Self Employed Carpenter

Working as a Carpentry Subcontractor

It was the beginning of summer, sometime in the early 1980s. I woke up before dawn on a Monday morning, eager to follow up on a carpentry job I had read about in the newspaper the day before - Large Apartment Complex - Carpenters Needed. There wasn't any number to call - you just showed up at the job site. The location of the project was only about five miles from my house in north Austin. After a 6 am breakfast of Sugar Pops and toast, I loaded the new carpentry tools I had purchased at the end of my first carpentry job into my '71 Volkswagen van and headed to the job site in the dim pre-dawn light. Most construction crews start early. My best chance of getting the job was to get there before everyone else and be ready for work.

The Cottages Apartments
The Cottages Apartments (2019)

The job site was much larger than the small single-family home sites I had recently built. There were 17 large multi-unit buildings and an office/clubhouse near a future pool and playground. The carpentry phase of the project was just getting started. Five buildings were in the framing stage. The rest were freshly poured concrete slabs.

There was activity everywhere; carpenters were stretching extension cords and hooking up air compressors; plumbers were loading pipe into the framed buildings; electricians were pulling wire; and food trucks were selling homemade breakfast tacos to groggy workers. A young blond-haired fellow, wearing cutoffs and no shirt, was transporting construction materials around the dusty job site on a SkyTrak forklift. Another man in his mid-twenties was leaning against a blue Ford pickup truck holding a clipboard and talking to a small group of workers. He must be the guy I need to talk to, I thought. I parked my van and walked towards him.
"Hello, sir, Are you the foreman?" I asked.
"Yes. I am Steve."
"It is a pleasure to meet you, Steve. My name is Matt. I am responding to your ad in the Sunday paper about carpenters?"
"It is good to meet you too, Matt. Do you have a crew?" he asked.
"No, uh, not yet," I said.
"Have you worked on apartments before?" he asked.
"No, but I recently framed and trimmed a few single-family homes a few miles from here."
"That's great," he said. "All of our work is subcontracted. We have large framing crews building the structures and smaller crews doing the cornice work. Are you interested in doing that?"
"Sure," I said. "What does cornice entail?"
"Follow me. I'll show you what you'll have to do."

Self Employed Carpenter

We walked across the job site to one of the framed buildings. Steve seemed like a nice fellow. He was about my age but was an experienced carpenter with much more construction experience than me. I'm sure Steve knew I didn't have much carpentry experience but was willing to give me a chance anyway. We arrived at the framed building where I would be working, and he began telling me about the scope of the work.
"Most of these buildings have brick exteriors, but some sections of the exterior walls require wood siding. You will be responsible for installing the wooden exterior siding and trim. That also includes the roof overhang, soffit, and fascia. The patios and balconies have the most wooden elements and are the easiest, but you will have to build scaffolding to reach the second-floor roof. The job pays 2,200 dollars. What do you think?"
I wasn't excited about the height of the roof, but there was lots of work to do at the lower levels until I figured out how to build the scary stuff.
"It sounds good," I said.
"Great!" he said, "You get weekly draws based on the percentage of work you have completed. I also recommend that you hire a helper so that you can keep up with the pace of construction."
"That's a good idea," I said, thinking I would try to do the whole job myself. "I brought my tools with me, and I am ready to get started today if that is okay."
"That's perfect! I need to get some tax information from you, and you will be all set."
That was it. We shook hands and settled the deal. I was officially a self-employed carpenter! I could make my schedule, work as much as I wanted, and come and go as I pleased. Of course, I never came and went as I pleased, but it was nice to know that I could if I wanted to - and wouldn't need to ask permission.

After Steve left, I lit a cigarette and walked around the building to try and get an idea of how much work I would have to get done each day to make a decent wage. It was a large building with many wooden elements. It looked like lots of work, especially since I didn't own any pneumatic nail guns to help speed things up. I hope I didn't get in over my head, I thought. Well, the work isn't going to get done by staring at it. I walked to where I had parked my VW van, drove it over to my work site, and began unloading my tools. I found some discarded saw horses lying nearby and decided they needed new ownership. One of them had a broken leg. That will be my first task as a self-employed carpenter - I'll fix the busted leg and be ready for business. Using the knowledge I had gained from putting up siding and trim on the single-family homes, I spent the rest of the day adding siding and trim to one of the first-floor patios. That patio took longer than I thought it would, and there were several more patios to do, not counting all the soffit and fascia work. I worked that day until I ran out of materials, then packed up my tools as the sun set and went home.

