Dick Brewer in his shaping room, a converted World War II Quonset hut on former pineapple fields, North Shore, Oahu.
Dick Brewer is covered with dust and wood shavings as he emerges from his shaping room on Oahu’s North Shore, a mecca of big-wave surfing.
A master surfboard shaper, Mr. Brewer has designed boards for such surfing legends as Laird Hamilton and Garrett McNamara, as well as for the current women’s world surf champion, Carissa Moore. His specialty is boards designed for giant waves. “He makes the boards that I can trust my life on,” said Mr. McNamara, who aims to ride a 100-foot wave this winter.
Mr. Brewer, 75, hand-makes about 200 boards a year, putting his neat signature on each of them with a pencil. One of his custom wood boards can sell for as much as $12,000. A nickel-plated tow-in board that Mr. Brewer helped design sold at a Sotheby’s auction in 2008 for $220,000. Collectors now covet his boards from the 1960s and 1970s.
STEP BY STEP | Mr. Brewer said he has learned to make only one design change at a time. He tests each change in the water before changing anything else. Above, Laird Hamilton, on Mr. Brewer’s “Green Meanie,” meeting a historic swell at ‘Jaws,’ Maui, Hawaii on Dec. 8, 2009.
Mr. Brewer likes to work in the morning, either at his shaping room in a converted World War II Quonset hut on former pineapple fields on Oahu, or on a farm he owns on Kauai, where his shaping room is surrounded by avocado and grapefruit trees. He starts with what is called a “blank”—a piece of balsa wood or plastic foam. He sets a template on the blank and traces the pattern in pencil. His collection of templates dates back to the first boards he shaped in the early 1960s.
He then roughs out the shape with a wood planer and hand tools. He gets his wood from a surfer-turned-cabinetmaker who works nearby. Mr. Brewer has always liked working with his hands, and began by building model airplanes as a child growing up in Southern California. His father founded a tool-and-die company.
“By the time I was 16, I could run every machine in the shop—and I still have all my fingers,” Mr. Brewer said.
He also began surfing and made his first board in a garage in 1958. “I needed a gun to ride bigger and bigger waves,” he recalled, using the surfer slang that describes a board as a weapon used to hunt down waves. Oahu’s North Shore, with its monster surf, was his next stop.
Soon after arriving, in 1961, he decided to open a small shop in the town of Haleiwa. He tested his designs by surfing on them. His fundamental innovation was to shape the nose and tail into a teardrop rather than an oval, allowing the board to cut into the water more precisely and help surfers ride inside the tube of the wave.
HAND MADE | Dick Brewer signing one of his boards
In the early 1990s, surfers like Mr. Hamilton and Dave Kalama began towing surfboards out on jet-skis to reach waves as high as 40 or 50 feet. After meeting Mr. Hamilton and his crew in 1992, Mr. Brewer built a tow-in surfboard on spec. That board became famous after Mr. Hamilton put straps on it and rode it on a massive Maui wave called “Pe’ahi”—or “Jaws”—in 1992. Mr. Brewer later shaped the “Green Meanie,” which Mr. Hamilton rode on Teahupoo and brought to Jaws for its historic swell in December of 2009. “It’s got a fifth gear,” Mr. Hamilton was quoted saying about the board in the book “The Wave.”
Mr. Brewer’s clients often like to be in the shaping room with him when he cuts their board. The board he was recently shaping was for a Russian big-wave rider who wanted an especially thick board to give it more float. The most difficult part of the job is to figure out what the surfers are trying to tell him—and not to give them more board than they can handle. “It’s a challenge to make the right board for the person and not to make it too advanced,” he said.
Lyle Carlson, a big-wave surfer who has worked as Mr. Brewer’s apprentice since 2005, believes his mentor’s practice of Zen meditation has influenced his creativity and work style. “There was an entire week when we didn’t talk to each other at all—we just shaped together,” he recalled. Sometimes Mr. Carlson would notice his teacher running his hands over a board he was working on to try to sense how it would cut through water.
Mr. Brewer considers board shaping an art. He does not use computer-aided design for his handmade boards, relying instead on intuition and experience. “I can feel roundness or bumps or concave,” he said. “I feel the shape at the bottom of the board and sense how it will skim the surface of the water.”