I dove head first into carpentry well over a decade ago when I decided I wanted to build my own home.
I was hired by a small, newly formed construction company that had recently broken ground on a high-end home on the shores of Lake George. On my first day of work my new boss told me to thaw a massive pile of frozen dirt so that it would be easier for me to shovel. I was surprised.
Surprise because the night before I was down at Sears shopping for basic carpentry tools - a tool belt, a hammer, a tape measurer, a chalk line, and some pencils. When I pulled up for work the following day I immediately put on my tool belt and walked up to meet the crew. Little did I know I wouldn't use my tools for some time.
A few hours later, I was shoveling dirt while wearing my tool belt. I was getting some puzzled looks from the other carpenters. Obviously shoveling with a tool belt on didn't make sense, but somehow I knew the sooner I took off my tool belt, the longer it would be before I could swing my hammer.
I wanted to build.
I made a point of wearing my belt everyday, regardless of the menial task at hand, waiting for someone to ask for help. Digging or sweeping, it didn’t matter; my tool belt stayed on.
A couple of weeks later, I was walking around picking up scrap wood, when one of the lead carpenters, atop a ladder, yelled down for a pencil. I reached into my belt and threw it up. He looked at it and said, “Nice and sharp! I like that!” Later that day, he had me working as his ground guy making all the cuts.
Over the next few months, I picked up some carpentry books and poured through them at night. During lunch break I would ask the other carpenters questions. “What’s the SPF stamp on all the lumber stand for?” Everyone shrugged their shoulders except for my boss, Joe, who said “spruce-pine-fur.” With that, something clicked it my head. The big picture of home-building, from the tree to the finish product, it all came into vision.
I wanted to know more.
I would learn more from Joe than from anyone else. I also taught myself a considerable amount as I became more interested in furniture making and finer woodworking. I volunteered to work on weekends - they hired someone else to sweep. I collected tools at a pace that made my boss nervous. My growing knowledge of wood species, how it should be milled, and how it should be joined turned me into a respected finish carpenter.
Years passed, and I paid my dues.
Eventually, though, the scale of these custom homes the company took on began to wear on my conscience. The houses got bigger, and so did the crew. I decided to start my own business and began picking up small jobs. At the same time, my wife and I bought land and built a 12 x 18 foot cabin on the property using nothing but a chainsaw and some hand tools. The experience spurred an unknown nostalgia for forgotten ways, not only in carpentry and woodworking, but in everyday life - a way to live lighter and more sustainably with a sharp focus on our built environment. My tool collection started looking more like an antique shop.
Never losing sight of my original plan to one day build my own house, I finally sat down and began drafting plans. We decided to build a traditional timber frame home with non-traditional straw bale walls. We also decided to install more solar panels and remain off-grid.
We have now enjoyed living in our new home for over a year, and though it is not one hundred percent finished, we're happy to have a place to call home. The final details will be reserved for long-weekends and one-off projects.
The important next step is reinventing my business. I've decided to hang up the heavy tool belt I once refused to take off and instead focus on woodworking full-time.
I've also decided to re-purpose my little hand-built cabin and turn it into a woodworking shop. Inside there is a wood stove for heat, an old car stereo for tunes, and a single outlet for electricity from the house's main solar electric system. It's small - I'm not going to lie - but it is perfectly suitable for small projects - so that's what I'll do.
The shop is now open.