Dick Brewer: Shaping Guru

Throwback interview to when shapers were wizards

Dick Brewer turns 78 today. Of all the shaping gurus, Brewer sat on the tallest mountain, had the most acolytes, wore the most beatific expression, and spoke in the deepest, most spellbinding voice. He was the guru’s guru. Lopez, Abellira, Fitzgerald, Chapman, among others, studied their boardmaking craft at his knee. Virtually every notable surfer of the 1960s and ’70s rode Brewer’s boards at one time or another. Paid for his boards, in fact, when other marquee shapers were groveling for the chance to hand out free sticks to the surfing elite.

There will be a time—it may already be here, in fact—when the demigod board shaper and his magic planer will vanish from our sport. Integrated hardware-software surfboard shaping packages have been the industry standard for years. The brainwork is now done at a keyboard. Shaping itself is performed by a frame-mounted four-axis robotic arm. Fine. Bring the science, I say. Let us code our way to a brighter wave-riding future. But make no mistake. There is a tradeoff involved. With the extinction of the foam-dust-covered Mao-meets-Gandalf shaper, we take yet another step toward middle-of-the-road sports-world conformity. The shaping machine will never refer to itself in casually arrogant third person, as Dick Brewer loved to do. The dev-shaper of the future, unlike Brewer, will never justify his spreadsheet-loaded array of digitized board files as a way to “express my level of consciousness to my fellow man.” This is a loss. I am in the position, in other words, of missing the hot air even while celebrating its disappearance. The surfboards are better. The sport is blander.

To celebrate Brewer’s birthday, and to give you youngsters out there a notion of what the boardmaking guru sounded like in full cry, I offer this slightly truncated version of a 1971 interview Brewer did with Drew Kampion, who was the Dick Brewer of surf mag editors. So this is hot guru-on-guru action, folks.

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The guru in full-flight. Photo: Allen Margolis

What’s happening in the world of surfboard building?

The industry is in better shape than ever before; it's just that all the business are no longer in the hands of a few. There are now a thousand surfboard shops, where there used to be a hundred.

It's less of a big business deal, compared to how it was before.

When I made the first mini-gun that worked at Sunset Beach, Gary Chapman bought the blank, a reject, out of his own pocket. I shaped it for nothing. Gary glassed it himself. The manufacturer I was shaping for [Bing Surfboards] fired me the next day. Things have been going like that ever since. Surfers are buying their own blanks and experimenting at their own expense because it costs too much to get a board from any of the the major manufacturers. The public has lost confidence in what we know as the normal surfing establishement. There is a generation gap between the major builders and the kids on the beach. Is it any wonder that things are ending up back in the garage where it all started? None of what happened in the past is real anymore. I'm shaping boards in people's garages. I'm bragging. I've been humble, now I'm boasting.

How important has your own participation been in this underground movement?

Very important! I was shaping for Gary Chapman, Joey Cabell, Jock Sutherland, Reno Abellira and David Nuuhiwa. They paid me for my labor and kept my boards creative all during the evolution of the modern shortboard. These young minds are the finest the sport has ever seen.

What shapers have been influential on you?

Bob McTavish showed me how to make a spiral vee. I've used it ever since. The old hot curl boards had vee years ago, but McTavish executed the vee in its modern form. Joey Cabell made it flat, Herbie Fletcher kicked the tail—and Brewer smoothed the whole thing out.

Any other shapers?

Mike Hynson, Les Potts and Midget. The rest of the them are usually working on something I passed up.

Would that include Mike Diffenderfer?

Yep. Diffenderfer does a well-polished four-year-old trip.

Going back to 1967, at the beginning of the shortboard revolution . . .

I made Gary Chapman the first-ever mini-gun. The Australians had mini-hotdog boards. There was a difference!

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Brewer (middle) tuning in with Gerry Lopez (left) and Reno Abellira. Photo: Dave Darling

Let me ask you about a few surfers. Start with Cabell.

Cabell had me build flat-bottom surfboards. He was the first surfer brave enough to want a board with a straight edge along the bottom, the way Pat Curren made them years ago. Joey always designed his boards, and brought me drawings to help describe them. He encouraged me to make my boards lighter and lighter during the small board development. Joey was responsible for light boards in big waves.

Jock.

Jock influenced me towards practical, functional boards. He also insisted on paying me for my labor, as did Joey, and always treated me as a gentleman. Jock and Joey, along with Owl Chapman, are the three greatest big-wave riders today.

Reno.

Reno's boards are always the most advanced of anyone I shape for. Reno is a super-aware, super-limber human being, very proficient in yoga. One of the most intelligent people in surfing.

David.

David Nuuhiwa is the most creative surfer in the world. He's just more aware than the rest of us. Another very limber person. David can put both feet behind his head, and he doesn't even do yoga! David can take a board of mine to its limits in just a few days. I spent several months working with David in California last summer, and I can say that he is the finest surfer on the Mainland.

Lopez.

Gerry, Reno and I worked together at the Hanapepe shop up until about a year ago. Gerry has been helpful to RB [Brewer] all the way through, as his boards were always close to mine. He's the guy who will make it littler and make it work.

What about Barry?

BK has more power than anybody. His style was the same on a longboard. He never changes; he just gets better and better and better?

And Hakman? A lot of people say he's the best on the North Shore.

Hakman is on a perfectly polished four-year-old trip. He just changed to low rails. It's true!

What do you see in your future as a shaper and designer in an evolving surfboard industry?

Surfing is at the highest level it's ever been. It will go higher. The big manufacturers that haven't stayed competitive, I can't feel sorry for them, as I must concern myself with my life and my boards. And I'm on top of that trip. I know it, and I feel confident in my field. The strong survive and the weak fail. In capitalism it's true, in evolution it's true, and in surfing it's true. I feel strong. I've been in surfing a long, long time, and I'll continue to be in surfing for a long, long time.