What are paddle boards made of and why does it matter?
Inflatable Paddle Boards are made of layers of PVC bound by adhesives and drop-stitch material that surround the chamber. Hard paddle boards start off with a hollow or foam core that are surrounded by materials such as plastic, foam, fiberglass, wood or composite layers.
The difference in materials will affect the way your board behaves in the water.
There certainly is a lot of blurry language as to what materials a paddle board is made of. Terms like “military grade”, “drop stitch”, “fusion laminated” and “highest quality” ISUP gets thrown around quite a bit.
In this article, we dissect what all these terms mean to give you bite-sized, easily digestible information. While we are not a SUP manufacturer we can step back and provide you with a detailed explanation of what to look for without the rose-colored glasses.
We will first be going through Inflatable Paddle Board constriction terminology. After all, we are an inflatable paddle board website!
Afterward, we will be doing a brief overview of hardboard materials.
Let’s Get into it!
Table of Contents
- What Are Inflatable Paddle Boards Made Of?
- What Are Hard Paddle Boards Made of
- What Differences do SUP Materials Make?
What Are Inflatable Paddle Boards Made of?
Inflatable paddle boards consists of a single air chamber that is held together by drop stitch material and coated by PVC. What goes into these materials varies and will ultimately determine the life span of your paddle board.
Below we will be going through all the terminology that you may come across when researching inflatable paddle boards. Terms like Military Grade and Drop stitch get thrown around a lot in the ISUP industry so we will attempt to dissect each term to make it more easily digestible for your understanding.
Chambers can also be referred to as the air bladder. The vast majority of inflatable SUP’s have a single chamber that is held together by drop stitch material that allows the ISUP to keep its form. How these are made will be detailed more below.
There are a few outliers that feature double or dual chambers. Paddle Boards like the Bluefin Cruise Carbon and the Starboard Deluxe Double inflatable boards feature two air bladders. One main one on the outside and closer to the middle.
How these chambers are designed differs between the two manufacturers. But what they do do is create more rigidity that makes the board feel more solid. It also gives you an extra layer of protection should a puncture occur.
Drop Stitch Material
Drop stitch or drop stitching refers to the tens of thousands of individual threads that hold the top and bottom pieces of the paddle board together. All inflatable paddle boards have this material although the threading of the drop stitch can differ from manufacturer to manufacturer.
There are 2 types of drop stitch materials that keep the tens of thousands of tiny threads in place. knitted and woven drop stitch paddle board fabric.
Knitted Drop Stitch Material
Knitted drop stitch material involves interloping and interlacing threads that are tied together. Just like in knitting these fabrics are more flexible and stretchy. I suspect that as SUP technology advances more and more SUPs will be following Starboard’s lead and will be dropping knitted drop stitch process.
Woven Drop Stitch Material
This technology has been introduced to the world by Starboard (See above picture and video explanation). Woven drop stitch is wrapped by criss-cross patterns which make them more rigid. This gives the threads less play when the board is inflated to its proper PSI.
I suspect woven drop stitch will be a more common practice as stand up paddle board technology is refined. Other inflatable paddle board manufacturers like Nixy have started catching on to this and have included this technology in their boards.
Inflatable Paddle Board Layers
Now, this is where you start seeing more of the confusing terminology being used. Different paddle boards have different manufacturing processes depending on where they are made. Typically the more expensive the board the more care goes into the manufacturing process. This requires more time, craftsmanship, and higher-quality materials being used with the board. More on this below
Single Layer Construction
What is Single Layer Construction?: Single layer isup construction consists of drop stitch fabric that is coated with PVC on the outer layer. These paddle boards are almost always 6” thick.
These are paddleboards that are mass-produced to be sold to online retailers like Amazon and Big box stores. Almost all paddle boards that are $600 and under during peak season fall in this range. Their manufacturing processes are virtually identical. The main differences are the slabs of paint on each board.
Be wary as oftentimes these manufacturers use terminology like “best”, strongest” manufacturing process without any other explanation other than them saying “military-grade PVC Paddle Board”, “Drop Stitch”. Other times these manufacturers will use their own “fusion-based” wording to make you think it’s a different product from what it actually is. So be wary!
What are the Advantages of Single Layer Constriction?:
- The biggest reason is that it is the cheapest to produce and therefore they are the cheapest boards for the customer to buy
- There’s nothing inherently wrong with single-layer construction per se, just know that these boards will not last as long as the other construction layers in this article.
What are the Disadvantages of Single Layer Constriction?:
- The paddle boards with this construction style last the shortest amount of time
- Leaks are more common
- Outside elements like UV rays will wear out the materials faster
- These boards are the least rigid boards available
- On-water performance is below the other construction layers
Who Uses Single Layer Construction?
Double Layer Construction
What is Double Layer Construction?: Double layer Construction refers to a board that has 2 layers of PVC coatings over the drop stitch fabric core. This gives it a more watertight construction that increases the durability of the board.
These boards are usually within the $600 to $800 range and typically have warranties that last 1 to 3 years.
