Varial Surf Technology is putting the surf world on notice with their innovative surfboard composite materials, making boards that are faster, lighter, and stronger than anything you've ever ridden before. WakeMAKERS caught up with Varial Co-Founder and engineer Edison Conner to learn about the start of Varial Surf Technology, how his time working for Elon Musk's SpaceX company sparked ideas for futuristic board design, and what working with Hyperlite to build the best wakesurf boards on the water has been like so far.
Can you just introduce yourself and share a little bit about your background?My name is Edison Conner I am the CEO / Co-Founder here at Varial. I have an engineering background, studying material science and engineering at University of Pennsylvania for undergrad and then a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from UCLA. In addition to doing everything with Varial, I worked for a while at SpaceX, Elon Musk's company in Hawthorne that builds rockets to deliver satellites into orbit and ultimately the goal of interplanetary transportation and building a colony on Mars, etc. That was a pretty cool experience and exposed me to a lot of interspace composites manufacturing technologies.
We were able to take my knowledge from that as well as my engineering education and enter the surf industry bringing the most advanced aerospace materials and manufacturing techniques to surfboard construction. Also, now we've been able to parlay that surfboard technology into related sports outside the traditional surfboard. Obviously wakesurfing is one of the biggest areas of growth for us right now.
What is your surfing background? How was Varial first started?
My Co-Founder Parker and I grew up together in Santa Barbara surfing our whole lives. We’ve been best friends since kindergarten. Riding traditional surfboards we both saw the limitations of them. The boards are really fragile, they can break really easily. Parker was a competitive surfer growing up and grew frustrated with the not so state of the art constructions. The same materials have been used for 60 years and are outdated. If you look at any other sport there has been a lot of material advancement over the years. Surfboard shapes have evolved a lot but not the material construction of them. When we were in college we got the idea to try to bring advanced material technologies to the surfboard industry. We initially started Varial when we both graduated from college back in 2005.
Varial was just an R&D company for about 10 years. We first developed our aluminum honeycomb technology, which you can read about on our website. We're not in production with that right now but that really allowed us to sink our teeth into the R&D process and build super high-performance advanced technology. Get validation on that.
While we were doing all this Parker and I took turns having full-time jobs because we just had to try and make ends meet while also pushing Varial forward. He worked in the finance industry for a while and then he quit his job when I started working for SpaceX. The experience at SpaceX really layered on additional knowledge for me. We started Varial a while back and that has been our primary focus all along. Surfing is our passion.
What are the main takeaways from your time at SpaceX that you've been able to apply to Varial?
In addition to just the exposure to all the manufacturing processes and material technologies there, it was understanding how Elon pushes R&D with such lofty goals. Being able to take those expectations and execute on them as fast as possible. SpaceX is pushing the advancement of technology for the future of all humanity. I apply that mindset and aerospace material knowledge to try to make boards for surfers that are way better.
You had what many would consider a dream job. What got you to take the jump and solely do Varial?
It was an awesome job and if it weren't for Varial I'd probably still be there. Varial has always been Parker and I's passion. It was when we developed the Varial Foam and realized that we could make blanks of this product to sell to shapers. It could be a really great introductory product for us to get in the surf market. During this time Parker was doing Varial full-time and I was working at SpaceX. Varial Foam really started to get some traction in the surfboard market. At some point, I just said, "I know this business is Parker and I's baby, it's growing up fast, and it is time to dedicate all my attention to it."
Let's start talking about all the cool materials that Varial Surf Technology uses to build boards. Could you describe how your materials are built and how they perform on the water?
Yeah, definitely. Varial Foam is an advanced foam chemistry that is used for the core of sandwich structured boards. Sandwich structure is a fancy word for having a core that takes up a lot of volume, is strong, and can support the composite skins really well that are laminated on the outside of it. By having a super strong chemistry of polymer in the foam, it allows us to really maximize the strength of the fiberglass skin bonnet. It also makes it so that it is really compression resistant. When your foot pushes into the board the core is not squishing down and absorbing all the energy, instead all that force that you're putting on the board with your feet is going into flexing the board. This stores energy in the skin that gets released back to you at the end of the turn. It kinda slingshots you out of the turn. That is one of the reasons that these Varial Foam wakesurfers are so fast and so easy to catch back up with the wave. It gets caught by the lip because that core is structurally so efficient that it really allows any force you are putting into the board to flex the board's skin and give you that energy right back.
Varial Foam is 100% UV resistant so there is no issue with it yellowing in the sun. The cells are designed to be 100% closed to one another so if there's ever a ding it doesn't suck water into the core. The cell structure is also super tight so that you don't have much resin absorption into the foam when we are making the boards, keeping the boards super light.
The other point to make about Varial Foam is it is not just about its strength, but its rigidity. The rigidity of the core, like the firmness and stiffness in both bending as well as sheer, allows the core to support the skin super well and also give it a really quick response time. That quick response time is what helps these boards feel super responsive. Basically, whatever you think about doing in terms of moving, the board just does it. It just happens. There's no lag time between your thought and then what your feet are doing and the board's responsiveness.
As far as the Infused Glass process, that's a little bit of a newer technology for us. With Infused Glass we put all the fiberglass and carbon on the board without resin at first. We then put a vacuum bagger on the board and suck all the air out of the fiberglass. So that bag is pushing down really hard on the fiberglass at 14 pounds over every square inch. Over a whole wakesurf board you're talking about thousands of pounds of force compacting that fiberglass in the skin and on top of the core.
