Flying too close to the sun: The ascent

Stu Nettle picture
Stu Nettle (stunet)
Talking Heads

There was an element of destiny in Josh Dowling's shaping career. Long before he'd shaped his first board he was exposed to the backyard craftsmanship of a cousin who worked with both polyester and epoxy resins.

Josh would go on to work with both types of resin, however it was his mastery of epoxy resin and its application on alternative materials for which Josh would make his name. First at Firewire disrupting the PU and polyester orthodoxy, and then later under his own label assembling modern masterpieces.

Polyester resin was, and still is, the industry standard while epoxy has long been touted as the superior alternative: it's stronger, it's lighter, yet epoxy resin has it's own shortcomings. Some of those are known, while others are only now becoming apparent.

Fifteen years of exposure to epoxy resin all came to a head last month. Josh downed tools and stopped taking orders, his body finally rejecting the toxic load.

This article will be published in two parts.

The beginning
My first boards were made down the side of the family home in Brighton, a bayside suburb of Melbourne, under a lean-to I made from scrap. I was thirteen and I had a school friend whose dad knew Don Burford. Don sent me a few blanks and some resin, and he ‘forgot’ the bill. I wore the classic shaper Burford shirt ‘til it was threadbare.

The earliest influence
I’d seen board building before that though. My cousin made boards down in Anglesea where his dad had a holiday home. Chris was the full waterman: a world class paddleboarder who also pulled into pits down south in Victoria. He made EPS/epoxy paddleboards alongside some PU shortboards. He also made my first board, a 5’3” round pin single fin with a sunburst spray. I was nine.

I watched long slabs of foam being hotwired to a rocker, the outline routed, rails rolled, and knee-wells planed, blocked, and gauzed, the laminating done in the garage with multiple layers of glass and epoxy, and the sanding out in the bungalow.

Literally that was the height of tech. Competition racing boards…made in the bungalow. So before I’d set foot in an actual surfboard factory, I’d already seen the other standard of making a board besides PU. And they were light! I learned that polyurethane was deemed too heavy for the winning edge in paddling. Also, the incredibly light EPS foam needed to be glassed in epoxy because standard surfboard resin melted it.

When I later did a stint at Bennett, the largest manufacturer of clubby boards in the country, I saw it done precisely the same way as Chris’s backyard work.

The benefits of epoxy
Later in my career when I chose to work with epoxy the environmental angle was a factor as epoxy has no volatile fumes – there’s no styrene component to waft past your face when laminating, no telltale pong to disturb the neighbours and shrink your brain. That’s a big bonus, but mainly I liked the fact epoxy has more bonds between molecules – this means it stands up to far more stress before it splits.

Those stress marks you sometimes see across an old board? Those don’t happen with epoxy. It’s just plain stronger. It’s a moot point now, considering that the hidden dangers bit me on the arse, but before that it made sense to work with epoxy.

Testing the epoxy waters
EPS/epoxy popped up in the surfboard industry periodically. There was regular flashes of promise: they were mind-bogglingly light boards with a more elastic resin/foam combo that didn't shatter as readily. Crew that had already been down the road in the ‘80s shaping in super-light PU foam, glassed as light as fuck, with the corresponding durability dramas, would have looked into it, if not gone forward to test them.

Yet I’ve made only one straight EPS/epoxy board. Reason being, the clubbies would stand their dinged paddleboards in the sun and they would dribble water like the bleeding heart of Jesus.

This problem has knocked EPS/epoxy on the head every time it’s come around. A glass shell wrapped around a sponge? Nup

New adventures in foam
Another flash in the pan flared in the late ‘90’s with an alternative foam. It was polystyrene, but it was extruded rather than expanded - called XPS. It’s the blue stuff that Salomon later used in their hugely expensive take on the weight/durability conundrum.

The blue foam had promise. It was waterproof, it was readily available being a common wall insulation, it shaped beautifully and it made for unfeasibly light boards. I had 6’6”s which were laminated in 6oz and sub-two kilograms!

