A Comprehensive Guide to Asymmetric Surfboards – and an Interview with Tim Stafford

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What are Asymmetric Surfboards?

Asymmetric (aka asymmetrical or asym) surfboards are an often overlooked and misunderstood design concept. 

A surfboard is considered asymmetric if a design detail on one side of the stringer (centre line) is not exactly the same as the other side. 

It is common to see differences in tail/rail shape, bottom contours, fin positioning, or all of the above. 

Asymmetric designs have historically been a platform for free-thinking, experimental surfboard makers. 

There is a theme amongst the asymmetric shapers I have spoken to. None of them deny that symmetrical plan shapes look beautiful, or ride well. They simply believe that a mirror image from one side of the stringer to the other might not open up all the wave-riding potentials. 

The History of Asymmetric Surfboards

Asymmetric surfboards have been a part of surfing since the 1960s. Legendary shapers such as Reynolds Yater, Grubby Clark, and Bob Cooper regularly experimented with surfboard shapes that bucked the trend of symmetrical rail lines. 

Famous Asymmetric Surfboard Fans

Following their early inception, several high-profile surfer/shapers built and rode asymmetric boards. Bob McTavish, Midget Farrelly, Nat Young, Peter Townend, and Mark Richards heralded the alternative designs, 

The past five decades have been an intriguing time in surfing and surfboard design. During the 1960s and early 70s, experimentation was the key to progression. We have all heard stories about surfers literally cutting the top three feet off their boards during the shortboard revolution. You only need to watch classic surfing movies to see the creative designs ridden by maverick surfers. 

asymmetric surfboard
Tim Stafford Surfboards – Orca

The Winds of Change

Things changed with the implementation of professional surfing and the world tour. 

Our heroes became professional surfers. Initially, everyone wanted a red pintail single fin, with a yellow lightning bolt on the deck, just like Lopez rode at the Pipe Masters. When Mark Richards presented the twin fin to the world, we wanted a short, wide surfboard with two fins. When Simon Anderson rode the first thruster to victory at Bells and Pipeline, every surfer looked for a narrow plan shape with a third fin set towards the tail. 

Meanwhile, shapers such as Carl Ekstrom produced incredible asymmetric surfboards for over a decade, fine-tuning the designs to unprecedented levels. Their designs were primarily overlooked. In fact, Ekstrom ceased shaping in the early 80s due to a lack of demand. 

Did Surfing Become Closed Minded?

We entered a phase where surfers expressed themselves through their colourful wetsuits and airbrushes. But rarely through experimental board designs. 

Alternative surfboards were somewhat frowned upon by the mainstream, and surfers who choose to be wildly different were chastised.

Cheyne Horan’s Lazor Zap

Cheyne Horan is the perfect example of what happened to surfers who followed an alternative path. Horan largely ignored the surfboards ridden by his world tour peers. Instead, he focused on progressive McCoy designs. The wide-tailed, thick-railed Lazor Zap was the antithesis of the boards that Horan’s competitors were riding. 

Cheyne Horan surfed his way to five world title runner-up positions. His surfing was incredible. Cheyne is undoubtedly remembered as the guy who ripped on his experimental surf craft, becoming one of the greatest competitive surfers of all time. However, the critical undertones and mutterings of “imagine if he hadn’t been riding those McCoys,” “what if he’d been riding a thruster” have been heard for years. 

Pottz Twinzer

1989 World Champion Martin Potter’s Wil Jobson influenced Twinzer design didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Despite Pottz carrying at least one of the adapted quad setups in his quiver throughout the world tour. 

Kelly Slater’s Wizard Sleeve

Even Kelly Slater, the official G.O.A.T was somewhat derided for his board choice when he unveiled his unique “Wizard Sleeve” design in 2008. Although his win at backdoor had some free-thinking surf fans re-writing their new-board order forms, Slater’s critics announced that he ought to stick to more traditional designs. 

