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Harold Dickert's Man Cave: Table Saw, Hand Tools and His Custom-Made Guitars

Perhaps it is not so surprising to learn that this Burlington-based guitar-maker is as unique as his 'one-of-a-kind' guitars.

By Margaret Lindsay Holton
Published June 30, 2014

Tucked away in the north end of Burlington, on top of the Niagara Escarpment, off a rolling back-country road, sits a low-slung modern ranch-style bungalow huddled under a maturing Black Locust forest. Under the swaying tree canopy, at the back of the house, through a rickety basement door, is Harold Dickert's space.

Harold Dickert's space
Harold Dickert's space

This is no ordinary man cave.

By day, Harold is a professional pilot with Jazz Airlines. But, at any other time, he is an engaged and engaging guitar maker, or luthier. It is his love of trees, their fine woods and his evident skilful craftsmanship that sets him miles apart from your average man cave dweller.

Harold is a man of refined passions.

Harold Dickert, Burlington-based luthier
Harold Dickert, Burlington-based luthier

When a teenager, years ago, while living in Milton, he learned the basics of fine woodworking, first, as a builder, then, as a designer, of Balsa wood model airplanes.

As a young man, he further sharpened his skills by branching out into the making of other technically demanding projects, like spinning wheels. He then worked as a trade carpenter for a landscaping firm where he developed a deep love of local trees and their exquisite, often unsung, tonal qualities (visual, not sonic.)

It was his interest in music, especially guitar sounds, that shaped his maturing wood-working skills. It started in 1968 when he received a brand new Japanese Toledo electric guitar. "It didn't take long for modifications to begin."

Within ten years, he'd built, from scratch, his first seven-string electric and his first double neck acoustic. He was, at that time, a young man on a mission: improvising, experimenting, improving - and failing.

Unhappily, his equally demanding budding career as a professional pilot put his 'hobby' on hold. It was only in 2001 that he was finally able to set up his shop to focus more on his 'hobby' then his 'day job'.

Since then, Harold has hand-made 26 custom guitars, averaging two per year, at a starting cost of approximately $3,000 each.

One guitar will take six to eight months to build, depending on client participation. The intricacy of the shell inlay detail, the choice of banding around the rosette, and the actual availability of both exotic and local woods all factor into the cost.

For an acoustic guitar, Harold says, "You can choose from one of my available moulds, or you and I may just come up with a new shape. You could go with a standard six-string, or push the envelope with a custom seven-string. Then there are my four-string Soprano guitars. Other options include Florentine or Venetian cutaways, a sound port, an arm-rest and fan-fret board."

He will also shape the neck of the guitar to fit the size of your hand. The options are many for those who want that very special guitar to match their own unique playing style.

The choice and variety of wood is paramount in a custom-made Dickert Guitar. "The directional cut, across or with the grain, is incredibly important as this is a mechanical structural consideration, a tone consideration, and it also affects the aesthetics."

The front face of the guitar is usually, and traditionally, old growth Sitka Spruce from Alaska. "The reason is that it not only has one of the very best strength to weight ratios, it also is the third fastest medium for the propagation of sound (only steel and glass are faster), making is the best tone wood for guitar tops, followed by cedar."

He adds, "The trees that provide the best tone are the ones with the closest grain, with counts upwards of 25 to 35 lines per inch. This means that just the wood that is visible within the area of the guitar top represents almost 300 years of that tree's life! You will find lots of guitars with tops that have much lower grain counts, but if you look at the price tag, those are the cheapie instruments."

Then comes the finishing. Every acoustic guitar is painstakingly french-polished with shellac until the deep natural hues of the carefully chosen (often 'book-matched') wood grains radiate their inherent beauty.

This old-world finishing technique is easily repairable, environmentally friendly, and best attuned to robust acoustics. With electric guitars, often suffering more wear and tear, harder plastic lacquer is often required.

All these visual and stylistic components add up to the final unique sound that is, in the truest sense of the word, the very soul of each and every guitar.

After spending just two short hours in Harold's shop, it is evident that he is very 'old school' when it comes to the skills, techniques and studied appreciation of guitar makers throughout the centuries. It is a fine and noble tradition.