It also had problems. Extrusion means like how sausages are made, oozed out a hole. To do this, the liquid polystyrene contains a release agent so it doesn't clog the hole. So, glass jobs didn't stick well. That and a low shear strength - which means a crispy snap like a fresh biscuit. EPS flexed further before it gave up.

Byron quiver, 1998, the two boards at right are Expanded Polystyrene, or XPS. "My first ridiculously light surfboards," says Josh.

The blue foam foray got expensive for some manufacturers. I was fortunate, having made just a handful. Mine lived a good long time. I rode them heavily and got a taste for the light weight. They were my first freakishly light boards, but eventually whole sections of the glass popped off. They’re under a farmhouse outside Byron Bay. I left them there, but not the idea…

While in Byron
I spent time working in Byron Bay, spraying for a number of brands. This gave me an insight into how the Wavelite hemp boards and Bamboo Surfboards Australia were made, which was my first exposure to vacuum bagging. I saw the pros and cons of those two types of board construction.

How many hats can one man wear? Josh made durable and technically precise boards using a mix materials...and they looked shit hot. Sprays from the JD porfolio.

Flying solo
Around 2002, after years working for others, I stuck my neck out with a label of my own. My shapes, my artwork, my signature. I did shoe-leather in and out of the surf shops, looking to sell stock, but name brands and machine shapes had already taken over. It was a massive reality check. Also, the 7S boards started hitting the shops around then, and the retail prices were less than I needed for mine at wholesale.

It was hard work all the way. Competing for shop space with JS and DHD, let alone cheaper imports, with nothing much more than a groovy new decal and some airbrush graphic. So I stuck with custom shapes, the bespoke touch, really putting in good communication with my customers.

I’d often play with the structure of the board, a different way of making them as a point of difference. A niche offering. That meant revisiting some earlier ideas with epoxy. I had made the blue XPS boards in the 90s, and I’d tried a number of ways to put together a shape. So alongside PU orders I had some fun: I glued sheets of EPS into a rocker, with sandbags, like the layers of a skateboard kicktail, I made carbon tape rails, marine-ply decks…

Bert Burger and Swaylocks
Bert Burger had the Sunova brand running in WA. He’d developed a niche for himself making balsa-skinned boards, adapting vacuum-bag technology from the sailboard industry. He rightly gets credit for adding balsa stringers to the rail rather than attempting to wrap skins all the way around the rail. His boards had a reputation for longevity, and he had a following amongst the more adventurous board builders on a forum named Swaylocks. It was there he started a thread in which he pictured his techniques.

A handful of backyarders took up the challenge and produced Bert-type boards of their own. It made him a bit of a hero in a scene where SurfTech Tuflites, the molded composite popouts, were like Satan himself. I’d had a customer too, who confessed he’d traded in his JD quiver of PU’s for Tuflites and extolled their durability. This spurred me on. I wanted to stick it to ‘em, so to speak.

The Eureka moment
Bert’s info offered a custom board with comparable durability, plus a double layer of glass and higher density material, either balsa or Divinycell, bridging and insulating the EPS from water. I made a pair of them and I was a bit skeptical - until I rode mine. The twang, the spring out of turns with the balsa’s all legit, you notice it, and I never looked back.

"My first composites, both made in Jan Juc. Top one for Pinhead, bottom one is mine." 

The Swaylocks thread was effectively a recruitment drive, and I got the job. Bert need to replace himself as the main shaper/bagger/laminator/sander in order to step into management in what was already being touted as the next huge thing - Firewire.

By the time I got there, I’d changed the build technique from the way Bert introduced. I’d simplified the way the balsa rails were added to the blank, with the wood and most of the shape done while the foam was flat. It was derivative of the way snowboards or skateboards are made: flat pieces glued into a rocker under vacuum. My original technique was something like a hand-pushed flatbed CNC machine. It reduced the time required and gave me consistent accurate shapes with minimum planer work. When I went back out on my own, I refined it further.

I have most of the research and development boards, including the first one done my way, the first Firewire-labelled composite board, and the first computer-shaped Firewire. They were my personal riders.

My innovation became a major part of the streamlining of production as Firewire stepped up to CNC. Of course it wasn't the only factor in taking a rarified skill and turning it into an industrial procedure. It took a team to get the process to a production level.

The first five Firewire boards, all hand built by Josh.

The new normal
I had to throw out what I knew about how surfboards were built. Traditionally, a shaper has selected a blank, then tuned it to specific dimensions, signed it and passed it on to be laminated

For composites, however, that blank prep is far more intensive. Rocker, concaves, outline, attaching the balsa rails, vacuum-bagging the skins on, adding tail blocks. It’s all more close-tolerance than producing a PU blank.

Composites require more equipment and a longer preparation time. A pro surfer’s new Hawaii quiver cannot be machine shaped and glassed in Suncure overnight for a dawn flight. Doing Taj’s boards in this timeframe was impossible.

The upward trajectory
I worked with a team at Firewire. Many of us worked very hard. There were regularly all-nighters. Nev hand shaping, mowing deck roll, tuning rails. There was a couple of other ghost-shapers and a laminator, but early on, when Nev [Hyman - Firewire founder] wanted stuff done yesterday, it was me. No JD, no boards. At one point I did 16 hour days for 18 days straight.

But the overtime pay was sensational, and nowhere else was I likely to have such an opportunity. A salary job in the surfboard industry was, and still is, uncommon. There was Base - the shaping collective that included Simon Anderson, Murray Bourton, and Darren Handley - but here was an exciting start-up company that wanted to involve my work. I’d also been recently married, with my first-born just two weeks old, when Nev called me with an actual job offer.

Eventually I’d trained my own replacement in the general production of models. We had teams of crew doing the vacuum-bagging, putting rails in, glassing, sanding, the whole lot. I had a role in the early training of the Thailand crew too. I moved on to further R&D of other materials, and a glassing procedure that ironically would have meant far less hands-on work with resin, all the while still building Taj’s boards exclusively. Alas I didn't nail what was to be FutureGlass.

Making boards for the best in the world
It’s a buzz for sure. I’d long done spray work on boards or production steps on boards by various shapers that went under the feet of some top surfers. Firewire was a step up for me in the sense that we were not just dreaming about sponsoring top surfers. The cliché for emerging shapers was, “If only I could get Kelly to ride one of my shapes” but at Firewire, he walked into my workshop. I looked on as Taj picked up boards in person sometimes, and the names listed for the first marketing drive were straight to the top: the magazine editors, the board buyers from the major retail chains; all the top ten pros; and the absolute who’s who of legends.

"It's pretty significant to take out an event on new technology. I've proven that it works," said Taj Burrow after winning the 2007 Bells title on a Nev Hyman-designed, Josh Dowling-built Firewire. Taj was the first surfer to win a CT contest on a non-PU surfboard.

Clark Foam closes
When Clark foam closed every shaper in America had the rug pulled out from under them. Burford’s phone rang off the hook with major American labels trying to buy literally every available blank. Some called it Black Friday.

I was out the back of Firewire, prepping up for vac-bagging, when the news of Clark Foam broke – gloves on, spreading epoxy. I was privately wary of saying, as some did, that conventional shapers would now, “mow my lawn”. Because for all the big talk, it was still just me doing the bulk of the specialised work, the bits that needed to cross-over from rarefied skill to blind process. Eventually I played a role in doing exactly that, teaching ex-cons and long-term unemployed the vac-bagging and ghost-finish shaping steps.

But at the time of the Clark closure, we were still asking, “How are we going to make thousands of these?” It was a monumental task and we hit a lot of hitches.

Looking back
Firewire at that time was an intense, exciting place to be. A lot of chickens were counted, big projections of market share bandied around. It was then that the company went from being a brave start-up promoting an alternative, to a leader who had already done away with PU anyway. It put the company in the box seat and accelerated the need to get big numbers of boards out there.

But you know, I’m proud of what I did there, and I’m very happy the company has thrived and continued to innovate. I look at the boards in shops now, there’s a wide range of lil’ techy accoutrements. A bit of carbon here, a vac-bagged lamination or some groovy thing there. Those are all a result of Firewire sticking their necks out to be different. It was hard work that continued long after I’d gone, obviously, but they made it work.

Click for Part 2, The Descent.
(Opening photo of Josh shaping courtesy of Tim Henshall Photography)


surfingbymyself's picture
surfingbymyself's picture
surfingbymyself Friday, 30 Jun 2017 at 12:51pm

Super interesting read, looking forward to Part 2. I've long wanted one of Josh's boards and should have tried harder to get in touch.

zenagain's picture
zenagain's picture
zenagain Friday, 30 Jun 2017 at 1:12pm

Definitely looking forward to part II.

50young's picture
50young's picture
50young Friday, 30 Jun 2017 at 1:13pm

True art and functionality!! Such a pity, but all the best to Josh for the future

heals's picture
heals's picture
heals Friday, 30 Jun 2017 at 1:26pm

Far out...they were classic boards. I really used to enjoy reading Josh's stuff online and always admired his work from a distance. I'm kicking myself for never ordering one while I could.

neville-beats-buddha's picture
neville-beats-buddha's picture
neville-beats-buddha Friday, 30 Jun 2017 at 1:43pm

All the best JD.

thermalben's picture
thermalben's picture
thermalben Friday, 30 Jun 2017 at 1:56pm

Met JD in the surf at Winkipop many years ago - nice fella. Very disappointed I never got around to ordering one of his boards.

jsc's picture
jsc's picture
jsc Friday, 30 Jun 2017 at 2:30pm

Good stuff - thanks for the great editorial content, Stu!

spelled3's picture
spelled3's picture
spelled3 Friday, 30 Jun 2017 at 4:09pm

My JDS board is a masterpiece of tech, function and art. Step tail, 'church' hull (not as big as Murray Bourton's cathedral hull). Resin tints/spray. Light, tough as nails and made me a better surfer. Maybe someone can fix whatever is in the epoxy that gives some people a reaction?

philosurphizingkerching's picture
philosurphizingkerching's picture
philosurphizing... Friday, 30 Jun 2017 at 6:04pm

Not sure if JD is answering questions but I will ask anyway.

'' and most of the shape done while the foam was flat'

For my next build I plan to try this method and was wondering if this method of bending the foam into shape gives it more flex/twang.

MP's picture
MP's picture
MP Saturday, 1 Jul 2017 at 7:19am

Interesting story, although there were many other major players and developments that came long before Bert Burger and Firewire in the use of vacuum bagging and alternative materials incorporating epoxy resin. It's a shame that these were not acknowledged in this story. Funny in the world of surfing that each player thinks they are the first to do something without researching it. Also the fact that Taj Burrow was the first surfer to win a WCT event using a non PU board is not accurate.

sharkman's picture
sharkman's picture
sharkman Saturday, 1 Jul 2017 at 8:05am

ah so who was the first surfer and what construction did he use to win a CT event?
Will be interesting to see why Josh has gotten out of the industry , and what are the health issues with epoxy?

PCS PeterPan's picture
PCS PeterPan's picture
PCS PeterPan Saturday, 1 Jul 2017 at 11:11am

Its the epoxy DUST. Dermotologist warned me of it 20 years ago. Big issue in building/flooring sites where it is used on concrete.Great resin though.
Sad to see JD stepping away. Hopefully he can turn his attention to another part of construction / creativity .

Bert Burger's picture
Bert Burger's picture
Bert Burger Monday, 24 Jul 2017 at 7:42pm

MP and Sharkman , Mel Redman won several CT events on Sunova from 1997 on wards, on a composite board and I'm pretty sure Sunny Garcia also won events on a composite around 2000 , boards by Gary Young...

MP's picture
MP's picture
MP Monday, 24 Jul 2017 at 7:55pm

Yes Bert, thanks for that info, Sunny did and I reckon at least one of the following did too: Damian Hardman, Barton Lynch, Pam Burridge and Luke Egan on Aloha boards shaped by Greg Clough.

Bert Burger's picture
Bert Burger's picture
Bert Burger Monday, 24 Jul 2017 at 8:19pm

Well if thats the case , I think there are a number of firsts as different technology developed...
Mel Redman was for sure the first to win on a composite sandwich board with Parabolic rails in 97 , Sunny the first man to win on a vacuum bagged Bamboo Composite board , the list you mentioned would have been on whats called Shape n Glass , EPS/Epoxy built the same way as a P/U ...which kicked off in the early 80s with Shapers like Greg Loehr and Clyde Beatty , this tech made its way to Oz in the mid to late 80s , but I once laid eyes on a board made with the same tech by West Coast surfboards out of Western Australia which dated back to 74 , it was also EPS/Epoxy and (theory/guess) I reckon that know how was an alternative that came from some of the early longboards , which had EPS cores , then sealed with either a water based sealant or Epoxy and Glassed in Polyester resin , Midget Told me the board he won his 64 World title on was an EPS core made this way..

Reefeater's picture
Reefeater's picture
Reefeater Saturday, 1 Jul 2017 at 7:24pm

Hey that was my board. Had about 12 Jd's over the years, craftmanship was pure class each and everyone. Good fellow to deal with and solid bloke to boot. Hope your next chapter is a good one JD.......

spidermonkey's picture
spidermonkey's picture
spidermonkey Saturday, 1 Jul 2017 at 9:34pm

Epoxy sensitivity is hardly astounding news...tho terrible for those affected. Once you've got it, no going back . Plenty boat builders can't even live on their own epoxy build. Not just the dust, any prolonged contact , fumes, skin exposure, it's cumulative

Mort's picture
Mort's picture
Mort Saturday, 1 Jul 2017 at 10:04pm

My comment is kinda related but not. Used to work in a panel shop where the panelbeater used to grind bog of with a smoke in his mouth and the spraypainter used to apply two pack paint with a double dusk mask on.

Of course, I carried on the tradition, with safety. My lung capacity is poor, lucky my surfing has really been tested.

P.S I also smoked a heap of pot, a few cigarettes and drunk a little bit. I will get fit before my fiftieth.

Mort's picture
Mort's picture
Mort Saturday, 1 Jul 2017 at 10:11pm

Looking for a rounded nose, mal shaped, 7 +, a decent stringline, multiple fins, man, multiple fins. Spray, it has to be space themed. NASA image of the Day. Can't pay a lot, come on, it will be your swansong before you die.

Mort's picture
Mort's picture
Mort Saturday, 1 Jul 2017 at 10:18pm

Ghost shapers, is that like Ghost writers?

spelled3's picture
spelled3's picture
spelled3 Wednesday, 5 Jul 2017 at 8:28pm
channel-bottom's picture
channel-bottom's picture
channel-bottom Saturday, 24 Feb 2018 at 2:46pm

Any interest in a 2nd hand 6’4” JD in great condition?

udo's picture
udo's picture
udo Saturday, 24 Feb 2018 at 3:09pm

Whats dimensions ?

channel-bottom's picture
channel-bottom's picture
channel-bottom Saturday, 24 Feb 2018 at 6:26pm

6’4” x 20 1/2” x 2 11/16”, nose is 13 1/4”, tail is 15”.

I’ll work out how to post an image here.

channel-bottom's picture
channel-bottom's picture
channel-bottom Saturday, 24 Feb 2018 at 9:40pm
Hornibrooks's picture
Hornibrooks's picture
Hornibrooks Tuesday, 15 May 2018 at 2:08pm

Personal Protective Equipment.