Can you imagine the furore if Cheyne, Pottz, and Kelly dared to ride a board with asymmetric rails? The outrage would’ve hit a fever pitch if, god forbid, the fins weren’t sited evenly! 

The Modern Resurgence of Asymmetric Surfboards

The past few years has seen exponential growth of professional free surfers. This career choice has come a long way since the early days of Frankie Oberholzer and Brendon Margieson absolutely ripping outside the confines the World Tour, on essentially the same equipment the competing pros were riding. 

Today’s free surfers are making surfboard choices that are a throwback to the trippy late 60s. Experimentation is critical, not only are the free surfing pros open-minded, their audience is also receptive to out-there designs. 

Haydenshapes – The Grisc

Tagged the “Alt Generation,” the modern crop of surfers have looked to the past for inspiration. While Mini Symmons, Planing Hulls, and Displacement Hulls had their time back in the limelight, asymmetric surfboards are earning their rightful position as the design piquing the most interest. 

Fortunately, master shapers like Al Byrne (RIP), Tim Stafford, Donald Brink, and Richard Kenvin continued to develop the concept, fine-tuning their futuristic-looking boards to new levels. 

Tim and Donald currently make some of the most incredible surfboards. There is also an incredibly talented new batch of shapers who realise the potential of asym surfboards. 

Here is Tim Stafford talking about his philosophy towards surfboard design.

Here is Donald Brink describing his asymmetric concepts.

Ryan Burch

Ryan Burch is an advocate of asymmetric surfboards, shaping and surfing the designs to a very high level. Burch was initiated into the asym world by Richard Kenvin. He was fortunate enough to discuss the merits of the designs with none other than Carl Ekstrom at a San Diego Art show. Ryan is certainly the figurehead of the young, experimental shapers.

Matt Parker

Matt Parker was beyond stoked when Dane Reynolds tried out his Album Disasym, with outrageous results.

While the guys mentioned above definitely fall into the Alt category, we also see renowned performance shapers experimenting with asymmetric models. 

Matt Biolos

Matt Biolos has produced the …Lost Maysym, which is being expertly tested by Mason Ho.

Haydenshapes

Free surfer extraordinaire and friend of Surfd.com, Nate Tyler, is absolutely ripping on his Haydenshapes Grisc model. Check out what Nate has to say about “the fastest board I’ve ridden” here. While you’re there, take a minute to enter the giveaway for the chance to win a brand spanking new Grisc. 

An Interview with Tim Stafford

Tim Stafford is renowned as a leading asymmetric surfboard designer and shaper. Based in the UK, Tim shapes in the small surf town of Widemouth Bay, and ships his magnificent boards all over the world.

Tim Stafford Surfboards are a stunning combination of technical design and artistry. His asymmetric bonzers are as beautiful to look at as they are fun to ride.

We spent some time with Tim discussing everything asymmetric.

Hi Tim, could you tell us a little bit about yourself.

My name is Tim Stafford, I am 56 years of age and I was born in Stafford, which is situated in the West Midlands of England.

I have been shaping Tim Stafford Surfboards for twenty years. My workshop is based in my hometown of Widemouth Bay, in the south west of England.

Where can we find out more about Tim Stafford Surfboards?

The best places to start are my Facebook, Instagram, or alternatively drop me an email at tim@timstaffordsurfboards.com

When and how did your asymmetric journey begin?

Around 2008 I had developed a new style of boards based on Campbell Brothers bonzer hydrodynamics but using multiple rear fins (instead of a single) and very different planshapes. I found myself with a very different favourite board frontside (Riddler) to backside (Freakfish). The tail shapes, fins, rocker, rails and ride were so different that I realised they were compensating for how we all use our bodies differently front side vs backside. So one day I thought why not make a board that was my favourite board combined. For me the key to a good board is how it bottom turns so it seemed sensible to use the inside planshape/rail/rocker fins of each design on the relevant side. 

