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Board Test: Polyurethane vs. Varial Foam technology

Board Test: Polyurethane vs. Varial Foam technology




Product Reviews

Identical computer shaped boards road tested

Surfersvillage Global Surf News, 10 May, 2015 - We’ve been using the same surfboard materials for almost 60 years. Why? Polyurethane foam and fiberglass is cheap, abundant (unless you count the 2005 Clark Foam crisis) and most of all, familiar. Every other aspect of surfing has made technological leaps and bounds: fins, leashes, boardshorts and wetsuits but surfboard materials remain the same. It’s a sad, familiar, toxic, story. But a new company on the market is offering an alternative to PU blanks, Varial Foam 

Varial was developed in the aerospace industry and has a tighter cell structure than standard polyurethane foam. According to the makers, the blanks are 25% lighter and are substantially stronger.

Varial Foam doesn’t use a stringer. Instead the foam is engineered to hold a similar flex pattern to that of a PU blank with a stringer. “Varial has 7X the modulus of PU or EPS foam,” says Parker Borneman of Varial. “Modulus is a technical term for the foam’s rigidity. The enhanced rigidity of Varial Foam compensates for the lack of a wood stringer.” 

Matt Biolos of …Lost Surfboards, and shaper of our test board, a SubDriver, agrees the cell density in Varial is unique. “It’s easily the tightest cell structure of any foam developed for surfboards,” he says. “It also glasses up very light and flexy.”

The advantage of going stringerless is that it eliminates the inconsistent flex properties of wood - due to the knots and grain density in wood that vary slightly from stringer to stringer. The end result is flex consistency from blank to blank.


Varial is gaining traction in the market and a few shapers out there are backing the foam, most notably Jeff ‘Doc’ Lausch of Surf Prescriptions and Biolos. Then there are a few pros as well who endorse the technology, like Shane Dorian and Ian Battrick.

“Ive ridden it (Varial) everywhere,” says Battrick. “You will notice the second you stand up on Varial it’s so much faster! It feels more lively, responsive, paddles better, and has a nice float.”

So now that we’ve done our tech homework, talked to the makers and to surfers more skilled than us, let’s get going and share what we, the average-to-sometimes-above average surfer, discovered…

We Rode Two Identical Boards:
Both boards were both shaped off the exact same computer file by Matt Biolos and …Lost. They are a SubDriver “Grovel” at 5’11” x 20.25 x 2.5 at 32 Cubic Liters in Polyurethane construction and  in Varial/Hydroflex/Epoxy construction.

The Varial board was glassed with epoxy Hydroflex tech. Hydroflex uses a method where resin is injected into the foam blank for strength - reports are that the bonding between the foam and lamination is 600% stronger than with traditional glass jobs. (We can’t prove that but it sounds great!) The tail patch on the Varial/Hydroflex board is an aerospace grade fabric. The PU board is two years old and starting to yellow (except where it’s covered in Posca paint-pen children's artwork.)


First Impressions:
Varial is much lighter. With pad and fins it weighs 6 pounds 7 ounces while the PU counterpart weighs in at 7 pounds 10 ounces.

Varial has a nice float to it without feeling too ‘corky.’ More buoyancy? Tough call, but if we had to decide, we’d say the Varial is a touch floatier. To gauge if this was all in our heads, we asked Biolos about the difference in float and materials: “Whatever is more light of two exact objects will be more buoyant,” he says. “So, in general, boards built with lighter cores like EPS, XPS or Varial, tend to feel floatier.” Thank you Matt.

Varial convert Ian Battrick said he goes a shave thinner in his dims when ordering a Varial board compared to a PU board. 

Polyurethane foam left and Varial foam right at 70x magnification


What We Discovered:
In a variety of conditions the Varial felt like a very lively PU board. It felt a touch springier than the PU, meaning it felt like it snapped back quicker than the PU board. Biolos says the Varial foam can feel more flexible than PU, but in testing I didn’t find this to be a negative. In fact I would say the Varial has a positive, lively ‘zip’ to it.
The Varial board also had that quickness to it that lighter-glassed PU and epoxy boards tend to have. Best though was that the board didn’t chatter or bounce in chop like a lot of epoxy or EPS boards will do. It had the same positive drive familiarity as PU constructions.

Varial claims that the blank will retain this zippiness for the lifespan of the board, and the board will also never yellow as the foam is resistant to UV rays. 

Of note on durability, the board is strong. We stood on it. It flexed. We ran over someone’s board in the lineup (Not our fault - the surfer ditched his Channel Islands) with no ill effects on the Varial. The Varial deck did have some pressure denting - less than you’d find on a PU but more than on an epoxy or Firewire constructed surfboard.

Construction diagram of our test board


The Takeaway
It surfs like a light, team-glassed PU board (even a bit more lively) but with excellent durability characteristics. The Varial is strong without many of the drawbacks of lighter, non-PU constructions: stiffness, chattering in chop and being extra floaty. The downside is it costs more (30% says Varial). Some surfers might not want a board that feels ’team light’. 

The test board rode like a PU, which made me like it, which led me back to asking Biolos why collectively we as surfers are so picky and obsessed with finding NEW constructions that mimic - as exactly as possible - the same OLD polyurethane we’ve been using for so many decades. Why use PU as the benchmark that all other constructions are measured?

“Familiarity,” he says. “We were all raised on traditional boards. I think as we move further and further from generations that were exclusively raised on traditional construction, you will slowly see more and more surfers feel comfortable with alternative constructions.”

Biolos added that most of these alternative constructions were developed to aid in small surf but that most of the world class surfing is done in solid surf and the athletes are riding traditional constructions 95% of the time. So why aren’t we embracing a materials revolution? 

“Thats what the public sees, and as the public sees, the public does,” says Biolos.” 

Bryan Dickerson

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