Courtesy of Bernie Baker
When the world’s elite surfers set out to ride monster waves, this surfboard Zen master has their backs. 

In Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell posits that a key reason people become virtuosos in their field is by dint of repetition — at least 10,000 hours worth.

Meet legendary surfboard shaper Dick Brewer, a poster child for the theory if there ever was one. Brewer, 76, is widely recognized as one of the last of a generation of notable shaping gurus who, armed with engineering chops and intuitive surfing know-how, came of age in the late 1950s and early ’60s in Southern California. He fashioned his first board back in 1956 in a garage in Huntington Beach, using a template made by early board-design pioneer Joe Quigg.
Brewer begins to shape a surfboard
Courtesy of Bernie Baker

Since then, Brewer guesstimates he’s shaped around 20,000 boards. And during those five decades, Brewer “guns” (shorthand surfing lingo for the “elephant guns,” or large boards that surfers use to “hunt” for giant waves) have continually pushed the envelope in surfboard design. Today, when surfing superstars like Garrett McNamara and Laird Hamilton go riding giants at fabled surf breaks like Jaws, off Maui’s northern shore in Hawaii, they’re often shredding it on a Brewer gun. In fact, McNamara was doing just that when he rode a record-setting, 100-foot-tall wave off the coast of Portugal in January.

“Dick is a genius — the Thomas Edison of surfboards,” says Hamilton, who owns 10 to 15 Brewer guns. “He’s responsible for modern surfboard design. And Dick taught most of the people now shaping boards, either directly or indirectly. Dick makes some of the world’s fastest boards, and at the end of the day, speed is what allows you to survive when the waves are big.”

Collectors share Hamilton’s enthusiasm, lusting after Brewer guns the way guitar aficionados covet 1950s-era Fender Strats. And they’ll pony up some serious coin: 1960s and ’70s boards routinely fetch four- and five-figure prices. And at a Sotheby’s auction several years ago, a Brewer-designed board with a nickel-plated bottom sold for a whopping $220,000.

“At some point, it doesn’t even seem real,” the Minnesota-born Brewer says from his home in Hanalei, Hawaii, on the northern shore of Kauai. “Some old Brewers get $30,000. Like old Ferraris, they appreciate in value — as long as you don’t ding ’em up.”

Endless Summer Beckons

While growing up in Long Beach, California, Brewer, the son of a tool-and-die maker, was more flyboy than surfing hound. Able to operate every machine in his father’s shop by age 16, Brewer loved designing and flying exotic model airplanes. Then he caught his first wave, and like the moment when Brian Wilson married Chuck Berry guitar licks with Four Freshman harmonies, life was never quite the same after that.

“You never forget it,” he says of his epiphany off Seal Beach. “It just hooks you. It’s almost a religious thing, to ride a surfboard with free abandon.”

Later, Brewer studied mechanical engineering at California State University, Long Beach, intent on becoming an airplane designer. But at the same time, he also was keenly observing board-design pioneers like the late Gordie Duane, Dale “Hawk” Velzy, and Dick Barrymore, as well as Bob “Ole” Olson (who’s still shaping on Maui).
In his early 20s when Brewer, an accomplished surfer himself, moved to Hawaii to pursue riding giants, passion finally trumped profession. He decided that what he really wanted to do when he grew up was drop out of college and redesign the modern surfboard.