Shaper's DNA Part I
Finding joy in the process: A conversation with Nick Blair
Ultimately if I want my boards to be one thing, it is balanced
When I talk about balance I mean the relationship between the several major design elements. Are they working harmoniously, in union? Is your centreline rocker complementing your rail line rocker? Outline working with your foil and rocker approach? Are they all connecting to retain the design characteristics and purpose? You need to make sure they are working in unison together. The water is going to hit those sections in certain ways and make it sit differently when its moving through the water. If they are not, the various curves are fighting each other and you will see the board get twitchy and unbalanced. There is nothing worse than watching someone surfing a board that is fighting them in this way.
Whilst other things come into play like the foil and deck/rail volume and shape, ensuring the outline is balanced with your rail line and your rocker line is extremely important for me. Especially when you customise a board for someone who surfs well you need to make sure the harmony exists between these elements. Otherwise although they may be able to put the board where they want to they are struggling to get it there. Or it’s pushing water up front…ugh.
I think when a design becomes complete everything balances and works together. Sometimes you’ll design or shape a board and some of the elements are working together and others are not, and you feel like you’re only 80% there. In some ways there’s always a bit of give and take with design. As a simple example you may want speed and drive but you also want responsiveness and looseness. Depending on the design rationale and purpose you can ultimately gain all of these things but often it’s a pull and a push. What you gain with one element you may lose with another. You’ve really got to bear all of these elements in mind when you are designing a board. Whether its conceptualising it as a hand shape or designing it on the computer. It’s the same approach.
You try to envisage how you want the elements to all work together in unison, so that the balance is there and a flow. When I mention flow I don’t necessarily mean I want the water to flow perfectly over the board. Sometimes you want water to break off in certain places, for example a hip or break in the outline. But do the dots connect? Smoothly? That’s when things are flowing. Ultimately, if I want my boards to be one thing, it is balanced.
Finding joy in the process. It is easy to think talented shapers simply arrive at great designs, but they arrived at this point after years of experience
As an example, with the CabSav and CabSav2 models I do, a lot of surfers are blown away, even if they are novices. When they look at the CabSav boards and they say how everything looks like it fits. Thats exactly what you want in a board. You want everything in a board to fit, work together and to have its place. Some models come together more easily than others but ultimately that is what I am after. Some models I feel like I have nailed and I don’t want to change them. For what they are and the purpose they serve I feel like they are perfect.
Whereas with some models you are always chasing and you want to improve, and if I’m honest some still need work. Some models you can arrive at quite quickly and with others it is a bit of a battle. There was a stage in my career where I was struggling with small wave grovel boards and I wasn’t achieving what I wanted to. I had this vision of how I wanted the board to surf and the boards weren’t getting there. Sometimes artists and craftsmen talk about that, having a vision of what you want but needing a few more years of development in your skills or approach or whatever it is. The point is, you have to persist and try and find joy in the process and eventually you will get there. It is easy to think talented shapers simply arrive at great designs, but they arrived at this point after years of hard work and experience. We had to endure our own disappointment at our earlier work- when our vision of what we wanted to achieve was far ahead of our ability (yet we could see in our mind’s eye what we wanted).
Coming back to small wave performance, for a while that was a big challenge for me, whereas now many of my successes have come with grovellers. I have got to the point where I am really happy with those. I think having a strong customer base in Japan over the last decade has been instrumental in honing my small wave approach to design. You know- I am not just putting something under a surfer’s feet that has volume and just floats them. I am putting a board under their feet that really works and they are getting a lot of joy out of in small surf. They are also surfing when they wouldn’t have surfed before and when none of their other mates are surfing. When other surfers are getting frustrated or not even going in, they are really getting a lot of stoke out of it, they’re pumped. And this makes me stoked.
Many of the small wave models I see out there have design faults where they are not projecting or carrying through the flats. The boards feel too stiff or are not drivey or manoeuvrable enough. There are some bigger brands that seem to think their logo will sell the board. That they can rest easy and just throw some volume into a board, make it flat and off they go! Customers come to me disappointed in the small wave options out there, boards that are not hitting that mark for them. Look I am not the only shaper making good grovel boards but I believe what sets mine apart is that the whole design is balanced. Also that the board is allowing you to surf easily in small waves, so that you can just be stoked and surf with speed, flow and energy.
On the other hand I still have challenges in my shaping. One of the challenges I experience these days is with front foot boards because I just don’t surf like that and a lot of the surfers I work with have more of a neutral stance or are more back footed in their approach. Then you get guys, particularly in California, one being Matt Biolos, that due to how people surf there and conditions in his back yard he seems to really excel in those front footed boards (he also makes great grovellers!). I guess everyone has got a unique approach and style, so I don’t want to change my shaping too much but those boards just pose more of a test for me and take a little bit longer to come together than other boards.
Good curves are good curves
Then there is the concept of marketing versus pure design for the purpose of good design. On one hand you always want to be striving to try and perfect a board as an artist and craftsmen. We are always expanding our vision of what we want to create and striving to perfect things. But at the same time a good curve is a good curve. There are certain curves that are timeless. That is what this market some times loses sight of at times, in this crazy race to launch a new model, generate sales for the next season, whatever it is. Often times you can end up going further away from what is a good design. I think the important thing is just to try and operate above that benchmark you set yourself.
I don’t want to make a board that’s a 7/10 because to be frank its fairly easy to hit that these days with the consistency of the machines and with what is out there. Honestly, there are plenty of inexperienced “innovators” doing this and claiming that. I want to be making boards in that 99th percentile or at least consistently above that 95th percentile of really good boards. To do that you might be toying with different ideas, changing things, trying to move forward but you are utilising the same elements and you still have to work within the grounding of good design. In many ways I have a way to go, in other ways I feel I am hitting that mark already. But I am always improving. And so are many other incredible shapers out there – big and small brands alike. And these ideas and progressions are out there, in the ether you could say. That is driving things forward in an exciting way.
But good curves are good curves! You can reinvent them and reinvigorate them for sure, but I do not want to change something just for the sake of it. For example with my original AC1 curve I developed 10 years ago with team rider Shaun Gossmann. That curve worked well for a lot of the WSL riders I was working with at the time. For me that rocker curve is incredible so I have used that in a few models including the Silent Savage and the Renegade. We have a new model coming out the Scout which is based off that curve again. What I am doing with that curve is changing the other elements of the design. Bare in mind when I am changing these elements they suit the objectives of the design, I am changing it in a way that the balance is still there with the outline, the foil etc., an how the person is surfing that board, appropriate to conditions. In essence you are creating models that are different and surf differently in different conditions and that are unique enough to be separate from that original board. They have another purpose.
The model system is great for getting a platform of concepts out there. It is your bread and butter when dealing with shops. I believe though that the most benefit you get is from working with a customer. Especially when they are a repeat customer that keeps coming back again and again. You can start off with a model, tweak it slightly based on questions you have asked them and information they have given you. What you find is if you continue working with them and they are giving honest feedback, telling you what works and what doesn’t, you can tweak small elements. This might include small changes to the outline, getting the right nose and tail widths for them and the right rail volume. From the initial experience on the model they should be able to tell you if they want to stick with that model or try something that is different. You can dial it in and get something that’s perfect for them.
Being honest in the age of information overload
I think it is hard for customers these days though. There are brands out there that are saying things that are simply not true and don’t even make sense. As one of my shaping peers always says “there is just too much smoke and mirrors out there!” Sometimes you see a board model description and the board is doing the exact opposite of what is said, or not even coming close to riding that way. This small group of brands putting out misinformation can ruin it for the rest because I also see a lot of shapers putting models out where a lot of thought has gone into their models, how the design looks and how the board rides. It makes sense and you can see they have achieved that.
I can pick up a board and say that feels nice and I would like to ride that. A lot of surfers can’t do that, so they rely heavily on the marketing. I imagine it is confusing as a customer as you have guys who really know what they are talking about and are being honest with you and then you have this marketing overload of utter BS from others. That is something I have always tried to do in my boards, be honest when I describe a model. This is the feedback I get- customers say that the board rides exactly how I said it would.
I think the key is once you have worked with a custom shaper and they are actually giving you what you have asked for and achieving what you need in a board, then build upon that. If you find a formula that works stick with that shaper and reward that shaper with more orders and put the word out. Whereas if you are not getting what works for you after a certain time, move on and try a different shaper.
You have also got to ask yourself, are you being totally honest with the shaper? If you are not giving your shaper honest feedback you can not blame them for not creating a great board for you. It can be a balance though, sometimes a happy customer is giving them exactly what they ask for and at other times its giving them what you know they should ride and what will work for them. Saying that I am not sure that there is a shaper in the world that can hit the nail on the head for everyone. I am not sure that exists. Sometimes you just struggle to gel and make magic with a rider- it can certainly be like this with athletes for all of us.