May 13, 2010

Pausing During a Sunny Lunch

Justin Katz

It's been a rough week. On top of the bite of local politics and the demand on one's time that being a political insurgent tends to make in the midst of important events, the workdays have been less and less pleasant for the past couple of weeks.

My employer is attempting to make up for shortcomings and errors elsewhere in the company by pushing me to do at least twice as much work as is possible. It's conceivable, of course, that I've just been around slow carpenters, during my years in the trade, and therefore do not realize how very slow I am. Still, accomplishing anything in the range of acceptable quality is a time-consuming, tedious task in century-old houses.

And so, between swear words, I get the request to put in extra hours for free — this not long after hours that I legitimately claimed on my time sheet were conspicuously absent on my paycheck. It's difficult for a person of strong work ethic and accommodating personality to know what to do.

But... and here's where I look up through my windshield at the way the sunlight filters through the leaves around me, all the same color, yet appearing to be a patchwork of different greens... in such tribulations, there is much to learn. There are also experiential contradictions and intellectual curiosities to unravel.

I find carpentry to be a very conservative trade — in the populist, traditionalist sense of conservatism. The carpenter builds something out of nothing. In renovations, he uncovers and respects what was placed before him. It's physical work, often rough, and it is quite clear how competent you are. The trim wood stays, or it does not. The door fits in its opening and swings easily, or it does not. Consequently, advancement has much to do with merit.

Still, if I may be retrogressive, for a moment, it's a very male trade. Shouting and cursing and masculine forms of resolving disputes and testing mettle abound. Given the difficulty of the work, when that masculine quality is driven to abusive degree, nakedly for the financial benefit of the abuser, it's easy to draw from experience in the field for empathy for the liberal view of society. The boss has work and influence, therefore the worker needs something more than talent as influence, if he wishes to live a stable economic life free of the mood swings of the Boss Man.

I intend to spend some time reconciling the two perspectives, but for now, my half-hour lunch is up, and although I'm not intending to work for free, today, I should put in all of the hours to which I've agreed as an employee.

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Hah, Masculine tradition.......


I was a carpenter for many years and remember some of the interactions. On one crew, it was the new guy who had to withstand hazing - on another it was experience with certain sexual matters. Funny stuff to look back upon.

As far as making money, most carpenters learn quickly that unless you work for yourself, you are not likely to get anywhere. There are some exceptions, but not too many.

Posted by: Stuart at May 13, 2010 2:20 PM

Justin, here's a job I'm doing. I'm rebuilding a 110 year old, 3 story porch system. Assisting me are not carpenters but two unemployed toolmakers. So, we have an amateur, and two professional, machinists being carpenters. Things are exact, being 5 thousandths off is a meaningful number to us. Our saw blades are machined to less that 3 thousandths of "run out", for pencil lines we use compound squares. The other day I mentioned we had to cut some odd angles and they needed to be exact, the next day one of them showed up with a sine plate. Today we were discussing the angle of incline for the porch joists for runoff. I suggested a 1 degree angle off the building, the immediate response was "One degree of angle would be an incline of 17 thousandths per inch." I can't wait until we start lifting the barn to replace the sills and leveling it.

Masculine? At lunch we discussed that it appears the Sphinx is older than the pyramids by several thousand years, and what does this say about the possibility that the pyramid builders were descendants of an older, advanced civilization. At night, we are all building miniature steam engines (usually a four year project).

Carpenters are hunter gatherers, lost in the "iron age". On the other hand, these guys need something to do. Their jobs have gone to China.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at May 13, 2010 7:04 PM

Justin, try to remember that your boss is probably working on the standard margin of 20% "P&O". It is not hard for that to be squeezed enough that he is working for nothing.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at May 13, 2010 7:12 PM

Have you considered starting your own business,Justin? My husband did when he got laid off at age 49. It's a small specialty construction and service business. You can do it on a very skinny shoestring. He has never been happier in his working life.

Before he worked as a help desk/computer tech/electronic tech in a factory. It's much better for us now.

Posted by: helen at May 13, 2010 8:03 PM

"it's easy to draw from experience in the field for empathy for the liberal view of society."

(ahem) Or the union view ...

Posted by: Monique at May 14, 2010 7:24 AM

Monique, I wish I could even understand your comments, but I guess as Justin said, carpentry is a Male thing..

Heck, I understand everything Faust says, so it can't be my generally stupidity.....

I think men are from mars.......

Posted by: Stuart at May 14, 2010 2:06 PM

Posted by Stuart at May 14, 2010 2:06 PM

Monique, I wish I could even understand your comments, but I guess as Justin said, carpentry is a Male thing..

Heck, I understand everything Faust says, so it can't be my generally stupidity.....

I think men are from mars......."


Monique seems perfectly clear to me. Perhaps it is just "heady stuff" for an unbeliever.

I hope my comment about "carpenters being hunter/gatherers lost in the "iron age" was just humor based on competing avocations/vocations.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at May 14, 2010 3:17 PM

Hey, Warrington, further to Helen's suggestion and your description of your current project, maybe you and Justin could start a carpentry business together ...

Posted by: Monique at May 15, 2010 6:54 AM

Thank you for the thought Monique. To be honest, I don't enjoy carpentry all that much, it is just "something that guys do". In this case, I was driven to it by estimates of about 10 times my cost to do it. Same is true for picking up the barn and leveling it. Picking up a barn is not a feat of genius. It is mostly tedium. These are attitudes you deelop when it was your mother who taught you how to lay bricks.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at May 16, 2010 6:12 PM

FYI, my best buddy is a carpenter/remodeler in an area similar to this one - where there are some high end projects, etc......

He makes about 300K per year (his own take in profits and benefits), and works out of his home. He usually has very few employees - maybe 2, but he has good subcontractors.

The main skill needed, besides the mechanical capabilities, is to properly interface with the "public" you serve. He is a good listener, yet always stands his ground in most things. For instance, if the client says "Hey, Andy, I really like you but your bid of $90K on my kitchen is 40K higher than Joe Schmo", my buddy will say "Well, Frank, I suggest you assign the project to Joe then".

Yet, 9 times out of 10, they will spend more and hire him! He has virtually never been out of work since 1975.

Not a bad living.

Posted by: Stuart at May 19, 2010 10:27 AM
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