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.