In Conversation With: Airwave Surfboards

November 27, 2017

Airwave Surfboards is a surf brand from the North of England. Their innovative designs and clean aesthetics set them apart from other UK surf brands, so we sat down for a chat with founder and designer, Josh Moffat, to find out more about the brand. All photos are were shot in the shaping bay by Karl Mackie on film.

Hi Josh! First of all, tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how did you get into surfing?

I’m Josh, I’m an industrial designer, I’m originally from Chester, which isn’t exactly the closest city to the ocean! It was a while before I had close access to waves, but from a young age, I’d always been around the sea.

I’d been aware of surfing from a young age, but I only started when I was 17. From the outside, it just looked like so much fun. I hired a board and had a go – I was hooked instantly. Surfing dug it’s claws in while I was at Uni, which is when I started becoming more interested in surfboard design.

For those that aren’t familiar with Airwave, how did it all begin?

I’ve been into design in general from as early as I can remember, and I started learning about fluid mechanics, composites and ergonomics while studying engineering at Uni – I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was gathering much of the knowledge I now use in the design process at AW.

I started playing around with board designs just for fun, playing with outlines, figuring out rocker profiles and rails, but started looking at surfboards more seriously in my Masters’ year – my final year project was actually a travel surfboard, which compacted into a hand luggage sized bag. Not a bad way to spend a dissertation! That’s actually where the name Airwave originates from. I’m still developing the board itself.

I first started building surfboards in my garage in Chester. Just bought a blank, used some of my dad’s tools, and got stuck in. I’d had the design for a while, so it was well formulated in my mind. I shaped, laminated and sanded the board myself, learning what I could from the internet and from mates who’d had a go. Although I don’t surf it anymore, I still have my first shape; the feeling of riding something you’ve designed and feeling it working is untouchable. From there, friends started ordering boards, I was building a brand, learning to code a website and I had a small factory in my garage.

What are the key elements of the Airwave ethos?

With Airwave, a lot of the things I’m trying to achieve and communicate come from my background as a designer and an engineer. Ideas about creating products which are fit for purpose, but also beautiful, understandable and thorough.

Airwave is really a platform for creating good design. Some people may know about the Ten Principles for Good Design, which are a ‘ten commandments’ style set of guidelines for good design thinking, by Dieter Rams, the guy behind Braun. They’re a strong reference point for AW, bringing in ideas about thorough simplicity in a concept and a product, alongside sustainability and functionality.

In terms of AW’s values, I try to bring some progression into everything that AW does. The strongest reason I started Airwave was to create better surfboards, so I definitely feel a sense of responsibility to try and progress surfboard design. Whether it’s our boards themselves, the way they’re built or even the way we speak about them, it has to be a fresh, new, innovative approach. A lot of that can be seen in the templates we’re riding at the moment and the materials they’re made from; they’re each innovative in their own way. That gives a real sense of identity, which is another strong value within the Airwave brand.

It’s refreshing to see a UK surf brand emerge from the North West. What do you think about the current UK surfboard manufacture scene?

The North West has a pretty strong surf scene, albeit more underground than other places in the UK. It’s amazing to see how many surfers pop out from the woodwork for a good swell, and we do get great waves up here, and there’s plenty of talented crew that are always on it.

The UK is a world centre for so many other industries; design, music, fashion, innovation, so why shouldn’t we be creating surfboards which rival or exceed what others are producing? For sure, there’s a lot of good boards coming from the UK, and there’s a lot of good surfers pushing them, in and out of contests. But throwing back to why I started Airwave, I really felt like I could offer something new and different to the way we approach surfboard design from every angle, using good design to innovate what we’re riding. From shapes to materials, the reasons behind our design decisions and how we communicate our design intent, we’re trying to approach surfboards from first principles, solving problems with design principles and engineering knowledge, rather than replicating product that’s already out there because it’s well established, without thinking about how it can be improved.

I don’t think it’s a problem isolated to the UK, but there’s plenty of misinformation going around in the surfing world when it comes to surfboard design. Whether it’s surfboard flex, materials, shapes, there’s definitely a crew that aren’t keen to progress. Equally, there are some really innovative people, both here and overseas that are doing some amazing things with surfboard design. The crew down at Walters in St Agnes, where we make our boards, are planning some fresh approaches to the way we interact with the surfboard manufacturing process, and I’m really interested to see what happens with some of the 3D printed boards we’re seeing.

Building Airwave from the UK is really important to me too, a lot of people already know about the Made in Britain collective that Airwave is part of. It’s still the only surfboard company in the world allowed to use the Made in Britain Marque, and to share that with companies like Vauxhall, Nissan and Marshall Amplifiers is a really big thing for Airwave. It’s such a cool thing to rock up at a beach in Indo or California and have Made in Britain written on your board.

As a designer, how do you apply design principles to your overall process?

Process is really important. Both in the surf space and in the regular design space, having a strong process, a strong appreciation for the things you’re trying to achieve and a good set of tools to create concepts are crucial for creating good stuff.

Surfboards have a unique space, they’re the only product I know of which is affected so heavily by it’s form, although a surfboard’s form is the thing that most are judged by, so it’s a unique challenge for a designer – to create something that works functionally, but is also beautiful. Principles of form, proportion and styling have a big influence on the design process, which I use to create designs in the concept stage.

