First Carpentry Job

I landed my first carpentry job in the spring of a year in the early 1980's. A two-man crew was finishing the construction of a small one-story house when I joined the team.

My previous job was working on-call as a phlebotomist at a hospital in Austin. One day a patient had their room's thermostat set as high as it would go. Sweat dripped down my face as I struggled to find a good vein in her arm. After I drew the blood and labeled the samples, I walked over to the patient's sixth-floor window to take in the view. It was a beautiful warm spring day. Groundskeepers were cutting grass and trimming the hedges of the hospital's landscape below. I daydreamed about what it must be like to work outside in the fresh air and sunshine.

After a couple of weeks, I decided to take a break from phlebotomy and look for a job in the carpentry field. I drove to a convenience store to pick up a newspaper to check the ads for carpentry jobs (of course, nowadays you would use the internet). One of my best friends had recently found a summer job as a trim carpenter's helper. Maybe I could too, I thought. I found an ad in the paper that read, CARPENTER'S HELPER WANTED - NORTH AUSTIN - NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY.

I called the number listed in the ad and spoke to a fellow named Tim. He began an over-the-phone interview.
"Do you have any carpentry experience?"
"No," I said.
"That's okay, it isn't required. Do you have transportation?"
"Yes, I have a Volkswagen Van."
I'm sure he didn't care what kind of vehicle I drove. He just wanted to make sure I had a way to get my butt to work every day. He gave me the address of the job site and told me to be there at 7am, ready for work.

My First Carpentry Job - Day 1

It was a typical warm early-summer morning in central Texas. Since dressing for cold was not a requirement, I wore blue-jean cutoffs, a T-shirt, and white leather tennis shoes to work.

I met Tim, and a guy named Jeff, at the job site.
"Jeff, show Matt how to roll-out the tools."
Jeff picked up a pancake air compressor from the back of Tim's truck and carried it across the job site to a temporary power pole. It was common practice to connect the compressor close to the power source to prevent damage to the electric motor, due to voltage drop from long extension cords.
"Matt, get two air hoses out of Tim's truck and run them from the compressor to the two nail guns placed on the wood scaffolding."
After I attached the air hoses to the nail guns, Jeff and I stretched two extension cords from the power pole; one to Tim's saw and cutting area, and the other to a jam-box radio that blared rock-n-roll music all day.

The structure of the new one-story house was almost complete, right up to the roof decking which had already been nailed off and trimmed. The dry cracked ground surrounding the house was littered with scrap building materials. Nails were scattered everywhere. I began to imagine the slew of woodworking projects that could be built from the cuttings; bird houses, dog houses, wood crafts...
"Matt!" Tim yelled. "Don't just stand there, go get some 2x4s from the stockpile and put them on top of my sawhorses!"
Tim had a unique management style. He yelled, and the crew jumped. No matter. It was time to get some good work in before the Texas sun began to rise and heat up the day. Tim strapped on his nail bags and began cutting wood. The high-pitched buzz of his circular saw temporarily drowned out the music of Stairway to Heaven on the radio, while the aroma of fresh sawn pine began to fill the morning air.

Since I didn't have any tools, Tim provided me with a cloth nail bag to get me started. He gave me the job of installing joist hangers on the garage's ceiling joists that butt-attached to the garage door header. That should be an easy task, I thought. I saw a box of joist hangers on the garage floor next to a small brown paper sack with the points of nails poking through. I filled my apron with nails, grabbed a handful of joist hangers, moved a step ladder over to the first joist, and went to work. I stuck a few nails in my mouth for convenience (and because it seemed like the thing to do).
"Get those nails out of your mouth!" Tim hollered. "Just grab one or two nails at a time from your pouch and get more when you need them! Don't EVER put nails in your mouth!!"
I was embarrassed that I had already made a bad impression after only an hour on the job. He was right though. Nails are covered with rust and dust and coatings and who-knows-what that shouldn't be put into a person's mouth.

