How to Have a House

Living with and understanding a home.

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Everyone has a skill.

How do you shake out your trash bag? Do you open it and shake it to fill it with air, so it fits in the kitchen trash can just right? Do you snap it with one hand, holding the can with the other? How do you do this? It seems like a weird question, because who cares? Who cares how a person does something as mundane as putting a trash bag into a trash can? I do. I noticed the other day that after 16 years of putting contractor trash bags, into my collapsable trash can, that I make about 7 motions in one fluid sweep. It’s almost beautiful to watch.

These are the moments we come to know as experience. Craftsmen like me, and homeowners like you, do something so many times, the finished piece is almost perfect. Your trash bags and my trash bags go into the can exactly the same every time. Neat and tidy, in it’s place and ready to perform without fail. For those of us working on your houses, these motions apply to almost every tool on our truck. Way beyond the trash bags. Several years ago I had a personal injury right in the middle of some improvements I was making on a small garage. My brother was in town so I hired him and another worker I know to Install the facia trim, pressure wash the gutters and finish painting the whole thing. Both of these guys are experienced craftsmen in their own fields. The guy running the pressure washer was as if a machine. Repeated angles of approach, every inch and every corner, perfectly pressure washed. You could tell this guy had done this before. My brother, the same way. Doing compound miter cuts on my saw, the same model saw he uses on his jobs. Every cut was preceded by 10 or 12 hand movements that placed the board, set the board firm against the saw fence, shifted just enough to get a perfect cut on the mark, set the board again, hold down tight, fingers and hands clear from the cutting path, and one smooth cut, exactly where it is supposed to be. Experience. Experience gained through time and repetition. Not just any repetition, but repeating the job with a passion that includes a balance of speed and care to not remove one’s own finger. Repetition including the belief that each step is important to a finely finished job. Sure, I could put trim up faster if I didn’t sand the cut a little every time, but the job would not be as pretty when I’m done, and the paint or stain would take more time. I could skip gluing the joints, but in less than two years they would show. A lot of the skilled labor jobs we do aren’t 7 steps of motion like a trash bag, it’s more like 20 steps, or more. Steps that include machines and materials all composed into a dance that can go south at any moment. Going too fast, or overestimating ones own experience will reveal needed practice. Some guys end up with a finger laying on the saw, neatly dismembered by a modern carbide blade. Others go to the emergency room with a nail imbedded in a body part. I won’t even begin to explain why I wear eye protection every minute of my work day.

Experienced craftsmen. We are in the middle, taking just enough time to do the job really well. Installers are the fastest. They count on certain things being in place before they start. 90 degree inside corners, plumb walls and door frames, level floors. Installers walk in with the smallest number of tools and go to town. They are so neat and tidy they could be mistaken for salesmen. Artists are at the other end of the spectrum. I know this since I have a fine arts degree. An artist takes great time and effort, sometimes employing personal quirks and habits that add to the value of their pieces. Craftsmen like me lie in the middle. Since I specialize in antique houses, I feel lucky if I work on a door or window that is actually square. Because of the age of the house, I have to strip 90 years of paint off lock sets before I make the repair. You can’t even repair a modern lockset, you call an installer. As a craftsman, I employ creativity to work through challenges. I don’t do pen and ink cartoon illustrations anymore, but I use the same motor skills to fit a coped joint in crown moulding, in a 105 year old room.

Experience is gained through repetition and practice. We start out with jobs we can manage and work our way into projects we never imagined we would master. We go home ever week thankful for the customers who employ us. Tonight when you shake that trash bag out and put it in the can, under the kitchen sink, imagine the steps in your simple task. Imagine the experience you have at work or at home.

What is the experience you have? What is your best skill? Knowing this and claiming it makes you a craftsman (craftswoman) in your own right. Stand on this confidence, know your value.




Long Drives.

How far do you drive for work? I drive about 1-7 miles one way most of the time. I drive to the urban core of a large city near my house, to the suburbs around me, maybe to the outskirts of the city. I don’t like driving my truck a long way to work, and I’m surprised when I do. I laugh at myself, knowing other guys, who drive the length of our metroplex back and forth 5 or 6 times a day in some cases. I feel spoiled when I realize how easy my commutes are.
Several years ago a customer hired me to work on their house at a lake about 45 minutes away. I know garage door installers who drive 45 minutes a hundred times a month, but for me it was like a planned trip. After I talked to the customer a little bit we agreed I’d come out and work on the house un-seen in person. I was pretty sure I’d be able to do the work she showed me pictures of. It was a dare job on a drawer modification and wood finish. After I set the date on the calendar the customer said, hey, why don’t you just spend the night and hang out on the dock.
I was as stumped as you. I don’t know where this stuff comes from. Who offers a room to a worker, plus a beer and a chair on the dock? Well these people did, and because I love a dare, I packed clothes and drove further than I ever thought I’d go in a 27 year old truck, worked all day, and sure enough spent the night in a brand new customer’s house. It was a lake house, and the guest room was basically in the lower level, it had it’s own entrance, kitchen and bathroom. So I was not even in their space. And we did hang on the dock and drink a couple beers. The next day they fed me breakfast, and I finished the work on the house just like a normal day, and headed home. My little monkey brain kept counting those 90 minutes of driving I saved by staying at the lake house, but mostly I just laughed at the fun of it all.
This summer a couple in a town about 32 minutes away hired me to work on their house. Again, about four time longer than I’d drive to go to work around here. The house is nice, pretty new and out on a big lot with a private gravel road. This group of houses really choose to manage their own space. I go out to do a mile of trim. The customer who lives at the house meets me at the end of the driveway with a trailer and his SUV to help me haul my shop around the house. It was wet and he buried his car and the trailer in the yard the first drive in. He was real calm, and we hauled the gear from the sunken car to the house in a soft rain. The customer was cool as a cucumber, and obviously just saved me about 700 pounds of hauling on my own. Again, this gesture of kindness and service. After we got all the gear in the house and I was setting up my shop I asked the customer, “what’s with hiring a guy to do fairly simple trim from 32 minutes away?”. He said he had a hard time getting good help in his own area, and was glad to have me out. When I finished the job that week he helped me haul the gear back out to my truck. This time across the seemingly 20 mile front yard in some serious summer heat. We were glad to have the gear out of the house after 20 minutes of this. The woman who lived in this house was the same way. She brought a cup of coffee to me every morning and never complained when I spent a minute playing with the dogs in the front yard a couple times. Regular work. Exceptional customers.
In the last several years I’ve seen plenty of friends loose jobs. I’ve never hoped for them to get another job. Instead, I’ve always encouraged them to seek self-employment. It’s a longer drive than you wish sometimes. It is full of nights and days of un-sureness and trial. But to me, it’s the most rewarding job of all. The work is great enough. If you have half a heart, you’re always hoping and trying to do your best at the craft chosen. But real reward comes in levels of freedom, and the truly human experiences. The customers. People, who out of thin air, extend an unexpected hand of compliment and support.
Guys with job like mine go home happy at night. We spend months behind on paperwork and bookkeeping. We lay under trucks in lousy weather fixing things. We laugh with our families about the funny dogs and cats we wrestle, and we acknowledge our days of service, and the customers we have. And when something as simple as driving further than we are used to adds to the experience, we feel even more texture and depth than ever before.
I have to admit. Those 32 minute drives home were kind of nice. My truck is so noisy I wear a head set and listen to the radio. I know it’s agains the law and all that, but who cares. I just drove 32 minutes to play with dogs all day while a put a little trim up.