What’s the Difference Between a Paddle Board and a Surfboard?

Many water sport enthusiasts have seen both paddleboards and surfboards in action and seen how differently they are used. But what does this really mean for the board, are there more things than meets the eye that is different, or is it just size?

What’s the difference between a paddleboard and a surfboard? The different uses of surfboards and paddleboards lead to a different construction. A paddleboard will always have more volume and be longer, wider and thicker. Surfboards come in many forms, and while some are similar to paddleboards, most are not.

There are many details, however, and there is an area of near “overlap” between the two types of boards. Today we will go over the two types of boards, why they are different, and how they are different. If the waters are too cold for you in winter and you’ve decided to take up board construction, read on. Same goes if you are just interested in what makes boards into paddle or surf. You will find an in-depth overview of our beloved boards in today’s post. 

Paddleboards and surfboards

“‘To paddle or not to paddle’ said the surfer as the set rolled in.”

– Unknown English dude at La Torche, Britanny

It might not be evident to a new paddleboarder, but surfers paddle too. That is they paddle with their arms to get to waves and to catch them. With shorter board types surfers can even paddle with their legs.

That is, however, where that line of comparison ends. To compare the boards, we have to dig a bit more than just how they let us paddle them.

The primary purpose of a paddleboard is to keep the rider out of the water and give him or her a stable platform for paddling (with a paddle). There are many different kinds of paddleboard activities and this results in lots of different specialized paddleboards.

The purpose of a surfboard is to catch and ride waves. There are many different kinds of waves as well as several styles of riding a wave. This leads to an enormous amount of different types of surfboards with different materials and different characteristics.

In our comparison, we will look at all these different parts of the boards that go on the water, including, of course, the paddleboard and the surfboard. We will dissect the boards (yup, think dead frog in biology class) and their functional parts. To do this, we will go over the anatomy of the two types of boards, and compare the surfboard and the paddleboard in each category.

Board anatomy components

  • Dimensions (length, width and thickness)
  • Hull type
  • Hull material
  • Nose shape
  • Tail shape
  • Rail shape
  • Rocker (bend in the board)

Dimensions

The first thing you see that is different between to two boards is the size. This is obvious even with a casual glance at the beach. 

The difference in size comes directly from the difference in purpose. The paddleboard needs to lift the rider and itself out of the water at all times. This means it needs to have buoyancy, lift force. Buoyancy comes from how much water you push out of the way, so volume is what gives lift.

Volume is decided by

  • Length
  • Width
  • Thickness
  • Shape (hull outline)

To calculate the volume, you roughly count length times width times thickness. One or all of these need to be bigger on a paddleboard to give it more volume. Thickness is almost always greater on a paddleboard than a surfboard. Width and length vary with the purpose of the paddleboard.

Racing and touring paddleboards are long and narrow. Whitewater, fishing and yoga paddleboards are wide and middle-length. All-purpose paddleboards are average in all aspects, and the surfing paddleboard brings up the rear with generally the shortest paddleboards available. 

The thickness of paddleboards do not vary as much and is generally used to get the volume, buoyancy, needed for a specific activity.

Paddleboard Type Width Length
 All round Middle Middle
Whitewater Middle to Wide Middle
Fishing Wide Middle
 Yoga Wide Middle
Racing Narrow Long(est)
Touring Narrow Long
Surfing Narrow to Middle Short

The shape of the board that is the outline as seen from above, matters as well. For general reasoning between different board types, this can typically be overlooked.

Hull type

There are two kinds of hulls for all things that move on water. A planing hull and a displacement hull. 

Planing hulls are intended to ride on top of the water. This riding on top of the water is called planing. That does not mean that the boards do actually plane. Boards only plane when going really fast, which practically only happens when you surf a wave. Actually paddling your board up to planing speed is near too impossible.

The displacement hull is intended to move in the water and, as the name suggests, displace the water. The displacement hulls are shaped to cut through the water efficiently. They also direct water away from the hull, so contact is minimized. 

The displacement hull is used only for fiberglass paddleboards intended for touring or racing. All other paddleboards are planing hull type.

The surfboards are exclusively of planing hull type. In fact, the act of “catching” a wave is when you paddle your surfboard fast enough for it to start planing on the wave, making full use of its hull configuration. The same process applies when you surf with a paddleboard.

