Along with their close cousin, rental rafts with rubber end caps, the high end mats of the 50's, 60's and 70's were made of cotton canvas with a thin rubber inner-lining to insure air tightness. Little thought was given to the grip on the deck. Since mats were primarily ridden by bare chested kids, traction had to be limited to non-chafing material anyway. So this material was good, if not perfect.
True, the dreaded affliction for all day riders known as "titty rash" was a common occurrence at the time. But, that had as much to do with sand trapped between the deck and our chests as anything else. We were going straight off and often hanging onto flange ropes, so that was part of the reason why the canvas deck was fine, grip-wise. Bottom line....neither I or anyone I knew ever bitched about the decks being too slippery back then.
As mat surfing matured into a more potent form of wave riding in the late 60's, the flange ropes disappeared, leaving only the traction of the deck to hold us onboard. We were also wearing wetsuits much of the year. Even with those two drawbacks, traction-wise, there wasn't much to complain about. In retrospect, I think a lot of that was due to the fact that the cotton canvas kept it's soft "hand" (the feeling material gives you when you touch it) even when it was wet.
In the late 70's, the downside of having the same texture top and bottom led wholesalers (Merrins and Rip Curl among them) to mass produce mats in Asia with smooth nylon bottoms. At that time, no thought was given to adding grip to the deck, just decreasing drag on the bottom.
(Merrin Surf Mat, 1979, Sans Handles and Fins)
The nylon bottoms were still pretty stiff, but the material was smooth to the touch, and offered noticeably less drag running through the water. Definitely a step forward. But the flimsy canvas decks weren't as grippy as the old Hodgman Converse mats, and we began wondering how to deal with that problem even back then. Surf wax on the deck, maybe?
We started peeling the nylon off the bottoms of these mats to get to the thin rubber skin underneath, and those mats went even faster...confirming the theory that pliability of the bottom took precedence over smoothness when it came to speed.
So, the next logical step was to begin making thin nylon mats in the early 80s' -- in the hope that total pliability would lead to the ultimate in trim speed. True enough, the mats flew down the line...but the nylon fabric we used left the decks slick as ice. I had a case of Slipcheck in my garage (left over from my days as a go-fer at W.A.V.E. Corp.) so we sprayed the decks of the original nylon mats with that stuff. They were serviceable in terms of grip, but hardly ideal.
The following attempt at an ideal deck was to bond strips of yachting canvas to the decks. This was pretty effective....relative to everything after the Hodgman era.
Unfortunately, the yacht canvas got too smooth after maybe 15 go-outs, so the next step was to try rubber grit to the decks. We pilfered ground rubber from the trash bin at Dal Pozzo's tire retread facility in Santa Barbara. Then we layed down strips of wetsuit glue along the deck, and sprinkled the rubber over the wet glue. Then, after it set up, added another coat of glue to seal it all up. It was crude, but effective.
Actually, it was a little too effective. The grip was so tight that you had to slide onto the right spot upon takeoff, because you could barely shift your positioning during the ride. Once you settled in, that was pretty much it. On narrow mats and in bigger waves, it was great. But in smaller surf or on wider mats, where we wanted to slide around to maximize our body english, it was restricting.
Around 2007, I made a mat for Gloria that was made of thin nylon, but with an additional layer of cotton canvas bonded to both sides.
I loved being on that mat, because the canvas was so comfortable. But of course, the performance was lacking because the canvas was on both sides, and the lamination added even more stiffness.
Shortly thereafter, I started gluing wide strips of cotton canvas on 4GF mats. I was hoping to replicate the feel of the old mats, while maintaining modern performance.
The grip of these mats worked fairly well, but it was hard to get the canvas to stay bonded to the nylon decks, even with high end adhesives.
Around this time Bagjuan, up in WA state, started bonding EVA foam to the decks of his 4GF mats.
We tested that deck treatment in the water, and really liked it. With BJ's blessing and assistance, we began bonding patches of the stuff onto our prototype mats.
The smaller patches seemed to work best, and became the stock deck on 4GFs for the next few years.
In 2009, we obtained a sample of some moderately heavy nylon canvas material that was bondable with our usual thin fabric. This new material was a lot like the texture of the Hodgmans, and I smelled a breakthrough of sorts...what if we could finally build mats that felt like the old Hodgmans, but went like the current generation of mats???
I immediately started making prototypes with this new canvas stuff on the deck.
The first ones worked pretty good, but I had to juggle the I-Beam heights and the corner shapes to maximize the heavier deck material. (In essence, we could get away with more fuzzyness, design-wise, with the thin-decked mats.) So, the mat designs became more refined as a side benefit. And the grip, while still not ideal, was very comfortable and easy to use. They were a ton of fun just to be on!
I made the decision to shift over to the black nylon canvas decks on all our mats. The loss of performance, speed-wise, was minimal. And the fun factor went up 3 fold.
The heavy black deck material was expensive on a per-yard basis, but it alleviated the need to bond anything on the deck, so the time saved far outweighed the cost of the material. Plus, I didn't need a work space that could handle the massive fumes caused by the cement we used to bond the patches.
We also stopped using logo patches on the decks at that time too, because, a) it was hard to bond anything permanently to the coarse canvas texture, and b) since we weren't bonding patches to the deck, why slop around in the glue at all? Cheaper and greener. And less commercial looking too, which seems to rub most mat riders the right way.
The result of all this led to a significant drop in price. ($285 down to $199 per mat, USD)
The canvas decks made wider mats more viable, because the decks were more stable and easier to move around on during a ride. The XL and UDT models came into being straight away, and the longer roundtail models (Tracker and Vespa) followed the next summer. All because we had a more stable, easier to ride mat to work with.
One downside of the heavier canvas decks was a little less glide in weak/rolling waves, and sometimes on small, zippery walls. Personally, I thought the upside of being able to move around on the deck with ease while riding outweighed this. But some riders missed the super glide of a thin decked surf mat.
So, I tried a couple of variations of the canvas-topped mats to minimize that downside.
The most sophisticated idea was a hybrid deck mat, with canvas in the middle, and thin nylon twill on the rails. (Thin fabric on the bottom, of course.) I had high hopes for this idea, even though it was a pain in the ass to render. Turned out, it didn't glide one iota better than the all canvas decked mats...
The next idea I tried, which did turn out to be of benefit, was to order the canvas deck fabric with a softer urethane lining. You can see in this photo that the added natural flex, with just the weight of the fabric bending it, is noticeable in the foreground sample. That's what we used today on all of our decks.
However much fun the nylon canvas decks were, the grip did fall short some times...especially pulling through white water sections. So the next challenge was to try and enhance the grip of the canvas without ruining the friendly feel.
A number of ideas were tested in my backyard workshop. Here are a few of the less embarrassing ones...
Small EVA dots bonded to the crowns of the pontoons.
Rubber dots cut from gardening gloves, covering most of the deck...
Scrubbing the canvas with a stiff brush to raise the fuzzy-ness of the material...
These variations were OK, but they didn't hit the nail on the head.
The idea that did tick-all-the-boxes was a very light coat of surf wax, melted into the canvas with a hair dryer...
That's where we stand at the present time...a hot waxed nylon canvas deck goes out on all 4GF mats.
Personally, I prefer the hot waxed 4GF decks over any I have ever used, because they strike a really good compromise between grip, stability, rider mobility, and overall fun/comfort.
The lifespan of the wax treatment seems to be months of not years...since the wax is soaked into the fabric, and can't wear off like wax on a surfboard. I have year old mats that haven't needed any more wax added.