We then shoot resin through the fiberglass. The resin is going to fill in between the fibers, gluing it to the core with just a minimal amount of resin in there. That minimal amount of resin means that the skin is basically all fiberglass and that is what is really strong. The resin is more or less just glue that holds it together and forms the waterproof barrier. You need the resin in there and you need full saturation but you want as little as possible to keep the boards super light and have that really great energy storage and release back to the rider. If there is more resin in there it just makes it have this dead feel because the board is absorbing all the energy.
What you end up with is a super light skin on top of a light aerospace grade foam for a really quick response and fast ride behind the boat. I think when you get on these boards you just immediately notice how much faster they are and more responsive. That is due to the lighter weight of them along with the energy storage and release that happens every time you maneuver.
Who does the actual shaping for the Hyperlite x Varial wakesurf boards?
In terms of the shape designing, it is a collaboration between Hyperlite and Varial. The Riot was primarily designed by Aaron at Hyperlite. He is their shaping guru with wakeboards and wakesurfers. There was more input from us on the Trifecta and Exacta in terms of the fundamental design. Each model has been a collaboration.
As far as getting the shape out of the foam, we have a really advanced CNC machine in-house designed specifically for surfboards. It effectively cuts out the shape of the board relatively quickly. We have some shapers in-house who scrub out that machine cut to have a nice smooth surface with all the fine details that are needed for these boards. After that, it is off to lamination.
What has this project been like so far? How about the overall reaction from wakesurfers?
We started working with Hyperlite a couple years ago. They came to us interested in collaborating on a handmade product with the most cutting-edge materials and technologies that is made here in the United States. They were looking for a very core surfboard style product to compliment their other wakesurfers that are already on the market.
We just started talking and made a couple prototypes and then flew up there to Washington to test them out. When we got on the water with the prototype boards everybody just immediately felt like, "wow this is significantly different and better than any other type of wakesurfer we've ridden behind a boat." The boards have an impressive ability to move around on the wake, and get pretty far back and catch back up, do quick turns in the pocket, and get pop for airs. It was just so pronounced in terms of how easy it was to ride and the boards just took the fun to the next level.
With this project we are trying to bring in some traditional surfboard design elements. Wakesurf boards have kind of evolved into their own shapes for a variety of reasons. Along with the material technologies and construction techniques, we wanted to bring in some surfboard design elements. Those elements are most pronounced in the Exact and Trifecta models, which are basically more or less surfboards but made to have the dimensions and rocker of a wakesurf board.
These boards in a traditional construction technique might be difficult to ride because with a tapered, narrower tail like that you might not be able to keep up with the wake as well. The material technology of these Varial Foam boards allows you to get so much speed that it suddenly allows for more traditional surfboard shapes to be ridden behind the boat. When we started riding these boards it was like, "wow we can do turns and it feels like we're surfing an ocean wave."
Working with Hyperlite has been awesome. It feels like together we are taking wakesurfing to the next level. The feedback we're getting from people in general is awesome too. Wakesurfers see that they are definitely a more expensive board because of all the aerospace technologies and being hand shaped here in California but everyone understands the value once they ride them. Seeing the reactions from people is such a satisfying feeling. We're just really stoked to be a part of this with Hyperlite.
Do you have any previous boating background or this project totally new for you?
We have some previous boating experience, Parker especially. He grew up with his family having a summer house up in Wisconsin so he would water ski, wakeboard, and eventually started wake surfing as well. What was a new experience for us was wakesurfing behind these new boats. It is a whole different experience riding a new boat that is designed and built for wake surfing. The wakes are becoming so much more like ocean waves that it is opening up all new realms of designs with these boards.
I think the earlier versions of wakesurf boards were all about keeping enough speed to keep up with the boat. They needed to work and be able to surf on mediocre wakes. Now that the wakes are so insane, the sport is progressing so fast and it really makes me wonder where it is going to be in say five years. We are really excited for the future of this sport.
Obviously the biggest hurdle to getting people into Varial boards is the price of them. How do you explain to wakesurfers that these boards are worth the money?
I say that the riding experience is totally different than jumping on a normal board. Every other board you've ridden before is made of the same commodity materials that have been around for a long, long time. When you get on a Varial Foam and Infused Glass construction wakesurf board it really has so much more flex than any other of the other materials being used today. A lot of the boards with EPS cores have a lot of fiberglass on them in order to make them strong enough because the core is not nearly as strong as Varial Foam. All that fiberglass makes the board stiff and it just doesn't have a lot of liveliness to it, providing minimal flex under the rider's feet. By using such a strong foam core we can dial in the fiberglass thickness to get us the desired flex. We can design in the right flex to make the board really lively and fast on the water.
The boards react so fast under your feet. It really takes wakesurfing to the next level and I think that is what anybody will share if they make the extra investment to get a Varial Foam wakesurf board from Hyperlite. The other thing to mention is that these boards are so strong because of the aerospace materials in them. Very similar chemistries to Varial Foam are used frequently in the core of helicopter rotor blades. Those blades are holding up helicopters and all the lives in them are depending on it. If that foam chemistry can be trusted in that kind of application, you can trust that your wakesurf board with those some materials is going to be super strong and have the engineered flex for a superior feel on the water.
The last thing I'd like to say is that wake surfing is not an inexpensive sport. You are going out there and making a serious investment to be out on the water having a really fun time. I think that if you are making that investment to go do this activity, you want to be on the best equipment in order to maximize the riding experience and fun. If you look at the cost difference between a Hyperlite x Varial board and the competitors' boards, it is a relatively small dollar value compared to the overall investment you make to get on the water, fill the boat with gas, and everything else that goes into enjoying a day of wakesurfing. That relatively small extra investment to have that much better of an experience is worth it I think. The customers who have bought these boards feel like it is well worth the extra price too.
Last question: you are going out on the boat for the day and you can only bring one Varial wakesurfer, which one are you bringing?
Great question. I love the Exacta . That's my go-to.