What are the Advantages of Double Layer Construction?
- More durability
- Stiffer (less bounce when standing on the middle of the board in the water)
- Lasts longer than single layer ISUPs
What are the Disadvantages of Double Layer Construction?
- Heavier board to carry
- Can be harder to fold depending on the manufacturing process
Who Uses Double Layer Construction?
Triple/ Quadruple Layer Construction
What is Triple/Quadruple Layer Construction?: These Paddle Boards feature 3 or 4 layers of PVC over the drop stitch fabric. While this will make the board a bit more durable it also makes it heavier. The performance benefits start to drop off when you are past the double-layer construction.
What are the Advantages of Triple/Quadruple Layer Construction?
- The extra PVC does add another layer of durability
- The seams get more PVC coverage which makes leak springs less likely
What are the Disadvantages of Triple/Quadruple Layer Construction?
- This process adds an extra 3-5 pounds of weight to the board
- The durability to weight benefits are not as obvious as double-layer construction
- Starting to be an outdated process
- Can be harder to fold with extra layers of PVC
Who Uses Triple/ Quadruple Layer Construction?
The most obvious name is iRocker. Both their iRocker and Blackfin models use triple-layer construction on their paddleboards. Blackfin states on its website that it’s “Triple Composite PVC Construction” while the iRocker boards say “Triple Layer Military Grade PVC”. The composite may refer to the fabric or drop-stitch threading.
Fusion Layer Construction
What is Fusion Layer Construction?: Fusion construction is drop stitch connected by two layers of fabric that are pressed (fused) together with PVC on the outside making it into one fused layer.
This is becoming more and more of a common material for paddle boards that are within the $600 to $1000 range. This is because this material is sort of like the hail mary of ISUP designs. It’s in the sweet spot for rigidity, weight and cost to make.
This is my favorite material for inflatable paddle boards that are under $1000.
What are the Advantages of Fusion Layer Construction?
- Lightweight because it uses fewer materials
- More environmentally friendly material
- This is becoming the standard for SUPs under $1000
- Board is more rigid because of the fused double layer of fabric with the PVC
- Last almost double of what a single layer SUP would
- Stiffness is at least equivalent to double layer constriction
What are the Disadvantages of Fusion Layer Construction?
- Boards are typically more expensive (although I am seeing the prices on these decrease year on year)
- Most of them are still produced overseas in factories in China, Thailand etc.
Who Uses Fusion Layer Construction?
Custom Layer Construction
What is Custom Layer Construction?: This term does not refer to any particular construction in general but more is an overview of paddle board companies that design their boards in-house. An example of this is Red Paddle’s MSL fusion construction. The threading is coated in a layer of adhesive instead of PVC. This makes it create both a proper bonding layer and an airtight seal. After that, they laminate a high-density layer of PVC to this adhesive.
Other companies like StarBoard or Earth River SUP have unique processes of their own that they use on their higher tier boards.
While the design processes may be different many of them are designed in-house in a private facility or have a more hands-on approach compared to cheaper made boards. This is where you will get more detailed descriptions of how the SUP is made.
What are the Advantages of Custom Construction?
- Built and designed in the house making it very specialized
- Provides the best durability and longest life span
- The most rigid design by far
- These kinds of specialized designs will get the most out of your paddle boards on-water performance
- Their stability rivals hardboards
- Can be a variety of different thicknesses from 4 – 5.5”
- More quality control in the process
- Longer and stronger warranties
- Fewer defects happen
What are the Disadvantages of Custom Construction?
- Expensive to produce
- Boards take longer to produce (for Red Paddle it takes 72 hours for each board)
- Materials are more expensive
Who Uses Custom Layer Construction?
Red Paddle is the first that comes to mind. They are one of the few paddleboard manufacturers who have a hands-on approach to every board they make in their own facilities. Others design more specialty inflatable SUP’s like Hala, NRS, Earth River SUP, and Starboard.
Inflatable Paddle Board Rails
The rails of an inflatable paddle board play a very different role from that of a hard board. While hardboard rails are designed for performance reasons. Inflatable boards use them as the seam to join the top and bottom layers. This process is integral to keeping your inflatable paddle board sealed and in shape.
This is the area most likely to spring a leak so it’s best to know the different rail types and which kind is associated with what kind of boards.
These are the sidewalls that are the thinnest and therefore the most likely to spring an air leak. You can find this rail set-up on many budget inflatable paddle board brands. Oftentimes the ones that are $300 and under.
These can often be identified by strips that are an inch wide PVC strips that span around the entire circumference of the paddleboard.
These are probably the most common rails you will find on an inflatable paddle board. With boards in the $400 to $1000 range, this will be the most common design. If you don’t see a paddle board within this range specify its rails specifications it’s probably this set-up.
Dual rails have an inner band that seals off the inner bladder while a second layer is bonded to the outer bladder. Forming a double protected seam. The way these are made widely varies from manufacturer to manufacturer.
