Brilliant but moody surfboard designer-shaper from Hanalei, Kauai, Hawaii, generally regarded as the sport's most influential boardmaker; creator of the popular Bing Pipeliner model longboard in 1967, and venerated in the late '60s and early '70s as the first master of shortboard design. "He's got the magic eye," Hawaiian surfer Jeff Hakman said. "Outlines, fins, edges, contours; he knew how to put everything together."
Brewer was born (1936) near Duluth, Minnesota, the son of an aircraft machinist, moved with his family to Long Beach, California, in 1939, and began surfing in 1953. In the mid-'50s he worked as a toolmaker and machinist; in 1959 he shaped his first surfboard, and the following year he moved to Oahu where he was informally mentored by California-born shapers Mike Diffenderfer and Bob Shepherd. Brewer opened Surfboards Hawaii in Haleiwa in 1961, the first retail surf shop on the North Shore of Oahu, surfing's big-wave capital.
Brewer returned to California in 1964 to start a mainland branch of Surfboards Hawaii, but legal problems with royalties and licensing soon forced him out of the company altogether. He worked for manufacturing giant Hobie Surfboards in 1965 as a big-wave board specialist, and produced the Dick Brewer Model; Jeff Hakman, Eddie Aikau, and Buzzy Trent were among the big-wave aces who rode Brewer boards that winter in Hawaii. Brewer himself was an enthusiastic big-wave rider in the late '50s and '60s, and was featured riding Waimea Bay in the surf movie classic The Endless Summer.
Brewer switched from Hobie to Harbour Surfboards in 1966, then to Bing Surfboards, where in 1967 he produced a series of models that are collectively regarded as the last word in original-era longboards, including the Pipeliner, the Lotus, the Pintail, and the Nuuhiwa Lightweight. But after Australian Nat Young won the 1966 World Championships on a self-made board that was thinner and lighter than anything in use at the time, the seeds were planted for a drastic change in board design.
The origins of the 1967-launched shortboard revolution are still debated. Brewer claims he began making shorter, more streamlined boards in the spring of 1967, and the radical new designs got him fired from Bing. Australian surfer/boardmaker Bob McTavish, influenced by California-born kneeboarder and designer George Greenough, had meanwhile developed the short, wide-tailed vee-bottom design, and the generally accepted view is that McTavish and Greenough are responsible for starting the shortboard revolution. It was Brewer, however, in the months and years to come, who did the most to bring the shortboard revolution into focus.
After getting fired from Bing, Brewer moved to Maui and started Lahaina Surf Designs, which lasted one year; he worked briefly for Plastic Fantastic Surfboards and Inter-Island Surfboards, then moved to Kauai in 1969 and founded the Dick Brewer Surfboards label. More legal problems followed, and Brewer eventually lost control of his company. Whatever label they were shaped for, Brewer's boards continued to be popular among the world's best surfers, and his team roster from the late '60s to the early '70s included David Nuuhiwa, Reno Abellira, Gerry Lopez, Jock Sutherland, Jeff Hakman, Owl Chapman, Barry Kanaiaupuni, Sam Hawk, and Michael Ho.
Design refinement, rather than breakthrough, was Brewer's biggest contribution; year after year his big-wave guns were synthesized and polished versions of all that was known in board design at that point. Brewer influenced virtually every shaper of the late '60s and '70s, and was mentor to Gerry Lopez, Reno Abellira, Terry Fitzgerald, Mark Richards, and other notable surfer/shapers. He also became one of surfing's outsized characters, as a beatific surf mystic; for a 1968 portrait he sat gurulike in a full lotus position, flanked by headstanding team riders Lopez and Abellira. He was highly intolerant of criticism as well. When Jeff Hakman remarked that the tail of a new gun looked perhaps a bit too pulled in, Brewer quickly sawed off the back 12 inches and let the board drop to the floor, then turned to Hakman and asked, "How's that? Is that better for you?"
Brewer was a heroin addict when he all but dropped off the surf scene in the mid-'70s. He came back in the late '80s to make longboards, sailboards, and big-wave guns, and in the mid-'90s he crafted tow-in boards for a small group of Maui big-wave riders, including Laird Hamilton. In 2001, Brewer cofounded Plumeria Surfboards in Encinitas, California. In 2004, Surfing magazine named him one of the ten best shapers of all time. A nickel-plated tow-in board that Brewer helped design sold at a Sotheby's auction in 2008 for $220,000. In 2012, Brewer was inducted into the Surfing Walk if Fame in Huntington Beach.
Brewer lives in Hanalei, Kauai. He's been married twice, and has two children.