"Our first and last and greatest shaping guru."
Yesterday, news from Princeville, Kauai, that Dick Brewer, the eighty-five-year-old designer and shaper of “incredible North Shore guns” was facing his last days on earth.
Before he climbs the golden stairway, pushes open the gilded gate and squeezes into God’s loving arms, I figured, good time to hit Matt Warshaw, he of the Encylopedia of Surfing, for a take on Dick’s wild, wild life.
Following a series of posts from his wife Sherry warning of his imminent passing, Dick Brewer has just posted a farewell to the world on Facebook. When he does ascend to heaven, it’s gonna be a real big hole in the shaping game. For those who came in late, what did Dick Brewer bring to the table?
Incredible guns, just Sabrejet-level equipment for North Shore surfers in the ’60s and ’70s. On top of that, and maybe even a bigger deal in terms of his place in surfing, was the Brewer character. He was the guru, the man on the mountain, the shaper everybody knelt down before. Figuratively, mostly, but I think maybe literally too!
How good are his boards?
Tom Parrish of Lightning Bolt fame and the post-Brewer gun king, said this about Dick. “He stands alone in just about every regard. If you go back to the early ’60s and see how advanced his designs were, then add in every single change for the better, from fixing the deck rocker, to coming up with that three-stage bottom rocker, to miniguns, full guns, and much much more—there is just simply nobody who did what Brewer did. Now, here’s something else about Brewer. He was a huge natural talent when it came to design. But he wasn’t all that interested in finishing his boards nicely. Contrast that with Diff [Mike Diffenderfer], who probably shaped the most beautiful boards ever made, but who did not have that kind of innate sense. We’re splitting hairs, a little, because Diff’s boards were really good too. Nobody touched him when it came to fine sanding. But if you’re talking about pure design, then it is Brewer, hands down.”
Gimme a little background, he’s from the mid-west, yeah? Minnesota or somewhere? Split his crummy life in his twenties to become a legend in the Islands?
Born in Minnesota but moved to Long Beach, California, with his family at age three. Dick was meant to be an engineer, like his dad and grandfather, and he worked on dragsters before surfboards. Then in 1960 he went to Hawaii for the first time, loved it, moved there for good and almost immediately was working out how to build better guns. His reputation later was for being kinda spacy, but originally and for quite a few years Brewer was coming at board design from an engineers perspective, kind of like what Bob Simmons did in the ’40s and early ’50s.
There’s conjecture on Brewer’s contribution to the shortboard revolution, when boards were losing six inches in length every session until the logs were whittled down to seven-foot blades. What’s your take? Did he simply refine what was being done by McTavish and co or was he a revolutionary?
Brewer was already trimming down the longboard into something closer to what we’d recognized as a gun. But where he was basically improving on something that already existed, McTavish and Nat showed up with those hideous but game-changing deep-vee boards, and those things I think forced Brewer to re-think the next move. He would have got where he was going either way, but the vee-bottom sped the process up.
He had a wild, and not always happy life, junkie, infant died in a car wreck, which he survived. Can you describe that mid-seventies period?
It’s murky. Drew Kampion’s take is probably the only one we’ll get, and I think Drew did his best, but I think the whole deal was more crippling and permanent than what we get there. Brewer was still the guy for Waimea boards, for a long time—Bugs had a big yellow Brewer in his quiver, all the way into the 1980s—but for the most part, Waimea aside, Dick wasn’t really a force after about 1973. Bolt took over the space Brewer had owned for 10 or so years prior.
Few lawsuits in there, too, yeah? What’s the juice on those?
Drew’s article gets into all that, and again Drew I think wants to paint Dick as the victim, and maybe there is some truth to that. But my take is that Brewer was a terrible businessman. Great shaper, but not the guy you want reading and advising on the contracts.
From memory, he was pulled out of obscurity in the nineties when surfing got hit by a wild nostalgia streak and enjoyed a second wind for his harvest years. What happened there?
No, I think it was that he made some amazing tow boards for Laird Hamilton. Which makes sense, in terms of Brewer getting back to engineering high-speed equipment.
And, now, Dick ain’t here. What’s the sum of his life?
Apart from the boards being gold-standard, and apart from being our first and last and greatest shaping guru, Brewer’s contribution was to look outside of surfing. His engineering background, everything he knew about cars, about machining, about speed and drive and torque—he brought all of that to bear in the shaping room. Lucky for our sport, he wasn’t born and raised on the beach. He loved surfing best of all, but he was smart enough to look beyond surfing. To our great benefit.
(You like this? Maybe time to subscribe to Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing, yeah? Three bucks a month, can y’believe.)