Building Decks

"I have built over 200 decks..."

Building Decks

The year was 1986. Bluebonnets were blooming in the Texas hill country, and the daytime temperatures were climbing into the 80s. The construction industry was booming. New homes were being built all over Austin. I had just finished my last job at JCorp and was looking for a fresh start.

I picked up a copy of Austin's newspaper, the AUSTIN AMERICAN STATESMAN, to check the ads for carpenters. There were several ads, but one caught my eye: WANTED: CARPENTER WITH DECK BUILDING EXPERIENCE - CALL 512-XXX-XXXX AFTER 6 pm.

So far, my carpentry background didn't include building decks, but I decided to take a chance that my residential carpentry experience would qualify me, so I called the number. After a short phone interview, I got the job.

Kreg asked me to meet him the next day at a small lumber yard on Highway 183. I arrived before sunrise and saw a man in his late 20s loading 80 lb. bags of concrete next to stacks of deck lumber neatly placed on a flatbed trailer.

"Are you Kreg?" I asked.
"Yes. You must be Matt. I'm glad to know you," he said. "We're wrapping up here. Help me finish loading the trailer and follow me to the job site."
"Will do," I said.

After we secured the materials to his trailer, I cranked up my 1985 Toyota pickup and began following Kreg. We arrived at daybreak and began unloading the pressure-treated pine, leaving the cedar decking and bags of concrete on the trailer.

"Would you like some coffee, Matt?" Kreg asked as he removed a large thermos from the cab of his white one-ton GMC pickup.
"That sounds mighty good," I said. "I didn't get a chance to make coffee this morning."
"That's okay. We start our days before the sun. It takes a little time to get used to the early hour," Kreg replied.
"We?" I asked.
"Yes. I am partners with a fellow named John, who works on the hot tub side of the business. I build the decks, and he installs the hot tubs. You will be working with him this week if he ever decides to show up for work."
"Sounds good," I said, getting the feeling he was more than just a little upset with John for being late.
"When there are no hot tubs to install, John usually works with me building decks."

After a few minutes, John arrived in a rusty blue Ford pickup, pulling a flatbed trailer with a new fiberglass hot tub strapped to it.

"Where the hell have you been, John?" Kreg yelled.
"I had to pick up the hot tub this morning," John said.
"You could have picked it up last night on your way home," Kreg replied.
John didn't say anything except, "Is this Matt? Our new guy?"
"Yes, Matt will be working with you," Kreg said.
"It is good to meet you, John," I said while reaching to shake his hand.
"It is good to meet you too, Matt. You can leave your truck here with Kreg and ride with me to the job site where we will install this here hot tub," John said.
"Sounds good," I said. "Let me grab my tools and lunch from my truck, and I'll be ready to go."
"Perfect!" John said.
"I guess I will see you later, Kreg?" I said while stepping into the cab of John's truck.
"Sure, I'll see you later," Kreg said.

John drove away without saying anything else to Kreg. John was quiet for several minutes before finally saying,

"Matt, so you know, Kreg can be an asshole sometimes."
"That's good to know...uh...Is it hard to install a hot tub?" I said, changing the subject.
"It isn't too difficult, but they are all different," John replied. "On jobs when we are just installing the tub, like the one we are installing today, we often need to add framing, posts, and concrete footings underneath the existing deck to carry the new load. It can be difficult work if the deck is close to the ground. The only option is to remove enough decking so that you can get to the frame from above. Sometimes customers aren't happy with how the deck boards look once reattached."
"I can see that. It never goes back like it came off," I said.
"Exactly," John replied.

As we feared, the deck frame was too close to the ground for us to add joists and posts without removing a few of the existing deck boards. Some of the deck boards were so rotten they fell apart when we tried to remove them. Also, since the deck joists were nearly touching the ground's rocky surface, we had to engineer a longer route for the pipe, thus forcing us to make time-consuming trips to the lumberyard for new cedar decking and PVC pipe fittings - something we hadn't planned to do. I think John knew Kreg wouldn't be happy with the delay. It wouldn't matter to Kreg what the circumstances were. He didn't like excuses. While it took two of us two days to install one hot tub, Kreg built two 100ft² decks entirely by himself.