After I installed the Joist Hangers, Tim told me to climb the scaffolding and help Jeff install soffit and fascia. Tim requested (demanded) measurements of the various wooden parts from Jeff and I, then he would cut the pieces on his saw horses and toss them up to us. We used pneumatic nail guns to fasten the pieces of trim to the new home.

At the end of the long tiring day of my first carpentry job, Tim told me that I needed to buy a "real" nail bag, and get my own tools, if I was serious about learning carpentry. He gave me a list of essential carpentry tools, which I purchased that evening:

I didn't have any carpentry or woodworking experience, outside of helping my Dad build a workbench in our garage when I was thirteen, and the tree-houses I built out of old fence boards when I was nine or ten. The only tools available to me were a couple of mismatched screwdrivers and a small hammer that my mother used for hanging pictures and such. I didn't own a saw and wouldn't have known how to use one if I did. Everything I built was from the full lengths of the thirty or so 6-foot cedar fence boards and the single 6-foot 2x12 that was stacked up in the backyard of our two-bedroom rent-house when we moved in.

When I was 11, I built a "submarine" using the 6-foot 2x12 as the base with two small wooden electric wire spools attached at each end. I used the fence boards for the sides and left the top open - sort of a convertible submarine. I was proud of my new personal submarine and dreamed of taking it to the beach to see if it would float. I'm sure the power of the Gulf of Mexico would have swallowed it whole and spit it out as driftwood.

Wooden Submarine

After a good night's sleep, I arrived at the job site with all of my shiny new tools loaded into my virgin leather nail bag. The crew, that now included a big fellow named Ben, gave me the usual bullshit about being the rookie with brand new tools, while they proudly displayed their sweat-stained nail bags and broken-in hammers as the tools of "real" carpenters.

Ben was a college student who worked for Tim part time. He was a competent carpenter that Tim allowed to do work without constant supervision. Tim assigned him small mindless tasks (that were impossible to screw up) like cutting and installing cabinet blocking, although I'm sure Ben was more capable. Jeff was also a competent worker, but he didn't seem to care to learn more than the minimum required to be a carpenter's helper (which isn't much beyond showing up to work on time) and was known for being late or not showing up at all on Mondays.

The houses we built were designed to be constructed in the shortest time possible with the least amount of effort. The walls were prefabricated sections, complete with siding, windows, and trim, that were banded together and delivered on a flatbed truck. All we had to do was lay out the concrete slab with a chalk line, for the placement of the walls, and fasten the wall sections to the slab with a Ramset. Next, we attached the sections together with 16d (pronounced sixteen-penny) nails. Finally, we used a 4-foot level to plumb the walls, then diagonally braced them with 2x4s that extended from near the top of each wall to blocking that we had secured to the slab with the Ramset (basically, a single-shot pistol that shoots nails).

Ramset Nail Gun

We had all of the first-floor walls stood up on Monday. On Tuesday, we installed the second-floor joists and decked them with 3/4" tongue and groove plywood. On Wednesday, we laid out and stood up the second-floor walls. On Thursday and Friday, we installed the roof trusses and decked the roof. Roof decking was my least favorite task. The plywood decking on a roof with a 7-12 pitch can get dicey with a little sawdust sprinkled on the surface. I recall a time when I was standing on the edge of a slippery second-story roof cutting off the excess plywood decking with a circular saw. One wrong move and you're toast!