This job felt uniquely different than working for Tim. I had become the self-employed carpenter/subcontractor that Tim had been on the single-family home projects. I was no longer the greenhorn helper I had been just a few months prior. I was now a Greenhorn subcontractor in charge of my schedule and productivity. When I watched the clock, I was more concerned about how late it was getting and how much work I had done rather than just wishing the time away until beer-thirty as I had done as an hourly carpenter's helper.

The next morning I felt refreshed and ready for a productive day. Before I left home, I made a sack lunch so that I wouldn't have to pack up my tools in the middle of the afternoon and leave the job site for food (or have to eat a soggy taco from one of the food trucks). My tools were still in my VW van from the day before - all I had to do was hit the road. I stopped at a convenience store for smokes and a Dr. Pepper for breakfast and headed out. From the last traffic light at Burnet Road and Howard Lane, before reaching the job site, I could see my building about 200 yards away. The building was in the back corner of the job site, closest to the intersection. Each morning (while stuck at the long traffic light), I could see the results of my hard work.

I parked my van close to my work area and walked to the road to flag down the blonde-haired SkyTrak driver. He saw me and steered toward my direction, and stopped.
"Do you deliver materials for subcontractors?" I asked, trying to yell over the SkyTrak's diesel engine.
"Yes. What do you need?" He hollered back.
"Just some siding and 1x4 trim."
"You got it," he said with a smile. "My name is Jack, by the way."
"It is good to meet you, Jack. My name is Matt. I just started working here yesterday."
"Yeah, I saw you. Are you planning to do the cornice on that whole building by yourself?"
"I'm going to try."
"Well, hop on, and we'll get your materials," he chuckled. I leaped onto the SkyTrak's side-step and held tight to the SkyTrak's frame as Jack motored at top speed to the material stockpile. I jumped off and loaded siding and trim onto the SkyTrak's forks. "Let me know anytime you need supplies brought to you. That's my job."
"Thanks, Jack! That's good to know. I'll need all of the help I can get!"

SkyTrak Fork Lift

Jack rode a Kawasaki 1100 to work every day, rain or shine. He wore cutoffs and tennis shoes most of the time - no helmet or any other protective gear. One day, Jack showed me scars from a motorcycle accident that resulted in two broken legs. Despite being somewhat of a daredevil, he was more physically fit than most folks and even worked out at a gym in the evenings after a hard day at the construction site.

Once Jack dropped off my materials, I rolled out my extension cords and plugged-in my jam-box and circular saw. We Built This City (by Jefferson Starship) was playing on the radio as I was loading tongue-and-groove pine siding and 1x4 trim onto my newly restored saw horses. It was an unusually cool summer morning - perfect weather for working outdoors and getting things done - I needed to show some serious progress if I had any hope of getting a respectable draw from Steve.

By the end of the week, I installed siding on four of the sixteen patios but none of the soffit and fascia. Steve calculated that I was about 20% done with the whole project, but I think he was being generous. I suppose he wanted to see me get paid for my hard work. When you do contract work, no one is withdrawing income tax payments out of your weekly check. So, when you got paid, you needed to put aside about 30% of it for tax. That's a pretty good slice out of your already small paycheck!

Steve was from Wisconsin - Cheese Land, he frequently called it. Steve had been working in the Austin area for about five years due to a lack of work in Wisconsin, but he longed to return to his home state someday. He and Jack both worked for JCorp, the general contractor. Sometimes it was Steve who was driving the SkyTrak. Steve was the foreman, but they both worked hard to ensure that the subcontractors didn't get held up by a lack of material or support from the general contractor. Every day, Steve would make his rounds to check on subcontractors. When he got to me, we often had long conversations about carpentry, life, and everything else. The conversations flowed well, and we rarely finished talking because we ran out of things to say. I would tell him about jobs I had while working at a nearby hospital, while he shared his experiences in construction and doing factory work in Cheese Land.

