In the summer of 1963, Robert Russell Brown got kicked out of his dad’s garage for making a mess. Resin, foam dust and wood shavings littered the floor of the garage that had become the post-surf hang out spot for Russell and his friend Don Anderson. They had already shaped several boards together, and weren’t planning on stopping anytime soon. Russell moved his mess around a few times before setting up a shaping bay in an old naval shipyard on the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach. His skills progressed quickly, due in part to the fact that his shaping room was between surf legends Pat Curren and Joe Quigg. He’d work on boards after school and into the night and sell them out of a truck with “Surfboards by Russell” painted on the side.
By the time Russ graduated, business was really picking up. It made sense to him to make board building his career. In 1967, Russell Surfboards was formally opened on Balboa Blvd just a stone’s throw away from Blackies, the historic bar and surf spot. The shortboard revolution was creating a renewed spirit of experimentation, and Russ was Building a team of the best, most progressive board builders around. Guys like Mike O’day, Bruce Jones, Bobby (BASA) Allen, Randy Lidau and the infamous Paul and Vinny Sides all came to work for Russell Surfboards during this period. Even the great Dale Velzy shaped a few balsa wood guns for the shop. While those guys built some of the most progressive boards in California, a growing contingent of local surfers started riding the boards in whatever waves they could find.
Over the next several years, the Russell crew and their product became known as the brotherhood. With the cleanest boards around and plethora of surfing talent riding the boards, a Russell Surfboard was the board to have. The shop was stocked with Brewer style pocket rockets, designed for the tube. They were often dressed to the nines with perfect freehand cutlaps and double pin lines, multicolor nose and tail blocks and maybe a leash loop.
Whether right or wrong, anybody who paddled out to surf in Newport Beach in the 1970s learned who the Brotherhood was pretty quick. Surfers didn’t just paddle out and expect to take a set wave. Standout surfers like Junior Beck, Lenny Foster, Billy Pells, Paul Heussenstamm, and Jack Briggs took the biggest and best waves at Newport Point and the newly constructed 56th street jetty. They also spent a great deal of time traveling, most notably being the earliest crew to surf the treacherous beach break at Playa Zicatela in Puerto Escondido, Mexico. They’d camp on the beach for months with waves to themselves. Shapers Shawn Stussy and Jeff Timpone took over most of the shaping duties throughout the mid and late 70s. Russ glassed them strong, sleek and sexy resulting in board after board that exceeded customer expectations.
A lot changed in Newport Beach in the 1980’s but same could not be said for Russell Surfboards. Sure, the “Brotherhood” days were gone, but Russ and his crew of all-star craftsmen kept building quality progressive surfboards. Shaping at the time for Russ were Al Dove, Dane New, Jim Fuller, John Pribram, Jeff Widener and Greg Giddings. The shop was selling boards like hotcakes. Shop salesman Eric Roberts recalls arriving to work with a short line of surfers waiting outside to buy a board. While the “surf” industry was developing rapidly by selling overpriced beach clothing to the masses, Russell Surfboards continued to sell surfboards almost exclusively. The consistent, steep, fast waves around 54th street Newport became the Hot Spot for aspiring professional surfers and magazine photographers. The now crowded lineups did not deter the Russell Crew from getting waves. The tight knit group preferred to show up early, surf their brains out and leave all before the marine layer burned off and hoards of people showed up.
When there weren’t waves in town, they’d hit the road, seas and skies looking (and often finding) world class surf in far out destinations. It was during this time that Russ built a shack on his property on the north shore of Kauai in Wainiha near the Na Pali Coast. He also built a small glass shop and shaping bay on the property that is still used today.
Russ kept business going strong into the 90’s selling board after board to local and traveling surfers. Al Dove continued to shape hydro-dynamically innovative designs, while two hand shaper/ big wave chargers Roger Baltierra and Chuck Burns shaped boards of all types between their big wave exploits at Puerto Escondido and Killers at Isla de Todos Santos. Local pros Josh Hoyer held his daily airshow at 54th street and tube maestro Kirk Blackman inevitably found the best waves of almost every session much to the chagrin of whomever else was surfing.
Through the 2000s, Russell Surfboards was not only the “wise elder” surfboard builder in Newport Beach, but one of the oldest in the industry. Russ was still laminating, hot coating and gloss coating nearly every board himself. Tens of thousands of boards had left the shop to happy customers. He had a young employee working the sales shop eager to learn the business. JP Roberts learned the business from the inside out. It appeared that Russ would be able to retire and move to his home in Kauai when he tragically passed away.
Today, the shop goes on strong. Shaper Jerry O’keefe continue to shape amazing, unique boards. Dane New is back sanding and polishing boards to a shine. Kirk Blackman still gets the best barrels in town. And JP Roberts is at the helm, running the show, making sure things run smoothly. The shop continues to build and sell boards of all different shapes and sizes. The blending of modern performance, individual creativity, historical tradition and superior craftsmanship continues to make a Russell Surfboard one of the best you can buy.