The gents at Mervin Manufacturing (Lib Tech) know that it’s one thing to hop on the bandwagon — but another to have always been behind the wheel.
True innovators know that it’s one thing to adapt with the times and hop on a trend to stay relevant — but another thing entirely to wade through waters in which no one’s dared to dip a toe. It’s the kind of thing that takes courage, conviction and the sheer foresight to know; the environment ain’t no trend.
It’s that obsessive passion and conviction that Mervin Made/Lib Tech founders and diehard snowboarders and surfers Mike Olson and Pete Saari had when putting their dreams into motion to build longer lasting snow — and for over a decade now, surfboards — with zero hazardous waste. Yeah, zero.
Whether it was the realisation that “these toxic fumes we’re smelling in the resin can’t be good for us,” or the unsustainability in boards that break all the time — Mike and Pete, over the last three decades, have built a brand, factory and manufacturing process that’s been way ahead of the game in both design and environmental gains.
We’re talking non-petroleum based bio-plastics made from castor beans, to only using low VOC (volatile organic compound) epoxy resin systems to using only renewable forest products to recycling their wood sawdust into soil additives to running their factory heating on renewable based biodiesel, the list goes on. Oh, and they’re also made in the USA (Washington State).
Of course, you probably also know by now that shaper-titan, Matt Biolos, has been making Lib Tech …Lost models for quite a few years now, and they friggin’ work, well.
At the same time, curious for a deeper look at what all that means, or what terms like “eco-friendly” really mean to innovators like Lib Tech, we sat down with Mike Olson and Peter Saari for some context.
Being “eco-friendly” or “sustainable” are trending buzzwords in the industry today…but you guys have been doing this for, what, 35-years? Talk to me about that and how that whole mission came about.
Mike Olson, Lib-Tech Co-Founder: We have been eco conscious since day one, even before we were officially a business. This was really a reaction to how toxic and dangerous standard surfboard building processes are, with polyurethane foam, polyester resins, solvents, and massive sanding dust.
So, starting in 1982, I began building more health conscious and slightly more eco-friendly boards using XPS or EPS foams and aliphatic epoxy resins, while eliminating solvents.
And since we actually build our own boards, we are very intimate with the manufacturing process and want to live long healthy lives to extend our odds of getting more waves. Thus, we have always had the goal of doing everything we can to improve health safety for our craftspeople and this amazing planet.
Peter Saari, Lib-Tech Co-Founder: I think we were also at very impressionable age when natural disasters like Three Mile Island, Love Canal and the 70s Gas Crisis happened.
Each had an impact on how we wanted to interact with the world. Another influence on our behaviour was that neither one of us came from a lot of money and snowboard materials were expensive and very hard to come by in the early days. So, we had to make sure we didn’t make mistakes and got the most out of every material we had. Each board built paid for future materials and tools.
So what then, specifically, are a few things you guys do in the manufacturing process to make your boards eco-friendly or sustainable?
M: The number one thing we do to make our boards sustainable is to make them very tough and durable to last longer. Number two, and most overlooked by our surfboard manufacturing competitors, is that we’ve done everything we can to eliminate the massive resin sanding process which is dangerous to the lungs and very wasteful.
Number three, our boards are resin infused with a very safe resin chemistry, thus limiting human exposure to open sources of resin, and eliminating wasteful resin drip losses. Number four, our resin chemistry has a high bio/renewable content. Number five, our foam blanks contain at least 25 per cent recycled content, and then we thermal-densify and recycle all offcuts from the shaping process.
Our foam cells are also filled with nitrogen, which is nonflammable, non ozone depleting, and super safe. Number six, we don’t need to use any toxic solvents for cleaning or thinning.
Can you explain about how your workers aren’t exposed to toxic materials like the other shops I’ve been to where you walk in and really smell the fumes…
M: Virtually all of our competitors use open laminating/coating processes with epoxy or super stinky polyester resin, and use cleaning or thinning solvents. We don’t. We have our air quality checked regularly by several government agencies and they don’t recommend respiratory masks in our process because our air quality is of a high standard.
Good to hear. Switching gears, you guys really seem to have an obsession with sound design. How did that obsession come about and does that passion crossover with being eco-friendly well? Like, with Tesla, for example?
