Stand up paddle board constructions and manufacturing (hard shell and inflatable) – the general differences.

It’s a debate that rages daily on social media. A person asks for opinion about Brand X and a whole swathe of answers appear in the comments. If the original post refers (either roundabout or directly) to quality then it’s a whole can of worms that’s suddenly been opened with some replies getting direct nasty – such is one issue with social media public forums!

Mostly, the quality of stand up paddle boards relates to construction, which in turn knocks on to performance. Materials used and how these are laid up to produce the final shape can alter – sometimes significantly, sometimes subtly – how a board behaves on the water. Depending what type of behaviour you’re after (and as long as you know a bit about construction and boards) will give you some direction in terms of what SUP to part money for.

These days all manner of exotic materials exist for shapers to incorporate into their stand up paddle boards. For this article, however, we’re going to keep things simple and look at the main types of board construction you generally get for hard SUPs, inflatables and how accessories can affect your experience.

Hard shell stand up paddle boards

EPS foam cores

All hard stand up paddle boards have some form of foam core as the starting point. Whether mass produced, CNC milled stand up paddle shapes, pumped out in volume, or hand crafted artisan boards the main ingredient is an EPS (Expanded Polystyrene Foam) blank where the whole process starts.

Many different types of foam blanks exist. Companies like Seabase, located in Cornwall, offer an extensive range of EPS blanks. Whatever flavour of SUP you fancy you can bet your bottom Dollar a foam blank will be available from them.

Of course, Seabase isn’t the only EPS foam business around. Some of the massive Far Eastern SUP manufacturing facilities have their own suppliers. But as with everything aspect of stand up addle boarding the quality of your EPS will determine the overall quality of your finished SUP.

Wood, carbon and fibreglass

On from the core the next step is to how the board needs to be laid up. Some stand up paddle boards could simply have layers of fibreglass wrapped around the EPS, graphics added, fins boxes inserted and hey presto a finished machine. Whilst this option would be great for a lightweight board it wouldn’t necessarily be that strong. With stand up paddle boards being quite large there are additional forces/stresses exerted across the overall shape so many brands employ layering systems to increase strength, rigidity or even keep some degree of flexibility.

Different types of wood are used often within hard stand up paddle board manufacturing. These layers are built up around the foam core with additional strengthening material (or layers) added to key areas, such as around fin boxes or where the paddler will be mainly standing. Rails also may be chunked up as the sides of boards can take a hammering over time. Once the desired amount of material has been added it’s then back to fibre glassing (of which there are also many different types depending on the wants/needs of the shaper/designer) before some form of outer skin may be added. This can also differ from brand to brand depending what they’re trying to achieve.


For many SUP companies carbon epitomises the pinnacle of performance orientated SUP materials. Any stand up paddle board that utilises carbon – to lesser or greater degree – is shouted about from the rooftops. It’s the most expensive of all hard shell SUP materials but supposedly delivers the top echelons of performance. The most important point end users have to keep in mind is all the above can affect performance and weight, which also knocks on to how the board feels and acts on the water.

Carbon is super stiff and designers like it because this rigidity equates to reactivity which is deemed as top performance. Carbon isn’t always the lightest, however. It can be made lightweight by sometimes mixing carbon with other materials. Of course, this then changes the feel (performance) of the board. So ultimately comes down to what the shaper wants based on the market trends.

Inflatable stand up paddle boards

When inflatable SUP technology materialised back pre-2010 there were a few who rallied against it suggesting the purity of paddling one was non-existent with an air filled platform. Fast forward to now and iSUPs are the most popular SUP craft bar none.

The attractive reasons for owning and riding an inflatable stand up paddle are ease of transport, ease of storage, easy to assemble and set up, easy to use once on the water (i.e. beginner friendly with their soft decks should you fall) and being perceived as more family friendly than a hard shell board. All these points are certainly true and iSUPs can now be found on most stretches of water with all manner of riders piloting them. In fact, many hard SUP owners also own an iSUP or two for their versatility and ‘all comers’ appeal.

