surfer riding on the lip of a big wave
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The OMBE Guide to the Ideal Step-Up Board

Figuring out what you want from your step-up board can be unnecessarily strenuous. Ease all your confusion with our detailed guide.

As the aptly-named surf lesson Waves of Progression informs you (which you can find in our free Surfer Assessment program), once you start progressing through the stages of surfing, you’ll find that your needs change on all fronts. The waves you’re riding and the wave knowledge that should precede it, the fitness exercises you’ll need to undertake, and inevitably, the surfboards you’ll use—all of it gradually changes.

Even when you’re an advanced surfer on your high-performance style board, you’ll want to start surfing bigger and bigger waves. When you start surfing massive waves on your standard high-performance shortboard, however, you’ll realize that it’s too lightweight. Now, what are you going to do? Are you going to re-read all the analyses and guides on different surfboard shapes?

Luckily no, since that’s where the step-up surfboard comes to your rescue. Unluckily, though, the world of step-ups might get even more complicated than all the other surfboards you know. 

Why? Well, a step-up board is generally custom-made for the individual needs of a surfer, and identifying how you need your step-up to perform and relaying that information to your board-shaper might not be as straightforward a process as you’d imagine.

Still, the OMBE crew is here, and we’re going to guide you on this arduous process. But first, let’s do away with the basics!

What’s a Step-Up Surfboard?

surfer carrying a surfboard on the beach during sunset

We talked about how step-ups are suitable for big waves, but when we say big waves, we’re definitely not talking about those that haunt the dreams of legends like Laird Hamilton and make Guinness offices shake with dread about measurements and confirmations. These waves can only be ridden with a gun surfboard or even a semi gun.

Rather, we’re talking about double overhead waves you come across a big swell on a surf trip (that’s also why step-up boards are an essential part of surf trip packing lists). Luckily, such waves don’t require you to take your gun out, and specifically-ordered step-up boards generally should handle them in style.

But why ditch your standard shortboard and step up to a step-up? Because you need more foam and more volume under your feet to ride such waves in confidence, especially when it’s your first go at them. However, foam and volume in step-ups aren’t employed as they are in soft tops for beginners.

See, the whole point of a high-performance board is to provide you with speed and mobility when you’re on the wave. However, as waves get bigger, all the power you need to generate speed, stay afloat, trim, pull tricks, and bust airs are already present in the waves. So, you don’t need any extra speed-generating attributes from your board. On the contrary, you need your board to have the ability to slow down whenever needed. That’s what step-ups are able to offer.

Additionally, large waves require you to paddle longer distances since they are further in the open ocean. So, you’ll need a lot of paddle power to reach these large waves. That paddle power will also help you get into the wave and take off earlier. 

That’s why step-up boards generally entertain extra layers of glassing and an increased volume and length in comparison to your everyday board. Moreover, that’s kind of why they’re somewhat puzzlingly called step-ups.

4 Useful Tips for How to Order a Step-Up From Your Board-Shaper

clayton nienaber shaping a surfboard

Of course, only knowing that step-ups should have the same width but a bit more length and thickness than the board you usually paddle out on is a simplistic approach, and it won’t help you when it’s time for you to order or purchase a step-up. That said, a comprehensive guide on what your step-up should be like is also nearly impossible. How so? Well, in the end, it simply all boils down to what we call personal preference.

That might sound awfully arbitrary, and in surfing, especially when it’s time to get a surfboard, making arbitrary decisions might just be one of the major sins. Well, don’t worry; it’s not as bad a sin as dropping in, and we’re going to do our best to help you make an informed purchase.

Tip #1: Your Step-Up Doesn’t Need to Be a Big Step Up

surfer paddling out into the ocean

If it’s the first time you’re about to order or purchase a step-up board, it’s understandable that you don’t want to make any missteps, and that you want to make as safe a choice as possible. So, over the years, we’ve seen surfers deliberate like that and order a board that’s much bigger, thicker, and sometimes even wider than their regular shortboard just to be on the safe side.

Well, should you make such a choice, you might still float on large waves due to the sheer volume and thickness of your step-up, but it won’t perform well if (it performs at all). As we said above, bigger waves already have all the power you need to float and generate speed. 

What you need to look for instead is a board that’ll allow you to control and maintain your speed and balance when a powerful wave is already pushing you.

How? Now, you might remember what your surf coaches taught you about doing turns on your longboard. Even if you weren’t a rail-surfer per se before stepping up, to be able to hold and thrust on bigger waves, you’d need to become one. 

