home catalogue history references appendix

Click for next entry 
plans and specifications : blake hollow 

1937 Tom Blake Hollow Paddle Board
Australian Racing 16, Cigar Box, Kook Box

 Tom Blake : Riding the Breakers on this Hollow Hawaiian Surfboard -
Popular Mechanics Magazine
July 1937 Volume 68 Number 1, pages 114 - 117.

Reprinted in : How to Build Your Own Canoe, Kayak or Surfboard,  Number 30
     Poplular Mechanics Press, 200 E. Ontario Street Chicago 11 Illinois.
Copyright 1940, Second printing 1946.
First designed in 1926 by Tom Blake based on 16 ft ancient Olo board, and lightened by drilling the board full of holes then covering them with thin sheets of timber.
This success, primarily as a paddle board, was followed by the common hollow design of plywood covering over a light wood frame, with a bung.

On 18th April, 1931 Thomas Edward Blake submitted three pages with a detailed drawing for a ' Water Sled'. and was subsequently granted US Patent No. 1,872,230 by the US Patents and Trademarks Office, Washington DC.

Apart from competitive success in many paddling races, Blake published construction plans, e.g. Popular Mechanics, 1937, with the result that his design was used throughout the then surfing world.
This had definite influence in Peru (first surfers), New Zealand and Australia, where it first appeared as the Australian Racing 16.

In 1945 the Surf Life Saving Association of Australia issued plans for the approved design of a Hollow Surfboard.
These bore close resemblance to Blake's plans of 1935, above.

Image has be manipulated to improve legability.
Source : Unknown.

In 1957 the construction method was used to make hollow examples of the Malibu board (Okinuee) when balsa wood was unavailable in Australia, and was similarly used in New Zealand up to 1961.

I am a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and am working on an exhibition about the history of plywood.
I am very interested in plywood surfboards, examples of which we plan to show in the exhibition.
I have seen Tom Blake described in various places as the first designer to use plywood in his boards, but haven’t been able to find any definite evidence that he did in fact use plywood as a material (neither his patent nor his article about building your own surfboard seem to specify it).

I was fascinated to read through the material on your very helpful website, and wondered if you are aware of any surviving Blake boards where plywood construction is definitely visible?
I would be very grateful for any help or suggestions that you could give about this.

Best wishes, and thank you in advance,

Lizzie Bisley.

Project Curator
Plywood exhibition
Furniture, Textiles and Fashion Department
Cromwell Road
London SW7 2RL

Thank you for your fascinating questions.

Please note the distinction between a board made
by Tom Blake, a board made by a licensed company, and a board made by anyone to his design plans, which he distributed widely and never appears to have enforced his patent.
The first might number about 3000 (?), but the second
were far more numerous, both largely used in Hawaii and the US.
Boards constructed to Blake's design probably numbered in the 10's of thousands and were used world wide.

Also, I think there are reports of some surfboards built with plywood before the mid-1920s, but as these were not marine-grade they had a short and inglorious life and were only recorded as an experimental failure.

evidence that
Blake did in fact use plywood as a material?

(neither his patent nor his article about building your own surfboard seem to specify it.)

Plywood was not used on the early Blake designs, in Hawaiian Surfboard (1935) the board is said to be made from mahogany and in 1937 he suggested spruce frames with African mahogany first choice for the planking- two pieces 12'' x 14ft x 0.75" for each side.

-Tom Blake : Riding the Breakers on this Hollow Hawaiian Surfboard -
Popular Mechanics Magazine , July 1937 Volume 68 Number 1, pages 114 - 117.

These rare early boards have joins in the panels down the centre line.

Sometime after 1933-1934, when reliable water-proof marine grade plywood (Weldwood, Harbord) became available,
someone (possibly Tom Blake) was the first to replace the solid decking with a sheet of ply, either in constructing a new board or, perhaps just as likely, in replacing the panels on a damaged board.
The advantages, including about a 50% reduction in weight in the panels, were significant and around 1936-7 Blake-Rodgers was the first company to successfully design, manufacture, distribute, and actively promote with adverting and plans a hollow timber and plywood surfboard.

In plans
dated 1937, reproduced in Lynch and Gault-Williams' Tom Blake: The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman (2001), veneer or planking are suggested as alternatives for covering the deck and bottom of a Square-tail Hollow Board (fold-out, page 99?).
And a reproduced brochure for Thomas Rogers Company, specifications for design numbers 4, 5, 6 and 7 are Mahogany side rails planked with Weldwood water-proof 3-ply panel (page 97).
Blake worked with Rogers from 1932 to 1939 and the authors date this document circa 1934, however I feel it might be closer to the 1937 plans noted above.

