Self-taught guitarmaker in it ‘cause he loves it
COMOX VALLEY — “I’ve always liked guitars, and I thought, ‘Why not?’ I was retired and I had to keep doing something.”
Ernie Zerkee’s wood shop is well-stocked with wood and tools, while the body of a guitar lies face up on a well-used towel, waiting for a neck to be carefully attached.
His signature and date are barely visible in black felt marker through the sound hole, but the varnished body is ready for a musician’s grip.
“I have heard a few good things said about them. One guitarist said they’re alright — they’re easy to play. But I’ve never put a value on them; I only make them when people ask for it,” explained the nonagenarian over a coffee in his kitchen.
Zerkee is a self-taught luthier — guitar maker — but modestly added he can “play a little” but gives away many of the instruments he makes.
“I started making furniture in the ‘90s. It was just a hobby and I made things when people wanted them,” he said, as he points to two kitchen cabinets and a TV stand in his living room.
Born in Manitoba and raised in Saskatchewan, Zerkee moved to B.C. when he was 18 years old, and worked a variety of jobs after joining the army including falling timber for the John Hart Dam, driving a truck, and ending his working life at the Comox Creamery.
Zerkee said he never follows a particular guide when making his guitars, just a folded cardboard cutout of the body he uses as a rough shape.
“I just start from a three-quarter-inch thick piece of wood and draw the shape of the guitar. The neck isn’t too difficult. I stain it, then put it together. I finish with some Varathane.
“If I worked steady, I could probably make one a month, but I usually make about one a year. They are make strictly from local wood … the body is made of maple and the top is spruce,” he added. “I’m always hoping to make the next one sounds a little bit better. I’m always improving.”
Although Zerkee is working on his 15th guitar, he added he can make almost any instrument, including violins and a mandolin.
“I was really pleased with (the mandolin), but it did cost a little more,” he explained. “I was asked to make it and gave it to my niece who lives with her husband on the East Coast. They use it a lot over there.”
Another guitar, Zerkee said, he gave to his other niece in Toronto who plays guitar for inmates in jail once a week.
In addition to guitars, Zerkee mentioned in passing, he has built bird feeders, his wood shop and even a former home.
“I did build my own house at the top of the hill in 1964 before there even was Ryan Road,” he noted. “It was the first house on Back Road.”