Piles of construction debris often covered the grounds around the buildings. One day, while working at ground level, I heard some workers trying to get the attention of a carpenter working on top of a two-story roof. He was trimming the plywood roof decking with a circular saw. It was common practice to lay full sheets of decking and cut off the excess material later, but this guy was standing on the piece he was cutting off! Too late. The circular saw broke through the critical point, and the plywood, power saw, and worker plunged to the ground. Lucky for him, he landed on a pile of scrap moisture barrier material that broke his fall. The barrier was soft, like cork, with the words Highly Flammable stamped on each sheet. If that had happened to me, I would have spent the rest of the day at home with a six-pack, but he was back at work as if the incident had never happened. I'd bet he was always on the right side of the cut-line after that day.

The roof cutter worked for OP Construction, named after the owners, Mark O'Brien and Jay Platt. They wore OP Polo shirts as though it was their company logo. Mark and Jay had a crew of about 15 carpenters and had framed most of the project's buildings. Mark and Jay drove their workers hard but frequently provided beer at the end of the day. Sometimes they would invite Steve and Jack and me to the party. Jay had a nickname for just about all of his workers. They hired a young helper named Chuck. Jay called him everything BUT Chuck. Chucky, Chuck E. Cheese, Chuck-the-Cheese-Dog. Jay was full of shit most of the time, but everyone seemed to like Jay. Mark, on the other hand, was a quiet, serious person. He preferred the business side of construction, while Jay managed the crew and slung the bullshit.

Since my VW van was also my non-work vehicle, I decided to build a removable tool rack that I could easily take in and out of my van. With this new tool rack, I could convert my VW van into a work vehicle in less than a minute. The tool rack was an organizer for my less-used hand tools and nails. The base of the tool rack was essentially a tray with two bins on each side for nails and screws and one larger bin in the middle for hand tools and such. After assembling the base, I attached vertical 2x4s at each end to support the handle, which I made from a piece of closet rod. Finally, I fastened hooks on both ends of the handle to hang my coiled extension cords.

Custom Made Tool Rack
Custom Tool Rack

It held most of my tools, except for my circular saw, power drill, and jam-box, which stowed neatly beside my new tool rack, along with a socket set and an assortment of screwdrivers I carried for adjusting the carburetor and points on my VW engine.

After about a month on the job, I completed the siding and trim on all the patios and balconies. All I had left to do was the cornice and trim at the second-floor roof level - the scary stuff. Before the end of the day on Friday, I had built a 10-foot length of scaffolding in preparation for Monday morning's trim work.

My thirty-nine-dollar circular saw had begun to show signs of wear - the bearings made a grinding sound as the motor wound down between saw cuts. I knew it wouldn't last long under the strain of commercial use.

On Friday, I left early to spend the weekend at the Texas State Fair with some of my hospital friends. I was nominated to be the driver since my VW van was the only vehicle with enough seating capacity for the five of us. When I got home from work, I unloaded my new tool rack to convert my van into a personal vehicle, adjusted the carburetor, picked up my friends, and headed north to Dallas.

After a weekend of visiting Big Tex and eating fried everything, I was rejuvenated and ready to get on with the next phase of my project. I arrived back home late Sunday evening and went straight to bed.

The Blaze

On Monday morning, I loaded up my custom tool rack and tools and stopped for a bacon-egg-and-cheese biscuit on my way back to the job site. I caught the Howard Lane traffic light RED (as I did most days) and glanced at my building. Something was different. The scaffolding I had built was gone. Has someone taken it down for some reason? Something else was different. The arrangement of patios and balconies was not like I had remembered. I began to get a sinking feeling in my stomach. My heart thumped hard. What is going on? The traffic light turned green, and I proceeded forward, continuously analyzing the buildings at the job site for clues. I pulled into the main entrance and drove slowly toward my building. It wasn't there. The building I had worked on for the past four weeks had burned to the ground along with the building next to it.

