Rachael Tilly and the balsa Travellete

Josh Martin

Many people today treat balsa wood surfboards as more of an heirloom piece for the wall than a wave-riding tool, but I have a different mindset as it pertains to the use of balsa as a core material for a surfboard. My love for balsa began in the mid 1970's. The first memories I have of balsa wood were of model airplanes and a board my father had made. This board was made in the early 1950's and was displayed prominently in the Dana Point Hobie surf shop. I recall my father telling many stories of great times selecting the lightest wood, building surfboards in his dad's garage and riding his creations. This was the state of the art 60 years ago.


Balsa Beatitude from Jonah Films on Vimeo.


When I was in my late teens, I began shaping surfboards under my father’s instruction. His shaping roots were grounded in the wood surfboard era and so it was natural to find us building one now and then. Our approach was always the same in that we were making something first and foremost to ride not just look at. It is in this same spirit that the following board was built.


I felt I had the ingredients for a great recipe. Some years ago, my dad and I had selected some very light Balsa for a board project and I had some of that leftover wood stored in my attic. I had the love, passion and experience necessary to put that scrap together into a beautifully functional surfboard and a willing and most qualified surfer to pilot it.

Rachael Tilly rides really radical long boards better than anyone else in the world. She just so happens to be the current Women's Longboard World Champ. Much to my creative delight she expressed interest in not only surfing a Balsa longboard but actually participating in the building of it. She and I work together often on her equipment but this would be a project at a much more in depth level. We'd be sorting through the wood I had, arranging and milling it for assembly into a blank, hollowing it out to reduce weight and shaping it. The whole process takes about 4 days and fills my shaping room with the sounds, feels and smells of the 1950's. I love it.



There is a conviction maintained in me that balsa wood in certain cases may be the best material to use in the core of a surfboard. Balsa was and still is used in some large big wave guns with great success. Wood has properties about it that provide for a confident drive and secure control that is unparalleled. It is extremely strong and resists deflection while remaining very alive feeling in the water. Tail rocker is the most important aspect of a good longboard used for nose riding. A well-designed rocker made from balsa holds its shape much better than a modern foam surfboard. I felt that we could build a weight correct and well-designed balsa wood longboard for Rachael that would bring some fresh relevancy to what most consider an obsolete surfboard core material.


Over the course of a couple weeks this last June, Rachael and I set aside a few days dedicated to taking this idea from dream to reality. The board started out as rough bent sticks of balsa wood, too thin for me to build a stock standard board but a smaller model for Rachael would be a beautiful option. Rachael has had great fun riding a model we developed together that we call the Travelette. This model is specifically designed for the female surfer. It has an overall reduced volume and I felt I could just squeak out a 9’2” Travellete from this limited in dimension but very lightweight batch of balsa.

The finished product exceeded our expectations in goals we’d set for its rocker, shape, weight, aesthetics and for how it surfs. I love the fact that the same model board I built for her in eps foam and epoxy takes a back seat to the balsa.

Much thanks to Rainbow Fins and Brad Basham for your stellar crafts being contributed to this very special surfboard build. Thanks Jonah Films for taking the time to come, document and apply your art to this project. So grateful to you Rachael for the life you’ve brought to the old wood surfboard way. Beyond blessed by you dad for sharing your surfcraft roots with us!

-Josh Martin


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1 comment

  • What wood do you think is better for wooden surfboard craft paulownia or balsa?


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