Self Employed Carpenter

Working as a Carpentry Subcontractor

It was the beginning of summer, sometime in the early 1980's. I woke up before dawn, on 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 6am breakfast of Sugar Pops and toast, I loaded my new carpentry tools, that I had purchased at the end of my first carpentry job, into my '71 Volkswagen van and headed to the job site. There was light in the sky, but the sun had not yet risen. 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. The project consisted of 17 large multi-unit buildings and an office/clubhouse located near a future pool and playground. The carpentry phase of the project was just getting started. Five of the buildings were in the framing stage and the rest were freshly poured concrete slabs.

Activity was 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 not far from here."
"That's great," he said. "All of our work is subcontracted. We have large framing crews that are building the structures, and we have smaller crews that do 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 made our way across the job site to one of the buildings that was almost completely framed. Steve seemed like a nice fellow. He was about my age, but he was a seasoned carpenter that had much more construction experience than me. I was certain that he knew that too, but nevertheless, he was willing to give me a chance. 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 there are parts that have wood siding. You will be responsible for constructing all of 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 quite a bit of work to do at the lower elevations until I figured out how I was going to do 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 find a helper so that you can keep up with the pace of construction."
"That's a good idea," I said, thinking that I would try to do it all myself. "I brought my tools with me and I am ready to get started today if that is okay."
"That's perfect! I just need to get some tax information from you and you will be all set."
That was it. We shook hands and the deal was settled. I was officially a self employed carpenter! I could make my own schedule, work as much as I wanted, and come and go as I pleased. Of course, I never actually came and went as I pleased, but it was nice to know that if I wanted to, I 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 in order to make a decent wage. It was a fairly large building with many wooden elements. It looked like quite a bit 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 back to where I had parked my VW van and 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 on 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 of the soffit and fascia work that needed to be done. I worked that day until I ran out of materials, then packed up my tools as the sun was going down 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 own schedule and productivity. When I watched the clock, I was more concerned about how late it was and what I had accomplished that day, rather than just wishing the time away until beer-thirty, as an hourly carpenter's helper.

The next morning I felt refreshed and ready for work. Before I left home, I made a sack lunch so that I wouldn't have to leave the job site in the middle of the day for food (or have to eat a soggy taco from one of the food trucks). My tools were still loaded into 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 located on the back corner of the job site, closest to the intersection. Each morning, while stuck at the long light, I could easily see my building and the progress I had made.

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 towards 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 going 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 on tight to the steel framing, 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 he showed me scars from a motorcycle accident that had broken both of his legs. In spite of 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 managed to finish 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 employer is taking taxes out of your check, and on top of that, you also have to pay Self Employment tax. So, when you got your check, you needed to put aside about 30% of it for tax. That's a pretty good slice out of your small paycheck!

Steve was from Wisconsin - Cheese Land, he frequently called it. He had been working in the Austin area for a few years, due to lack of work in Wisconsin, but he longed to return to his home state some day. 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 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 a lengthy conversation about carpentry and life and just about everything. The conversations always flowed well and we rarely finished talking because we ran out of things to say. I would tell him about the jobs I had while working at a nearby hospital, while he shared his experiences in construction and doing factory work in Cheese Land.

The buildings were often surrounded with construction debris. Sometimes you had to walk over piles of scrap 2x4s and plywood to get your work done. 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 that he was cutting off! Too late. The circular saw broke through the critical point, and the plywood, saw, and worker plunged to the ground. Lucky for him, he landed on a pile of scrap moisture barrier 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 surviving carpenter worked for the largest framing subcontractor on the site - OP Construction, named after the owner's, 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 crews hard, but would frequently provide beer at the end of the day when major milestones were met. Sometimes they would invite Steve and Jack and I 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 quite verbose and full-of-shit most of the time, but everyone seemed to like Jay and wanted to be liked by him. 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 personal 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 or a personal vehicle in less than a minute. The tool rack served as an organizer for my less-used hand tools and nails. The base of the tool rack was essentially a tray that had two bins on each side, for nails and screws, and one larger bin in the middle for hand tools and such. Once the base was assembled, I attached vertical 2x4s at each end to support the handle, made from a section 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 that I carried for adjusting the carburetor and points on my VW engine.

