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Back from the brink

Crafting longboards out of exotic hardwoods helped Byron Nelson recover from a deep depression, and added some killer tattoos to his growing collection of body art. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)
Crafting longboards out of exotic hardwoods helped Byron Nelson recover from a deep depression, and added some killer tattoos to his growing collection of body art. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

Of the Keizertimes

Byron Nelson’s current obsession is a knot on a piece of hardwood he’s shaping into a longboard.

“That knot right there is going to be a big part of what the board becomes. I really think it could be an eye,” he said, pointing to the board in question. “You just have to let it talk to you. It could be a crow.”

He wasn’t certain yet if the crow will be the final image he burns into the board, he’s still communing with it, it’s part of his process. They way Nelson, 42, talks about a board, its grain, the flaws he can turn into character is the first clue that there’s something more to him than one might guess at from his tattooed arms and legs, his dropping of words like “rad” and “tripping” into conversations. Something more than just a skateboarder refusing to grow up.

One doesn’t simply walk into a shop and choose one of Nelson’s longboards off a rack, he’s made nearly every one for a particular person or purpose, like trading for work on his truck or some of the truly astonishing artwork that adorns his body.

“My wife tells me I have to get rid of them as soon as they are done now, otherwise I get too attached to them and they end up hanging in the garage,” he said. “I started working with just any solid wood, but then the wood grain was really working for me. That’s when everything changed and it turned into a woodworking project.”

Nelson started building his own boards after destroying some of the mass-produced laminate boards a friend supplied him with.

“They just wouldn’t hold up, and I like bombing down long, steep hills. To carve on a big hill, you have to go almost horizontal with the road and it tears up the board,” he said.

He cut his first board into the rough shape he was looking for and then sanded it down by hand. The process took about three months, but the first ride was unforgettable.

“It was rewarding because then I knew that I could pull it off,” he said. “I could ride a rigid board on big hills.”

It was also a conversation starter.

“Anywhere you go with a board like these, people trip out. It’s just really different from what most people think of when it comes to a skateboard,” Nelson said.

He started taking a few orders for custom creations, but he found it difficult to actually deliver the goods. He was on the verge of a deep depression that would last nearly five years.

“I would go out and ride some of the big hills in the middle of the night. It wasn’t safe, but it makes you feel invincible when you don’t die doing it,” he said. “It was deep, dark place.”

He was only able to pull himself out of it by going to live with his brother in sourthern Oregon for six months, but crafting the longboards became a lifeline for him to hold while he recovered.

“It was the wood, the shaping, taking a board and finding out what’s inside of it. The transformation,” he said.

In recent years, and with the assistance of a friend who allows him to use his workshop, Nelson’s production has become much more streamlined, which allows him to spend more deciding what images he’ll burn into his creations. He’s created flames and skulls, a mountain scene and even a butterfly simply by freehanding sketches and embellishing them with a handheld wood burning tool – but he can take weeks to settle on an image.

Aside from creating images, his favorite parts of the process is choosing which boards he’ll work with.

“I go up to little wood stashes up in the mountains and go through their inventory,” he said. “I’m working with one guy that his grandfather had some 50-year-old black walnut. I built him a couple of boards in exchange for some wood I could use to make boards for other people. Those are the great finds because it’s beautiful wood and it has a story behind it.”

The results are as much works of art as they are a mode of transportation. Many aren’t even being used on the streets and instead act as decorations for nostalgic grinders. Nelson is okay with either one.

“A lot of guys my age were skaters and were part of that world. With these boards, I can put older guys on them and they feel sturdy, they feel secure, they’re solid. Or, they can hang them,” Nelson said.

He’s had customers throughout Oregon and as far north as the San Juan Islands in Washington, which has become a point of pride for him and a reason to continue.

“It’s rad. It feels rockstar,” he said. “There are people collecting them now.”

He’s not planning on quitting his day job as an undergound tunneler anytime soon, but the satisfaction he’s reaping from the work itself buoys his spirit through the tougher moments.

“It’s about making connections. Beacuse of these boards, I feel like I can go out an represent myself and my work,” Nelson said. “I can keep my spirituality flowing and I don’t care what anyone says.”

Nelson is currently accepting new orders for custom boards, contact him at 503-504-4807 to work out the details.