Craftsman does it himself to get it right

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When Gerald Dickson works on your house, he's flying solo.

There are no construction crews milling about your home. Mr. Dickson takes on his customers' requests -- from start to finish -- with his own two hands.

The owner of Gerald E. Dickson Contracting Inc. of Evans wants things done right, so he does it for himself, even if it takes him up to a year to complete a major project.

His customers don't seem to mind.

Nan Richards, a longtime family friend and customer, has hired Mr. Dickson for numerous projects. She keeps coming back because she trusts his work, she said.

"His integrity is unquestionable, but he's also a perfectionist. He demands that things are done right. He keeps going long after I might have been satisfied," Ms. Richards said.

"It takes a trained eye to appreciate the minute detail that he is very conscientious of," she said.

Whenever her family is considering a project, Ms. Richards' children always have the same response. They regard Mr. Dickson as their hero.

"They will say, 'Let's get Mr. Gerry to do it because he can do anything, mom,' " she said.

The master craftsman started his business in 2000. He says that he is an "opportunistic contractor."

"Depending on what job comes up, that's what I work on. I can work in all the different trades to start and finish a house," Mr. Dickson said. "If you can think of it and draw it on a piece of paper, I can build it."

Most builders work on numerous projects simultaneously, but Mr. Dickson prefers to concentrate on one job at a time. The businessman prefers quality over quantity, he explained.

"I'm not looking for a whole lot of clients. I'm looking for a few good clients," Mr. Dickson said. "I'm looking for a project that has enough work to keep me busy for a long period of time."

Some might consider this putting all of his eggs in one basket, but so far the strategy is working for the self-made contractor.

Mr. Dickson is skilled at working with concrete, masonry, framing, roofing, wood and ceramic floors, custom cabinetry and other areas. He prefers working with wood -- cherry is his specialty.

He drives up to a customer's home with his bright red, 32-foot trailer filled with tools and sets up his workstation.

"I'm basically a one-stop shop, which a lot of homeowners like. You have one person to deal with, and there's nobody to pass the buck to," Mr. Dickson said.

Builder's son

In Mr. Dickson's case, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

The youngest of three siblings, Mr. Dickson grew up in Pittsburgh with his brother, Jeff, and sister, Marcy, in the 1960s.

Early on, his parents, Alvin and Barbara Dickson, taught their children the importance of hard work.

His father was a BellSouth switchman, but he frequently completed building projects on the side.

"He was a jackleg carpenter. He was always doing something," Mr. Dickson said.

The Dickson family's own home was one of his father's favorite projects. For eight years, the family worked on home remodeling. Mr. Dickson said that he started his construction career at age 10.

"I can remember digging basements by hand when I was a young man. Dad made us all work. Nobody got off," he said.

Even today, his 73-year-old father will do a remodeling project at the drop of a hat.

"My dad planted a lot of seeds. What I'm doing now has grown from those seeds," he said.

Mr. Dickson's mother was a stay-at-home mom, but she also worked diligently on her crafts.

"I think a lot of my creativity came from her. She would go to the mall and sell her crafts there," Mr. Dickson said.

He said he also learned lifelong values from scouting. His father served as a Cub Scout leader and Boy Scout leader throughout his childhood.

He participated in scouting himself for 15 years and another 10 years with his own son, Jerry, where he also served as a Cub Scout leader and assistant Boy Scout leader. He helped his son earn his Eagle Scout badge at age 15.

"I think scouting is a huge character builder," Mr. Dickson said. "I do my best to show up when I say I'm going to show up or do what I say I'm going to do. I think my clients appreciate that."

Mr. Dickson attended Clarion University, where he played on the college's football team. Like many college students, he wasn't sure what career path he wanted to follow. He majored in communications but realized he didn't want to stay on that career track.

His older brother was working at Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro, Ga., and invited him down for a visit. After his graduation, he traveled to Augusta and never left.

For a while, Mr. Dickson worked at several jobs to determine his interests, including positions at R.W. Allen & Associates Inc. and a landscaping company.