After about a month on the job, I had completed the siding and trim on all of 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 began making a grinding sound as the motor wound down between saw cuts. I knew it wasn't going to last long - it wasn't designed for commercial use.

On Friday, after getting my weekly draw, I left a little 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 seating capacity for the five of us. When I got home from work, I unloaded my new tool rack to convert my van back into a personal vehicle, made an adjustment to the carburetor, picked up my friends, and headed north to Dallas.

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

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 over 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 and 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 proceeded slowly towards the location of my building. As I passed by OP's latest framing project, my worst fears were confirmed. 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 burned smoking rubble talking to Mark and 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 over 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 managed to take a picture of the burning buildings and he shared it with us. The flames towered twice the height of the three-story structure 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 really understanding what piecework was, but it had to be better than unemployment.
"I have to meet with the general contractor about the work we had done on these buildings so that 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 for it, but I couldn't help but to think that maybe I had flicked a cigarette too close to one of the piles of highly flammable moisture barrier. I had been careful, but maybe 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 morning, 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. From a distance, he 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. Ever since I began calling myself a carpenter, just about everything I built was a new experience. Six months prior, I had been drawing blood in a hospital, with no clue that I would be framing a bay window in my near future.

"Looking good, Matt!" Steve said. "I would have framed it a little differently, but there's nothing wrong with your work. Do you want to frame some fireplaces? I have about 10 of them that need to be done quickly."
"I'll show you one that is already completed - you just have to build the new ones the same way. 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 of working - 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 for me was that Steve only gave me tasks that I could do by myself, unlike installing second-story soffit and fascia, which requires scaffolding and a minimum of two people. I think Steve also noticed that I was not too comfortable with heights - he didn't give me much up-in-the-air work.

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

Framing Chimneys

The fireplaces were already framed in the apartment units (some of them by me), and plywood roof sheathing was already installed on top of the roof trusses. The first step was to determine where the sheet metal flue would need to 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 the location of the flue was determined, I added 2x6 blocking below the sheathing to support the chimney framing. Finally, I drove nails up through the sheathing so that I could 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 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. Once the hole was cut, I marked the location of the chimney walls with my carpenter's pencil and chalk-line, then nailed and screwed the wall sections through the plywood sheathing and 2x6 blocking. The prefabricated walls were cut so that, once installed on the 5-12 pitch roof, they would be plumb.

Installing Chimneys
Chimney Framing Attached to the Roof

The first chimney took almost all day to build and install. But after the first week, I had learned a new style of building, production style. I began mass-cutting all of the wall parts, so that I wouldn't have to keep changing the bevel on my saw back and forth from a straight cut (90 degrees), to the 5-12 roof pitch angle (22.6 degrees). After the chimney wall elements were cut, I nailed the pieces together assembly-line style. I was cranking out two to three chimneys per day, which was decent money back in the mid-1980s. 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 scheduled to begin shingling the next day. Almost all of the workers had left and the sun was low in the sky. Suddenly, three pickup trucks pulled into the job site and drove up to my building. Workers jumped out and began running 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 card - Fly by Night Roofing Company, party by day and work by night. "That's cool!" I said, not intending the pun. "Well, I am ready for a beer!  I'll get out of your way and let you guys go to work!"

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 made a turn 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 to be trapped inside. As I got closer, I could see that Steve's leg was 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 down and grabbed Steve's hand and gave him a stern look that said, I ain't going anywhere, buddy, while some of the workers began loosening the gravel around his leg with the claws of their hammers. No apparent head injury or bleeding, that's good. "Someone 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 site of the accident. It wasn't until then, that he released his grip on my hand. The middle of his knee joint had a deep impression, from where the SkyTrak had been laying 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 and the paramedics loaded Steve onto a stretcher and off they went.

After the ambulance left, some of the 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 named 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 and latched onto the SkyTrak's boom and brought it to its feet. After watching the event, I went back to my work area and packed up my tools. I was done for the day...

