Observations from the Open factory by the perma-dusty production junior, Isabel.
It felt like most of the days in our July were exceedingly bright and windless. Swell-less too, so I bought a cheap speargun from the internet and spent my days off trying to shoot innocent footlong fish in the face while they swam away from me unflustered.
A fleet of luxury SUVs arrived. My forty minute commute to the factory became an eighty minute wade through a river of roofboxes. I don’t mind. The more the merrier. I like queuing half an hour at my local chippy, too. Keeps me out of trouble.
From the land, the sea on the north coast looked transparent like glass, or the colour of a kingfisher’s wings, depending on which angle you saw it from. From the sea, the sea looked full of Compass and Moon jellyfish - because it was - and small inky Blue jellyfish, suspended and idle in the lakelike water. You needed a fan to sleep at night, which never happens here. I couldn’t sand a shortboard without leg-sweating into Screwfix’s finest overalls.
In the factory, the phone rang several times a day; people calling to ask if their board was ready yet, and if not when would it be, do you think, roughly. It’s hard to give an concrete answer to that question at the best of times, but the month had begun with Ollie bedbound and confined to barracks, the unsuspecting victim of an exotic virus of the pangolin-goujons-for-dinner variety.
Inevitably, regrettably, the boards were not ready, and the phone calls made Ollie sad, so when he recovered from the virus he stayed in the factory until around eight each night making the boards for many days in July. I was there with him, busy keeping myself out of trouble like a good Dustmonkey, so I know.
If you came to one of Ollie’s workshops and asked him how to build a board for yourself, he would tell you it starts with a blank. The blank is a big ugly nub of dense white polyurethane (or epoxy, if you insist) foam in the vague shape of a surfboard, a bit bigger than the board you want to make. They come in many forms - different lengths, widths, rocker profiles, stringer options - all designed with a specific end product in mind.
There are fishy blanks, loggy blanks, performance shortboard blanks, midlength blanks, gun blanks - whatever you want to make within reason. As far as I know though, there are no blanks for the board I made in my dream last night; the shape of which turned out somewhere between a metal bin lid and a large spoon. Work dreams are the worst.
Anyway. You draw a board-shaped outline on the blank in pencil using a template, and you cut that out with a saw. Then you start mowing the foam down with a planer. When used skilfully, the planer chews off the outer layers of the blank in satisfying pristine lines, like a mowed lawn or freshly-bashed Alpine piste.
After planing, you start sanding the blank down and shaving bits off with various hand tools and sculpting it into a sexy sled shape informed - I would advise - by the principles of fluid dynamics rather than bin design. When that shape is close to perfect, you can glass it. More about that some other time.
The blanks arrive here in containers, shipped from the States, Mexico, Africa, Australia, all over. Someone should be making them here, really, given the number of boards that are built in this county alone. A Cornishman used to, back when folks didn't give as many shits about carbon footprints. But he doesn’t anymore. So if you like boards and money and honeys, and you have entrepreneur in your Instagram bio, you should put that idea in your pipe and smoke it.
Seriously though, if we were making blanks here, they wouldn’t get stuck on ships in the Suez Canal; orders wouldn't be as late, shapers wouldn’t be as sad, and customers wouldn't be freshie-starved and forlorn. Insulating ourselves from future supply chain failures would ensure a more robust national surf industry, basically.
From a sustainability standpoint, don’t we all agree that it’s catastrophically dumb to put lambs on boats in New Zealand and sail them eleven thousand miles across the sea to the UK when we’re perfectly well equipped to engineer our own edible sheepchildren? The same applies to blanks. They’re composed of something like 90% air. We’re paying to burn boat fuel in order to import mostly air from Australia.
Polyola are doing a cool thing. Based in Anglet, they’re making blanks out of recycled post-consumer polyurethane and some kind of upcycled wood pulp. They worked with industrial chemists to develop an isocyanate (the highly reactive chemical that triggers the foaming effect necessary to make a light, airy mixture that can be poured into blank moulds) which is safer for workers within the blank production and shaping process, and less toxic for the environment.
They claim to take full responsibility for recycling offcuts generated during the shaping process into future blanks. Polyola also say they source their components as locally as possible within Europe in order to minimise carbon footprint. For UK shapers, the fact that the blanks are only shipped from France is pretty damn nice.
The blanks have a sandy brown hue to them, like a light shade of cork without the granular texture. They look earthy and retro when glassed clear or with a gentle wash of tint, and can theoretically be glassed opaque in any colour, including white. I’m psyching to get a tester batch on order. I’ll update you when we’ve tried them out.
At the end of the month, when we’d finally finished some boards, Mark made a big outside bar from splintery wooden pallets and stocked it with enough rum to anaesthetise a Royal Marine. I gave Mark's three small children mini-blocks and told them to ‘sand off all the spikies’, which they did, so you have them to thank if you came for a drink with us on a summertime Friday of your choosing and leaned on the bar and didn’t impale yourself on anything. And if you didn’t come, what were you thinking? We missed you, and you missed out.