P: Over the years we have found that environmentally nicer materials have often been better materials design/performance-wise as well. With snowboards, fast growing long fibered trees are “nature’s fibreglass” and the best design choice for performance and the environment.
One of the biggest challenges in surf design is no one has done what we are doing before so there was no road map
In surf and snow, our eco-sublimation printing process allows us to print in-house, get amazing bright colours and the inks are water based…so no toxic solvents. One of the biggest challenges in surf design is no one has done what we are doing before so there was no road map. Our process is completely unique…obsession is the only thing that makes it possible.
M: Right. And also, because our local waves can be powerful and very rocky or reefy, we have always had a strong goal to make tougher impact qualities in our surfboards. So, board longevity is one of the best ways to achieve environmental sustainability.
Makes sense, yeah. And for you guys, what’s the importance of being “American Made?”
P: What’s most important for us is that we build boards ourselves in our own factory…We are board builders and we love it. Hand building boards ourselves and riding with our friends is what makes us excited.
So, having all the tools and materials available to experiment with opens the doors to creativity and innovation…there is nothing more fun than coming up with new ideas for boards or constructions, building them and then getting out on the hill and seeing how they go. We live in the USA so our factory is where we are. I think if we lived in France or Austria, our factory would be there with us.
What’s the history behind finding that “formula” for your boards?
M: Once again, the obsession for alternative safer materials and processes started in the early 1980’s with XPS/EPS foams and aliphatic epoxy resins.
Then in the early 2000’s, we re-energised the quest to find new processes to eliminate sanding dusts, laminating resin exposures, tape, brushes, and solvents. The mission was very, very difficult and time consuming and we hit many dead-ends. But eventually, we found the magic secrets to make our formula work, but it took more than a decade of challenges and obsession. We still feel like there are huge improvements we can achieve moving forward.
And how did your connection to …Lost Surfboards come about?
P: Mike and I started surfing when we were young and love it. We have crossed paths with Matt Biolos for years at industry functions etc. and always liked their crew’s dysfunctional branding and DIY board building ethic.
Matt was actually a snowboarder before he was a surfer and loves snowboarding, too. It always felt like Lib Tech and …Lost were almost the same brand in many ways, both influenced by skateboarding, 80s/90s punk rock and politics and focused on hands-on high performance board building.
These days we work with him almost everyday on surf shapes and his snowboard designs. Matt’s excitement about snowboarding and desire to design snowboards has been really fun for us, too. He is very detail oriented and spends a lot of time up at Mammoth riding.
I did not know that about Biolos. Was that transition into surf ever awkward, or pretty seamless?
M: The transition into surf was pretty seamless, but there are always little challenges. We hit the market with our slightly radical construction and shapes just after 2011.
We thought that we had to enter the market with futuristic shapes to match our progressive construction. Thus, we designed every board shape with a progressive concave deck like a skateboard and grab rails for airs. We also incorporated lower tail rockers and wide tails. Every detail was aimed at speed and airs. And we had super radical, large, colourful, fun skatey graphics.
Basically, we learned we were a little too ahead of the market and to scale everything back to looking like normal “now” surfboards instead of our own vision of the future.
How did you guys weather, if not thrive, through those rough times for American manufacture brands in the 90s/00s?
M: That period was a little bit like stormy waters. It wasn’t always easy, but we are in the board sports business for life. As we watched our competitors go out of business it was oddly bittersweet… definitely sad to see some brands go away….but, yeah, it did give us more access to market share. I think many of our competitors were just in the board sports business with a goal to dominate the business and get rich. But I believe we were in the board business to have better boards to ride.
P: At the end of the day, we make high end high performance boards and have always attracted great riders that want that level of board building commitment. Jamie Lynn joined us in the 80s and hit his prime in the 90s. He helped us attract other great riders like Barrett Christy, Danny Kass, Travis Rice...
There were a few years in the 90s that were pretty tough but we kept loving snowboarding and board building, managed our business and eventually great riders and innovations like MagnaTraction serrated edges and Banana Tech hybrid technology put us in a sweet-spot again.
View entire range, HERE.