Is carpentry in danger?
with no formal carpentry school, how will it survive?
Are you ready to hear something scary? There is essentially no school for carpentry. The trade has nevertheless lasted for thousands of years and to this day houses are built primarily by carpenters. Carpenters are also responsible for installing siding, doors and cabinets and routinely stand in as support for all the other trades on a job site.
Carpenters are the single most valuable person on any job site, yet there is virtually no formal training. So how does has the trade survived and how do I make sure I hire competent carpenters?
information is passed down
Information is passed on from older, more experienced carpenters to younger ones. Hopefully it is the right information, but there is no way of telling until you actually work side by side with a carpenter (ideally for several days or weeks) and you ask a lot of questions.
In my opinion, 80% of the carpenters working today do not fully understand why they do what they do – they are merely doing what they’ve been taught. Carpenters only have their own experience as a frame of reference for what is right or wrong. Most of them don’t read books or magazines. Most of them are afraid to ask questions for fear of looking inexperienced. Most lie about how long they have been doing it. When someone says “a few years” it usually means less than one year. When they say “five years” it means two or three.
It’s easy to go out and buy a circular saw, a tool belt, a few extension cords and a cordless drill. It’s easy to buy a truck and some hand tools. I have seen guys show up on a job site with all new tools, and all of them bought at Home Depot over the weekend.
As a general contractor and business owner, I am not able to work side by side with the carpenters on my crew to determine their true level of expertise. The interview process does not reveal anything in depth. While referrals can help me gain insight, there is really only one thing I do to make sure the carpenters I hire are the real deal.
creating my dream team
I find the best way to find good carpenters is to create good carpenters by assuming the role of a teacher.
I take the time to meet weekly with the crew and discuss carpentry techniques. If they have that blank look in their eyes when I bring a topic up, I will expand on that topic. If they have experience on the topic, they will usually talk up and share with the group.
Over the course of time we are developing an in-house shared knowledge that has started to translate into consistent performance in the field. But this is a very long view, and sometimes we need to be able to quantify a carpenter’s experience in a much shorter time span.
The Chisel Test
When I meet a new carpenter, the first thing I do is look at their chisels. Chisels are the single most misunderstood tool of the trade, and if you understand how to sharpen a chisel (and why!) then you pass the test.
Does it have a hollow grind?
Chisels are designed to be sharpened on a regular basis, and, done correctly, will have what’s called a “hollow grind.” That means the chisel was roughly shaped on a grinding wheel, a bench-top machine with a sharpening stone mounted to the sides of the motor that spin. The hollow grind gives the chisel point the shape it needs to pierce and shave the wood without creating undo damage.
In the last 20 years of searching for true carpenters, I have only met two carpenters that understand how to properly sharpen their own chisels. Think about that-I have met and worked with hundreds of carpenters, and only two have passed the chisel test. Some carpenters use a belt sander to sharpen their chisels (if they sharpen them at all), which gives a flat grind, or after a while becomes a rounded grind, nullifying the very intent of the tool. Most workers simply go out and buy a new chisel that has a factory made hollow grind and they sharpen it incorrectly for a few years and then go buy a new one.
Does it have a finely-honed tip?
The second part of a good chisel is the fine honing of the tip, which when done correctly produces a mirror-like tip. I give my chisels such a finely-honed tip that I can reflect the letters written on the light bulb of the fixture over my head. Most workers don’t do this second honing-they aren’t even aware of it. I have had the same set of chisels for over 20 years, and they just keep getting shorter and shorter due to regular sharpening.
Sometimes I bring my sharpening setup out to a job site and spend part of the day sharpening everyone’s chisels. First of all, they think I’m a magician because they have never seen this done, and secondly-and this never fails- someone cuts themselves on their own chisel because it has never been so sharp before. New chisels are not as sharp. In fact, the first thing I do after I buy a new chisel is take it to the grinder before I even use it.
The Future of Carpentry
I know that I can do my part as a general contractor to make sure my crew is competent and that we are building quality homes and structures. I also find comfort in knowing I am doing my part in the community by participating in the Youth Entity mentorship program and teaching the importance of the design-build philosophy to our youth.
I still cannot help but wonder if I am right to fear for the future of homebuilding?
Is the current generation is inheriting a slew of incurable bad habits? Is "true" carpentry knowledge getting lost in translation? Does this mean that the golden age of quality construction has come and gone, and homes quality will slowly decline from now until kingdom come? Or perhaps will the test of time fuel a demand for quality structures, in turn increasing the demand for quality carpenters, leading carpenters to seek quality carpentry education?
Another possibility (forgive me for my bleakness) is that carpentry as we know it completely die as Western society's throwaway culture propels itself forward into a cardboard house society. One where your home is built in a factory, delivered on a truck, and meant to last 10 years at most before the latest and greatest model arrives on your doorstep to replace the old model now falling apart.
While all this is both fun and terrifying to mull around in, we do have some indication that carpentry will survive and thrive in the future. After all, the best indicator of the future is the past. And if the past has anything to say about carpentry it is that it will stand the test of time and somehow, some way, survive through civilization's apparent peaks and valleys – just as it has through Ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, and Medieval Times.