Steve and Jack were standing near the smoking ash, talking to Mark, Jay, and a skinny plumber named Mike. I parked my van and walked towards them. Everyone was in shock.
"How did this happen?!" I asked.
Mike looked at me and said, "The sonofabitch caught fire sometime after you left last Friday. When I first saw the blaze, it was so small you could have put it out by pissing on it. Before anyone could do anything, the fire was out of control."
Mike shared a picture of the burning buildings he had taken. The flames towered twice the height of the three-story structures and had gotten so hot that they melted the glazing on the windows of the adjacent unburned buildings, and sap from the pine siding had oozed past the painted surfaces.
"I guess this puts me out of work," I said.
"That's no problem, Matt," Steve said. "I'll keep you busy doing piecework if you are interested."
"That would be great," I replied, not understanding what piecework was, but it had to be better than unemployment.
"I have to meet with the general contractor today about the work we had done on these buildings so we can get paid for it," Steve said. "Why don't you take the day off and come back tomorrow? I'll have work for you to do."
"Thanks, Steve. I'll see you guys tomorrow."
I had become good friends with the guys at the apartment project and was happy to be able to continue working with them.

I drove home wondering if I had somehow caused the fire. No one was blaming me, but I couldn't help but think that maybe I had flicked a cigarette too close to one of the piles of highly flammable sheets of moisture barrier. I had been careful, but perhaps the wind caught a spark. Other workers were in the building that Friday. It could have been any of us that caused the fire. I would never know.

The next day I drove back to the job site. Steve had a list of things for me to build. The first was framing a bay window on the bottom floor of one of the completed buildings. Discretely, Steve kept an eye on me while I cut and nailed each piece. I think he was testing my carpentry skills to see what other work he could throw my way. Since I began calling myself a carpenter, nearly everything I built was a new experience. Six months prior, I had been drawing blood from patients in a hospital with no clue that I would someday be framing a bay window.

"Looking good, Matt!" Steve said. "I would have framed it differently, but there's nothing wrong your way. Do you want to frame some fireplaces? I have about 10 of them for you."
"They pay $40 each," Steve said.
"Sounds easy enough."
"It will be... especially for you," he said with a smile. "Jack will bring you some 2x4s to get you started. Let me know if you need anything else."
"Thanks, Steve!"
Steve had a way of inspiring people to want to come to work each day and do a good job (unless you were a complete screw-up). If you had potential and weren't afraid of work, Steve would pick up on it and use it to your advantage (and his).

I liked the piecework style - I could work as a subcontractor without the multiple-week commitment of a larger scoped project - like completing the cornice on an entire apartment building. The best part was that Steve only gave me tasks I could do myself, unlike installing soffit and fascia on a two-story building, which requires scaffolding and a minimum of two people. Steve also noticed that I wasn't too comfortable with heights - he didn't give me much up-in-the-air work.

In addition to the fireplaces, Steve had me build and install chimneys, about 30 or so. They also paid $40 each. That should keep me busy for a while, I thought.

Framing Chimneys

Before I installed my first chimney, I had to discover where the sheet metal flue would penetrate through the roof sheathing. I climbed into the rafters up to the underside of the sheathing, about 15 feet above the fireplace. I used a plumb-bob to determine the center of the fireplace below and made a mark on the underside of the plywood sheathing directly above. Once I figured out the location of the flue, I added 2x6 blocking below the sheathing to support the chimney framing. Finally, I drove nails up through the sheathing to locate the hole for the flue from the rooftop.

Building Chimneys
Prefabricated Chimney Walls

On the ground, outside the building, I prefabricated the four walls of the chimneys, then got Jack to lift me, the chimney walls and my thirty-nine-dollar circular saw to the rooftop with the SkyTrak. I nailed a temporary 2x4 block onto the top of the roof sheathing and stacked the chimney walls against it to keep them from sliding off. Next, I located the nails that I had driven through the underside of the sheathing and cut the hole for the flue with my circular saw. I marked the location of the chimney walls with a carpenter's pencil and chalk line, then nailed and screwed the wall sections through the plywood sheathing into the 2x6 blocking.