So I made the first “Orca” (which now resides with a collector in Japan) in 2009. Unfortunately this coincided with three prolapsed discs in my lower back and it was a year before I finally got to test it out. 

During this time I took the board to a local surfing contest, held in massive clean surf. One of the local rippers decided to take it out for the final (never having ridden it, or anything like it) and won. 

That was a pretty good indicator and a few weeks later following an “ok” from the doc I took it out for its first surf and it just felt so natural both ways that it became all I rode.

My current boards reflect all of my experiences from the years since riding and refining asyms. It surprises even me that is has been such a long journey. 

We very briefly explained what makes a surfboard asymmetric. Aside from the aesthetic differences could you break down the theory that goes into each design.   

A board is asymmetric by nature of one side being different to the other in every element. My designs keep the nose template the same both sides but from the middle back the template, rails, edges, rocker, fins, concaves are different. 

It’s because we surf differently frontside to backside; we use our weight differently, twist differently, and use different elements of the boards design. Most critically we bottom turn differently, this is when the board is weighted to the greatest degree, the rail is sunk the most and al the design elements are working to keep the tail from spinning out whilst creating drive and manoeuvrability. 

On the frontside bottom turn we tend to use the template more, rotating round the curve and that dictates the point at which the tail would spin out (break free).  This is why I use a rounded tail template which goes past the stringer line and with less rocker. We also use the rails more frontside, so a softer, thicker rail allows the water to wrap round the rail creating hold, and the ability to turn more steeply up the face. The drive comes from the flatter rocker and the fins (when they are the bonzer set up I use).

Tim’s NARB being driven into a frontside bottom turn

Backside we tend to sink the rail more, so a thinner rail with a straighter template (like a swallow) provides more hold but it needs more rocker to allow the surfer to come up the face more vertically. The rail edge can be sharper with more release as the hold comes from how the rail is sunk in the water; this creates a very fast drivey backside feeling that has my riders getting round sections they didn’t think they would normally.  

At the top turn we are generally unweighted so the elements of design are less critical, and then we go into a roundhouse the rail becomes weighted again in a similar way to when we do a bottom turn.

It is no surprise that the most popular conventional tail shape is a squash tail which is halfway between a rounded pin and a swallow in terms of curves and template.  It is the ultimate compromise in terms of planshape where symmetry is involved. 

Most of the people who ride my boards are blown away by the speed and flow but this is really more of a function of the bonzer hydrodynamics, but that would be a whole other conversation. Adding asymmetry to this has just optimised the boards both ways by using the best elements of design differently each side. 

When I talk to surfers about asymm surfboards they often ask if you can only ride the board in one direction. Could you clear this up please?  

That depends on who made it and why they shaped it the way they did. I think asyms were originally developed to go better ONE way, and this has influenced how people still see them today.

All my asyms are designed to work BOTH ways, frontside and backside. 

Most surfers need a board that goes both ways, but if you live in Queensland with a plethora of rights, or Indo with tonnes of lefts, you may want a board optimised to go just one way. For those places, or riders focussed on specific point/reef breaks, I am sure there is a different optimal asym solution. 

My solutions are based on our “body English” and how this influences what works best frontside and backside, explained earlier. We surf differently both ways so asymmetry is a natural design solution.

So asyms can be designed to be better both ways but some are better just one way. It depends on the shapers approach. 

How does shaping an asymmetric board differ to a more traditional shape?

It’s kind of like shaping 2 boards. You aren’t trying to attain symmetry, you are trying to pull in all the design elements on each side, kind of like shaping 2 boards. Add in some bonzer concaves and without doubt they take longer to shape and are much more brain taxing as custom orders. For me that is the joy of making them, they tax your brain more, make you think, make you focus.

I confess I did accidently shape one the wrong way round as I cut the tail in before I remembered the guy was a goofy. I now mark every blank as soon as I get it. The fins are also different each side so placing them right and swapping between a futures jig and FCS keeps you on your toes too. 