On the following Monday, Tim planned to start constructing the stairs. It was a single run of stairs that started from just inside the front door and ran straight up to the second floor - no twists or turns or landings. He stretched a piece of string, from the top landing, to where the first step was supposed to begin. He studied the angle for a long time, using his Speed Square, then asked me to fetch some 2x12s so he could begin cutting the stringers. He proceeded to lay out the first stringer with his Speed Square, first positioned one way, then another, then back to the first position... I mean... I didn't know squat about building stairs, but I'm pretty sure he didn't either. After several failed attempts at laying out the stringer, he finally cut it, then climbed a step ladder to nail it in place. It better fit or he is going to be pissed, I thought. Sure enough, it didn't fit! He threw the nail gun to the ground and, red-faced with frustration, leaped off of the step ladder with the heels of both boots aimed at the unsuspecting nail gun. Bam! He was boiling mad. He looked at me, a little embarrassed about his behavior, and quickly regained posture. It wasn't just the stairs that was bothering Tim. He was also pissed-off that Jeff hadn't shown up for work (but what the hell, it was Monday, right?).
"Matt, let's talk about careers," he said. "What do you see yourself doing the rest of your life?"
I hesitated for a bit - I wasn't sure how to answer him.
"I don't know," I replied. "For now, I just want to learn carpentry."
Without saying a word, he walked over to the water cooler and took a long drink. He made some corrections to his math and loaded up another 2x12 stinger on top of his saw horses and laid it out with his Speed Square. He cut it, climbed the ladder... and thank-god-it-fit! I didn't want to know what he would have done if it hadn't fit the second time! Tim was a skilled and talented carpenter. After all, he did build a set of stairs with just a Speed Square. I'd say that would be just about impossible for most carpenters. But if he had used the correct tool, a framing square, we could have taken the afternoon off.

In a few days, we had completed the siding, cornice, stairs, etc., and we were already getting started on another house. As a framing subcontractor, productivity was everything. Tim got paid for what we produced, not for how hard or how many hours we worked.

Our days began at 7:00 am and ended at 5:00 pm Monday through Friday (unless it rained), and on Saturdays, 7:00 am until noon. At the end of each day Tim would yell, "Roll it up!" That was the sweet sound of the end of a 10-hour day when we would roll up all of the extension cords (in a special way that was supposed to prevent tangling) and put all of the tools into the bed of Tim's Ford Ranger.

Each evening at home, with a little practical experience still fresh in my mind, I studied residential carpentry techniques from a book called, Modern Carpentry, by Willis H. Wagner. Each new day at the job site, I would think about what I had learned and how it applied to the various parts of our prefabricated homes.

After building several houses with this crew, I began to get better control over my hammer and not hit my thumb every time. I also learned quite a bit about framing carpentry - building walls, installing floor joists, decking floors, installing ceiling joists, framing roofs, and lots of tricks of the trade, including squaring walls using the easy-to-remember 3-4-5 proportion - the Pythagorean Theorem in action!

Squaring Walls and Floors

Tim would occasionally pull the blueprints from the cab of his truck, study them, then put them back and shut the door as if they were sacred documents for his eyes only. I never saw a single blueprint while working for Tim. One day, at lunchtime, I took a moment to study how the angle of the roof pitch fascia connected to the front horizontal fascia. I decided to pick up Tim's circular saw and cut a sample compound angle from a piece of fascia board. I placed my test-board onto the roof framing and it fit just as I had expected. Wow! I understand this stuff, I thought. I asked Tim if I could finish building out the soffit and fascia in the area where I had performed my test, but he denied my request. He wanted to do all of the thinking and cutting and make all of the carpentry decisions, while the rest of the crew followed along without question (right or wrong). His business model was to keep us as helpers, so that he wouldn't have to pay us carpenter wages.

One of my tasks as a carpenter's helper was to tote building materials from the stockpile to Tim's saw horses. When it came to plywood, Tim didn't like to see us making multiple trips with a single sheet. "If you're only toting half-inch plywood, carry two sheets!" Tim yelled. I hadn't built up the strength to do this yet, but I tried it anyway. This isn't too bad, but damn heavy, I thought. Suddenly, while carrying the load across the job site, I felt something penetrate the sole of my leather tennis shoe and left foot. I pulled back, but it was too late. Extreme pain shot through my foot as I tossed the double-load of plywood to the ground. Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch! "What the hell was that?!" I shouted, while hopping around on one foot looking to the ground to see what rusty poisonous object had pierced the tender skin of my defenseless foot. It was a nail - a 2 1/2-inch long eight-penny(8d) galvanized ring-shank nail! It was sticking straight up through a piece of scrap siding. I commenced to remove my shoe to inspect the injury, but Tim stopped me cold. "Keep your shoe on. Just keep walking around on it," he said. "The pain will go away soon." Tim was right. About 10 minutes later, the pain subsided and I was back to work. Later, when I got home, I removed my shoe and sock and washed my foot - almost no damage. Miraculous!