Installing Chimneys
Chimney Framing Attached to the Roof

The first chimney took almost all day to build and install. But after that first week, I learned a new method of building - production mode. I began mass-cutting all of the wall parts so that I wouldn't have to keep changing the settings on my circular saw back and forth from a straight cut (90 degrees) to the 5-12 roof pitch angle (22.6 degrees). Once I cut all the lumber, I nailed the pieces together using an assembly-line method. I was cranking out two to three chimneys a day. Life was good.

One blistering hot summer day, I decided to work late to finish up one of the chimneys I had started - roofers were supposed to begin shingling the next day. Almost all the workers had left, and the sun was low in the sky. Suddenly, three pickup trucks pulled into the job site and parked in front of my building. Workers jumped out and started stretching extension cords and floodlights up to the rooftop. "Are you guys going to start roofing now?" I asked. "Sure!" replied their foreman. "It is too hot to shingle roofs in the daytime heat. Besides, that's who we are," he said as he handed me his business card - Fly by Night Roofing Company, party by day and work by night. "That's cool!" I said, "Pardon the pun. I am ready for a beer anyway. I will head out and let you guys go to work!"

The Forklift

Several days later, on a hot, dusty Thursday afternoon, I saw Steve drive by on the SkyTrak with a large load of roof trusses he had picked up for the OP boys. He turned past my work area and was soon out of site. Less than a minute later, I heard a loud thundering sound of lumber splintering and crashing to the ground, followed by a terrorizing scream. I thought one of the buildings had collapsed and killed someone. I dropped what I was doing and ran towards the sound. Others were doing the same. It was Steve. The SkyTrak had fallen on its side, and Steve appeared trapped inside. When I got to Steve, I saw his leg pinned underneath the forklift's cockpit at the knee joint. The trusses he was carrying were dangling against the framed building and looked like they could come loose at any moment. I knelt by Steve, grabbed his hand, and gave him a stern look that said, I'm not going anywhere, buddy while some workers began loosening the gravel around his leg with the claws of their hammers. No apparent head injury or bleeding. Good. "Dammit, will someone please call 911!" I yelled. "We did, Matt. They should be here shortly." replied a voice I didn't recognize. "You'll be okay, Steve. We'll have you out in a minute." I assured Steve. He was shaking, but he was okay. He hung on tight while the workers continued to dig. After about 10 minutes, the guys had removed enough dirt and gravel to slide Steve's leg from beneath the SkyTrak, and two or three of us carefully removed him from the scene. It wasn't until then that he released his grip on my hand. The middle of his knee joint had a marked impression from the SkyTrak's heavy frame resting on it. It didn't look good to me - he couldn't move it without severe pain. A flashback from my hospital days came to mind; a memory of a post-op knee patient ambulating the long hallways, beginning his first steps to recovery. I hoped that Steve would not have to be one of them. Soon, the ambulance arrived. Paramedics checked Steve's vitals, loaded him onto a stretcher, and into the ambulance.

After the ambulance left, some workers and I secured the dangling trusses and stood around talking about the accident. "Did anyone see what happened?" I asked.
"Steve had the boom fully extended to get the trusses high enough for the OP guys to reach them. I guess the wind caught the trusses, and down she went," said a tall carpenter in the crowd. His name was Dan. I had seen Dan before but had never spoken to him.
"Well, I hope Steve gets back on his feet soon. The accident could have been much worse." I said. Everyone agreed.
"I will be filling in for Steve while he is out," Dan said.
"Dan, do you work for J Corp too?"
"Yes, if you need anything, just let me know."
After about an hour, a crane arrived. Two men latched a cable onto the SkyTrak's extended boom and lifted the steel creature to its feet. After watching the event, I returned to my work area and packed up my tools for the day.

