Tom Neilson is a household name in the Florida surf scene. His boards are ridden from as for north as Nova Scotia, down to South Beach. And while Neilson Surfboards isn’t a giant surfboard manufacturer pushing outs thousands of boards per year, Tom has a loyal following of customers who know that their surfing lives have been greatly improved by Tom’s craftsmanship, and most importantly his good will.
The first time I heard anything about Tom Neilson was through my friend David. In the mid 90’s he worked as landscaper in Cocoa Beach. One of his co-workers, a dreadlocked ripper from Satellite Beach, introduced David to Tom’s shapes. Tom was an enigma. He was impossible to get a hold of -often away sailing around the Caribbean on his 33’ full keel sloop. Tom’s boards were not easy to come by. After many failed tries, David ordered his first custom board -a 6’4″ gunmetal gray thruster with glass on fins. That board sparked an ongoing progression for David’s surfing and birthed a relationship with a shaper who over the years would refine and perfect David’s boards.
Years later I would get to know Tom. He struck me as someone with deep wisdom – the kind of wisdom that you’d reckon someone who’d lived previous lives might have. Not only was Tom a surfboard shaper, he was a yoga instructor, a massage therapist, a health nut, and an incredible surfer. Tom had a charisma about him that attracted people. Over the years as I’ve moved around the continent I’ve continued getting custom surfboards. Our collective surf culture holds the surfer/shaper relationship in high regards. It’s a tradition that few other activities espouse. And so I wanted to take it further by learning more about the man who has been crafting my surfboards for the last ten years.
Tom’s dad was a Harvard graduate who taught political science. When Tom was a young teenager his father accepted a job teaching at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. The Neilsons’ left their native Boston and headed south. Their new Jax Beach neighbors surfed and it wasn’t long before Tom got the chance to ride his first wave on a longboard.
At age sixteen, after about a year of surfing, Tom shaped his first surfboard -a 6’6’’ round tail. He’d spent time at a local surfboard factory watching the head shaper. He witnessed forty plus boards shaped start to finish before attempting his own. Not long after, Tom sold the board to his neighbor.
Over the next few years Tom continued shaping boards for himself and his friends. From Jacksonville he moved to Cocoa Beach. His friends were living in an abandoned building. Tom found a spot in an outbuilding and turned it into his shaping shack. That first winter of shaping in the abandoned shack would be an educational one. Tom laughs as he recalls struggling to glass boards in cold temperatures.
In that shack he built his first location specific travel quiver. The boards included a shortboard, a mini-gun, and a big wave gun. The year was 1973 and Tom would spend three months charging the original Mexican Pipeline at Petacalco.
“I spent 3 or 4 years doing nothing but surfing in Mexico – going home and saving money and then going back to surf. The surf break that I surfed was the original Mexican Pipeline which was Petacalco.”
Those trips would help Tom refine his personal shapes as well as his surf style. But it wasn’t always fun.
“…there were periods when I wasn’t happy with my shapes and I’d take six months off – maybe get boards from other labels, but I always came back to building my own boards.”
I asked Tom what the surf aesthetic was like in those days.
“Basically in the early 70‘s, in the group that I hung out with, you did not wear anything fluorescent. You did not like disco. And you basically wore all black wetsuits. You didn’t wear leashes, and you were very much into the soul and the whole -you know tube riding, being really solid on your feet and not loosing your board. And if you did you swam for it. And this is in any conditions, anywhere; freezing cold winter….and anybody who had a leash, you basically scorned them.”
Tom looked up to Hawaiian guys like Gerry Lopez and Barry Kanaipuni for inspiration. Other influences were Terry Fitzgerald and other bog wave luminaries from the period. With regular trips to Petacalco before the wave’s demise, Tom’s surfing was built upon heaving river mouth barrels. Big waves – waves of consequence.
His shaping to that point had been empirical. Tom’s first technical lessons came from an unlikely teacher, in an unlikely place, using ancient materials.