On Friday morning, I woke to the sound of hard rain pounding the roof of my house. A thunderstorm was moving through the area. The storm should be gone by the time I get to work, I thought. I drove back to the job site, not expecting to see Steve, but hoped to get some information about his condition. I saw 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 drywall, sorting out envelopes.
"Good morning, Dan."
"Morin'!" 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, then leaned back 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 as usual, 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 his way towards me with a big grin on his face, 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 dint in my knee had almost returned to normal. They took some X-Rays and determined that nothing was permanently damaged, just some tendonitis, which I am taking care of with some fine 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, and Jay and I decided to drive to Dot's cafeteria for lunch. We got our food and sat down at a round table that was big enough for the five of us. Once we were settled, 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.
"Really, 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 both 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'll do some remodeling, or both."
"Well, I'm sure sorry to hear that you are leaving," I said.
"Me too," said Mark. "We make a good team."
Jack was being 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 ready to party. 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 REALLY get the party going."
"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 added with a laugh.
"There's an ice chest in the kitchen for your beer. My wife, Mary, is there making margaritas. Introduce yourselves, then grab a cold one and come on 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 made our way 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 of 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, I know 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 school at 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 in a hospital, and now doing carpentry?" Steve asked.
"It is the result of living life without a plan - making career decisions as random chance presents 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 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, I noticed that your 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 day is up," 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 almost 40 years and it is still cutting wood).

"Gary was our stairman,"  Steve said. "but he hasn't shown up for work in a few weeks and no one knows of 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 for 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 basically simple - you divide the Total Height of the stairs by your 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 drop any decimal of fractional parts, then divide the Total Height again by the Number of Steps (using just 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 would connect the ground level to the second floor of the apartment unit. The design also called for a mid-level landing between floors.

Just like all of the other things that I had built on this apartment project, the first stair well took the longest - almost the whole week, while I measured, calculated, and checked my math, at least three times before I cut a single stair stringer. But I was able to build two sets of stairs the second week, and three the week after. I had become the new 'stair man' and built most of the remaining stairs on the project.

Building Stairs

One Monday, I arrived at work to discover that a third building had burned to the ground. Wow! The fire started sometime over the weekend when nobody (especially me) was there. As far as I know, investigations into the causes of the fires had never been determined. Buildings under construction have a higher risk of fire than completed structures. Fire protection building codes aren't intended to be effective until the structure is completely finished. Much of the time the job site was littered with scrap wood and pieces of highly-flammable moisture barrier. My guess is that someone carelessly tossed a cigarette into a pile of debris, and poof!

After the fires, the slabs had to be scraped off and the burnt material removed and hauled off. Plumbing and electrical stub-ups had to be restored, and the slab had to be recapped with a new layer of concrete to cover up the sooty smell.

Once the slab was cleaned off and re-capped, 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 of the buildings were framed and trimmed, and most of them were bricked and dry-walled. The dusty gravel roads that once connected the buildings were being paved 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, on Barton Springs road, 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 and was given the position of foreman on a condominium project that was not too 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 opportunity to you," Jay said.
"That sounds good, I'll 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... Steve's late-night party... There weren't too many dull moments.

Friday morning, I woke up feeling a little rough from too many beers and not enough sleep, but I didn't have any carpentry work to do. My only task was to meet Steve to pick up my final check. I skipped breakfast and drove straight to the job site. I got caught at the last traffic light (for the last time), before arriving at the apartment complex, and took the moment to reflect on how much the project had changed over the months.

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

I pulled into the main entrance 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 a short distance from Steve's truck and walked towards 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 just glad I was able to buy you a couple of beers before you headed north. 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 really want to say goodbye to my friends in Texas, and 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, getting unexpectedly choked up. "So long, Steve. Have a safe drive back to Cheese Land," I said, as I turned and walked slowly 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 many of the carpenters, plumbers, electricians, painters, and roofers, and would not see most of them ever again. That is the nature of construction. Once the work is done, the job is over. There are no more paychecks. It is time to move on and find something else to build. When you work as a self-employed carpenter, you have to line up your next job in advance, so that 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'll meet Jay on Monday, as promised, and see what his stair project is all about...

~ Matt

What next?

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

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