On Friday morning, I woke to the sound of hard rain pounding my roof and the west-facing window of my bedroom. A thunderstorm was moving through the area. The storm should be gone by the time I get to work - I thought while still lying in bed. I had a quick breakfast and drove back to the job site, not expecting to see Steve but hoping to get some information about his condition. I spotted Dan's old rusty Datsun pickup parked outside one of the buildings. The rain had stopped, but everything was too wet and muddy to start rolling out extension cords and power tools. I parked next to Dan's truck and walked inside. Dan was sitting on a stack of sheetrock sorting envelopes.
"Good morning, Dan."
"Mornin'!" Dan said.
"Have you heard anything about Steve?" I asked.
"No, but I have your check."
"That's great. Thanks!"
Dan handed me my check, leaned against some wall framing, and lit a hand-rolled cigarette. He took a big puff from it and, out of nowhere, began talking about the art of building wooden boats. He knew a great deal about the process of shaping wood for curved hulls and was not afraid to share the never-ending details - no matter how much of my day it took. After spending almost the entire morning listening to Dan's boat-building horseshit, I left the job site (without ever rolling out my tools) and took the weekend off.

On Monday morning, while sitting at home having Raisin Bran and coffee for breakfast, I wondered what had happened to Steve. Was he in a hospital somewhere? I showed up for work and parked my van close to the last chimney I had been building at the moment of Steve's accident. All of my materials were still lying around as I had left them. As I was unloading my tools, I heard voices approaching. I turned around to see who it was. I was astonished. It was Steve. He was hobbling toward me with a big grin, using an eight-foot level as a walking stick. "Nice cane!" I hollered, returning the grin. He was limping but getting around okay.
"That was an amazing recovery! I didn't expect to see you back at work for a while. What happened at the hospital?"
"By the time I had reached the emergency room in the ambulance, the dent in my knee had almost returned to normal. The doctors took some X-Rays and determined that nothing was permanently damaged, just some tendonitis, which I am taking care of with some pretty effective painkillers, thank-you-very-much," he said with an intoxicated smile.
"I can't tell you how happy I am to hear that, my friend. It is great to see you on your feet so soon."
"Me too!" he said, then added, "I'm glad you were there, Matt."


The next day, Steve, Jack, Mark, Jay, and I drove to Dot's cafeteria for lunch. We got our food and sat at a round table big enough for the five of us. Once we were all seated, Steve suddenly said, "What do you guys have planned for life after this job is over?" We all looked at each other, wondering why he had asked that question. Then, Steve dropped his bomb.
"I'm planning to move my family back to Wisconsin."
"No way!" Jack said.
"No kidding, Steve?" I asked. "Why are you moving back?"
"It is time," Steve said. "We moved to Austin five years ago and have decided that it is time to go home. My wife and I miss our parents. And our grandparents aren't getting any younger."
"Where are you going to work?" Jay asked. "Aren't jobs still hard to come by in Cheese Land?"
"I don't know yet. Maybe I'll get a job in one of the factories, or I will do some remodeling or both."
"Well, I'm sorry to hear that news," I said.
"Me too," said Mark. "We make a good team."
Jack was unusually quiet. I could tell he was taking the news pretty hard. Steve was like a big brother to Jack, and Jack was Steve's right-hand man.
"Well, we don't have to say goodbye just yet. We still have a lot of work to do," I said.
"That's right, and all we have done so far is work," Steve said. "Let's have a party at my apartment this Saturday. I'll provide the food. All you guys need to bring is your favorite beer."
"Yes! Party! What a great idea," I said. "I'll be there!"
"Me too," said Jack.

