Dick Boak’s Eclectic Adventures
Once a wanderer pursuing creative endeavors, Dick Boak followed his instincts and created a role in the evolution of the Martin Guitar company, all the while becoming an ever more skillful artisan himself.
Dick Boak is an artist, woodworker, musician, and writer. He was a longtime employee at the famed C. F. Martin & Co. guitar company, in Nazareth, PA.
Boak grew up in Bethlehem, PA, just down the road from the Martin factory. He dropped out of Gettysburg College, eventually settling on a utopian commune in Northern California. After returning to Pennsylvania, he began visiting the Martin factory looking for pieces of scrap wood for his woodworking projects. His work came to the attention of company president C.F. Martin III, and Boak was hired as a draftsman in 1976. He served in many creative roles for Martin, notably spearheading the company’s custom signature lines with musicians Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, and others.
He retired from Martin in 2018 to focus on his illustration and songwriting. He works part-time as an archivist for elite IndyCar, NASCAR, and Formula One driver Mario Andretti.
Dick Boak’s life has been defined by creativity, curiosity, and a commitment to craft. There was never really a plan, but when opportunity knocked he was always ready to answer. It was as a free-spirited 20 something that he first stumbled into a job at the world-renowned Martin Guitar Company, which for going on two centuries has been the instrument maker to the stars. An accomplished instrument maker himself, Boak spent 42 years with the company, defining his own legacy by helping shape theirs. He brought to life Martin’s iconic customer signature line, collaborating on designs with the likes of Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton, and Paul Simon, among others.
Dick Boak: At some point, I stopped making guitars and I started causing guitars to be made.
Boak grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in the 1960s, but he never quite fit in with three athletically gifted brothers. By his late teens, Dick Boak had turned to illustration and poetry to express himself, even self-publishing two books of his work while still in high school. At age 20, he dropped out of college to follow his creative instincts across the country, which would eventually lead him to a Utopian commune in northern California, the Morning Star Ranch.
Boak: I was a back-to-the-earth, bean sprouts, geodesic dome building, brown rice kind of hippie.
After a few years in California, Boak grew restless and headed back east. Upon returning home, he began spending his evenings obsessing over woodworking, making instruments or Boak-struments, with any material he could get his hands on. Then, one day he passed a billboard advertising tours of the Martin Guitar Factory a few miles away and decided to take a detour, hoping to discover what made their instruments so special.
Boak: I was just flabbergasted with what was going on there. I had no idea. So I asked the receptionist, I said: “Do you have any scrap woods?” And she sent me around to the side of the building and I hit the jackpot with the dumpster, and the dumpster was filled with chunks of rosewood and mahogany and ebony and spruce. I’d never even seen some of these woods. So I brought my mustang around, and I filled my mustang up with wood, and I came back an hour later, and I filled it up again. I bet I came back to the dumpster maybe 500 times and started to get better, especially having materials that were appropriate for instrument making, and one day I was in the dumpster, the foreman at the back door, he knew me. He called me the kid. He said, “What do you do with this stuff anyhow?” So I had some instruments in the car, and I handed them up to him, and he said: “Well, do you mind if I parade them around the shop once?” And off he went with my two instruments, and he ran into Mr. Martin, who was maybe 85 years old at the time, so Mr. Martin looked at my instruments, and they were crude, but he said, “Tell that kid to apply for a job.” So the foreman came back to the door and he says, “The old man says you should apply for a job.” And, you know, I brushed off and went around to the front of the building, and the receptionist, she was doing her nails, and I said, “I’d like to apply for a job,” and she looked at me, and she said, “I don’t think we have anything for you.” And I said, “Well any job openings?” She said, “One opening, for design drafting. And it’s very specific.” I said, “Well, I’ve been doing design drafting for 10 years, and I’ve been teaching design drafting for four years, and I have examples of my draftings in the car.” And she said, “Well, we’re really looking for somebody that has woodworking experience,” and I said, “Well, here’s some lathe turnings and jewelry boxes that I’ve made from your scrap materials. There’s more in the car, shall I bring them in?” She said, “We’re really looking for somebody that has experience with musical instruments.” And I said, “Well, here’s two instruments I made from your scraps, and the old man said I should apply for a job.” So, very reluctantly she called human resources up. They interviewed me, and they said, “Well, I guess we’d like to hire you. Can you start tomorrow?” I said, “No, I have to go to the Bob Dylan concert, but I could start on Wednesday.”
So, starting out as a draftsman in 1976, Boak steadily rose through the ranks until in 1992, he saw a new opportunity for the company, when Eric Clapton appeared on MTV’s Unplugged, playing a 1939 Martin OOO-42. Lots of people wanted one, so Boak spent three years working with Clapton, and in 1995, Martin released their first custom signature guitar, Martin 000-42 EC. Days later, it sold out.
Boak: The success of the Clapton project was so great that it became my job to do more of that. And so my collaborations with artists were really an opportunity to listen to what they had to say, what their needs or ideas were about a guitar, furnish my suggestions, blend the two together, create the specifications, make it a fun collaboration for them.
In 2017 after four decades at Martin Guitar, Boak felt it was time to move on. Once again, he found himself ready for a new challenge, a fresh embrace of the unknown. Today, he’s focused on illustration and a new role as archivist for Mario Andretti, one of the most successful racing drivers of all time.
Boak: Instead of clinging to what I was doing at any given time, I was quite willing to let it go and move on to the next thing, and the thing that ties everything together, for me, is the approach to tasks. It’s the conception of the idea and then the gradual execution and completion of an idea. That approach, that process, is what I have come to recognize as the real art.
In the years ahead, as in his past 70, one thing is certain, Dick Boak will remain driven by his desire to make things that last.