As with their harder siblings, there’s lots of social media comment about the quality of inflatable boards. Mostly it’ll be a question about the brand’s gear and how people think they fair overall. This, as we said at the start, will be met will all types of chat. But as soon as construction/manufacturing, and more importantly, quality and performance, is mentioned things can get heated.

At the risk of being labelled elitist (just as when commenting on social media) cheap boards are indeed just that = cheap. That’s not to say budget. Budget is an entirely different beast relating to affordability. Cheap, meanwhile, means badly made. And badly made refers to the materials and construction methods employed that directly impacts on water performance resulting in less fun. A cheap board may deliver fun, but you’re taking more of a risk it doing so than with an affordable iSUP or premium type where this becomes more guaranteed the further up the chain you head.

When you’ve invested an amount into a recreational pastime you want some form of return. In fact, you demand a return. Yet it’s hard for some newbies to get their heads around getting what you pay for with SUP. Even though, for instance, £200 is a chunk of cash to fork out, in inflatable stand up paddle board terms the product you’ll end up with is not going to be up to par when compared to something quality. It’s hard to quantify in monetary terms exactly what price stands for quality. But there’s a fair chance you’ll need to splashing out around £500. More important than this you should research the brand in question and find out how their gear’s made and from what materials.


Dropstitch is the material all inflatable stand up paddle boards are made from. Two layers of PVC (top and bottom) are connected via thousands of tiny threads that collapse. Rail materials wrap and bind the top and bottom sections of the board so when you pump air into the chamber the space fills and the board expands to form its shape. The threads keep everything together with additional air pressure helping to make the board rigid.

As with anything Dropstitch comes in differing types and quality. The better the material the better the board. Ultimately air boards are about stiffness and reducing deflection (where the iSUP bends at its weakest point) as much as possible. PVC also comes in different types; so does adhesive (glue). With different qualities of all this ‘stuff’ it stands to reason the end product will either suffer or be a premium iSUP. (And premium shouldn’t be thought of as expensive!).

Fusion iSUP technology

Over the years it’s also become apparent that other factors can play a part in terms of iSUP manufacturing and how this affects quality. Layering of the PVC and how the adhesive is applied can have bearing on an inflatable’s integrity. The term ‘fusion technology’ (or similar words to that effect) were banded about as being revolutionary, but only applicable to certain brands, a couple of years back. The fact is, however, this so called fusion technology has been adopted by any SUP company worth their salt. Although the actual terminology will have been slightly reworded to avoid patent infringement issues.

The iSUP fusion lamination process starts by coating Dropstitch threads with a layer of glue which seals and bonds efficiently. High density PVC is then layered over the top. This removes the need for a double layer, applied by human hands (and therefore subject to human error), and creates a board that’s lighter, stiffer and more user friendly than previous. The finish is usually of a higher standard also. Rigidity can also be improved via the fusion manufacturing process.

McConks GoRace

Other iSUP manufacturing methods

With a quality, Dropstitch, fusion manufactured iSUP you have a tip top product ready to go. But, as with hard shell boards, different paddlers require different boards for different uses. For certain applications even more rigidity is required. Longer air filled race SUPs, for instance, that need to knife through water as quickly and efficiently as possible demand more stiffness. Paddlers choosing to race an iSUP need as close to hard SUP performance as possible. So carbon stringers, or rail wraps are employed to increase this. Under tension, these additional features help deliver further performance gains. One well known brand even utilises battens (thin slats) on some of its models that fit into pockets on the rail. This gives rigidity you wouldn’t find with a cheaper, lesser made iSUP.