He landed an opportunity to run an environmental services company in Augusta, in which he worked with biosolids, or the end result from a wastewater treatment plant. He hauled the biosolids to local companies.

"That was a cool job because I was a one-man band also," he said.

The job allowed flexibility with his time, which he used to work on his home. He ran the company for 10 years.

Through the years, he realized how much he enjoyed construction. In 2000, he approached his financial advisor, Eric Milks, the owner of Eric P. Milks CPA, with his idea to start his own company.

Woodworking

Mr. Milks said that he didn't sugarcoat the risks involved in opening a small business. He told Mr. Dickson that it was a "huge gamble." Many small businesses fail because of undercapitalization, or not having enough cash, Mr. Milks explained.

"My first impulse is to throw as much cold water on it as I can so that I can see if they're fully committed and willing to go that route," he said.

He was also concerned about whether Mr. Dickson had the expertise, but he quickly learned that Mr. Dickson had been building for his entire life. He has since hired Mr. Dickson for jobs at his own home.

He believes Mr. Dickson is surviving the weak housing market because of his skill level.

"This summer, when we had our deck replaced and a gazebo built, I begged him to do it. He was so busy that he couldn't, so we put it on hold until he could squeeze in the time," Mr. Milks said.

"We absolutely love it. It's rock solid. That deck is going to be there when I'm pushing up daisies somewhere," Mr. Milks said.

Mr. Milks said his client is unique in his business practices -- particularly in his paperwork.

"Gerald is the kind of man that you don't really need a contract with. I've been begging him to get into that world. You can shake his hand, and he is good to his word," Mr. Milks said.

Mr. Dickson prefers to charge his clients by time and materials, rather than setting a flat rate up front.

"He's what you would think of as heartland America. He makes things and does things. People like him are what made this country great," Mr. Milks added.

Many of Mr. Dickson's clients are repeat customers, including Bob Yates, for whom he custom-designed a large, walk-in closet.

Mr. Dickson built the closet at another job site and then assembled it at Mr. Yates' home.

"I'd put this closet up against any closet in town," Mr. Yates said. "You tell him what you want and he just runs with it. He doesn't cut corners."

Another client, Bernie Wortman, initially hired Mr. Dickson to build a sewing room for his wife but ended up doubling the size of his entire house. He learned about Mr. Dickson's stellar reputation through some golfing buddies.

"He's a good craftsman. I would recommend him to anybody who is looking to have something well-built," Mr. Wortman said.

Before the project was under way, Mr. Wortman figured that he would make all the changes he desired while Mr. Dickson was already on the job. He ended up adding 2,700 square feet, which tripled the size of his kitchen and completely transformed the layout of his home.

The complex project took one year and 24 days total, Mr. Wortman vividly recalls.

The house had to be demolished, and the Wortmans camped out in a room in which Mr. Dickson nailed plywood to shield them from the weather.

"It was amazing because if you watched what he did, he drew plans and designs on the back of napkins and two-by-fours, which was kind of scary at first," Mr. Wortman said.

Mr. Dickson even added a medical lift, so they wouldn't have to rely on the stairs in their later years.

He hired subcontractors for some jobs, such as masonry, electricity and plumbing, but most of the work he performed single-handedly. He spent most of his time designing custom cabinetry made from cherry wood.

Mr. Dickson developed a love for cherry when he was remodeling his own home. He has a friend who cuts down cherry trees and saws the wood for him. He started bringing cherry back from Pennsylvania when he traveled home to visit his parents.

While most builders wouldn't take the time, Mr. Dickson ensures that he is building a cabinet or floor from the same tree.

"If you look at the wood, the grain is continuous all the way across," he said.

Mr. Dickson is also careful not to have any screws or nails visible. He calls this "old-school carpentry." He follows a simple building principle: plumb, square and level. If you start out level, then the rest of the project will follow suit.

"That's why I like doing new construction, because I can control it from the footers," Mr. Dickson said.

Ms. Richards observed first hand Mr. Dickson's adherence to these principles when when he built a barn at her home.

