their intended purpose. You can find a lot of these inferior inflatable paddle boards in Amazon's marketplace today from Chinese non-brands, so buyer beware. You definitely want to ask, where ever you choose to buy an inflatable paddle board, about hand lamination of 2 or more layers of PVC and doubling things up around the edges.
#4 - Look for a crisscross pattern of indents on the iSUP
Best in class quality inflatable paddle boards have 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 inflatable SUPs with parallel aligned structure. Stay away from these.
$5 - Check iSUP reviews and go with a brand with a track record
Other than those basics on iSUP construction, definitely check out inflatable paddle board reviews as inflatable SUPs prove their quality over time with use, not merely by someone looking at them or by quoting specs. Shop around, and your best bet is always to go with a brand with a consistent track record. At Tower Paddle Boards, we've been a leader in inflatable paddle boards for nearly a decade.
Founder & CEO
Tower Paddle Boards