As surfers we are often guilty of overlooking fin design. How critical are fins to the way your surfboards perform?

Absolutely critical as my asyms are bonzer based (this means that drive and speed are never something you have to search for), so the set ups and fin shapes are tuned to allowing the surfer to achieve what they want to in their surfing. More uprights dual foiled rears for turning more vertically up the face and have quicker reactions; more rake and area for drawing out their turns more and projecting around sections. 

There are a few respected custom manufacturers doing asyms and theirs are very different to what I do. Most look like their planshapes are the opposite of mine but their use of fins and bottom contours is so different that they use a different approach. 

I utilise the speed and drive of bonzer fins/hydrodynamics so I can achieve what I want in a different way to what has become the current “norm”. 

Fins are but one part of the puzzle and you need to marry them with the right tail shape, concaves, Vee, rocker and rails. 

I guess that is where me riding all my designs helps as I can feel the difference fins make and advise the customer the best fins for the way they want to surf/the waves they want to ride. 

Where do you look for inspiration when creating your designs?

Inspiration comes from so many places, science, nature, and my crazy head that is always looking to improve and refine things. All my boards are underpinned by well researched and documented basic hydrodynamic theories that apply to aeroplanes and sailing boats. Sometimes these things lead to designs like the Riddler where I was inspired to try the ideas of leading edge drag as it was applied to the keels on sailboats. 

Obviously with the internet we can all tap into what everyone else is doing but I find that I am most influenced by experiencing things. There are some specific shapers whose boards I have ridden a lot over the years and understanding their designs was a massive influence on developing the basic principles I apply to all my boards: McCoy for his understanding of rail, tail and foil; the Campbell Bros with their creation of the bonzer and application of Bernoulli concaves; and Jim Banks for his foils and rocker…  

I look at my designs as problem solving, where do I want to go on the wave, how do I want the board to feel and then pull in the relevant elements and blend them into what I think is going to achieve my objectives. Then  comes the testing and refining phase and several years later most of my models have reached their natural design conclusion. 

My primary inspiration is creating boards that you aren’t aware of under your feet, creating a feeling of freedom. I want the surfer to be focussed on where he wants to go on the wave and have a board that naturally does that. I find this creates a surfing sensation where you feel you have more time, and can really just go where your mind takes you in the moment. 

Your Orca, NARB, Porpoise and Pilot models are extremely popular. Do you have any other exciting asymmetric designs in the pipeline?

I have been pretty busy of late and there hasn’t been much time for developing new shapes and concepts, but this winter I am hoping to play with some new ideas, refine and then roll out the ones that work.

Tims NARB fitting in to a beautiful little barrel

There’s a high performance asym in my mind that I’d love to develop. Something that’s a bit less of a head wrecker, that is easier to make, and that  people don’t look at and go WTF… Maybe that will be the next project but it is hard to drop the bonzer elements as I always end up missing the drive, speed and flow. 

Why do you think asyms are still a niche design? 

I think it is pure economics. Imagine if every mass manufacturer had to produce each model, in each size, for both natural and Goofy foots. If each had to double it’s stock (and capital outlay) to carry enough boards to suit both naturals and goofys. It just doesn’t make sense for any business focussed on profit, however it does make sense for the customer looking to optimise their surfing experience. 

For our readers who are interested in trying an asym, what would you say to them? 

There are a lot of people dabbling with asyms, the odd custom order here and there. If you want an asym I’d strongly recommend going to a shaper who rides them almost exclusively, who sells a lot of them and whose customers keep ordering them building their asym quiver. 

Ultimately the best thing is try one of the shaper’s own boards or their customers’. Make sure it is handed for the way you stand and paddle out with an open mind, allowing for the different dimensions to what you’d normally ride. 

Or just get to know an experienced asym shaper and have faith in  their knowledge and experience. Every custom board maker is personally invested in you loving what they make you; we love what we do. 

I always tell my customers their stoke is my stoke. 

We are not symmetrical.