Over the holiday vacation, I built a deck on the alley side of my row house. I had the help of an experienced carpenter the first couple of days, and I also worked alone. It's not the first deck I've ever built, but officially I've been out of the hammer-and-nail end of the business for 16 years. So I forgot a few things.
I forgot about all the muscles that come into play when you spend the entire day handling materials and tools. I forgot what it's like to spend all day on your feet. I forgot how heavy pressured-treated lumber is. I forgot to eat lunch.
I forgot how much longer it takes aging muscles to recover from overuse. I forgot how much hand-strength is required to grasp materials and tools the whole day long. I forgot how easily construction adhesive gets all over everything if you aren't careful.
THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES
I also remembered a few things.
I remembered some muscles I hadn't used in a while. I remembered to check the chamber for staples before climbing up the ladder. (It was full, of course. Had I not checked, it would have been empty.) I remembered how to use a 3-4-5 triangle to square a corner. I remembered how to lay out a set of stairs.
I remembered how good it feels to work outdoors in good weather. I remembered how satisfying it is to stand back at the end of the day and survey the progress you made. I remembered to keep my back straight when lifting and bend just my legs. I remembered how to use leverage. I remembered to wear gloves.
I remembered how much I enjoy thinking ahead and getting the work sequence right. I remembered how annoying it is to have to pull nails and redo some work. I remembered how challenging it is to minimize waste. I remembered how much two carpenters can accomplish when they establish a work rhythm.
I remembered how easy it is to forget the measurement you took five seconds ago. I remembered that the lumberyard delivery is never complete and accurate. I remembered that "first of the week" means Wednesday afternoon. I remembered that after the work is done, there are still 20 minutes of cleaning and packing up to do before the day is over. I remembered how gooda hot shower feels at the end of a long day.
I also remembered how much you have to know to build even a simple structure like a deck. And I couldn't help wondering not just where the carpenters of tomorrow are going to come from, but who is going to teach them what they need to know? To my mind, there is no substitute for learning on the job from an experienced practitioner, but they are a dying breed. We write often about how the most successful remodelers have extracted themselves from the field and moved into the office, but that transition comes at a price unless we find a way to transfer what the field has taught us to the next generation.
That knowledge goes beyond how to install specific materials. It includes learning how to properly sequence the work, how to establish an efficient workflow, how to maximize use of materials, and how to minimize duplication of effort. It includes learning how to work safely and how to protect your body, how to match the tool to the job, and how to improvise to solve problems.
I think our industry has been waiting for some deus ex machina, such as immigration, to solve the skilled-labor problem. Assuming that we solve the legal issues, immigration may create a larger labor poo l with workers who have aptitude, a reverence for craft, and a strong work ethic. But so much will need to be taught — and speaking the language is the least of it. For the most part, that knowledge resides among those of you who are reading this.
Another thing I remembered while building my deck was how many questions I had when I was just starting out. But I'd forgotten how lucky I was to have had someone to ask who knew the answers.