So, you’ll need to engage the rail a lot. To achieve that end, your step-up should be only a couple of inches longer (2-6), and it certainly doesn’t need to be any wider; if anything, a bit of narrowness might even benefit you.

So, if your regular go-to is a high-performance shortboard (HPSB), your step-up should still be a high-performance shortboard, only with a bit of added length. If your everyday board is a groveler, you don’t need to overcomplicate things since stepping up to an HPSB can easily do the trick for you.

Tip #2: Do You Know the Type of Waves You’re Going to Surf With Your Step-Up?

surfing in mentawai islands, indonesia

Of course, you do know what waves you want to surf, but can you tell how these waves will affect the performance of your surfboard? You might be starting on this path with the dream of conquering double overhead waves, but where?

For example, if you want a step up to try the wonderful beaches and waves of Indonesia, double overhead will mean waves breaking far away from the shore. So, to get there, you’ll need all the paddling in the world. In that case, a step-up that’ll help you with your paddling should be your preference.

If you’re on a reef break, on the other hand, like those that are amply found in North Shore, Oahu, Hawaii, having a board with lots of paddle power won’t really help you in any way. Instead, you may focus more on performance and maneuverability.

So, knowing the specifics of the type of break you’re going to surf and having a bit of Ocean IQ will pay dividends when stepping up. Luckily, we have programs that specifically focus on these aspects: Surf Science and Waterman.

Tip #3: Design Specifics for Your Step-Up

surfboards with different designs

If you started calling dibs on bigger waves, you probably know how the design specifics of surfboards function. We promised you a thorough guide, didn’t we? Let’s look at what kind of tail, rail, rocker, and fin setups are good for different aspects of your performance.

Tail Shape

As we repeatedly said above, if it’s your first time riding bigger waves that already have enough power in them, what you should be looking for is basically control and stability. However, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t harness the wave’s energy in any way. Otherwise, you’d just surf in a straight line and get out of the water with little or no satisfaction.

Therefore, you need a certain level of maneuverability and performance as well, mainly from the specific tail shape you opt for. A straight-up pintail may provide you with the stability you need. That’s why they’re employed on gun boards that are designed for really big waves, but that’s not what you’re looking for.

A rounded pin, as a hybrid of round and pin tails, can offer you stability by allowing digs into the water as well as maneuverability by allowing smooth rail-to-rail transitions in the same package. So, it’s the safest choice for step-ups.

If you opt for a twin-fin fish-style board, on the other hand, it probably already has a swallow tail, and that’s what works best with these kinds of boards. So, you won’t need to make further adjustments.


As our head coach Clayton Nienaber tirelessly repeats, rail-surfing is the true way of surfing, and that’s especially the case if you want to perform well on overhead and double overhead waves.

So, you’ll need performance-oriented rails. There’s no need for confusion in this respect either since the only performance-oriented rails are tapered rails.


A flat board is a fast board; even worse, a flat board is a flat board that’ll have you surf flatly. For more speed control and to engage the rail more, you need more rocker. With more rocker, you’ll be able to carve a little longer as well.

In addition, it’ll allow you to stick late drops, and you won’t find re-entering the wave difficult.

Fins and Bottom Contours

A single-to-double concave bottom deck, similar to a rounded pin tail, will allow you to make smoother rail-to-rail transitions, and it especially goes well in the company of fin setups like high-performance style thrusters and quads.

For single-fin or even twin-fin style boards, on the other hand, you might go for even more concave.

Tip #4: Tell Your Shaper What You Want Thoroughly

different surfboard shapes

One of the most important steps of ordering a new surfboard from your shaper is being able to interpret the feedback you’re getting from your board and relaying that feedback to your shaper in no uncertain terms.

  • What kind of surfboard do you regularly ride, how do you ride it, and how does it perform?
  • In what kind of surf conditions are you planning to ride your step-up?
  • What kind of performance specifics are you looking for in terms of design?

Should you engage in such a fruitful conversation with your shaper, there’s little chance that the new board you’ll get won’t fulfill your aspirations.

Wrapping Up…

Well, ordering or purchasing surfboards isn’t exactly rocket science, but the advance in surfboard technologies surely makes it increasingly look like so with every passing day. But so long as you’re able to identify what you want, we can assure you that there’s nothing difficult about it.

Oh, you’re not convinced? Then, you have no other chance than to enroll in our wonderful program: Get the Right Board. Our head coach Clayton Nienaber is an acclaimed board shaper who worked with the likes of Dane Reynolds and Ricky Bassnett, so you can be pretty sure that he’s going to be a great guide on your strenuous path of picking a step-up board.

Written by
Nico Palacios
surf coaching