I later discovered Kreg could work at warp speed when he was in the mood. A mood where he would narrow in on some thought that was contrary to his usual behavior - something that would make him angry, like John being late for work, perhaps. He would become morose - only speaking when necessary - working feverishly - slinging building materials and tools so that they produced the loudest possible cacophony. That's when you knew he was fueling some beast within him that would inevitably escape from its cage and show its ugly face. Unless, of course, you could figure out a way to break the spell of his peevishness.
"Where are you from, Kreg? Are you originally from the Austin area?" (this would work one time)
"You were clever for designing this new router table." (this could work several times - but you would need to word it differently each time)
Whatever question you chose, you had to be cunning and quick-witted - Kreg wasn't stupid.

We arrived at the job site nearly at sundown, where Kreg was finishing his second deck. He was outraged, but he restrained himself. He called John over and talked to him privately while he had me cleaning up the job site and loading tools into his truck. Though I couldn't audibly distinguish any of the words exchanged between the two men, I could tell it wasn't a pleasant conversation. It was one of those face-in-his-face, this-is-the-way-it-is-godammit discussions, and I was delighted to mind my own business.

After a bit, the conversation cooled, and they began to walk back toward me.

"Hey Matt, after some discussion, which you may have heard," Kreg said. "John and I have decided to part ways - I will take over the deck-building part of the business, and John will take the hot tub side. You will be building decks with me."
John looked at me and gave a nod of approval.
I returned the confirmation nod to both of them.
"Matt, meet me at the lumberyard at 6 am tomorrow, and we will get started on a new deck," Kreg said.
"Sounds good, Kreg," I said. "See you tomorrow."
John was hanging around as if he had nowhere to go or didn't quite know how to say goodbye. He finally said, "Do you need some help loading up the last of the tools?"
"No," Kreg replied.

John tipped his hat as a final salute, got in his truck, and drove off. I never saw him again, but I'm sure he was happier after that day.

Building Decks

The next morning, I met Kreg, as I had done the first day on the job, at the tiny lumber yard on 183. He introduced me to the owner.

"It is good to meet you, Jerry," I said. "It looks like we are not the ONLY folks awake at this hour."
"Yep," he chuckled. "I meet Kreg almost every morning to ensure he has all the lumber he needs. Kreg is a good man. He knows decks very well. If you stick with him, you will learn everything there is to know about building decks - the RIGHT way."
"I'm looking forward to it," I said.

In the dim morning light, we began loading deck materials from Jerry's shop onto Kreg's flatbed trailer.

"How can you tell the difference between cedar and redwood in this light? I can hardly make out the fingers on my left hand?" I asked.
"Smell," Jerry replied. "Cedar, redwood, and pine all have unique scents."
"Yes," Kreg added with a smile. "And the good news is, Jerry only sells cedar and redwood."
"Ah," I said, returning the smile, "so it shouldn't take me more than a week or two to learn the difference, eh?"

Some months (maybe years) before I met Kreg, he signed a contract with a local builder to build decks on all their new homes. Most of the decks were in the 200-square-foot range. It was a profitable deal for Kreg. The agreement between him and the builder provided us with continuous work. Since the decks we built were relatively small, we could construct a complete deck from start to finish in one day.

The key to building an entire deck in one day is to get yourself in production mode - cut all of the deck boards, cut all of the pickets, cut all of the posts, and reduce the time you spend adjusting your saw to the absolute minimum.

There were tasks that we performed on every deck we built. Here's a list:

  • Unpack the tools and set up the workstations.
  • Cut and attach the deck ledger to the home's concrete foundation.

Building Decks - Finished Deck Frame
Building Decks - Ledger Board

  • Attach and level the sides of the perimeter frame.

