Josh Dowling has been there and done that as regards to pretty much anything and everything in the shaping world. He has been through the machine and been spat out the other end. The easy route from here, once you know how, is to sell your already proven product to a mass producer/distributor. Other shapers make your boards under license and you get the royalties.
Josh chose the other way. The way where you say no to offers of money, fame and the 'big cats' of the surf industry. The way that means you meet a human, you have a conversation with a human, you shape a board for a human and the human pays you some money.
We at Surf Bunker have long loved the shapes, designs and artwork that goes into Josh's boards, and then there is the one on one factor that, in many ways, just makes them more desirable. Josh has agreed to answer some questions about life, business and the joy of building immense surfboards.
SB: Hey Josh, thanks so much for sparing the time, you must be just crazy busy. When did you start shaping surfboards and why?
Josh: Hey James – Thanks for the opportunity to say some things in this format. For better or worse, I’ve taken the route you described. It has it’s benefits, mostly that I have no bosses, but occasional media recognition is nice too!
I actually studiously avoid being crazy busy. There’s a need to stay fresh – If I remember much about my mentors, it was that shaping can get painfully repetitive… literally and figuratively. So I’m aware of my need to abscond sometimes, get a surf in! It’s legitimate R&D of course…
I had a cousin who was the full waterman, lifesaver, paddleboarder, mad athlete as well as a surfer – he made boards. My first one was by him, and I was around to see some of the process. I was 9 yrs old. He used the offcuts from EPS paddleboards to make shooters for local grommets in Anglesea, (Victoria, Australia) - so I was exposed to epoxy as an alternative material from the outset. And then I dinged the new board on the second day… so repairs were my first hands-on experience. Not much has changed!
At the time, many of the best surfers in the world were also shapers, and I idolized Mark Richards and Simon Anderson. The Cheyne Horan/Geoff McCoy association was also really cool to me.
The surfshops at the time were mostly still the outlets of a workshop, smelly with resin and with showrooms full of glossy single-fins – They were hugely exotic and desirable, long before the popout had made boards a throwaway commodity – there was Dick Van Straalen, Jim Pollock, Donny Allcroft, Kym Thompson… I’d dare to want one but only had pocket-money…
I had loitered around the cousin’s workshop of course, but also regularly tried to peep in at the activity at the “Springer” factory in Anglesea, and “Sea Level” in Bayside, Hampton where I went to school.
So these factors meant I was inspired to do my own, out of a combination of necessity and stubborn determination to have some of the shaper cool rub off on me.
A couple more things came together to push me in the direction – I tired of the now dinged-up Force 9 board I loved, and I had a school friend whose dad was the original business partner of Don Burford, the surfboard blank company owner. These guys were still friends, and I’d met Don. He sent me a second quality blank and a box with resin, and “forgot” to send the bill. I made a board under a tiny lean-to roof I’d put up between the house and the side fence. I used three different used fins from dinged boards and sprayed it with aerosols. It must have held my surfing back, but I was pretty happy!
SB: Can you tell us a bit about the industry that you learnt to shape in? Anything that stands out.
Josh: So many things… a lifetime of memories, people met and great times. My young adult years were spent in surfboard factories and the industry has seen me work in Torquay, Sydney, Byron Bay, the Gold coast… even Thailand. So it’s ranged from literally a cottage industry to large high-tech industrial spaces. Even with the repetition of shapes available by machine, there’s always a variant on a little blue room with just you and your hands and eyes, working on sweet curves and thinking about how they relate to a wave.
Just now a memory comes to mind - a quote that’s stayed with me – It was graffiti in Kym Thompson’s shaping room at Watercooled in Torquay – “Pay attention to detail and you’ll be a cut above the rest”.
SB: As far as surfboard construction, can you tell us a bit about what materials you work with and why you choose these?
Josh: I use a combination of materials in a technique that’s called Composite Sandwich. The result is a very strong lightweight board. There’s a polystyrene shape wrapped in a higher density skin of PVC foam and Balsa, as well as Balsa rails. The resulting blank is laminated in conventional fiberglass and epoxy resin. By using this dual-density combination of foams, load from the rider’s feet is spread, preventing deck dents. The use of timber in the bottom skin and rails enhances “Flex-return” – The speed at which the flexing board will flick back. This flick when exiting turns gives the board a springy drive.
