Meet Christian Sellers, the man behind Pushfins. Part craftsman, part aerotech hacker. Full visionary.
This is a tale of a man who sought to make a point: that the surf industry can manufacture better products in better ways. Christian is on a mission to eradicate waste from the manufacturing process, one fin at a time. It’s a story of dedication, perseverance and belief.
To really understand what Christian is doing with his company, Pushfins, it helps to have some insight into the overwhelming toxicity and wastefulness that permeates the surf industry. It’s a cruel irony that the materials used for a sport that is so close to nature are those that are causing irreparable damage to the environment. An estimated 400,000 boards are manufactured each year out of polyurethane foam, polyester resin and fibreglass - all toxic materials. Then, consider the additional equipment and accessories that go along with these new boards. When they break or reach the end of their lifespan, this equipment either ends up in landfill or washes out to sea. Either way, the slow breakdown of the material seeps into nature and poisons its surroundings.
The first thing you need to know about Christian, aside from being a surfer, is that he is a maker. A tinkerer. An inquisitive soul. He is also a skater and a snowboarder, having grown up in Seattle. After a 2-year surf and backpacking trip through Central America and Southeast Asia with his (now) wife Emily, they moved to Lake Tahoe to chase snow. Even in the mountain mecca, Christian's mind was on surfing and he started spending more and more time exploring California's central coast. Around this time, Christian found a long forgotten 80’s longboard in a Tahoe garage and decided to strip the glass and reshape it.
When starting out on his shaping journey, Christian was lucky enough to get exposed to more sustainable materials that have been gaining popularity over the past few years, including recycled EPS foam and plant based bio epoxy. This struck a chord. Just because boards have been shaped for the past 50 years with these materials, doesn't mean there aren’t better alternatives out there.
Shortly after building that first board, a friend broke a fin. Christian offered to make a replacement. After all, how hard could it be? Inspired by the sustainable materials he was using in the shaping bay, Christian figured he could make a fin with as little waste as possible, using the bio epoxy he had discovered not long before and a sustainable core material. Skate decks were an intuitive choice. He grew up skating so was familiar with the properties of wooden decks. Maple ply was strong, light and responsive - the perfect material for a fin. Plus, there’d be plenty of broken skate decks kicking around.
Sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to bring true innovation and Christian could see the opportunity:
The characteristics that you want in a fin core are the same as a skateboard. Obviously light and strong. But the most important characteristic is for them to store the maximum amount of energy when loaded and to release that energy quickly and consistently.
With a sanding wheel, a few basic hand tools and some skills acquired from working on boats, Christian taught himself the basic principles of hand foiling fins.
What designs are best? How can you design the strongest connection between the wood and epoxy? What areas require reinforcement? Where should the fin flex? How do material properties affect the performance? What’s the process to repurpose a skate deck?
After some trial and error, the first fin forged from a skate deck was made. Christian could see the possibility, but it was still early days. Soon his interest in surfboard shaping pivoted to a full time obsession to create the highest performing fin with the lowest environmental impact.
Fins are complicated. There are no shortcuts. To truly understand fin design, you must wrap your head around the physics of foils as well as templates. Which is exactly what Christian did. He studied anything and everything related to foils, uncovering nuggets of wisdom in the depths of the Internet. He had become a self-taught aerotech hacker.
Slowly, progress was made and processes evolved. Years went by and Christian foiled roughly 1500 fins by hand, developing prototypes upon prototypes. To reach the full potential of the materials, he taught himself RTM — the closed molding infusion process that the larger companies were using to manufacture their high performance fins. Christian built himself a Mad Scientist workshop, complete with CNC machines, a home-made injection system and retrofitted pizza warmers as curing ovens.
Limitations breed creativity and innovation. By challenging himself to work with less, Christian unlocked so much more. Now, after years of hard work with these limitations, the final products are dialled. The next step is for Pushfins to scale up manufacturing. With more fins in more hands, it'll be a positive step for the environment, for surfers and for the industry. Because sustainability on its own is a good thing, but it's only when you combine it with performance that it has the opportunity to make a real difference. In this case, sustainability and high performance aren’t mutually exclusive, they're bed-fellows. In fact, it’s through his stubborn dedication to sustainability that Christian has unlocked the process to creating the world’s lightest fins and possibly the most sustainable hard-good in the industry.
Check out photos from the workshop and shop the Pushfins collection below.
Photography by Tom Schaller. Visit his Instagram here.