Deck Framing Elevation
Building Decks - Level Frame

  • Cut, crown, and assemble the perimeter deck frame.

Building Decks - Finished Deck Frame
Building Decks - Perimeter Frame Complete

  • Cut, crown, and install the joists.
  • Install the joist hangers.

Building Decks - Square the Frame
Building Decks - Floor Joists and Joist Hangers

  • Cut and install structural posts.
  • Cut and install forms for concrete footings.

Finished Deck Frame
Building Decks - Structural Posts Attached

  • Install the wood decking.
  • Build the deck stairs.

Finished Deck Frame
Building Decks - Decking and Stairs

  • Cut and install the 4x4 rail posts.
  • Cut the rails and attach the pickets.
  • Attach the rail sections to the 4x4 posts.
  • Attach the 2x6 rail cap.

Finished Deck Frame
Building Decks - Deck Railing

  • Mix and pour the concrete for each footing.
  • Wash the leftover concrete from the wheelbarrow.
  • Pack up the tools.
  • Clean up the job site.

See Building a Deck to learn about the details of deck building.

The list above is somewhat in the order of the way one person might build a deck. If two workers, however, were constructing the same deck, they could perform many of the individual tasks simultaneously so that no one task would delay the work of another.

All of the decks we built shared a similar design that, once learned, could be rapidly reproduced. The railing was the same. The decking was the same. The stairs were the same. Everything was the same, except for the size and shape of the deck, and sometimes even that was the same.

We worked together to build the deck frame. Afterward, one of us would install the deck boards, while the other might begin cutting the pickets and posts for the railing. Once the deck boards were attached, that worker could start cutting the stair stringers. Once the pickets and posts were ready, that worker could install the railing. After a few weeks of working like this, the moments we spent discussing productivity grew fewer.

That was the way it was when Kreg and I were the only workers. Between the two of us, we could build one deck every day. Kreg was making enough money on these decks that he frequently added a $100 bonus to my weekly check.

At the end of the summer, Kreg decided to add a new member to the team. Dan was a quality-minded trim carpenter who worked well with Kreg and me. While working each day, the three of us were keenly aware of the work the others were doing and planned our tasks so that they did not disrupt the continuity of work. There weren't any tasks that were more suited for a particular person on our crew. We all became deck-building experts and could perform any job required, sometimes making changes to the build process as we discovered new techniques and shortcuts. Each completed deck became an object lesson for building future decks.

With the extra help, we finished a little earlier each day, but at the end of the week, we didn't deliver any more decks to the home builder. The extra carpenter was helpful on the larger decks, but Kreg's daily routine didn't lend itself to building more than one deck in an eight-hour day. We probably could have had material delivered to the next job in advance, thus saving a trip back to the lumber yard, but Kreg wanted to hand-pick each board to ensure quality. Kreg's routine worked well for building a single deck in a day and provided enough revenue to support three carpenters with money left over for profit. We three worked well together, and I considered them good friends.

A few weeks later, I arrived at work to discover that Kreg had hired a fourth carpenter named Ron. What was Kreg thinking? If he were not planning a shift in his business model, we would have a problem. Four carpenters were too many for one deck; the extra worker would not add value and would probably inhibit productivity. I'm sure Kreg had it all figured out, but all I could think of was three's company, four's a crowd.

When I got home from work the following Friday, I learned that there was a wedding reception that I had to attend that evening. It would take two hours to get there and two hours to return home. We didn't always work on Saturday, but Kreg wanted to this week. I called Kreg's house and talked to his wife.

"Hi Jennifer, is Kreg around?"
"No," she said. "he went out to run an errand and won't be back until late."
"Great," I said. "I have a wedding party that I must go to that isn't close by. I just wanted to tell Kreg I might be late to work in the morning. Do you think he will mind?"
"I can't say," she said. "he's a hard person to second-guess."
"Thanks. I guess I'll take my chances. Please tell Kreg I called."
"I'll let him know," she said.

I wasn't too worried, I thought. Besides, we have a new carpenter on the team.