On Saturday, we all met at Steve's apartment. I arrived at the same time as Jack. We each brought a 12-pack of beer to share with the group. After a couple of knocks, Steve answered the door.
"Hey, Matt and Jack! Come on in!"
"Hey, Steve. It looks like the party is getting off to a good start," I said.
"Yeah, Jay and Mark are on the patio. We were waiting for you guys to show up so we could take the party to the next level."
"You got that right! It isn't a party if Jack and I aren't there."
"Yeah, Matt and I are the party kings," Jack said with a chuckle.
"There's an ice chest in the kitchen for your beer. My wife, Mary, is there making margaritas. Introduce yourselves and grab a cold one and come out to the patio. I have some burgers burning on the grill."
"Margaritas, you say? Jack and I may never make it out of the kitchen."
Mary was a pretty, petite woman with dark hair and a pleasant personality. She seemed to be the perfect match for Steve. Jack and I chatted with her for a spell, then opened our second or third beers and went outside. Steve was laying out the logistics of his move-to-Wisconsin plan to Jay and Mark - latch their old travel trailer to the back of his old blue F150 pickup (which was already loaded full of heavy tools), then load the contents of his apartment inside the trailer, and finally, drive 1200 miles to Wisconsin.
"Are you sure your truck can tow all of that weight?" I asked.
"It should be fine. That's how we moved down to Texas."
I don't think Steve was thinking about all the stuff they accumulated in 5 years of Texas living, but he seemed confident that his truck could handle the task. Before long, Mary came out to the patio with hamburger fixings and margaritas. We prepared our burgers, grabbed our drinks, and sat down at a picnic table to eat.
"Hey Jack, we all know that Steve and Mary are from Wisconsin, and Jay and Mark are from Austin. Are you from Austin too?" I asked.
"No, I am from Houston. I moved to Austin last year because my girlfriend is going to UT," Jack replied.
"I never knew that," Steve said. "All of this time we have known each other..."
"Where are you from, Matt?" Jack asked.
"I grew up and went to high school in Corpus Christi, then drove a gravel truck in Houston for a couple of years, then moved to Austin."
"How did you go from driving a gravel truck to working at a hospital to working as a carpenter?" Steve asked.
"It is the result of living life without a plan - making career decisions as chance presented opportunities along the way," I said, feeling a little buzzed.
After the burgers were gone and the margaritas went dry, we continued to share stories and drink beer into the wee hours.

Building Stairs

By the end of the week, I was done with the last chimney and was ready for the next challenge.
"Do you know anything about building stairs?" Steve asked.
All I could think of was the experience I had watching my old boss, Tim, build stairs with a Speed Square.
"Not much," I said. "Is it hard to learn?"
"It won't be for you. By the way, your circular saw sounds like it could bite the dust any day."
"Yeah, I'm thinking the same thing."
"Cutting 2x12 stair stringers will surely kill it before the end of the day," he said. "The place where we get our fasteners is having a sale on Makita 7 1/4" circular saws. Ninety-nine bucks!"
"Are they good saws?"
"The best! I'm heading that way. Do you want me to pick one up for you?"
"That would be great. Thanks, Steve," I said as I handed him the cash.
After about an hour, Steve arrived with my brand-new saw. I plugged it in and tested it on a piece of scrap 2x4.
"Oh, what a sweet sound that is," I said with a big grin.
Steve smiled and said, "It'll last you a long time if you take good care of it." (He was right. I have owned it for nearly 40 years, and it is still cutting wood).

"Gary was our stair man," Steve said. "but he hasn't shown up for work in a few weeks, and no one knows his whereabouts. I am happy to give the job to you if you want it. He left a lot of stringers that you can use for templates if you want to use them, but you can also calculate the rise and run of the stringers yourself. That's probably the best way. Then you will know how to build stairs, not just these stairs, but any stairs."
"Then that's what I'll do," I said.

The process of calculating step height is simple - you divide the Total Height of the stairs by the desired Step Height. The result of that calculation is the Number of Steps on your stairs. Of course, the Number of Steps must be a whole number, so you must round up (or down) to the nearest whole number to get the actual Number of Steps. Next, divide the Total Height again by the Whole number. The result is the Typical Step Height (the height of each step). Of course, there's much more to building stairs, but these are the basics.

Steve and I walked over to one of the stairwells where Gary had been working. The job was to build interior stairs that connect the ground level to the second floor of the apartment unit with a mid-level landing in between.

Like all the other things I had built on this apartment project, the first stairwell took the longest - almost a week, while I measured, calculated, and checked my math at least three times before I cut a single stair stringer. But I built two sets of stairs the second week and three the week after. I became the new 'stair man' and cut all the remaining stairs on the project.

