Doug Falter

North Shore Pioneers of Eco-Friendly Board Building Interview with Shaper Robin Johnston

By Shannon Marie Quirk
The pioneers of eco-friendly surfboard shaping are up against the odds, as governed by basic economics. Low demand and expensive supply have turned many shapers’ noses from going green in their craft. Despite the numbers, there is a team of surfing talent on the North Shore of O’ahu determined to influence a shift in sustainable surfing and create more options for surfers to go green. Shaper Robin Johnston of RJ Surfboards and Kahi Pacarro, founder of Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii, are producing eco-boards made from recycled foam blanks then glassed with tree sap resin. Going green has never been safer, or more fun.

How will they perform, you ask? Both Johnston and Pacarro understand that “most expert surfers don’t want to experiment. They don’t want to take the risk.” Thus, the progressive team replicated Pacarro’s standard high performance 5’8’’ shortboard to demonstrate how it rides, in hopes of creating sustainable options for all. An influencer in Hawai’i and the competitive surfing world, Pacarro says that “it’s not a mind-bender for you to switch to a more sustainable board. Icons in surfing need to show that this is important. The influencers of the sport should promote sustainable practices.”

Fortunately, there are some eco-pioneers doing just that. 11-time World Champ Kelly Slater recently acquired Firewire Surfboards, in hopes of making a more sustainable surfboard company that incorporates the world’s best shapers. SIMA (Surf Industries Manufactures Association) just endorsed the ECOBOARD, which ultimately helps surfers choose a high-performance sustainable surfboard made with a reduced environmental and toxic impact. Sustainable Surf even introduced the ECOBOARD Project registration process for shapers to certify their businesses with the green seal.

The options for eco-conscious surfers are becoming steadily more available and recognized from the bottom-up. Yet, awareness of eco options is half the battle.

“The goal is a domino effect with pro athletes to promote sustainable practices. Build the demand so that there is a market, and there will be a supply… Hopefully it’s an organic effect from the top down from our professional surfers. I’m beyond the moon to see how my eco-board turns out and push the movement,” Pacarro states.

Photo: Doug Falter

Freesurf Magazine stopped by Robin Johnston’s shaping bay to discuss his new summer line of eco-surfboards and his experimentation with environment-friendly board making materials. What we found was a progressive shift in shaping that stems from an eco-conscious surf community, more fired up than ever to create positive change.

Where do most broken surfboards end up?

ROBIN JOHNSTON: They go in the garbage. Fortunately, a champion longboarder by the name of John DeSoto – a Westside icon – started a non-profit for kids and was collecting all the broken boards he could to repair. If they were broken in half, maybe we would put them back together, but mostly it was boards that were just laying around with nothing being done to them. We would repair them to give them back to kids that can’t afford boards, or don’t have any.

What are you experimenting with in your shaping bay?

RJ: I’m excited about experimenting with sustainable products, and I’m super confident the partially-recycled foam will perform the same. It’s a much better concept than using non-recycled foam. I couldn’t tell the difference when I shaped it, and I think we will see the board perform just like any other. The tree sap resin is supposed to be really good.

Is tree sap resin gaining popularity on the islands?

RJ: It may have been around for a while, but you still can’t go to the main store and pick up these things. Fiberglass Hawaii might carry it now, but ten years ago they did not. For Hawai’i, tree sap resin is relatively new. I’ve heard of it and been interested, but it wasn’t easy to get.

I had an opportunity with Kahi Paccaro who started a non-profit called Sustainable Coastlines. Kahi is a really good friend, a team rider, a really good surfer and an interesting person. He has made a lot happen in Hawai’i with beach clean-ups and his environmental consciousness. He is riding that bubble and trying to increase this capacity of being proactive, instead of continuing on as we have. He’s determined to change that.

We researched a bit and found the connection for the resin. He gave me a recycled blank and we cut into it. We made him his first eco-board, and if it works as well as we hope, its going to be a summer dedicated to that: offering a line of eco-friendly boards as a special summer opportunity to get these things out there.

Why are sustainable practices so important?

RJ: We can only guess how quickly humans pollute the environment. It’s frightening to think about. So every little bit help, if anyone can get involved that’s just buying us more time before things get more critical.

Is there a demand for eco-friendly surfboards?

RJ: The demand has not been that high. People want the best quality, and whether or not its sustainable may not make a difference to everyone, but if it’s easy to have the option and they’re not sacrificing performance, I think that it should gain popularity. Especially after seeing Slater’s interview about ways to make boards that are more eco-conscious materials. He was definitely pushing it, saying that it’s coming, it’s available and why not do it.

How were you introduced to shaping?

RJ: My mom taught me to surf; she’s 70 and still surfs every week. The first spot I surfed was Malaekahana Bay, which is about 10 minutes that way (points East from his home on the North Shore). I grew up between South Shore and North Shore.

I was always involved with some board making production. Even my first introduction to performance board design was from a friend of mine who was chopping old boards up. In other words, he would strip off all the glass, strip it all down and then he would have a foam blank to begin with, take that, make another small board, re-glass it, and those would be our small boards. It was a way to recycle the boards. And we were perfectly happy with them as kids; it was like a brand new board to us. Those were my introductions to glassing and shaping…

Inspiration in today’s surfboard design?

RJ: The diversity of what I do is definitely inspiring. I work in a lot of sports in surfing: big-wave surfing with guns, shortboards, longboards, fun boards, fishes, and stand-up paddle is a big part of my life. I love it all. I believe my SUP shapes are cutting edge with the development of the sport. Some of the stand-up paddles that I made about eight years ago were the smallest ever made. Little boards with more volume make it fun to surf in small waves.

Why is Hawaiian shaping unique?

RJ: Behind most of Hawai’i’s shapers is a pretty good history of surfing. When it comes to bigger waves and performance surfing, Hawai’i is really on the upper echelon, and recognized as one of the most progressive places. There’s a lot of talent with both shaping and surfing.

Describe the latest line of RJ Surfboards.

RJ: Look for the newest, most progressive shortboard models that I’ll be building for summer waves. And also progressive stand-up paddle boards. This is a 6’8’’ stand-up paddle, kind of unheard. Ten years ago no one was riding boards that short. It’s exciting.

What do you love most about shaping?

RJ: Riding the boards. And watching my friends and team riders surf the boards I shape.
Check out Robin Johnson’s shapes at: and visit to help raise awareness about eco-friendly surfing.

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