The following morning, I discovered a cold front had blown in misty skies and cool temperatures. Maybe we will get rained out today, I thought. That would be nice. I headed to work earlier than previously planned, albeit 30 minutes late. While I drove into the job site, Kreg spotted me, dropped what he was doing, and began marching towards me. I could tell he was pissed. I stepped out of my truck in time for him to get in my face and start yelling at the top of his lungs. It was too early in the day to make sense of his mood, so I just stood there in shock.

"Where the hell have you been?" he hollered.
"Didn't your wife tell you I might be late for work today?" I asked.
"You don't work for her. You work for me!"
"I am sorry, Kreg. I honestly thought you wouldn't mind."
"I do mind, motherf#kk@r. Don't ever pull this shit again!"

Red-faced with rage, he stormed back to his work area and continued working. Dan and Ron were stunned by the scene but said nothing.

Wow! Where did that come from, I thought. Oh yeah, that's right, the beast! The beast within him that was being fueled by each pissed-off minute I was late. But this time, I was not there to say the magic words that might break the spell of his bitter emotions. "Hey, Kreg, what is your favorite breakfast cereal? Mine is Alpha Bits..." (that probably wouldn't have worked anyway - Kreg was a bacon-and-eggs sort)
I suddenly recalled what John had said in his truck on my first day on the job, "Matt, so you know, Kreg can be an asshole sometimes."
Was Kreg putting on some freak power-trip presentation for the crew? No doubt he intended to send a message to everyone that it was HE who ran the show. There was no reasoning with Kreg. He ruled. No exceptions.

I almost jumped in my truck and drove off, but something made me swallow my pride. Carpentry jobs weren't as plentiful as they had been, and I knew I needed to think twice about quitting a good-paying job without having something else lined up. Maybe that was what Kreg wanted. Things began falling into place - it didn't make sense for him to hire another carpenter unless he intended to cut someone from the crew. I don't know why it should be me, but "there's no second-guessing Kreg," I heard.

I unpacked my tools and went to work building decks, but I stayed quiet the whole day (as did the rest of the crew), thinking of what I could do to make money if Kreg decided to get rid of me before I could find another job. One way or the other, I knew I could no longer work for Kreg. His behavior was unforgivable, and I knew it was just a matter of time before his beast would escape again and bite my head off at the shoulders.

As I feared, the economy continued to go south. The home builder Kreg worked for was struggling to sell houses. It wasn't long before there were no decks to build, and Kreg had to give us a few unpaid days off.

Kreg had landed two decent-sized residential deck jobs that kept us busy for a few weeks, but the future did not look good. Construction had come to a halt all over the city and state. On one of my unpaid days off, I went to a library in downtown Austin that carried recent distributions of newspapers from major US cities. I picked up a Washington Post to check the ads for carpenters. There were lots of them, and the pay was much better than in Austin. I didn't want to leave central Texas, but I knew I needed to relocate to a more prosperous area if I was planning to continue working in the construction industry.

A friend called me one evening and told me about a contract job that involved erecting a storage building at the Austin Yacht Club. The two-week contract would pay enough money for me to travel to Washington, D.C., and perhaps keep me afloat until I could get my first paycheck. I was more than happy to accept the yacht club job. I could finally tell Kreg to shove it.

I called Kreg that evening and told him that I was quitting. He didn't say much.

"I'll have your final paycheck tomorrow at the Jones Job."
"Okay, I'll see you there," I said.
At 8 am, I drove to the job site and found Kreg working in the Jones' backyard.
"Follow me to my truck," he said.
I followed him to where he had parked in the Jones' driveway.
"So, what are you going to do now? Are you planning to start a business building decks and steal work from me?"
"No, man," I said. "I am moving to the Northern Virginia area since things seem to be slowing down in Texas. There are lots of good-paying jobs there."
"Well, you could have told me sooner, motherf#kk@r," he said while leaping at me as though he wanted to throw a punch. "I had to let Ron go to keep you. Here's your goddamn check. Now, get the hell out of here!"