Building Stairs

On Monday, I arrived at work to discover that a third building had burned. Wow! The fire started over the weekend when nobody (especially me) was there. As far as I knew, the cause of the fires was never known. Buildings under construction have a higher risk of fire than completed structures. Fire protection building codes intend to protect a completed building, not one that is half-built. There were always pieces of highly-flammable moisture barrier lying around. I guessed that someone carelessly tossed a cigarette into a pile of debris, and poof.

Concrete contractors arrived to clean the slab so electricians and plumbers could restore their stub-ups. Afterward, the concrete contractors recapped the slab with a new layer of concrete to cover up the sooty smell.

The Last Week

Once the slab was ready, the OP crew quickly re-framed it while I finished up the last of the stairs. The carpentry phase of the apartment project was wrapping up. All the buildings were framed and trimmed, and most were bricked and sheetrocked. A paving crew arrived to pave the dusty gravel roads with asphalt, and before long, the last week of work was upon us.

I finished up my last set of stairs on a Thursday. That evening, we all went to Chuy's Mexican restaurant and had beer and nachos to celebrate the end of the job. At the bar, the OP boys announced that they were dissolving their partnership and already had new jobs lined up. Mark was going to work as an estimator for a real estate developer, while Jay went to work for JCorp as a foreman on a condominium project not far from my house.
"Matt, if you are looking for work and are interested in building stairs on my new project, I would like to give the job to you," Jay said.
"That sounds good, Jay. I will come by and check it out," I said.
"Great! Come by on Monday - I'll be there all day."
We drank beer for several hours and reminisced about all of the crazy events that happened on the apartment project, the fires, the SkyTrak accident, the guy who fell off the roof, Chuck-the-cheese-dog, and Steve's late-night party. There weren't too many dull moments.

During the time I spent building apartments, I learned a great deal about carpentry and construction. Along with the countless 'tricks of the trade' I picked up from various carpenters, I learned two marketable carpentry skills - how to frame roofs and build stairs.

On Friday morning, I pulled into the main entrance of the job site and saw Steve leaning up against his truck, talking to some workers (not unlike the scene of my first day on the job). I found a parking spot near Steve's truck and walked toward the group. The workers wrapped up their conversation with Steve and left before I arrived.

"Good morning, Steve," I said.
"Good morning to you. I see you survived last night's festivities."
"Yeah... uh... barely... I'm glad I could buy you a couple of beers before you headed out. When are you planning to depart?"
"First thing tomorrow morning," he replied.
"Oh? I didn't know you were leaving so soon."
"It's best this way," he said. "I don't want to say goodbye to my friends in Texas. The longer I wait, the more difficult it will be. You are one of those friends..."
"I feel the same way, Steve."
"Hey, get in touch with Jay about those stairs. I don't know if it will be good money, but certainly worth checking out."
"I will, Steve."
"You know, Jack will be working there too. I know he thinks highly of you."
"I like Jack too. He's a great guy."
"Well, here's your check. It was great knowing you, Matt. You have become one of my best friends. If you are ever up Wisconsin way, look me up."
"I feel the same way," I said, unexpectedly choked up. "So long, Steve. Have a safe drive back to Cheese Land," I said as I turned and wandered back to my van.
"You're a good man, Matt!" Steve hollered as I opened the driver's side door.
Too choked to speak, I smiled and turned to give him a final wave, and that was the last time I ever saw my good friend, Steve.

The summer had ended. I had become friends with the carpenters, plumbers, electricians, painters, and roofers who had worked on the apartment complex and would not likely see them again (although some workers magically appeared on some of my construction jobs years later). That was the nature of construction. When the work was complete, the job was over. There were no more paychecks. It was time to move on and find something else to build. When you work as a self-employed carpenter, you have to think ahead and plan your next job so there are no gaps between work and paychecks.

As I drove home, I began wondering what my next job would be. Jack and Jay will be working on the condominium project that is not too far from my house. I will meet Jay on Monday to look at his stairs.

~ Matt

What next?

Check out the previous chapter about my first carpentry experience, First Carpentry Job.

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