Somewhat surprisingly though, his preferred choice of guitar music is not classical. Rather, his ear responds to the delicious guitar sounds rooted in the "pyrotechnic" wild riffs of the rock-n-roll '60s and the later decades of improvisational jazz fusion.

Today, he listens to the "creative textures" of guitar greats, like Dan Alder, Jeff Beck, Michael Hedges or Tosin Abashi, lead guitarist in 'Animals as Leaders'. He's also captivated by the complex tones of 'Porcupine Tree'. Their music is as compelling as the tried and true oldies and goldies, like Sting, Rush or even Joni Mitchell. A few more of his inspiring preferences can be heard here.

Perhaps it is not so surprising to learn that this Burlington-based guitar-maker is as unique as his 'one-of-a-kind' guitars.

If interested in your own hand-built Dickert guitar, designed and produced to your own wood specifications, you may have to wait a bit for your custom beastie. But, for sure, expect the best from Burlington's loquacious luthier, Harold Dickert.

Closing Message from Harold:

Hello Raise the Hammer Readers, I am looking for large diameter logs at least 20" (excluding the bark) by at least 3 feet long. Also large quarter sawn boards 9 inches wide. Hardwood trees such as Black Locust, Honey Locust, Osage Orange, Black Cherry, Ash, Maple, Sycamore, Mulberry, Tulip Tree, Elm, Hackberry, Walnut, Butternut, Birch, Basswood, Beech Tree, Horse Chestnut, Catalpa, and Ironwood (for necks therefore may be smaller), or any other interesting trees you may come across. Softwood trees such as Spruce, Fir, Tamarack, Redwood, may be of interest.

Also if you have exotic lumber (quartered only) or logs, call me. Useable logs should be straight with few, if any, knots. I am also interested in logs with spalting, but the wood must be solid. If you have any logs that you are willing to part with, please call me at 905-315-9779 or email hd@dickert.ca. Thanks! — Harold.

A mid-career Golden Horseshoe artist and author, Lindsay is available for commissions and assignments via 'mlhpro' at 'hotmail' dot 'com'. See samples at http://canadadaPHOTOGRAPHY.blogspot.com.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted June 30, 2014 at 19:25:55

Thanks for the fascinating look at independent guitar making! This stuff sounds fantastic compared to the mass produced stuff of today. This reminds me a lot of pre-WW2 guitars that were not mass produced as they are today.

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By rayfullerton (registered) | Posted June 30, 2014 at 22:12:55

thanks, very informative re types of woods & design

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By Missy2013 (registered) - website | Posted June 30, 2014 at 22:45:04

Thanks fellas. One of the great things about doing a story like this is learning TONS from Harold ... Best part, he just introduced me to the 'sound' of Don Ross, phenomenal Canadian guitarist.

If you want a real treat, listen to his latest album, released this month - Ps 15.

Here's the itunes link: https://itunes.apple.com/ca/album/ps-15/...

Harold's in excellent company!!

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By JaredPurdy (registered) | Posted July 04, 2014 at 19:08:46

I had the great chance of meeting Harold, today. While on one of my usual cycling rides up on the escarpment, I was heading south on Cedar Springs Road, south of Kilbride when out of the corner of my eye I saw a stripped down Gibson Thunderbird. I couldn't just ride by without inquiring so I spun the bike around and that was when I learned that it wasn't a stripped down Gibson Thunderbird, but one of Harold's creations for a customer (though it was a replica Thunderbird with some refinements). He offered to take me into his shop, showed me his current projects, acoustic and electric and his fine collection of instruments. He has a beautiful collection of hard woods, and I was particularly enamoured with the 00 sized acoustics, one of which was made with spalted something or other. Great guy, master builder, beautiful instruments.

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted July 08, 2014 at 22:44:07

thespec.com/community-story/4621247-harold-dickert-s-man-cave-table-saw-hand-tools-and-custom-made-guitars

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By missy2013 (registered) - website | Posted July 10, 2014 at 11:04:19

Yes, The Hamilton Spectator has picked up this story too. (Previous one about Valley City in Dundas also ran in the Cambridge Times, and Niagara This Week ...) Great to discover that Raise the Hammer items find traction elsewhere. - Raise the Hammer remains the 'go-to source'.

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