I’d long felt that conventional board materials had reached the end of the potential in terms of both performance and durability. As the demands placed on boards increased with performance, the craft was also replaced largely by machine shapes. Commodification of the surfboard – two boards in a shop rack 6’2” – identical in every way except for the decal, and the pro-model decal puts a $100 extra on the price… but both are browned out and dented up in a few weeks. So to make a mark amongst a bunch of famous brands, I needed an edge. A decal wasn't enough. So I began experimenting with materials – It took a while, but I came out of the garage in Jan Juc, near Torquay, with the construction technique which basically became Firewire.
I still laugh – the basis of so much innovation in surfboards has not come from engineers or scientists but watermen tinkering in garages.
SB: We Absolutely love your shapes, finish and designs. Is there anyone that you take inspiration from in the past or present?
Josh: - I always had a respect for anyone who could put out a clean shape, with all the curves in the right places, and do it often enough to prove it wasn't a fluke!
There are a bunch of names I’ve worked with who contributed to my technical know-how and some who were also upstanding people. I’ve also worked with some who have been utter bastards! So it’s the quality of the person that I’m left with, a sense of philosophy rather than just the influence of their status as a shaper. Increasingly there’s a wider range of influences acting in my world – I can take in a wider world of inspiration – art, design, materials innovation, and bring it back to the surfboards.
SB: How much more expensive is getting a custom board from you than buying one 'off the shelf', how long does it take?
Josh: The boards I make take at least twice as long as a conventional board. This is reflected in the price. Each one is 100% custom, so there’s a lot of interaction with a customer in order to nail down his or her board needs.
There are a couple of factors at play that I try to balance – there’s the practical role of routine and production procedure – A number of steps to go through to reach the final product. This means there’s a lot of ground covered through just labour, That’s the benefit of having done hundreds upon hundreds of the same steps on a board in a big label scenario. If there was none of that, if the wheel had to be re-invented every board, it’d be hard to refine techniques, and everything would take ages.
There’s that and there’s the artistic side – The inspiration, the creativity. This keeps things fresh. I can spend time pondering, imagining new combinations, wild design ideas and all.
There has to be a balance because in the end I’m not Picasso, I’m not contemplating every brushstroke as if it were an art-piece. There’s the practical element and the dreamy element.
I can’t do instant gratification. I miss those spontaneous purchases where crew have ready cash to flutter, because I don’t do stock. Dead stock is a killer.
It’s a commitment to order a JD – You pay more for my hard yards and get a corresponding level of attention to detail.
SB: What is it that makes you the happiest about what you do?
Josh: A number of things… I like that my stuff is totally outside the industry standard - My materials and techniques are unique. If the surfboard industry suppliers shut down tomorrow, I could be the last man standing making boards.
It makes me wonder who would survive a sorta Y2K scenario y’know, when the shaping machines all hit a glitch!! LOL.
But that’s unlikely… so living more in the moment there’s these things – Customer feedback… the times I get it spectacularly right for a guy. They love me for it. That’s a great feeling – it doesn't matter what their surfing ability or day-job, If I bring them some joy, it’s contagious.
I really like the process of visualization coming to physical reality, in the sense of bringing a board design to fruition and finding that the intuitive theoretical works in the water – I have a thing for asymmetrics currently, in my personal boards. I’ll twist a customer’s arm enough to get somebody on one soon!
SB: Can you remember the board you ever shaped? Have you still got it?
Josh: I do remember it. I freely acknowledge that it was an absolute pig… but I rode it proudly for 3 years. It had three different coloured fins, each knocked out of an old clunker and reshaped.
I’m certain that it held my surfing back, but taught me loads.
SB: A huge thanks from us at Surf Bunker for the chance to fire a few questions and what an eye opener. Josh seems like one of the only 'good guys' left in an industry fast becoming infected by suits, shareholders and profit margins.
What Josh brings to the table is something truly unique both in the medium of his boards and in attitude toward life in general. To truly love what you do is something very special indeed and this much shines through in the finish quality and attention to detail evident in Josh's work.
In short we want one and so should you.