Hull material

For boards, we usually divide the boards into three categories, fiberglass, inflatable and open foam. The fiberglass boards are made from a foam core, fibreglass mesh and a resin covering. These different components can vary, not all fiberglass boards are the same.

Material Paddleboard or Surfboard
 Fiberglass, XTR and epoxy Surf (some high-end racing paddleboards)
Fiberglass, PU and polyester Only surfboards
 Fiberglass, EPS and epoxy Most surfboards, almost all hard paddleboards
Inflatable PVC Only paddleboards
Soft-top (Fiberglass, EPS and epoxy) Only paddleboards
 Open foam Beginner and toy boards of both types
Novelty materials Mostly surfboards, some paddleboards

The core of a fiberglass board is a piece of hard foam called the blank. The name comes from the beginning of the “plastic” type of boards. Board makers used to manually shape the board out of this initial piece of foam. The foam starters were the board makers’ “blank” canvas. The name stuck around, and the foam is called blank even if no human touches it before it becomes a board.

First, the blank, foam core, is shaped. Then one or more layers of fiberglass is added over the core. The boards are finished with several layers of resin. 

Fiberglass boards come with two different resins, epoxy and polyester. The polyester version is heavier, and for a big paddleboard, this adds too much weight. Epoxy is used with almost all boards of both types.

This blank is the base of the board and what creates its shape. There are three varieties of foam that is used in boards, polyurethane (PU), Expanded Styrofoam (EPS) and Extruded Polystyrene Foam (XTR). The epoxy resin goes on top of the EPS and XTR while the polyester resin goes with the PU. 

The polyurethane method is an older one. It pollutes quite a bit more than the more modern EPS and XTR methods. After the polyurethane board is finished, it can also not be recycled, at all. The expanded styrofoam method is how almost all fiberglass boards today are made. 

The last method, XTR, is a lot more technically demanding than the other two. It is, therefore, quite a bit more expensive, but it does offer increased stiffness and higher tolerance to damage and water-leaks.

Paddleboards have little use for the polyurethane foam with polyester resin, mainly because of their bigger weight. A polyurethane style paddleboard would be 50-100% heavier than the normally expanded styrofoam(EPS) version. Polyurethane surfboards are still in use on bigger waves as their added weight gives more control and connects better to the wave.

The same goes for the more expensive extruded polystyrene foam boards, they are used for surfboards but not for paddleboards. The XTR does not offer enough benefits for paddleboarding to justify the price tag. The size of the paddleboards are also prohibiting the use of XTR as the machines used to make the XTR surfboards simply are not big enough for paddleboards. 

While there are some open foam longboard style surfboards for beginners, most are made as with the blank, fiberglass and resin method. The paddleboard, on the other hand, has an inflatable version as well as a hybrid soft-top board. 

The inflatable paddle board is made with PVC material using a method called drop-stitching. This stitching is actually on the inside of the board and It is these threads in the stitches that give the inflatable boards there shape.

The last board, a soft top, is fiberglass, expanded styrofoam and epoxy resin hull with a soft mat glued on top. This is basically a fiberglass board that you do not have to wax. Ideal for activities like yoga.

Now on top of all these are a plethora of novelty constructions like carbon fiber boards or new inventions in fiberglass meshing. These are unique to surfboards, usually, but some of the modern methods of making boards are coming to paddleboards as well. The famous Aviso hollow carbon fiber boards now exist in paddleboard versions!

Rocker (bend in the board)

The rocker is the bend of the board from tail to nose. The “banana shape” of the board when viewed from the side. The rocker effect to attributes of the board, the first being how fast you can turn and the second how fast you can go. 

When surfing, a board has to “fit” to the curve of the wave. If the board is not bent enough, it will nosedive and send you flying. Not fun on a surfboard but on a paddleboard you will get catapulted off the wave, may be fun but also dangerous. 

The rocker on the front of the board is called a nose rocker. It helps to keep the nose out of the water both on flat water and on waves. The downside is that you will lose speed and quite a bit of it. 

The tail rocker suffers from the same speed loss as the nose rocker. A bigger tail rocker gives more manoeuvrability as a trade-off. Most paddleboards and surfing longboards have a very little tail rocker. They are not intended to be manoeuvrable in the same way as shorter surfboards.

It might seem strange but where we find big nose rockers is on performance surfing short-boards and all-round inflatable paddleboards. They look the same but do different things. The rocker on the inflatable is a “keep the nose out of water” rocker, while the rocker on a shortboard is designed for carving very fast turns on the front of waves.

