Building Decks

"I have built over 200 decks..."

Building Decks

The year was 1986. Bluebonnets were beginning to bloom in the Texas hill country and daytime temperatures were warming into the 80s. The construction industry was booming. New homes were being built all over Austin. I had just finished my last job for 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, but one caught my eye, WANTED: CARPENTER WITH DECK BUILDING EXPERIENCE - CALL 512-XXX-XXXX AFTER 6PM.

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

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 get started pretty early. 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 on my way over here," John said.
"You could have picked it up last night on your way home, like you said you were going to do," 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," Kreg said. "You fellows get some work done today!"

John drove away without saying anything else to Kreg. I sensed a little friction between the two of them. John was quiet for several minutes before finally saying,

"Matt, just 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 come across decks that are not built to support the additional weight of a tub filled with water. If this is the case, we have to add framing, posts, and concrete footings underneath the existing deck to carry the new load. It can be difficult, if the deck is close to the ground and you can't get under it to add new structure. 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 decking looks, once reattached."
"I can see that. It never goes back like it came off," I said.
"Exactly," John replied.

The job took longer than expected. It was one of those decks that was almost touching the ground, forcing us to remove decking to get to the framing. Some of the boards were so rotten they fell apart when we tried to remove them. The new plumbing for the hot tub was also difficult. Since the bottom of the joists were almost 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 that Kreg was not going to 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 that Kreg could work at warp-speed when he was in the mood. A mood where he would narrow in on something contrary to his normal 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 planks of decking so that they slapped hard against anything solid, and throwing heavy steel tools into the bed of his truck so that they produced the loudest possible clang. 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)
"It was clever of you for designing this new router table." (this could work several times - just need to word it differently each time)

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-goddammit discussions, and I was happy to not be a part of it.

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

"Hey Matt, after some discussion, which you may have heard," Kreg said. "John and I have decided to part ways - I will be taking the deck-building part of the business and John will be taking over the hot tub side. You will be working with me building decks, if that is okay with you."
John looked at me and gave a nod of approval.
I returned the confirmation nod back to both of them.
"Matt, meet me at the lumberyard where we first met, at 6am tomorrow morning, 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 exactly 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, and 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 Kreg and I are not the ONLY folks awake at this hour."
"Yep," he chuckled. "I meet Kreg almost every morning to ensure he has everything 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, the three of us began loading deck materials 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?"

Jerry and Kreg laughed, while we continued to load the trailer with lumber that would soon be cut into the shape of a brand-new deck.

Some months (maybe years) before I met Kreg, he signed a contract with a large local builder to build decks on all of their new homes. Most of the decks were in the 150 to 200ft2 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 build 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 decking; cut all of the pickets; cut all of the posts - basically, reduce the number of times you needed to adjust your saw, to the absolute minimum.

There were tasks that we performed on every deck we built. Some tasks would take longer on some decks than they would take on others, but that didn't affect productivity. Here's a list:

Building Decks - Finished Deck Frame
Building Decks - Ledger Board

Deck Framing Elevation
Building Decks - Level Frame

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

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

Finished Deck Frame
Building Decks - Structural Posts Attached

Finished Deck Frame
Building Decks - Decking and Stairs

Finished Deck Frame
Building Decks - Deck Railing

Note: See Build Your Own 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. But if two workers were constructing the same deck, many of the tasks could be performed simultaneously so that no one task would delay the work of another.

All of the decks we built shared a common 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 building the deck frame, but once it was built, one of us would install the decking, while the other might begin cutting the pickets and posts for the railing. When the decking was installed, that worker could start cutting the stair stringers. When the pickets and posts were cut, that worker could begin installing the railing. After a few weeks of working like this, the moments we spent discussing productivity grew fewer.

This is the way it was when Kreg and I were the only workers. Between the two of us, we were able to complete 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 I. While working each day, the three of us were keenly aware of the work the others were doing, and planned our next tasks so that the overall continuity of work was never disrupted. There weren't any tasks that were better suited for a particular person on our crew. We all became experts at each task and would jump in when and where we were needed, sometimes making adjustments 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 were able to finish a little earlier each day, but at the end of the week, we didn't deliver any more decks to the home builder. On the larger decks, the extra help was beneficial, but Kreg's daily routine didn't lend itself to building more than one deck a 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 one deck a day, and provided enough revenue to support three carpenters with money left over for profit. The three of us worked well together and I considered them to be 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 wasn't planning a major shift in his business model, we were going to 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 get back home. We didn't always work on Saturday, but for some reason, 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 that I might be a little late 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. If you can just tell him I called, that would be great."
"I'll let him know," she said.

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

The next morning, I woke to discover that 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, however, still 30 minutes late. While I drove into the job site, Kreg spotted me and immediately dropped what he was doing and began marching towards me. I could tell he was pissed. I got out of my truck in time for him to get in my face, gomer-pyle-style, and began yelling at the top of his lungs. It was too early in the day for me 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 was probably going to be a little late?" I asked.
"You don't work for her, you work for me!"
"I'm 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 had been 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, just so you know, Kreg can be an asshole sometimes..."
Was Kreg putting on some kind of 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 got back 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 is what Kreg wanted. Things began falling into place - it didn't make sense for him to hire another carpenter, unless he was planning to cut someone from the crew. I don't know why it should be me, but "there's no second-guessing Kreg," so I was told.

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 that it was just a matter of time before his beast would escape again and tear-me-a-new-one.

As I feared, the economy continued to turn south. The builder Kreg was working for was struggling to sell houses. It wasn't long before our deck-building services were no longer needed, and Kreg was forced to give us a few unpaid days off.

Kreg had landed a couple of 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. In fact, all over the state. On one of my unpaid days-off, I went to a library in downtown Austin that carried recent distributions of newspapers from major cities around the country. I picked up a Washington Post to check the ads for carpenters. There were lots of them and the pay was much better than 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 of mine 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 job 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 'take this job and 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.
The next morning I drove to the job site and found Kreg working in the Jones' back yard.
"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 going to start your own business building decks and steal work from me?"
"No, man," I said. "In fact, I am planning to move 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 was preparing to throw a punch. "I had to let Ron go in order 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, grabbed my check and left the scene. I was happy to not be 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 had spent 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 that I would use on many future deck jobs. My style was a little different than 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 back 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 Washington Post again. There were plenty! The newspaper couldn't be taken from the library, so I jotted down the details of about 10 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 that 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 multi-family apartment buildings."

Jeff and I talked for a while about places we had worked in the Austin area, and figured that we might even have worked on the same jobs at the same time. We probably saw each other somewhere, but didn't recall when or where.

"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 really 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 passed. 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 made the decision to move to Virginia?"
"Hello Jeff! Yes, I will be on the road 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 was planning 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 began driving away. I watched them in my rearview mirror until they were out of sight. It was tough to leave my friends and the life I had in central Texas, but I had no choice. Bills had to be paid. Besides, who knows what fascinating adventures I would experience on the road to Virginia...

~ Matt

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