“I did a trip to Ecuador and met a guy there who was a Peace Corps volunteer. I actually helped him build some balsa boards, a couple different styles and shapes -like building an airplane wing. I got to pick out the best lightest balsa and learned all the engineering.”
When I first moved to Cocoa Beach I shaped and glassed out of the back of this guy named George Patten’s shop. He would sometimes give me pointers.”
In the early days he’d take boards to Jim Phillips shop to be glassed. Jim ‘the Genius’ would offer advice and critiques. Later Tom went to work at Quiet Flight in Cocoa Beach.
“Ed Leisure (head shaper at Quiet Flight at the time) really gave me my big leap in shaping. Because you know, I’d basically been working as a backyard shaper for years. So I went from making a board a month to basically making 20 boards a week. I had a Skill 100 waiting for me with the job.”
Initially Ed spent three days in the shaping room with Tom. Then he’d check in once a week for the next few months.
“…and then from their it was all on my own. I think it was the sheer number of boards shaping 20 boards a week, that really improved my shaping.”
We talked about the design theories happening in Florida at that time.
“I walked into a very dominant Kelly Slater time period where people were riding very thin, very small, progressive thruster shortboards… as through luck and practice and experience and feedback, I was kind of the guy that developed the deep concaves in boards… No one that I knew of in our area was shaping boards like that. In my imagination, I believe that I kicked that whole thing off on the East Coast.”
We talked about the rumors that Kelly took his ultra-concave Florida boards to California and the West Coast guys copied them.
“…Al Merrick got a lot of credit for doing the tri-concave bottom but his concaves were very minimal and his boards were very thick and tanky at the time. So when he went out to California (Kelly) brought much more bladed, much thinner boards he could surf on the rail, had more rocker- you know, as a result of the concaves you could have more rocker -and basically opened up the door for Al Merrick. This is something that has been repeated.
I think that you have to realize that shapes, especially now in the last ten years, you know they come from all over the world. They don’t come from one region or area. Everybody is sharing back and forth. …but California. I mean we would just laugh at California boards because they were just so far behind. They were usually two or three years behind in shapes. So basically Kelly brought them the latest technology. In California you can catch a wave and just stand there and the wave will do everything for you. In Florida you have to generate your own speed and the board has to really work.”
Tom felt burned out after several years of production shaping for Quiet Flight. He left to pursue other interests. On his first trip to Mexico at age seventeen, he’d met a Canadian who introduced him to yoga. Back in Florida a neighbor also happened to be a yoga practitioner. At age nineteen Tom realized that he could not touch his toes so he began a more dedicated daily yoga practice which continues to present day. Tom taught yoga for many years. Even Slater attended Tom’s yoga classes in Cocoa Beach. He also studied massage and became a massage therapist. Between teaching yoga and running a massage practice, shaping took a back seat with just a few lucky people getting boards.
One day, after returning from a yearlong sailing trip, Tom bumped into David at a beachside gas station. David had been trying to get in touch with Tom for ages to commission another board. One thing led to another and David created Tom’s first website under the Creative Visions label. Later Tom would drop the Creative Visions moniker and use his own name as the brand. Over the past decade Tom has continued to build an loyal following of customers. He gets custom orders from all over Florida, to places as far flung as Puerto Rico, California, Mexico and Canada.
The custom board market is Neilson Surfboards bread and butter. While Tom has developed a range of stock models, custom orders are his specialty. His ability to translate his customers’ wants into foam is legendary. There is one particular board model that has garnered huge accolades, the Flying Floaty Fish (FFF). From the Surfer Magazine design forums, to 2ndLight.com, the FFF receives rave reviews for its wave catching ability and range.
The FFF is far removed from the San Diego keel fishes that have found resurgence since the film Litmus and Tom Curren’s 1990’s fish footage. While it retains the wide plan shape and glide of a fish, Tom’s design focuses on ease of use and performance. With a modern approach in designing the foil and rocker, the board just plain works. Its ease of use coupled with a big range in performance has made it somewhat of a magic carpet for beginners. The board is effectively a skill level multiplier, allowing many of its proponents to become better surfers in months instead of years.
