Flying too close to the sun: The descent
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.
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.
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.
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.
Swellnet will shortly run a gallery of Josh's best work. Keep an eye out for it.