Inflatable stand up paddle boards themselves are all well and good. But the market is such that accessories, and how well made these are, also plays a part in attracting customers. The pump, fins, included paddle and iSUP bag all need due care and attention. A great iSUP may be let down by performance-less paddle and badly fitting bag. If the pump’s not up to spec then you’re really onto a loser as nobody likes struggling to inflate their board. And word does get round… In fact, it could be argued that many iSUP accessories are given more attention than the board itself. We understand why for some it’s important to own the best form of carrying the board (bag) but if the inflatable board then lets you down when afloat it’s almost ‘what’s the point?’.

iSUP accessories

Your two most important bits of SUP kit are your board and paddle, with the paddle being the defining piece of equipment. And just as with boards paddles have their own specific set of manufacturing criteria to make them ‘good’ or ‘rubbish’. Most reputable, quality iSUP brands supply their air boards with a middle of the road type. This will do the job nicely but leave room for any rider looking to upgrade. Avoid plastic blade, alloy shaft paddles that bend and flex unnecessarily. These do nobody any favours.

With the bag you should have something that’s easy to stow your board once deflated and be a little forgiving of badly rolled iSUPs. A tight bag ends up being frustrating. Let’s face it: when you’re rushing to pack away your gear post-session being less than careful about your put away is usual. So a roomy bag will be welcome – enough room to store your badly rolled board, paddle and pump! With secure and comfortably straps, rugged zips and robust material it’ll ideally last a long time.

iSUP pumps

Pumps deserve their own heading as all manner now exist in the world of inflatable stand up paddle boards. Single chamber, dual chamber, dual flow, three way flow and those fit only for the back of the garage all exist. And then you have electric style pumps, designed to make your life as easy as possible – although don’t believe the hype with a good many of these.

We also spotted of late (as of April 2021) an adaptor to connect to standard, manual SUP pumps thereby allowing two people to carry out the inflation process. This did make us chuckle but could catch on…?

A badly manufactured iSUP pump will cause no end of frustration. Your pump should be efficient, allowing interchangeable air flow options (via the turn of a dial), be equipped with a working, hardwearing and accurate gauge and have a solid, dependable hose that won’t fail after a few uses. Cheap iSUPs often come with cheap iSUP pumps making the inflation process extremely arduous. If you’re worn out and crabby before you’ve got on the water then chances are you won’t have the best session.

Electric pumps that only do half a job, or worse, over inflate your board and cause damage are another bugbear. Loads of cheap ePumps can be purchased off the internet but only a few are truly fit for purpose.

As will everything stand up paddle boarding manufacturing, the materials used and how the two are combined will ultimately deliver the type of gear you end up owning. There’s no accounting for quality but this does cost a bit more. That said we’re confident the investment you make with give you a return in reward = fun. And it’s fun we genuinely want you to have. Whatever type of gear you’re thinking about purchasing do your research. Talk to reputable sources and glean information from authoritative places. Be wary of social media ‘noise’ and over marketed hype.


With SUP safety being a major talking point in 2021 the way you connect yourself to your stand up paddle boardiSUP or hard – is something to be considered. If you’re in the market for a hard stand up paddle board then you may have to buy a leash separately. It’s possible to put a package together but unlike air boards all your paddling kit doesn’t come as one bulk buy.

In contrast inflatable SUPs are now expected to be supplied with everything you need to get afloat – including a leash. Unfortunately – just as with other iSUP accessories – a cheap inflatable will usually come with a naff leash. And in many cases it’s not always easy to determine the manufacturing quality of this from cheap iSUP brands.

Your leash, and having the correct one for your intended SUP use is important. It can (literally) be life or death. A leash no better than an elastic band won’t do you a lot of good. In contrast, a reputable brand with well made accessories that’s had time and effort put into the design and/or sourcing will serve you well. It’s worth (if you can) asking questions about the accessories and leash BEFORE you hand over those readies. Hopefully you’ll get an answer from the SUP company you’re looking at.

Everything stand up paddle boarding comes down to manufacturing and quality. Performance, even if you don’t consider yourself to be a performance paddler, is the bottom line. Your gear, even at recreational level, needs to work as efficiently and well as possible. If it doesn’t you won’t have as much fun and won’t necessarily want to stick with SUP as a hobby. There’s plenty of quality gear out there – you just have to do a bit of research beforehand to know what’s what.

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