In terms of functional design, I use a lot of fluid mechanics principles, structural theory and composites knowledge, as well as some ergonomics principles. Essentially, we’re riding composite products which manipulate fluid flow, so they’re heavily theory based.

“Shaping boards is such a pleasure, but I’m a designer first and foremost, so the part of the process I get the most out of is done before a board is even cut.

Can you briefly explain the process a product goes through from conception to production?

In the same way as any other design project, all my boards start out as a design brief. I’ll have information about the core design intent of what we’re trying to achieve. Whether it’s speed, control, fun, ease, these characteristics will be made clear right at the beginning, before any design ideas are thrown around. This is the same for internal R&D projects and custom boards for my clients, we’ll create a document which outlines what we’re going to achieve with piece of design.

Shape ideas will follow, using fluid mechanic principles, existing AW design features which are proven and new concepts that we’re experimenting with. We’ll then create a selection of concept shapes, and start a dialogue to communicate why we’ve looked at the concepts we have. The board then starts to take shape, machine files are loaded in and foam is cut to our specifications. I’m lucky in that I’m able to make boards in one of the best facilities in the country, with some of the most talented boardbuilders.

After machining, I’ll finish shape each board by hand, smoothing machine lines, perfecting edges and contours, before the board is passed to the laminators. They coat each board in different combinations of fibreglass and resin layers, along with some other more secret materials! Each board is fine sanded, and left to cure before it’s delivered to clients or handed to surfers for R&D testing. I still love new surfboards, the excitement hasn’t worn off. Holding a fresh board in your hands, analysing its shape and weight, imagining how it’s going to feel under your feet is a really special thing.

You shape all your boards yourself by hand. How important is it for you to have hands-on contact with each and every product?

Shaping boards is such a pleasure, but I’m a designer first and foremost, so the part of the process I get the most out of is done before a board is even cut. Apart from actually surfing, obviously! All Airwaves are machine cut initially, but I still insist on finish shaping each board by hand. Most of the shaping is already done, but there’s a huge amount of skill in behind able to soften the curvature across a surfboard, and also a lot of pleasure to be taken from the process. I still love to make things with my hands, so I’ll shape for my clients for as long as I’m able to.

Clean and refined, your branding is on point. Have you always had an interest in brand identity?

Thank you! I know how I appreciate a strong brand – we’re all consumers, and we all respond to Creating brand identities is something I’m exposed to on a daily basis – I also work for a great design studio in North Wales, and a lot of the work I do there requires the creating brand identities and building them into products.

I love the process of using both conscious and subconscious touchpoints to express a set of values, tell a story and communicate the ethos of a group of people. For me, brand runs deeper than a logo, a slogan or signature colourway. Having a strong brand identity is about good communication, good storytelling and attention to detail. Everything we do as an organisation says something about who we are, how we want to be perceived and, ultimately, who we are as people. Brand is everything.

You’ve just launched Gen 2. Tell us a bit about what’s different for your new quiver.

I’m frothing about Gen2. It’s a construction technology I’ve been working on for the past 3 years. I’ve recently added 3 Gen2 boards to my quiver, and we have some boards under the feet of some elite surfers in Cornwall. I’ve been surfing a New55, a Libertine and an AW One, and the feedback has been amazing!

Essentially, the design intent of Gen2 is to create boards which are stronger, lighter, more intuitive to surf and more sustainable to build. It’s the most advanced product I’ve made so far, and it’s different to traditional surfboard construction in just about every way. Regular boards use polyurethane foam, with polyester resin and wooden stringers down their centre for strength, none of which are that optimised for sustainability, product life or ease of use.

In Gen2, we’re using lightweight recyclable foam cores, epoxy bioresin, an impact resistant laminate, which uses biaxial fibreglass, and carbon fibre spines, essentially making Gen2 boards easier to surf, last longer under our feet, more responsive under our feet and less susceptible to damage. It’s a really exciting piece of technology and is essentially a vehicle for helping us to surf better, to surf with more ease and with less impact on the environment.

“But throwing back to why I started Airwave, I really felt like I could offer something new and different to the way we approach surfboard design from every angle, using good design to innovate what we’re riding.

And finally, if you had to choose one of your boards to ride for the rest of your life, which would it be?

Man, I’m totally biased, I’ve just picked up my new twin fin, which I’m having an unreal amount of fun on. It’s fast, extremely responsive and is an addictive amount of fun to surf. But there’s one board which I really love, the AW One. It’s the first board I designed, the most popular template I make and I’ve had the best surfs of my life so far on it. It’s a versatile board, essentially to be rideable in as many kinds of surf as possible. It’s the kind of board I’d trust to take around the world with me, knowing I could arrive at virtually any spot and I’d be able to have fun, regardless of wave size or quality. I ride mine a little smaller than normal, but that keeps the centre of gravity close to my body, meaning it’s responsive. It’s easy to catch waves on, easy to surf, really fun and really fast, especially in Gen2.

To find out more about Airwave and get your hands on one of their new boards, visit their website.

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