Hopefully, this answers your first question.
However, I have added some further notes below on Weldwood and marine ply (1), although there is a good chance you are already familiar with most of the material.

are you aware of any surviving Blake boards where plywood construction is definitely visible?
Here is a later one from 1948, specified as plywood:

In the background is a 12 foot 1930s hollow wooden Tom Blake-style surfboard.

Plywood Surf-ski, Jersey, 1958

And a quite interesting
Plywood canoe

any help or suggestions

Generally, up to this point, advances in maritime technology were viewed with a conservative cynicism,and were only adopted after rigorous testing and experience.
However, it
appears that once easily-worked, lightweight, and flexible (and low cost?) reliable water-proof marine grade plywood became widely available in the late 1930s, builders around the world readily used it to replace solid timber planking, used since antiquity, in a wide variety of small watercraft
Before the outbreak of war, marine plywood was used to sheath canoes, small boats, and hollow surfboards and hollow surf-skis, with some designs available in kit form.
The use of marine plywood was welcomed by canoe builders (see note 2), many who had been working with standard ply, and water proofing it by laminating the timber between layers of painted canvas,
The surf-ski was invented in Australian oyster-farmer, Harry McLaren, in the late 1920s; around the same time that Blake was developing his surfboard designs in Hawaii (note 3).
The molded Haskell canoe (link above) and the molded small boat designs by Eugene Luther Vidal, featured on pages 25-26 of The Plywood Catalog of 1940  are particularly interesting (link below).

The supply and application of marine ply vastly accelerated during WW2, famously for the superstructure of light-weight PT boats, and after the war a timber frame sheathed in marine plywood became a common design for constructing surfboards, surf-skis, canoes, racing shells and many small rowing and sailing boats.
These were progressively superseded by laminated fibreglass and plastics.



The Lumber Co-operator
Northeastern Retail Lumbermens Association, Rochester, N.Y.
Volume 14 Number 11 November 1935, page 47.

WELDWOOD: The first absolutely waterproof plywood,
now in its third year, manufactured for the present in hardwoods only.

Eugene Luther Vidal
Eugene Luther "Gene" Vidal (April 13, 1895 – February 20, 1969) was an American commercial aviation pioneer, New Deal official and athlete.
He was the father of author Gore Vidal.
For eight years, from 1929 to 1937, he worked closely with Amelia Earhart in a number of aviation-related enterprises.
After leaving the BAC, Vidal experimented from 1937 to 1940 with wood-resin composites using a thermosetting polymer process similar to Duramold under the banner of the Vidal Research Corporation.
The experiments with the durable waterproof plywood material, said to have a greater tensile strength than a comparable thickness of aluminum, evolved initially into a small business producing only trays and dinghies.
Vidal patented the process as "Vidal Weldwood",[34] variously described as "cooked wood" or "molded plywood."
After the United States was drawn into World War II, Vidal obtained contracts to manufacture war materiel, primarily deck houses for PT boats, pontoons and aircraft drop tanks, that earned him the wealth that had eluded his earlier entrepreneurial attempts.

[The variant of the Vidal process used for watercraft was known as Weldwood Marine]
Restrictions on the use of metals in 1942, particularly aluminum, caused by an increased demand by shipbuilders and aircraft manufacturers led both the Army and the Navy to demand designs for components and training equipment that could be manufactured from wood composites.
Investments in factories to build Weldwood products under license boomed immediately.
One such licensee was the Hughes Aircraft Division of Hughes Tool Company, and another was U. S. Plywood.[36]
The success of the product was well-publicized and earned him an honorary doctorate from Lawrence College.[8]
After the 1936 elections, (Amelia) Earhart began final planning for her proposed equatorial circumnavigation of the world, with fuel and routing across the Pacific Ocean major considerations.
Vidal suggested that landing strips be built on tiny, uninhabitable Howland Island as the largest point of land along the planned route within range of both New Guinea and Hawaii.
Earhart agreed with the suggestion and made the request for its use.
It is alleged in Susan Butler's biography East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart, and the possibility endorsed by Kathleen Winters in Amelia Earhart: The Turbulent Life of an American Icon, that Vidal had a long-standing romantic relationship with Earhart,[42][43] from 1929 when they worked together for Transcontinental Air Transport to her disappearance in 1937.
His son Gore Vidal's cover testimonial to Butler's biography adds credence to the story.[44][n 17]