"I've seen him disassemble things and start over. He'll say, 'It just wasn't right, Nan,' " she said. "If he says that he will be there at 8:30 a.m., he'll be there at 7 a.m. I will often have to say, Gerald, it's time to go home."

On his honor

Through the years, Mr. Dickson's son, Jerry, now 18, has worked alongside his father on many projects. So have many of his fellow Boy Scouts.

Mr. Dickson said that he extended the opportunity to other boys so they could earn some money and gain experience in the construction field. Among his projects, he has constructed pavilions at the Knox Scout Reservation, a Boy Scout reservation in Lincoln County.

"Jerry has worked with Gerald since he was old enough to pick up a hammer. I wish I'd had a dad like him," Mr. Milks said.

He has watched in admiration as Mr. Dickson has taken his son hunting and worked with him through Boy Scouts.

"He didn't just help him buy his first car. He went out and bought a dilapidated truck and they fixed it up together," he said.

Mr. Dickson served as the Cub Scout leader for his son's pack, in which Ms. Richards' son was also a member.

He later went on to serve as the assistant Boy Scout leader when his son joined an established troop.

"He ran the Cub Scouts like he runs his business. Things were organized, on time and when they said they were going to do something, it was done," Ms. Richards said.

She said the boys "had the utmost respect" for Mr. Dickson.

"Even the ones who went on to Boy Scouts still talk about Mr. Dickson and Cub Scouts.

"These guys are all in college now," she said.

Mr. Dickson enriched their lives by providing them with experiences they wouldn't normally have -- especially with outdoor activities, she added.

"He's a big guy and he has a commanding voice, but he has a love for kids. He was very dedicated to those kids," Ms. Richards said.

Mr. Dickson is so passionate about scouting that he convinced Mr. Milks to help him during the busiest time of his profession -- tax season. For about four years, Mr. Milks and a friend assisted him at Boy Scout camp.

They provided demonstrations of cowboy action shooting, in which they would dress in period cowboy costumes from the 1860s to 1890s and shoot weapons, or replicas, from that era.

The activity was quite elaborate, and Mr. Milks had to haul the steel targets in a large trailer.

"If you have any inclination for the outdoors, this is the guy that you want to hook up with," he said.

Into the wild

Mr. Dickson spends his spare time hunting and fishing -- two of his favorite pastimes.

"That's why I work hard all year, so when fall comes around, you won't normally find me working the first week in November," Mr. Dickson said. "I'll be somewhere in Burke County chasing whitetails."

Ms. Richards said the outdoorsman also loves to hunt elk and wild turkey. Mr. Dickson plans to travel to Kansas for a hunting trip this fall.

He enjoys sharing the activities with his son. The two haven't missed a hunting season together in the last four to five years, he said.

Mr. Dickson doesn't plan to retire anytime soon. He'll continue to take business one day at a time -- while still flying solo.

He follows in the footsteps of his role models, such as Norm Abram, a carpenter featured on This Old House , whom he met recently during an international woodworking show in Atlanta.

When he showed Mr. Abram photos of his work, he said the famous carpenter was impressed and set aside 10 minutes to talk to him.

Mr. Abram wrote, "Nice work," on the back of a picture that he autographed for Mr. Dickson.

"As long as I can put a project behind the last one, I have no ambition to be a big contractor," Mr. Dickson said.

Reach LaTina Emerson at (706) 823-3227 or latina.emerson@augustachronicle.com.

GERALD DICKSON

OCCUPATION: Owner of Gerald E. Dickson Contracting Inc. in Evans


BORN: March 15, 1964, in Pittsburgh


EDUCATION: Clarion University, bachelor of science in communications


FAMILY: Carolyn, wife; Jerry, son; and Tiffany Kent, stepdaughter


HOBBIES: Hunting, fishing

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dragonflytatoo
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dragonflytatoo 10/13/08 - 07:49 am
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Bravo! I'm impressed but then

Bravo! I'm impressed but then I knew how great he was. He built a deck on the back of our house that will be there long after the house is gone. He's also doing some side work on my Dad's home while we prep it for sale. If you want a good job done by an honest man, he's your man.
Barbara & Marty Anderson

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