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To put it simply, the rails of a surfboard are its edges. Surfboard rails run the full length of your surfboard on each side from the nose (or front) to the tail (or end). Surfboard rails are KEY to how the water will move around your surfboard when you are up on the wave. The rails on your surfboard are most narrow at the nose and tail, and are the thickest up in the center.
When you turn your surfboard on a wave, the rails will be the first factor you will notice. The thinner, or harder, the rails the better your board will slice through the bottom of the wave. The harder the rails on the surfboard, the easier that particular edge will cut through the water. This is because there is less resistance against the water. The rails of the surfboard have to be a compromise between cutting ability and flotation, or buoyancy. The thicker, or softer, the rails, the more flotation the board will have.
To compensate for the shortcomings of each type of rail, most surfboards have rails that are thinner at the nose and tail for maneuverability, and thicker rails in the middle to allow you to float. Long surfboards generally have softer rails to aid the board in flotation and stability. The longboard is going to glide along, not perform radical cutbacks and tight maneuvers in most instances.
Of course there will be exceptions to this rule: different designs and fins will let you coax different performance out of your surfboard.
Softer rails make for a more forgiving surfboard, but you won't be able to turn as easily as someone with a harder rail. If you're getting a custom board made and don't know what to do, the best solution to this is to have medium rails on your surfboard. You will be able sink and unsink the rails of your surfboard while you are on the edge of a wave. This is the premise of modern surfing and what gives the surfboard its turning ability and speed.
The medium rails will ensure that your surfboard is not too unstable but will still be able to turn tightly. The medium rails will give you great flotation as well as great speed. A surfboard with medium rails is a great all rounder surfboard suited for all conditions and all surfers. The medium rails give the surfboard great holding power and will prevent it from easily spinning out.
Surfboard rails are a critical component of any board. Surfboard rails will determine flotation, speed, and the board's ability to perform radical maneuvers. Wanna learn more about your board? Jump to our Guide on Surfboard Shapes!