Kreg was trying to pick a fight, but I remained calm, and without saying a word, I grabbed my check and left the scene. I was happy I wasn't working for Kreg anymore. I wished things hadn't come to this. I thought Kreg and I had become good friends after the months we shared building decks in the hot central Texas sun. I suppose things are not always what they seem.

Kreg never said anything negative about my work. Usually, if he said anything at all, it was complimentary. In that way, he was a good leader. Despite our differences, I regarded Kreg as a skilled deck builder. He taught me clever tricks I would use on many future deck jobs. My building style was not the same as Kreg's, but his methods for securing the ledger, building the frame, and laying decking were worth repeating.

After leaving Kreg's job site, I drove to the library to check newspaper ads. I checked the AUSTIN AMERICAN STATESMAN first, hoping for the best, but there was nothing, so I checked the ads in the Washington Post again. There were plenty! You couldn't take the newspapers from the library, so I jotted down the details of about ten ads. When I got home, I called the first ad on my list: NORTHERN VIRGINIA - CARPENTERS WANTED - $13/HOUR - CALL 703-XXX-XXXX.

The phone rang twice.

"Wells and Sons builders, this is Jeff. How can I help you?"
"Hello, Jeff, My name is Matt. I am calling about your ad in the Washington Post for carpenters."
"Hey Matt, where are you calling from?"
"Austin, Texas."
"That's great! I am also from Austin. I was a superintendent at JB Homes before I came to Virginia. We have been having a hard time finding carpenters. I told my boss we should put an ad in the Austin Statesman. There are lots of carpenters in Texas looking for work."
"Yeah, things are getting bad here. There are more carpenters than jobs. The competition is tough, and the pay is suffering."
"What kind of carpentry experience do you have, Matt? Do you have any experience building decks?"
"I have built over 200 decks," I said. "That is my most recent experience, but I have worked as a framer and trim carpenter on residential projects ranging from single-family homes to multifamily apartment buildings."

Jeff and I talked about companies we had worked for in central Texas and figured we might have worked on some of the same jobs.

"So what do you think, Matt? Are you ready to come up to Virginia and go to work?"
"It sure sounds tempting," I said. "but I'll need to work through some logistics before I can make a final decision."
"I understand," he said. "Give me your phone number so I can call you back next week."
"Sure thing, Jeff. It has been great talking to you."

After hanging up the phone, I thought about how many ads there were for carpenters in the Washington Post and didn't want to commit to any particular job just yet. If I decide to go to Virginia, I'll find work once I get there, I thought.

Two Weeks Later

I finished building the storage room at the yacht club and collected my final paycheck. I had enough money to cover gas, food, and lodging for the three-day trip to Clifton, Virginia, and if I could find an affordable room somewhere, enough for the first month's rent.

It was the first day of June 1987. My small Toyota truck was packed and ready for departure. As I was saying goodbye to my roommates, the wall phone in our kitchen began to ring.

"Hello?" I said.
"Hello. Is this Matt?"
"Yes," I replied.
"This is Jeff from Wells and Sons Builders. Have you decided to move to Virginia?"
"Hello, Jeff! Yes. I will be on my way in less than 10 minutes!"
"Really? That's fantastic. I'm looking forward to seeing you in person."
"Me too, Jeff."
"Give us a call each day while you are on the road."
"Will do. If all goes as planned, I should be there Wednesday afternoon..."

At that moment, I knew Jeff's phone call must have been fate. It was too much of a coincidence for him to call a mere 10 minutes before I planned to leave. I would have been a fool not to accept his offer. (It is worth mentioning that if I hadn't met Jeff, I would probably not have met my wife of 30+ years!)

After the call with Jeff, I gave my roommates a final wave and drove away. I watched them in my rear-view mirror until they were out of sight. It was hard to leave my friends, but I had no choice. Bills were past due. Besides, who knows what fascinating adventures I would experience on the road to Virginia?

~ Matt

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