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You won't find much info from resellers on surfacing. Get that blank stare thing all the time. I've given up asking.
You're mostly right about the surfaces thing in SW. They are pretty touchy. Read this link: http://dezignstuff.com/blog/
You can try to make surfaces unrelated, but that only gets you so far. One thing I try to do is to make a single feature as big as possible, and usually overbuild surfaces so they extend past where you need them to go. But then, the trim functionality is pretty weak and susceptible to flipping the side to keep.
The main new things for surfacing in 09 are that the Freeform surface is no longer limited to 4 sides, splines add curvature to the ends automagically (?!?!) and Boundary is now available as a boundary boss and a boundary cut.
I use a ton of surfaces to get a filled look to furniture cushions - if you are using the patch tool you can Rt click on a open edge and select -choose open loop - then pick - fill surface from surface tools. Using choose open loop seems to rebuild better than selectign each edge by themselves.
I love working with surfaces and creating real looking furniture so more surfacing support woulf be awesome.
Building robust surface models requires that you take smaller, discreet steps. Don't try to do too much with one feature.
I disagree a little about the lack of stanility. I have found 08 to be an improvement in this regard over previous releases. The exception to that is the trim feature, but there is way I found that helps that as well.
When I make a change back in the tree and see all the errors-I roll back and fix one-by-one. Often it is the trim features that bomb out. I have found that RMB and clearing both fields and then re-selecting will often help and then other features that failed due to the trim features getting hosed will then be alright.
I do agree that it could be better but there are often little tricks like this that work.