But it’s not only the beginners that flock to the FFF. There are as many highly skilled surfers who swear by the design. One Neilson devotee for over 20 years is Florida’s Rick Simon. About the FFF he says:
“I think the floaty fish is the best all-around Florida board I’ve ever owned. It works in everything from knee-high mush to overhead hurricane swell. I just ordered a 6’3″ round tail quad that is basically the same board as the floaty fish except for the tail.”
Although the success of Tom’s designs is well documented, he is constantly refining and researching with a visceral approach. I asked Tom about designing and testing his own shapes:
“Forever, what I’d like to do is ride everything. Whether it’s a fun shape, a longboard, or a small shortboard. I like to ride team riders boards that are way too thin and small for me [because] I want to know what they do. I think that really helps me as a shaper – understanding what works and what doesn’t work.”
I’ve seen Tom surf. For a man over 50, his skill is beyond impressive. His ability to read the ocean is unequaled. David related an anecdote about Tom’s barrel skills:
“…he used to charge heavy Puerto too. He had that green 7’6″ gun and was telling me some stories about getting heavy barrels …he just seems to find barrels where none exist. I remember seeing him on a fun overhead day, get into one real early on a mini-gun (6’10” or so,) when everyone else was riding 6’2″s, me included, and just drop in and fade WAY back then start driving and back-door through a macking double-up on the inside. I saw the whole thing from the shoulder paddling out, and it blew my mind. From the takeoff, he saw where the barrel was going to be and set it up from the start knowing he could fade way back and backdoor it. That only comes from experience.”
Tom was an early adopter of Epoxy/EPS construction and continues to produce many boards using non-traditional materials. He was one of the early commercial users of the vacuum bagged, stringer-less EPS boards whose current iteration includes bamboo, carbon fiber and cork. In 2008 Tom tested both the BioFoam and Ice9 blanks – blanks made using organic compounds to replace some of the toxic petroleum based products.
In regards to current trends in surfboard design, Tom points out how the pop-out market has offered people boards with a lot of flotation, while perhaps lacking performance. The people buying those boards therefore catch more waves than they might have on a board with less volume and eventually they are inspired to get a board that offers the flotation but with refinements in fin placement, flex patterns and bottom and rail shapes.
He identifies proper flotation as the biggest trend in design, even for highly experienced surfers. Lately he’s been pulling out old templates from twenty or thirty years ago and building those designs with the modern refinements in rocker, rail profile and bottom contours. These are boards that worked well in their day, but are even better now and can offer surfers different feelings on a wave. Years as a craftsman provide Tom with `a better understanding of what is going to make a board catch waves better and turn better.
I’ve always admired Tom for his ease -his quiet confidence. So I asked him what advice he’d offer to someone who asked.
“The biggest thing would simply be to listen to your intuition -to follow your gut feelings. And to not be afraid to fit in the mold if that’s what feels good, and also not feel guilty if you somehow step out of the mold -you know, what all your friends are doing, and what society is doing as well. As long as it’s not something that hurts anyone else, then that’s a pretty cool thing to do.
A lot of times if you have a drive and passion and you’re really behind something people will pick up on that and if it’s genuine that’s how new trends can start. And if it doesn’t that’s OK too. You can be content within yourself.”
For many of us, surfing plays a big part in the story of our lives. From where we choose to live, the jobs we have, and the friends we choose, surfing touches just about every part of our lives. While I have started to build my own boards, I know good and well that I will always maintain the connection with my good friend Tom. Through his intuition he has helped me to become a better surfer. And undoubtedly, Tom has influenced how I view the world. You can’t build a reputation through shaping boards alone. Tom’s loyal clientele is due in large part to his character and kindness. What else could you ask from the guy who makes you the most important object you own?
For more on Tom’s surfboards, check out: