The road to Firewire and beyond
Yesterday, in the first installment from Flexi Week, Swellnet ran a timeline of Mitchell Rae's flex experimentation coupled with his own commentary. Mitchell revealed a conversation with Nev Hyman in the late-90s. At the time, Nev was running one of the largest surfboard companies in the world but it was limited in what it could do. Necessity being the mother of invention Nev began to visualise blanks that could alter a board's flex. The process would lead him on a long and winding journey.
Following is a conversation Nev had with Swellnet about the genesis of Firewire.
Before we talk about what I saw in Mitchell’s boards, it’s important to understand what was happening at the time.
Back then - and this would’ve been late-90s - there were many attempts to make molded boards such as PCB [Pro Circuit Boards by Bob McTavish] and Cobra’s efforts with Surftech. All of that new technology was floating around and starting to happen.
Yet all those boards lacked flex. They all lacked the inherent rail to rail flexibility; the longitudinal twist that a good board needs. Riding them was like riding a plank, and that was why you never saw any surfer of note ripping on them - and I say that with the greatest respect to everyone involved. They sold a lot of boards, but they were B-grade boards.
Pro Circuit Boards, molded surfboads made in the mid- to late-90s
There was just no way I’d ever put my name on one of those boards, yet a lot of well-known shapers did. The temptation of finally earning a dollar through making surfboards was too strong. Every shaper wants to make a bit more because it’s a tough world out there.
You can’t say those shapers sold out; it’s a harsh term and it’s not what I mean. What I mean is there was a compromise. There was a compromise in performance, and so those guys had to compromise themselves to take on board that opportunity.
So with all that in mind, the only person that I knew that was experimenting with flex was Mitchell Rae. His boards worked, they showed what flex can do, yet I didn’t have the time to do what Mitchell did. I couldn't upset the monster I created!
The ‘monster’ was my company. Between 1990 and 2000 I was doing around 100-150 boards a week. I was one of the biggest board manufacturers in the world and I had a responsibility to all my team riders, I had a responsibility to all my retailers, and I was trying to figure out ways to do more of my boards without selling my designs to other shapers around the world under license.
So the operation had to continue. Yet at that volume, even doing channel bottoms was a bit of a no no, let alone all forms of flex. All Mitchell’s boards were made by hand. I wanted to understand what Mitchell was doing, I wanted to ride it, I wanted to try and see how we could put flex into boards that didn’t require completely upsetting our factory process.
After talking to Mitchell, my mind started drifting towards making a blank that could be machined but also have foam of different densities added to it to change the flex. As you know, I was instrumental in propagating the whole computer shaping scenario, copped all the early flak, so that’s the direction I was going.
Miki Langenbach [Nev’s partner in APS3000 and Aku Shaper] and I were selling those machines and one day I said to Miki, “We need to create a 100% machinable blank where we can control the flex.” And we’d do that by using different density foams. We could add foam in certain areas of the blank before it got laminated.
Around 2000, 2001, we ordered different density foams and we were getting ready to make those blanks. Everything was there ready to do, but Miki said to me, “Nev we’re too busy.” The problem was that stumbling block: Miki wouldn't support me going down that path, and second to that I’d just gone through a divorce. My focus was on other areas too.
So I kinda put it to bed for six months or so but then I was introduced to Bert Burger.
Bert had built a brilliant flexing blank. What it did was what I was trying to do. What he had was a blank that didn't have the central stringer, that had stringers on the rail. It did exactly what I was trying to do with the multi density foams. I know that if I followed through with that I would’ve created a blank that had the flex properties of a parabolic rail surfboard.
But lo and behold Bert Burger jumped into my life. I bought his company, he came to Queensland, and we developed the process using his technology. However, we could only make ten boards a week, maximum, because they had to be handmade. We couldn’t use the Aku Shaper or APS3000 shaping systems because it was a completely different system, so I had to go back to the drawing board and figure out how we could mass produce this Bert Burger technology, and that technology became Firewire.
The first five Firewire surfboards built by Josh Dowling using Bert Burger's technology (Josh Dowling)
I’ve had my time making surfboards, had my day in the sun, and I’m very proud of creating Firewire with Bert originally, and then obviously Kelly Slater bought it out. It’s still the only surfboard company that has the ability to put something within a surfboard or on the skin of a surfboard to improve its performance. And that’s why it will keep pushing the barriers of design.
That said, I’d still love to build a totally composite blank, all the machining systems are there in place, and there’s so many new materials that can be used that I’m finding out about via NevHouse: incredibly thin, incredibly strong, and incredibly flexible natural Australian fibres. I won’t even say what they are because I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag!