Flying too close to the sun: The descent

Stu Nettle
Talking Heads

Last week Swellnet published the first part of this story with master shaper Josh Dowling. Josh was exposed to the weight and strength advantage of epoxy resins at a young age, he spent many years perfecting all aspects of board building, was recruited by Firewire when they burst onto the scene before leaving to make his own modern masterpieces using epoxy and alternative materials.

Josh's rise was halted last month, though the early signs appeared long before that.

Scratching that itch
The condition I have is called contact dermatitis. It’s an evil red rash that seems to pop up in places I’d had contact with uncured resin initially, and now it takes very little to set it off. I first noticed it while I was at Firewire.

A doctor diagnosed psoriasis, a lifelong incurable skin disease that looks very similar. At that stage, which was sometime in 2014, I’d read about boatbuilders who couldn't go near epoxy. I mentioned this to him, he said it was impossible…so I dismissed it as heat rash, working in Queensland and then Thailand.

I’d had a previous GP, a Russian guy who learned to surf in the Baltic Sea. He became a customer of mine and when he picked up a new board I showed him the skin issue. He blasted the other diagnosis and pointed to the resin and paints right there in the workshop. He’d come across it in his homeland, in the boat industry.

The enemy in the tin
I’ve been straight to the top of the chain in terms of who can change things with surfboard-specific epoxy, and it’s over all their heads. There needs to be a chemical reaction for the resin to go hard, and the surfboard resin gurus can’t change the chemistry. Responsibility for eliminating the toxic aspects of epoxy would lie with the massive chemical corporations that pump out the base ingredients…so, good luck to me with that.

The culprit is the amine in the hardener – the stuff that makes the resin cure, to become plastic. Regardless of the brand or the resin/hardener ratio, the base chemicals are the same, they’re made by massive chemical corporations such as Dow or Dupont, with individual sellers making tweaks to the formula for clarity or cure time, then decanting and labelling their own bottles. So there’s actually minimum difference between brands.

I tried numerous brands of epoxy. In the end it wasn't handling the runny stuff that did it but the sanding dust – even when hard enough to sand, the resin is still reactive. It’s not fully cured for a couple of weeks. They’re like little shards of glass combined with the irritant aspect of the resin floating around in the air even as you walk into the workshop to grab something. I had a patch of rash under my arm. I figured it was from carrying boards between laminating and sanding rooms of a morning!

I tried expensive cortisone creams, elimination diets, bathing in soothing solutions of vinegar. Eucalyptus and baking soda…you name it. I abstained from a number of things long enough to cross off diet factors, like, two weeks with no coffee or milk. It was a surprise to learn that people can develop allergies to just about any food type, but it turned out to be over-optimistic.

Also, I went from reasonably casual work attire to full dust suit, wrist gaiters, elbow-length chemical-proof gauntlets.

Tangled up in blue. New work wear to to try and keep the enemy out.

The last straw
For a couple of years I’d been intensely uncomfortable just prepping up to go to work. I was lathering up with Vaseline before suiting up like I was entering Chernobyl. I’d been changing underclothes between work sessions, which was up to three times a day. I’d been just persevering, but eventually I started avoiding order enquiries. I’d gone from relishing my workplace freedoms - you know, be the man don’t work for the man - to sheer dread at starting a new board order.

When your body is begging to get rid of something yet your livelihood depends on it, just watch the paranoia grow!

The search for safe materials
The only truly safe material would be driftwood. Hey, I’m going to need a new board myself soon!

I’ve looked into the prospect of glassless Paulownia skins instead of balsa/epoxy/fibreglass, and there are a handful of manufacturers doing it, especially in Europe. But ironically the ones I’ve seen have been glued together using polyurethane glue, which contains isocyanates, the same stuff which the EPA forced Clark Foam to shut down over. It’s to be seen whether my sensitization issue will mean I can’t use that either.

Filling the days
I’ve been surfing, painting, reading a lot ,and keeping fit. I’m looking into going back to school – possibly CAD design. It’s been the missing link for me; none of my boards had computer files and unfortunately I never learned how to operate the machines. Whether that would be a new skill I take back to surfboards or some other industry, is yet to be seen. I’m still in the middle of this big change in my life, and I might yet go in a totally different direction.

The surfboard as multimedia project: EPS foam, epoxy resin, and wooden skins featuring intricate joinery.

Reflections on the resin tin
All up I’ve had thirty years in the industry and it’s been like a series of waves. I’ve worked hard for myself and for brands. I loved it and lived it. I’ve met a lot of inspiring people as well as others I wouldn't piss on if they were burning.

If Firewire was the first wave of a big set, then I stroked gasping over the top of a big feathering lip, and what happened next was the two wave hold down getting bounced along the reef: a massive business failure, a divorce, and four relocations. I took some big chances, flew too close to the sun, but what brought me down wasn't the wax in my wings, it was the resin.

The health of the industry
When shaping machines were new, we ridiculed the idea of kids who plugged in without having mastered hand shaping first. Now, we assume that shop rack boards are machine shapes, and it’s not even an issue that the guy behind the keyboard may never have wielded a planer.

But, with a few exceptions, laminating is still done the same way as when Hap Jacobs and Dale Velzy slapped it down on the first foam shapes. For all the carbon tapes and the fancy hexagon stomp patches, someone’s still got some dishwashing gloves on, working with a squeegee and then a sander. It makes me wonder how many guys over in Thailand are scratching until they bleed.

The surfboard industry needs to be kicked into the 21st Century, and I can’t do it alone. Crew with the same issue as me might crawl out of the shadows. I don’t know the exact numbers, but there are workers in huge Asian factories brushing and rubbing resin around like it’s the Stone Age.

Onwards and…
The surf industry is where I’ve had the most life experiences. I’ve set up more board factories than I care to remember, and made boards from age thirteen. But I’ve had a few breaks from it, so I’ve survived the absence of surfboards in my life before.

Yet technique and materials are my thing; I have an intuitive sense of what’s technically feasible and I’ve pulled surfboards to pieces and put them back together in many new ways. If surfboards are to be my livelihood again, I’ll want to step up with a team, and a hands-free lamination process I have brewing away in my head. Imagine a machined shape surfboard that goes straight to the water? No fucking around.

Read Part 1 of the story.

Swellnet will shortly run a gallery of Josh's best work. Keep an eye out for it.


freeride76's picture
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freeride76 commented Monday, 3 Jul 2017 at 7:59am

great read.
Thanks Stu, and Josh.

zenagain's picture
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zenagain commented Monday, 3 Jul 2017 at 8:30am


All the best Josh.


50young's picture
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50young commented Monday, 3 Jul 2017 at 8:36am

All the best Josh

sharkman's picture
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sharkman commented Monday, 3 Jul 2017 at 8:54am

Amazing Josh lasted so long , as usually being sensitive to the ammonia in the Epoxy Catalyst , shows straight away with skin issues , know a glasser who worked for 20 years with polyester , first day with epoxy , his forearms blew up , could never be around epoxy again , it seems to a rare reaction , sorta like an allergy.


JM's picture
JM's picture
JM commented Monday, 3 Jul 2017 at 8:56am

Loved seeing your workmanship around the place — a true craftsmen. All the best.

patrickdeprez's picture
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patrickdeprez commented Monday, 3 Jul 2017 at 9:24am

When using any organic solvent or catalyst, please read the MSDS carefully. There is valuable information on toxicity/exposure risks and how to protect yourself from chemical poisoning. I am a chemist and many years ago I started to react to chloroform to the point where I would become nauseous just from a wiff of a couple microlitres (very tiny amount) of this solvent. Exposure over time will result in detriment to your health-not worth it. Best wishes for a prompt and full recovery Josh.

freeride76's picture
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freeride76 commented Monday, 3 Jul 2017 at 11:48am

it seems to be a developing sensitivity.....does one recover from that Patrick?

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tonybarber commented Monday, 3 Jul 2017 at 2:09pm

Great read. Good luck Josh. Great work.

Bert Burger's picture
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Bert Burger commented Monday, 3 Jul 2017 at 5:13pm

For sure there is a genetic disposition to this issue...
For me its been 28 years now with no issues , but I have seen others develop allergic reactions in as little as 6 weeks...
During my time running a business in Australia , over the course of 18 years, would have had approximately 60 employees , of whom , 4 developed allergies to Epoxy resin, which means out rightly , its physically impossible to work with it , one guy Kevin , loved his work so much , that he stuck out another 2 years after the allergy became apparent, while I thought it would be easier if he resigned , he did what Josh did and cover up head to toe with safety gear , making working conditions really uncomfortable, but just a small amount of skin exposed , maybe where a sleeve would ride high exposing some wrist skin , then next day it was a full break out , eyes swollen , with puss weeping from the corners , fingers red, blotchy swollen with puss weeping at the finger nails, large patches on the arms and torso of red rashy looking skin...
Ironically , I am the worst offender when it comes to non safety, my staff always freak out , sanding in shorts and T shirt , never wear a respirator , resin work bare hands, so if it was really evil stuff I would certainly be a victim by now after 28 years..
One interesting thing with all 4 of those guys who developed an allergy , 3 had red hair and the one who didn't have red hair , had both a Brother and Mother with red hair... Josh also has a tinge of red, this is too much of a coincidence to overlook...
Since in Thailand for the last 10 years , to somewhat answer Josh's question , I have now worked with approximately 100 Thai people and I have seen one full blown allergic reaction to Epoxy resin...
I would also be curious to hear from someone else in Thailand who has done time with Epoxy and a large amount of Thai staff , from my observations , we are talking a small test group , but in Australia , Caucasians 1 out of 15 and all with a genetic link to red hair ... Thailand 1 out of 100 ...
I did some research about 12 years back and found that there is a molecule/ingredient/chemical found in Epoxy hardener which is identical to an ingredient that is found in one blood type ( totally forgot which one) , this means your body does not recognize it as a foreign agent , so eventually it builds up in your system to the point it becomes a toxic overdose, you could go a few years and have no issues , but once the bucket is full , it only takes one drop to make it over flow and there after its always full... I'm no Chemist or Doctor , so the above are just anecdotal observations , but it would be cool if someone with the required skill set followed up on those observations ...
I would also be interested to hear from Greg Loehr , as a resin Chemist who also has a huge customer base , he possibly has contact with 1000's of Epoxy resin users and may shed more valuable info on this issue...
To Josh , it's a real shame to be affected by this issue , for sure , one of the best, all round, creative , hands on craftsman I have ever worked with, I would be confident to say your artwork alone could take you a long way....

gcuts's picture
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gcuts commented Monday, 3 Jul 2017 at 9:19pm

Onya Bert, giving back to the industry ... again.

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PCS PeterPan commented Tuesday, 4 Jul 2017 at 11:03pm

Hey Josh , this is a long shot , but my Dermatologist steered me away from Epoxy 25 years ago.
His name is DR Eddie Lobel . Back then we had been hotwiring "styro" blanks and proceeded to lam them in R 180 resin from Nuplex. Ugly but strong / light boards. Problem was after a while I started to rash up.
Cut to the chase...I saw him for another reason and talk turned onto my rash episodes. He told me a lot of his work was steering towards Epoxy dust toxicity . mainly in the building trade and shipwright trade.
He is still working and by now would probably be a great source for info . Thats assuming you feel you don't have the medical side covered.
Keep your head up JD , and all the best .

Mort's picture
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Mort commented Monday, 10 Jul 2017 at 1:10am

I had one of your boards and I pawned it, down in Freo, your longer short boards. I was not good enough. Funny story, down on the South Coast, I gave it to a mate who hadn't surfed in ages. I hurried off, so he was carrying it and all the other surfers saying it should be on his wall;

This hairy, clumping dude, funny.

Mort's picture
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Mort commented Monday, 10 Jul 2017 at 1:35am

So, you are are a real person, I saw your workshop, so, you are a real person. How old are you?

crg's picture
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crg commented Monday, 3 Jul 2017 at 5:21pm

Fantastic article Stu. All the best for your future health Josh.

I'm not cheap,
But I'm free.

gcuts's picture
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gcuts commented Monday, 3 Jul 2017 at 9:24pm

Great article. Happy to post comments but sheesh, the whole captcha bullshit and then the flog a subscription thing is too much.

Josh, good luck in the future. True craftsman. Technology is the key. Auto industry is way ahead of the curve. Better lamination systems exist, people just miss the wood for the trees, and no it's not timber based, or hemp. Been around longer than surfboards. Think medical.

See ya. Posting here is to much hassle.

Mort's picture
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Mort commented Monday, 10 Jul 2017 at 1:04am

It's not really.

udo's picture
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udo commented Monday, 3 Jul 2017 at 9:30pm

Stay logged in and the captcha thing shouldnt be a problem ?

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goofyfoot commented Tuesday, 4 Jul 2017 at 12:18pm

Mine logs out automatically

XTenfen's picture
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XTenfen commented Monday, 3 Jul 2017 at 9:46pm

Hey Josh... "machined shape surfboard that goes straight to the water"?
That would be fucken awesome! I would love one of this machines for Christmas. :)
Deep respect bro. Great craftsman! All the best in your journey.

velocityjohnno's picture
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velocityjohnno commented Tuesday, 4 Jul 2017 at 10:35am

All the best Josh and wish you a speedy recovery. Hopefully removal from the source of the irritation will stop the symptoms for good.

And as for Bert's words, wow, having only ever used conventional resins I was primed to begin with epoxy... but no, the ginger gene is too strong to take the risk! I did talk to one of Bert's guys when back in WA who had gone through some reaction.

I know of ways to remove the human completely from laminating, but someone still has to sand the things... so some of the cryptic comments here are fascinating.

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spiggy topes commented Tuesday, 4 Jul 2017 at 12:50pm

Fascinated by this whole allergic reaction thing with epoxy, and Bert's reference to red hair. Over 22 years of building traditional timber boats I've had a few reactions - to redwood, Qld white beech and some eucalypt dust, but never epoxy. Avoided too much dust, breathing reaction fumes, skin contact but got plenty. But a mate of mine steers well clear of it after building intolerance 30 years ago. Shocking headaches. He's got a touch of red in his hair. Replacing a stem laminated with epoxy with an American mate, he couldn't come closer than a metre to the boat for fear of the reaction. Built an intolerance laminating hi-tech bike frames with epoxy. Common factor - a mid strength Ranga. Bert's on to something here.

thermalben's picture
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thermalben commented Tuesday, 4 Jul 2017 at 1:30pm

"Mid Strength Ranga". That's the best band name I've heard in a while.

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barley commented Tuesday, 4 Jul 2017 at 2:53pm


Mort's picture
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Mort commented Tuesday, 4 Jul 2017 at 9:28pm

Don't know about the Englishmen that I worked with at G.P Smash Repairs. I expect they are close to death, if not already dead. I went out with two of the daughters of one of them, one dead, the other got pissed off with me.

Balsa board with the bits on the back, nice. Did you know, I owned a Mandurah Balsa board, ok shuddup.

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spelled3 commented Wednesday, 5 Jul 2017 at 8:29pm
batfink's picture
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batfink commented Thursday, 6 Jul 2017 at 1:02pm

Hi Josh, hope you're reading these comments. So highly respected by so many in the industry and the punters, and lovers of fine spray art.

Keep your eyes on material developments. Materials technology is just beginning, the future in this space is hard to believe. Kevlar, carbon tapes, all these materials developments were considered 'space age' but they are more like the first baby steps of an industry that has almost no limits. I suspect somewhere down the track you will find that right material to begin working in boards again, if you are still interested by then.

If interested, check out the SMART Centre website at UNSW. Sustainable Material Research and Technology, just as one of many places doing really interesting stuff in this field.

Then there's nano-tech, 3d printing plastics, blah blah blah.

If you think the 'internet of things' is interesting, you haven't seen developments in materials science.

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Headspace commented Friday, 7 Jul 2017 at 9:43pm

The last part of the article caught my eye & thoughts Josh.
I'm an electrical engineer and ran into one of the first guys who pioneered CNC machines in Australia. Way ahead of this time and on the cutting edge of electrical / automation engineering. As well as CNC machines, they looked into automation of the glassing process or "sealing" a shaped blank. Ideas based around vacuum sealing etc.
They chucked in the glassing side of things and focused on machining blanks. Bitten off more then they could chew. Maybe.
Automated "sealing" concepts have merit and a solution is out there. Just needs people like you to pioneer. Keeping thinking about it. Unfortunately us engineers / innovators never stop thinking.
Cheers mate, thanks for the article and hope you're in good health. Look after yourself.

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matthewblackesq commented Saturday, 8 Jul 2017 at 8:26am

was interested in this story having dabbled in a bit of backyard board building, PU as opposed to epoxy. Also out of concern about the health consequences of working with the chemicals our boards are built with, hearing of people in the industry developing cancer. ( I know theres a big question about this due to the genetic links to C )...back in the 90s I worked in an unrelated industry, restoration of stonework on Central station in Sydney. We were replacing the stonework with stuff made in moulds. A mix of coloured sand and epoxy. I developed the same skin condition Josh relates in this story, a pretty painful burning itching rash, waking up at night due to the symptoms, scratching until I bled. Interesting, Berts comments about rangas. I have dirty blonde hair but there are a few patches of red in my beard.....anyway I left that industry and eliminated the condition. No doubt its dicey working with chemicals.

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andrew-pitt commented Saturday, 8 Jul 2017 at 8:32pm

Great article, tip of the iceberg I reckon.
And I suspect polyester resin is just as suss.
Just had nose cavity surgery to remove massive polyp growths, so bad I couldn't breath through my nose or smell. I was diagnosed with recurring rhinosinusitis as it's the 2nd round of surgery in 12 years.
Why me I asked the Dr? His theory is could be an "overexposure to industrial pollutants", which I can only link to more than a decade of working in board factories, mainly gloss coating, sanding and dings, mostly polyester resins, some epoxy. That gloss resin smelt wicked as it gelled. The hypothesis is the polyps are the human bodies method of protecting the sinus.
After surgery, now I can breath normally and smell most things again. Yet, even the slightest wiff of resin sends me spinning, even going to a petrol station to fill the car, has my nose gagging telling me to get out of there.
No, not a ranger.

udo's picture
udo's picture
udo commented Saturday, 15 Jul 2017 at 6:35am

Ross Marshall also suffered the Contact Dermatitis issues

now able to glass again with the help of Tumeric Golden Paste ? Cabacronulla insta.