The choice of surfboard for the beginner and expert alike is quite extensive. There are three main types of surfboard - custom boards the most popular, 'pop-outs' or moulded surfboards (now very hi-tech epoxy systems)and soft boards made of high-density foam.
Custom surfboards as the name suggests are made from foam blanks that are hand shaped and then laminated with a layer of fibreglass. These are the most common types of surfboards you will find in a surf shop. They are also the most expensive. They are not always the most appropriate for beginners because they are usually made for high performance and not for learning, although if buying a new board they can be ordered with a design suitable for a beginner.
A pop-out or moulded surfboard is made by bonding two fibreglass halves together around a foam core.
The old system was to join the two halves together and fill the middle with liquid foam that then expands and hardens. The modern way is to fill the centre with expanded polystyrene instead. This makes a durable board that used to be heavier than a custom board, but now, with modern processes makes a strong light board. In general they are more difficult to repair than custom boards and are less favoured due to their 'standard' shape. This means that they are usually perfect for beginners or novices alike.
Soft boards are made from high-density plastic foam that is soft and floats well. They came to production from the demand for a board that wouldn't hurt if it hit someone and has become the standard for surf schools and first time surfers. Body boards are also made of the same materials and were the first to use this type of foam construction.
Surfboards can then be grouped as to their design. Here we see short boards, fun boards, mini-mals, guns, and longboards amongst others and all can have between one and three fins (and occasionally more).
Square Tail Short Board (deck or top side)
Short boards are usually of a high performance design, between 5'6" and 7'0" and made as a custom board. Modern short boards tend to be thin, and have a pointy nose and tail which makes them highly manoeuvrable and fast. They are best suited to steep, powerful waves.
Fun boards are a type of short board that are of a more 'relaxed' design. They can be found between 6'6" and 7'8" and are wider and thicker than their high performance counterparts and therefore are much easier to paddle and surf than real short boards! They are suitable for all round surfing of mushy beach breaks and more challenging reef and point breaks, as well as novice to intermediate surfers. Many good surfers use them when conditions are not suitable for using their short boards.
Big Wave Gun
Guns are designed for riding BIG waves. They are from 7'0" upwards and in places like Hawaii it is very common to see them from 8'0" to 12'0". They are usually narrow but quite thick with very pointy tails, which helps them hold in the face of the wave.
Come from the history of surfing and are making a come back due to the ease that waves can be caught along with their more relaxed, stylish approach to surfing waves. They are from 9'0" to 12'0" and reflect the original designs of the 50s and 60s of being around 22" wide and not much less at the nose or tail. They are quite thick, so a surfer is able to kneel on them to paddle. These boards paddle very easily, catch waves very easily, but can be difficult to turn. They also can be difficult to control in bigger waves and therefore dangerous to other people around.
9'3" Long Board
Mini-mals have the same shape and design as longboards but are shorter, between 7'6" and 8'6". They were made because some surfers wanted a board that would turn and manoeuvre a lot quicker but still have the benefits of a longboard. Their characteristics are similar to longboards.
Buying your first surfboard...
When thinking about buying your first board, you'll need something stable and easy to paddle. Stability comes mainly from the width of the board and ease of paddling from the length. Therefore we are looking for a board that when reaching above your head you can just put your hand comfortably over the nose. The width needs to be around 19"-20" with a 'full' shape. A mini-mal type of surfboard fits the requirements best, although plenty of other shapes are suitable as well.
Always visit a reputable surfshop and seek their opinion - they might just have the perfect board, although perfect boards are hard to find! A second hand board can be a good bet, as you can usually sell it again without losing too much when you've improved enough to move on. Check the board well first. Reject any board that is delaminating (fiberglass coming away from the foam) or that has been snapped and repaired. A few dents or repaired dings are nothing to worry about. Check that moulded boards are not too heavy (absorbing water) and the seams are sound. With soft boards the surface shouldn't be too rough (abraded) or the stringer broken.