Dual Rails with Carbon Layer
We are starting to see this innovation more and more in the inflatable SUP world. Dual rails with a custom layer are made of the same inner and outer band bonded together but this time they have a carbon fiber strip added to the side.
How this is implemented differs from manufacturer to manufacturer though. Earth River SUP gives an interesting take on the issue:
“Hint: Carbon fabric serves no mechanical function as a rail stiffening material over PVC. Carbon fiber must be impregnated in an epoxy resin to realize its potential strength, in which case it becomes extremely rigid and impossible to fold.”–Earth River SUP
While there is some debate as to how much a carbon side rail actually improves rigidity. What a carbon side rail can do is add another layer of protection for the seams of the inflatable board. Carbon is one of the strongest materials out there. Heck, they make Formula 1 cars out of them!
A relatively new innovation in the paddle boarding industry. It’s a process that involves partial welding to the underside of the seam in the inner layer followed by the usual process of gluing adhesive to the top part of the inner seam and the entire outer seam.
The reason why you can’t weld both seams completely is because when the board is being inflated adjustment occurs in this area as the board expands. If this was completely heat welded it would come undone.
What Are Hard Paddle Boards Made of?
Although this website is mostly centered around inflatable paddle boards we didn’t want to leave the hardboard folks disappointed. So here’s a brief overview of each of the materials used for solid paddle boards.
Plastic is the baseline material that you see in hardboards. You will most commonly see them in Big Box stores and seaside towns in the summertime. Plastic paddle boards are made using two different methods. Using solid rotomolded polyethylene like Sun Dolphin paddle boards. Or using thermoplastic that wraps around a foam or hollow core.
In both cases you would never catch pro paddle boarders or surfers padding on these things. Although if you are not worried about performance and just want something cheap to throw in the lake that the kids can play on plastic makes a sufficient pick.
Soft Top Foam Paddle Boards
Popular hard boards like Isle Surf and SUP use foam top paddleboards. They are made of soft spongy foam on the top followed by EPS high-density foam and sometimes a supportive wood stringer that helps keep the form and rigidity of the board.
These boards are definitely an improvement performance-wise to plastic SUPs but are a bit off of the more standard fiberglass SUPs. They are also a bit less dangerous because of their spongy soft tops that can help you avoid serious injury when falling.
Epoxy Fiberglass Paddle Boards
These are where some of the bigger name paddle boards come to play. These boards consist of:
- EPS core blank
- Fiberglass coating
- Wood veneer
- fiberglass finish all around the board
Some of these boards even have wooden or carbon stringers attached to them for increased strength and rigidity.
Fiberglass paddle boards can consist of a wide variety of different manufacturing processes. Some of them include AST (Advanced Sandwich Technology) or the Wooden sandwich approach. The main difference between the two is that the Advanced Sandwich Approach skips out on the PVC in the process.
These boards are usually the go-to material for most solid paddleboards. This is because they can be used for a wide range of purposes such as surfing, touring, racing, or just casual paddling. They are very maneuverable, responsive, and have impressive glide.
Even cheaper boards found in Costco like a 2015 Jimmy Styks Beaver had impressive stability, speed, and maneuverability. I even managed to do a bit of paddleboard- wakeboarding on it!
Wooden Paddle Boards
Many times these are created by hobbyists who want the satisfaction of making their own board. As a result, they are more expensive due to the materials used and the labor-intensive process that is put into these boards.
These boards are made of a hollow wooden frame followed by glued strips of whatever wood type the craftsman is using. This can be pine, cedar, paulownia wood or whatever type of wood is available to the local artisans. Afterward the board needs to be waterproofed with a layer of fiberglass cloth and an epoxy resin finish.
If the shop or craftsman knows what they are doing these boards can have similar on-water performance to fiberglass boards. But they will be more expensive
Composite Paddle Boards
If you get a composite board you are very serious about performance! Composite boards consist of a foam core, followed by carbon or sometimes fiberglass layers followed by a layer of paint that reflects UV rays away from the board.
These boards, like wood, tend to be more expensive but you can motor on them. If you are serious about SUP racing these are the types of boards you will probably be looking at. Brands like Naish and Starboard are famous for their razor-thin bow and stern profile that slides through the water with ease.
So What Differences Do SUP Materials Make?
Both inflatable and hard boards’ on-water performance and weight are influenced by what materials they are made of.
What materials you should get are dependent on what you are looking for in a paddle board. Higher performance inflatable boards are made of dual-layer PVC, fusion layering, or implement the SUP’s own custom design. Lower performance paddle boards are usually mass-produced single-layer boards that dip below $600.
For hardboards, the best performing SUPs are ones that are made of fiberglass epoxy, carbon, or wood. Solid boards made out of foam and plastic are cheaper but do not give you the same performance on the water.
I tend to like a paddle board that performs well on the water but doesn’t break the bank. So for inflatable boards, I like to look at fusion layered ISUPs. For hardboards, I feel that fiberglass constructions blend on-water performance without you having to be too expensive.