UNDERSTANDING INFLATABLE BOARD CONSTRUCTION
A paddleboard can be an investment in a long lasting product or it can be a short lived purchase due to poor quality.
Inflatable paddleboards come in a vast range of qualities and prices, so it’s important to understand how they differ in regard to materials and construction methods.
INFLATABLE CORE LAYUPS
All inflatable paddle boards start with an inner bladder made of drop stitch fabric. Drop stitch, in a general sense, consists of two parallel sheets of fabric which are connected by in our case thousands of 6-inch long threads, much like a bridges structure. When the edges of the top and bottom fabric sheets are joined by air-tight material and the bladder is inflated, the threads confine the movement of the top and bottom sheets so that it maintains a board shape rather than curving outward like other inflatable objects.
The inflatable core of a paddle board is made with a single layer (with several variants), fusion, or dual layer construction, while the rails are made with single or double rail bands, and in some cases and additional reinforcing strips for rigidity. Here’s a basic description and additional comments regarding each construction:
SINGLE LAYER (DROP STITCH FABRIC)
In a single layer construction, the drop stitch core is made from single ply sheets of fabric at the top and bottom, which are sealed with a layer of flexible PVC plastic coating.
Single layer drop stitch is what you’ll find in most boards below $600, big box store brands, high volume boards that are found on many shopping sites as well as companies trying to gain entry into the paddleboard market on price alone. The material is not very rigid inherently, boards made with single layer construction have a bouncier feel and are more susceptible to puncture and leakage. Some companies are using single layer construction but give their materials made-up names to imply they are a fusion style material. It is another area where a buyer has little information to go on other than what is claimed by the manufacturer, and since there is no universally accepted naming convention or "SUP police", many companies will take advantage of this.
It is also very common for companies using single layer materials to compensate with an over-the-top rail layer setup (implying 3 or 4 "layers") that offers no actual benefit because, if the core is weak, you cannot add strength to it after the fact.
ANAHOLA BOARD CO. does NOT nor will ever use single layer construction in the manufacturing of any SUP boards.
FUSION (DROP STITCH FABRIC + WOVEN FABRIC + PVC COATING)
Fusion construction is a sweet spot for balance of weight, rigidity, and cost effectiveness. The top and bottom sheets of the drop stitch have two layers of fabric that are permanently bonded to each other, and a layer of PVC coating on the outside of this double ply fabric. The resulting board is significantly more rigid and puncture resistant than a single layer board. Expect this construction in boards from $700-$900 and up. The added rigidity of the material allows boards to be made in 5” thickness without having to resort to excessive board thickness for the sake of rigidity.
As mentioned a trend of great concern is manufacturers implying the use of fusion materials on boards that are actually made of single layer fabric. Some creative layer-counting takes place for the sake of advertising, so read construction claims critically. A common practice is to count adhesives or coatings as "layers", which muddies the waters quite a bit with regard to the actual composition of the materials used. The use of crossed weave single layer has become common in single layer boards who make the claim the material is fusion or dual layer but this is not the same thing as authentic fusion or dual layer construction.
Another interesting take is calling fusion boards "dual layer fusion". By definition all true fusion boards use a double layer drop stitch so any implied advantage to "dual layer fusion" is null.
ANAHOLA BOARD CO. does not currently use fusion material and construction in our boards but we are investigating and evaluating a future series in this format.
DUAL LAYER (DROP STITCH + PVC COATING #1 + ADHESIVE LAYER + PVC COATING #2 + WOVEN FABRIC +ADHESIVE LAYER + PVC COATING #3)
Dual layer construction is the “cost is no object” inflatable layup, as it involves additional costly materials and labor to build the board. It starts with an inner bladder made with single layer construction, but then the entire bladder is laminated with an additional sheet of PVC coated fabric. Boards made this way are superior in durability, rigidity, and rocker profile control and are more difficult to puncture and less prone to leakage since they have additional coating layers between the fabric sheets. The additional layer adds between 1.5 - 2 kg to the overall board weight and a significant increase in material cost. This construction can be used to produce a board that feels extremely well balanced and grounded underfoot.
Technically, fusion material also has two fabric layers, but it should be noted that there is a distinct difference between fused material boards (two layers of fabric fused at the raw material stage, with a single coating applied to the outside surfaces) and actual dual layer construction boards, in which a second distinct layer of PVC coated fabric is laminated to the board. Dual layer construction generally adds about 1.5 - 2 kg to the weight of a board, so comparing board weights can help you discern whether a board is truly made with two distinct layers of PVC coated fabric or if a brand is advertising with creative wording to imply additional layers that don't exist or are non functional for rigidity or durability.
While some manufacturers may be using use similar materials, different methods of constructing the board can make the most impact on the longevity and performance of a board.