After about three months of working for Tim, one Friday after work, he surprised us by handing out our last paychecks. He had found a job in Real Estate and was getting out of the framing business. It was obvious that he was not happy with his current occupation. I think he really liked carpentry, but was ready for a change. His random temper flare ups (since the nail gun incident) had become more frequent and intense. But while Tim was moving on to a new career, I was just getting started.

I had just lost my first carpentry job, but I didn't leave empty-handed. I had learned a great deal about carpentry and single-family home construction and knew I could take that experience to my next job as a carpenter, perhaps even a self-employed carpenter, certainly not just a helper. Working for Tim was superb on-the-job training, and the best part? I got paid for it. Maybe there was an easier way to make a living, but I wasn't ready to quit just yet! I loved swinging a hammer in the sun all day and, at quitting time (or beer-thirty as we called it), I admired the magnificent structure I had just built on the surface of the amazing planet Earth! You don't get that feeling from most jobs.

While driving home from the last day of my first carpentry job, I thought it might be time to expand my tool collection. If I had more tools, maybe I could build more complex structures and make more money? Saturday morning, I made another trip to the hardware store and purchased my next round of carpentry tools.

On the way home, I decided to build a new workbench for my garage to test out my new tools. When I got home, I opened my garage door and looked around. It was an unorganized mess. There was junk everywhere. I can't bring my new tools into this.. That moment, I removed almost everything from the garage and swept it clean. As I added the items back into my single-car garage, I culled out the junk and made a big pile for the weekly trash pickup. With the clutter out of the way, I found the perfect spot for my new workbench project. I drove to the lumber yard and picked up some plywood, 4x4s, and 2x4s to build the simple workbench I had in mind. When I returned home, I unloaded the building materials and unpacked my new circular saw and power drill from their boxes, and plugged them into my new 16-gauge orange extension cords. Once the lumber was in place and my tools were ready, I strapped on my nail bags to get started. As I was building my workbench, I altered the plan slightly to include an extra shelf below the top surface, for storing tools, etc., and added a back board to attach a power-strip, so that small power tools could be plugged into the workbench power, and save having to run separate extension cords for each tool. After spending the afternoon building my new workbench, I grabbed a cold beer from the refrigerator and began to think of countless things I could build with my new tools. Once you realize your capabilities, ideas begin to flow.

Work Bench

My first carpentry job was over and it was time to start thinking about my next job. On Sunday, I picked up a newspaper at the supermarket to study the latest Want Ads. One caught my eye: LARGE APARTMENT COMPLEX - CARPENTERS WANTED. That sounded like the perfect job!

~ Matt

Your First Carpentry Job

If you are considering a career in carpentry, getting a job as a carpenter's helper is a good way to get started. You will make money, while you get hands-on experience and learn about the trade from professional carpenters.

I used to say, "All you need to become a carpenter is a good working knowledge of basic geometry and a hell-of-a-lotta common sense." But that isn't entirely true. Experience is everything. You can learn how to frame walls and build stairs from books and from online articles, but until you have felt the weight of a 2x4, or a 2x12, in your hands and know what it is like to nail sheets of plywood roof decking onto rows of rafters, it is all just theory.

Once you learn the basics of carpentry, you will want to try more difficult tasks, like framing roofs, building stairs, and installing crown molding. It won't all happen overnight, but one day you will wake up and say, "I am a carpenter now!"

~ Matt

What next?

Read about my next carpentry experience building apartments as a Self-Employed Carpenter.


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