For high-performance surfboards and surfing paddle boards, the rocker is the most important aspect of the board. It determines speed and turn-rate, which has a significant impact on what is possible to do with the board.

Nose and Tail Shape

The nose of boards usually are either a pointed nose, a round nose or a mix of the two. 

The pointed nose belongs on shortboards or some surfing paddleboards. It cuts the water easier, so it helps stop the board from nosediving into water. The same function as a nose rocker. As it also cuts the water easier, it can aid in fast turns. 

The round nose is the normal nose for paddleboards and surfing longboards. The rounded nose gives more lift and makes the boards easier to paddle. More of the boards’ length is in the water, and this gives extra lift and helps with glide in the water.

The tail, on the other hand, can vary greatly. On paddle boards, you will normally only found square tails or round tail as well as the in-between, the squash tail. The square tail helps in making pivot turns, both on surfboards and paddleboards, as the corners of the tail dig into the turn.

Unique to surfboards are the pintail, used only for huge wave surfing, and the swallowtail which can be found on the fish surfboard. The fish surfboard looks like it’s namesake, a fish, and is used for rough waves where it helps in turning.

Rail shape

The rails are the last component of board anatomy. It is basically the edge of the board. The rail serves where the water and the air meet on your board. How rails are shaped change how and when the board “let’s go” of the water.

Rail types are divided into two groups, soft and hard. There are also combination variants. A soft rail makes one smooth curve from the top of the board to the bottom. A hard rail has breaks at an edge near the middle or the bottom of the board. 

Hard rails are performance tails used only on performance surfboard and paddleboards intended for surfing. They “let go” of the water very easily and therefore produce a lot less drag on the board when turning. The downside is, of course, that they are a lot harder to handle. The catch or dig-in on a lot easier on turbulent water.

The soft rail, which most paddleboards have, is a lot easier to handle. Unfortunately, it also creates significantly more drag. That is resistance from the water. When the water is flowing along the smooth curve of a soft rail, it has nowhere to start letting go. This causes the water to stick to the surface of the rail. 

A thinner rail makes turning in water easier than a big one does. So a thin hard rail is best for performance surfboards while a thick round rail is better for slower going boards.

Due to the way inflatable paddle boards are made, they will always have a big soft rail. The drop-stitch method of construction can shape the board only in one direction. So either you have a board shaped inflatable with big fat rails, or you have a balloon shaped ball with decent rails.

This affects how you can negatively turn with the inflatable. It is one of the main criticisms of inflatable paddleboards, all fast turns are very hard to make. From a paddle driven pivot turn to a simple trim turn down a wave are very hard on an inflatable compared to a fiberglass board. These round rails also provide drag at the end of the board that makes paddling harder.

A displacement hull paddleboard does not have rails in the same sense as a planing hull does. Since they cut the water, they do not need this air-water interface.

Paddleboard and surfboard combined?

There are many differences between paddleboards and surfboard. They do, however, overlap a bit. That is some paddleboards are very close to surfboards and vice-versa.

This happens with fiberglass hulled paddleboards designed for surfing and surfing longboards. The longboard usually has about the same length, 8 -9 feet, as do surfing paddleboards. The longboard is a bit narrow and a bit thinner, but that is it. The shape of the boards differs a bit as the longboard often has a very round nose whereas the surfing paddleboard has a more pointed one. 

If you have a longboard, give it a try with a paddle, and the same if you have a paddleboard, try leaving the paddle on the beach. Both videos above give you tips on surfing with a paddle board. The experience is very similar! Admittedly getting started with paddle boarding is a little easier than learning to surf.

All that being said, time for the waters!

Paddle safe!


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Carlo Raffa

Carlo Raffa is a blogger, stand-up paddleboard enthusiast, water lover and local to Brighton city in the South of England. Paddle boarding is my escape and this is only the starting point. Being a larger guy at 260lbs I am finding it very good exercise as well, especially for building core muscles. This is something that believe it or not cycling 16 miles a day at 6 miles per hour doesn't seem to be doing. Paddle Boarding allows me to just grab my board and walk right through the busy bar filled beachfront between the two piers in Brighton and head straight out of shore. It's not long before the shouting and cheering of our buzzing beach fade into just the lapping waves and the people to just small dots of the Brighton shoreline.

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