ANAHOLA BOARD CO. uses true dual layer construction in all of our boards, assembled using proprietary construction and assembly methods by certified craftsmen. It provides the best available materials and workmanship available across the globe. This is the gold standard layup with no sacrifices in materials or quality.
The rail, or edge, of an inflatable SUP is made by joining the top and bottom sheets of the board with strips of reinforced PVC coated materials in an airtight manner. The physical properties of the materials used to form the rails can have a significant effect on the rigidity, longevity and performance of the board.
SINGLE RAIL BAND WITH TAPED SEAMS
A single band of PVC coated fabric along the sides of the board is the cheapest way to close off the containment layer, but the most vulnerable to puncture and leakage. It is most often used in low quality boards where every optional cost must be eliminated. You will find this method used in boards in the $300 -$600 range. Boards made with single layer rails can often be identified from the 1 inch width strips of PVC used to tape or cover the rail seams.
DUAL RAIL BANDS
In dual rail construction, an inner band seals off the containment layer and a wider second band is bonded over the top of it. This is the most common rail configuration, but details on how it is specifically implemented can make a significant difference in board strength. Boards with a larger gap between the edges of the drop stitch layers (less overlap with the inner rail band) are easier to build but have less structural integrity than boards where the drop stitch fabric layers fold farther over the sides leaving a narrower gap to close with the rail band. Our boards are all manufactured using a proprietary dual rail band methodology which also incorporates an additional internal dual rolled rail. This process is slower and more labor intensive to create and requires years of training and close supervision to execute properly.
DUAL RAIL BANDS + STIFFENING LAYER
Adding a strip of low stretch (high tensile strength) material to the rail can improve rigidity while providing an additional layer of puncture resistance. It is also an area where false marketing claims abound. Carbon fabric serves no mechanical function as a rail stiffening material. 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. The addition of carbon fabric tape to rails is actually a surf board throwback to tune a hardboard shape and carbon tape is pliable and useful for that specific application. Carbon fiber is great for rigid and lightweight paddles, but provides no significant structural or rigidity benefit on the rail of an inflatable SUP board. Stiffening layers are great marketing hooks used by brands to "reel em in" but sadly serve no structural purpose.
HEAT WELDED RAIL
As of 2019, some manufacturers are experimenting with bonding the rail layers using heat to join the PVC instead of adhesive layers. Doing so has potential to reduce manufacturing costs, which is why it has been adopted, but the jury’s still out on whether boards constructed with this technique can match the dimensional integrity and longevity of boards bonded with more expensive adhesive based methods.
Heat sealed or welded rails are somewhat of a misnomer as the weld is usually a partial connection over the inner fold while the core construction of rail is completed with adhesive. A variant of the techniques welds the underside of the inner seam and uses adhesive for the top part of the inner seam and the entire outer seam. Inflatable boards require adjustment during the setting process so a completely welded rail would not allow this to occur. There are some minor variations to the welding technique though the mechanical and chemisorption strength properties of a purpose specific adhesive can be as strong as the base material itself providing incredible durability, reliability and longevity.
Construction processes differ between manufacturers / factories to a degree so the assumption that everyone uses the exact same adhesives, techniques and processes is incorrect, though some standardization and techniques are commonplace. We source specialized adhesives to ensure the bond is complete and long lasting. The construction of a performance stand up inflatable paddle board is a synergy of materials, outline shape and manufacturing processes. Getting it right is expensive and time consuming since the end product is only as strong as its weakest link. We rely on trained craftspeople to execute these processes which are then verified via high pressure internal and external visual testing in a water tank. This extra testing step is critical to ensuring our boards are made correctly to our specification.
A FINAL NOTE ON BOARD CONSTRUCTION
Most of the construction details described here are completely invisible to a paddleboard buyer. As a result, some companies, particularly on the lower cost end of the market, are hyping their board constructions using misleading language to imply additional material layers that do not really exist on their boards - or - have no actual effect on design parameters such a rigidity / durability they claim them to. Often review websites and press releases will usually just rely on this and repeat the companies claim (we give them the benefit of the doubt as they are not required to know the ins and outs of SUP construction). Sadly, just because something is repeated over and over it does not become truth - though the perception of it being truth or fact can gain momentum.
If a corner can be cut often it will be to the detriment of the buyer, the industry and the environment. Cheap adhesive, core materials and lower density EVA are common place at the low to mid end of the market and sadly even among some of the more well known brands.
For this reason, we advise caution in believing unsubstantiated marketing claims. To protect yourself, we recommend getting to know the brand you are buying so you can feel more confident in knowing you are getting the construction that is advertised. Look for companies willing to speak truthfully and explain their specific construction and technologies. Companies that cannot or will not explain these things are generally companies who purchase off the shelf designs from volume manufacturers and simply change the esthetics, slap on a logo, and fit the board with cosmetic accessories in an effort to compete in the paddleboard market.