Shaper's DNA Part II
Strength in simplicity: A conversation with Nick Blair
Their simplicity is their strength
There are many shapers out there that inspire me. It is hard mentioning names as there is always someone you are going to leave out. Growing up I looked up to shapers like Peter Daniels, Spider Murphy, Eric Arakawa and Jeff Johnston, who were taught by the older crew of Hawaiian gun shapers and thankfully passed snippets of that knowledge to me. I met Jeff at Pukas factory in Spain when visiting and doing some work for Peter. Jeff proved to be a great help and he also hooked me up with Ocean Magic in Newquay when I was lived in the UK for a few years. There I met Nigel Semmens and Chris Diplock, two incredible shapers. I’m grateful to all of them for their advice and mentoring. But the late Peter Daniels was my main influence during the early bulk of my development and my all -time favourite shaper.
I still gain inspiration from the work of many other shapers, either my seniors or guys my age that I’ve had the pleasure of working with. Then there are shapers who influenced me greatly in the early 90’s, like Dennis Jarvis, who appears to be having a resurgence and getting his passion back for his craft. I look at the work of Dennis back then with Spyder surfboards, his outlines, his rockers. Man he was almost 20 years ahead of his time! And without the ego! I think he was pushing the boundaries of design then and now he has all that knowledge which is invigorating his brand again, but seems completely content with his current business model. That is awesome to see.
In Australia I find the skill set of some of the older shapers like Sam Egan, Billy Tolhurst and Steve O’Donnell super inspirational (even though much of their craft is different to mine). I love how you see their hand-shaping ability evident in their design approach. Then you’ve got shapers from my generation, who I worked alongside ghost shaping for JS who are all doing well and producing really amazing boards. I think its exciting to see us all go in our different directions and do cool things. For example its really nice to see Mike Andrews producing great boards for guys like Jordy and the Gudaskus brothers at Channel islands. He was a great inspiration for a lot of us younger shapers who worked along side him back then.
Then there are guys I’ve never met, who are now getting amazing exposure, like Jon Pyzel. He is really sticking to the basics, nothing too fancy or frivolous, but his boards are sizzling in that high percentile- keeping it simple! With guys like this, that simplicity is their strength. The boards are genuinely designed really well, incredibly well. The basics are all there in large doses and the boards are working in harmony and in balance. Guys like him are making great boards and I guess that is the level I am aiming for.
Keeping it simple
I guess there has been and will continue to be changes in my shaping over the years. I probably had more exposure for my brand when I was 30 with the high profile athletes that were riding for me, or I was working seasonally with. At the time, I was young(er) and passionate about shaping for high level athletes and it was my focus. It is great when you have a top surfer who can really communicate well. It was really exciting to have pros on my boards and I guess it validated my designs and what I was doing. You can really push forward and push out and try things. It feeds your energy and authenticates your brand.
On the flip side I have seen it change some shapers for the worse. Myself, I struggled with that at times. And I probably pushed the boundaries a little too far at times as a result of trying to be creative and customise closely (in terms in some design elements, instead of keeping it simple!). It is like anything you improve and change, and then get used to seeing what is in front of you. Sometimes I will open old files and be like, “wow that nose was narrow or too thin”. I guess you are always improving and moving ahead.
I feel like I am shaping even better boards now but without the same exposure. Between 2005-2012 on the Gold Coast, it was a great period for my brand and who knows, maybe I will gravitate back towards that, but for now I feel my focus has shifted. I am enjoying life on the northern beaches of Sydney with my young family. I am spending time with my kids. I am watching them grow. I am less stressed and getting in the water more often. I guess I am now more focused on how I can change every customer’s surfing experience and make sure their surfing is better than before.
Leaving your comfort zone
What I find helps me to be creative is just to get out in the ocean and either surf or paddle. I find paddling my ocean 18’ prone unlimited or downwind SUP board is great for when you only have a short amount of time and want to avoid the crowds. I grab my Molokai board, paddle from Freshwater to North Head and back and get a few ocean runs. It is hugely beneficial to me, it fires your muscles up and allows me to have a bit of space. Paddling a few km’s keeps me fit, clears my head and keeps my mind focused. Sometimes riding a paddle board you find out a lot more about how water operates and you get to think about design when you are out there.
Surfing is great for testing out new elements allowing you to take leaps and bounds with your designs. You can try something and figure out quite quickly from one wave what it does. I am not the world’s best surfer by any stretch of the imagination but what I can do is ride one wave and have a good feeling for what a board does. And then bring that back to the bay with me and improve upon it if I need to. Every single board I do I want to shape as best I can. People will sometimes ask you to make sure that board is good or to take care for a particular customer. My answer is always the same- I do that for every board. When you desire to create a good product and you are a perfectionist, you want to do everything well.
To challenge myself, shift my perspective and keep my brain ticking over I am really enjoying learning to fly, it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I recently did my first solo in a tail wheel Citabria. For anyone who does a repetitive job like mine, which involves shaping 20-30 boards each week, it’s good to do something different occasionally. After 50 of the same 5’8 or 5’10 CabSav2s you can start drifting off a bit! I find flying a great break for me in terms of leaving my comfort zone, challenging my brain and also in terms of eye hand coordination. That’s something you really try and work on as a shaper- that eye and hard coordination. I try and shape as ambidextrously as I possibly can, to prevent repetitive strain injury which this industry is notorious for (as a lot of trades are). I find flying great for improving coordination and challenging myself in new ways.
Flying is like paddling, you’ve got to be in the moment and fully focused on what you are doing. Being in that moment and not worrying about things that you’ve got to do, want to do, or that have happened is a really nice space for me. To centre myself, get a bit of stress release and stay present and grounded. You have got to focus on what’s right in front of you, constantly adjust and making decisions as to your next move. That’s also the great thing about shaping, you are likewise in the moment just focusing of what is in front of you. It’s one of the things I like the most about it. It ticks all those boxes, you are in the moment, you’re using your hands and brain and you are also doing something physical. It is not just conceptual, it’s also got a real physical element, which is satisfying. Reading and studying are the other things that are great for me in two ways. Firstly to switch off without too much energy involved. Then secondly, to challenge my way of thinking and way of doing things, leading to self improvement. All of which hopefully makes me a better shaper, and a better person.
Make your own path
What I am really grateful for is doing what I love on daily basis and being able to support my family in doing so. I grew up in South Africa, and whilst I have never had to endure the poverty I have witnessed there, seeing it up close for much of your life brings a lot of perspective. It is one thing to say “make your own path” like I have been able to do. In reality it is far more difficult for some than for others to do just that. And it’s not always about choices. Often circumstances beyond your control wield powerful forces within your life.
Yes, you can create opportunity. You must prepare for opportunity. You have got to muster the guts to leap over the edge at times. But at the same time, whilst I don’t depend on luck, it can sometimes play a massive part. So I am fortunate to chase this dream of mine and to have spent the last 12 years shaping and surfing in Australia. But I also feel bloody lucky to be here.