- wikipedia: Eugene Luther Vidal

616 WEST 46th STREET • NEW YORK, N. Y. Phone CIRCLE 6-7100

Page 27
WELDWOOD WELDWOOD is waterproof Plywood.
Its plies are welded together under heat and pressure with a phenol-formaldehyde binder (Bakelite type).
This binder is not only waterproof but is chemically inert and is heat resistant up to the charring point of the wood used in the fabrication of the panel.
Weldwood can be used outdoors for any purpose where lumber is usually required.
It is suitable for siding, bill boards and other outdoor signs, farm buildings, truck bodies, trailers, store fronts, paneling for below-grade basements and boat building.
In every instance in which Weldwood is used, it represents tremendous economy in labor.
It is much lighter than any of the materials which it replaces and the finished job is far superior as it eliminates cracks and reduces joints to a minimum.
WELDWOOD can be obtained from stock in Fir, Birch, Mahogany and Walnut.
On special order, it can be obtained in practically any other wood.
Specially fabricated for Boat-building Industry
Boatbuilders and others requiring WELDWOOD for extra  hard service may now specify "Marine WELDWOOD" for  their jobs.
The bond used in Marine WELDWOOD is identical with that used in standard WELDWOOD but this product  is made with tight cores and "no patch" faces.

The introduction of this special grade marks the final step in the perfection of WELDWOOD.

-The plywood catalog - 1940

Weldwood does not appear in The plywood catalog - 1938

A digression: for a very 1950s  illustrated presentation
, see The Story of Plywood by American Plywood Association, 1954

An advertisement for Weldwood appeared in Australia in 1944 and two sheets of Waterproof Ply (14ft x 2ft x 1/4'') were specified in plans for a Blake-type hollow board
prepared for the Surf Life Saving Association of Australia in 1945.
However, marine plywood was probably available in Australia well before this time.

-1944 'Advertising', The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957), 15 April, p. 5. , viewed 06 Aug 2016,

It appears Vidal's Weldwood was not the only marine ply produced in the 1930s, the Harbor Plywood Corporation produced a product known as (Super) Harbord following the work of  James Nevin in 1934:

A Technological Breakthrough: Waterproof Adhesive
Lack of a waterproof adhesive that would make plywood suitable for exterior exposure eventually led automobile manufacturers to switch from plywood to more durable metal running boards.
A breakthrough came in 1934 when Dr. James Nevin, a chemist at Harbor Plywood Corporation in Aberdeen, Washington, finally developed a fully waterproof adhesive.
This technology advancement had the potential to open up significant new markets.
But the industry remained fragmented.
Product quality and grading systems varied widely from mill to mill.
Individual companies didn’t have the technical or in most cases marketing resources to research, develop and promote new uses for plywood.
The industry looked for help from its newly formed trade association, the Douglas Fir Plywood

Thomas C. Jester (editor): Twentieth-Century Building Materials: History and Conservation, 2014, page 102.

Dating back to antiquity, the dugout, bark or skin canoe was the basic vessel of aboriginal peoples around the world
However, as a recreational craft the canoe captured the imagination of Europe following the publication of John MacGregor’s best-selling A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe in 1866.

A clinker oak hull with a cedar deck, the original Rob Roy canoe, built in 1865 by Thames boatbuilders Searle & Sons of Lambeth for John MacGregor’s tour of Europe, is now preserved at the River and Rowing Museum, Mill Meadows, Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire.

Rob Roy, 1865.
Around the turn of the 20th century canoe builders used standard plywood laminated between layers of painted canvas to produce a lighter craft, before the introduction of relatively inexpensive marine grade plywood in the late 1930s.
After the WW2, recreational plywood canoes were ubiquitous on the lakes, rivers and bays of Australia, often available from boat-hire services at resorts
, before they were progressively replaced by fibreglass canoes during the 1970s.
With the coming of the 21st century, plastic molded canoes dominate the recreational market.

Frank and Betty Cater and plywood canoe, Patonga NSW, 1950.


In 1935 Amelia Earhart wrote an article My Flight from Hawaii, published in National Geographic, May 1935.
The magazine also contained eight
surfing photographs at Waikiki by Tom Blake, including one of Amelia riding in an outrigger canoe.

© Thomas Edward Blake


Easier to handle than the tricky board, the canoes offer good fun.
When the surf is not too big, gay parties, sometimes as many as seven in a boat, may be seen riding the waves in these queer craft, which are hollowed koa logs, with side floats to prevent capsizing.
At the steersman's signal all paddle furiously till the swell lifts them and bears them fast toward shore.
Lashed together anil provided with woven grass sails, such vessels have been used by natives for long ocean voyages.
Suitable for All External Linings and Outdoor Uses.
ROMCKE Pty. Ltd.
Church Lane, Melb. MU6037.


1944 'Advertising', The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957), 15 April, p. 5. , viewed 06 Aug 2016,

Click for next entry
home catalogue history references appendix

Geoff Cater (2000-2015) : Tom Blake : Hollow Surfboard, 1937.