Last year, we ran a series of articles extolling the virtues and eliminating the myths of the skilled trades. While we were able to cover a lot of ground, there wasn’t room to provide a detailed picture of all the various trades out there for men to pursue. So, as an accompaniment to our So You Want My Job series, we’re running regular installments of So You Want My Trade: interviews that offer an inside view of the pluses and minuses of various blue collar career choices.
While many hobbyists will refer to themselves as carpenters, there’s quite a gulf between the garage-variety, weekend bunch and those who call it their career. Many DIY-ers will cut corners or not worry about exact measurements as long as it’s close enough; as a seasoned professional, Matthew Nicholas is not in that category. He’s been in the carpentry trade for over 20 years, and I had the pleasure of interviewing him about what he does with lumber day in and day out.
1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, etc.).
My name is Matthew Nicholas and I am a married father of two teenage girls and several dogs and, so I’m told, a couple of cats as well. I’m a working journeyman carpenter from a small, outer-suburban, formerly-semi-rural-but-recently-sprawling town called South Lyon, near Detroit and Ann Arbor in Michigan. I’m forty-one years old and I’ve been working as a carpenter of some sort since about 1990 when I began by helping my neighbor build decks on weekends and during the summer.
I’m a licensed builder and work as a solo, carpenter-for-hire in remodeling projects, custom cabinetry, finish trimwork, stairways, custom doors and the like. In my past, I have been a framing carpenter and for a while was a crew foreman in the building of large, multi-million-dollar custom homes as well as up-scale tract housing. From there, I got into custom design/build remodeling and renovations, working first as a “lead-carpenter” until I was a project manager. Just before the market collapsed in 2008, I set out on my own to court those design/build projects where my sensibilities and skills better fit with a certain segment of the market who desired a higher quality of work, with less of the overhead expense of other builders in my area. Since then, I’ve been a contractor-in-general, but mainly sought for my finish carpentry work.
2. Why did you want to get into carpentry? Was it something you always knew you wanted to do?
From a young age, I was building “stuff.” Whether it be playhouses in the woods with old lumber scraps, or small (rickety) furniture pieces, I was often at play in my dad’s workshop and garage. I started college with the concept of becoming an architect or perhaps an engineer, but lost my direction sometime about three years in when I took a semester off to help out with my former summertime employer’s company. I was able to become a carpenter, rather than a general laborer, and found that the demands and challenges of framing a house suited my mind and my physique. I developed a love for the work, the atmosphere of the jobsite, and the process of making homes. As that company grew and expanded, I was introduced to new challenges and new opportunities to develop my skill-set and my overall experience. What has kept me in the game now nearly twenty-five years later, is the ever-evolving demands on my skill and my ingenuity in practices of one-of-a-kind carpentry, or in my occasional design/build projects.
3. Tell us a little bit about what you do as a carpenter.
I may be a little unique as a carpenter, because along with being a tradesman — practicing my skill with tools and materials, toiling the day away — I am also a sole-proprietor of my business. I am continuously seeking new projects, new clients, and potential avenues to network and expand my opportunities. And, I am often my own designer, so my time gets spent in between my truck and tools and computer and an often-uncomfortable chair. I use my iPhone almost equally as much as I use my miter saw — for social networking, for email and text communications with job leads, current clients, and attempts to keep in the mind of former customers who may need a follow-up project or two. I work with a few other contractors as well, so keeping the lines open with them and making myself available to collaborate when needed is one of those constant duties.
My measuring and cutting of the wood is often a meditative time, when the goals ahead of me are clearly defined and my productivity is measurable. What I find myself doing a lot more than I ever expected or even considered at the start of my career is relating to people. Particularly, to my clients. It’s been my experience that the clients who hire me want an intimate level of service and communication, and require confidence in me that everything will be taken care of to a level of quality and diligence that they don’t often receive. Because I often team with my clients in projects which are unique and “custom,” my relationship becomes far more collaborative than I suspect most other carpenters may experience. I’m a listener, a confidant, and occasionally, a therapeutic witness to some sort of life-event, because I am there and I am available to be supportive or simply a sounding board. You might say I’m like the archetype of the corner bartender who listens to his customers’ complaints, only in someone’s living room and without the boozy elixir.
4. Tell us a little bit about an average work day.
Few of my days are the same, or “average,” so I’ll describe yesterday. I get to begin my mornings when I choose to. It’s one of the few perks of the self-employment game. I’m not one of those guys who is up before dawn, but rather, when I wake up naturally. I eat a protein and caffeine-heavy breakfast, then it’s time for work. My shop is my garage these days, so I had a bit of stuff to load into the truck to take to the site after spending the previous day fabricating parts for my current project.
I was to meet a glazing contractor at 9:00 so they could remove panes from the facade of a mid-century-modern home I’m making structural repairs to. When I got to the site, they weren’t there and, following a phone call, I found they were running an hour behind. Not a problem, as that gave me time to run for plywood and other materials I wasn’t able to get at the beginning of the week, as I was running behind with my milling and epoxy-coating of parts I am making.
Back on the site, the glass guys pulled in just after I did, and as they set to work removing the windows, I set to cutting plywood panels to temporarily fill the openings left by the removed glass. I measured each removed pane to use the dimensions for my panels, as well as to have in my documents so that when I re-build the framework, I can guarantee that the new glass will fit. The guys finished and left me behind to finish securing the house with plywood panels, then I cleaned up the leftover dust, scraps, and debris from the site and my custom-built scaffolding. With nothing more to do until the new parts are complete, I left the site and went to a previous project’s site to collect a payment.
On that site, I spoke with the lead carpenter and discussed the work I had done there. I examined my stairway railing, a coffered ceiling, and other trimwork elements that I created; they were now painted and the project was almost complete. We talked briefly about upcoming work and the role I may have in these projects if I’m available, then I left and deposited my check. Tuesdays end early for me as I teach martial arts classes for kids in a local school. I intended to get back to the shop and roll out more epoxy, but that had to wait until this morning.
Today will include the epoxy coating of some red-cedar framework stock, then back to the site to prepare the interior for the process of deconstructing the window frames and, subsequently, preparing for the new installation work. I’m going to have to be meticulous and painstaking as this barrier keeps the occupied residence protected from the dust and potential rainfall on the construction side.
5. What was your path to becoming a carpenter? What kind of training and certifications did you need? Did you go to trade school?
My path was common to most in my area: I knew a guy (my parent’s neighbor) who built his own home and decided to become a custom home builder. When he needed a young, strong laborer, I was just across the street and more than happy to work making a solid wage rather than taking a fast-food or retail job. Though I did attend college, I would work for his company during summers and vacation weeks. I came back to the crew when the school-learnin’ lost its appeal, and I expanded my skills, duties, and the range of projects I could undertake. As I progressed in my career, I learned from older guys when they were available, but also from hours spent watching DIY shows on PBS, reading trade-specific books and periodicals, as well as old-fashioned trial-and-error tactics.
6. How do you find work as a carpenter? Through a union? What’s the job market like?
Because I am a freelancer, I find work most often from homeowners themselves. I depend on my network of past clients for referrals and for follow-up projects. I’ve successfully gotten exposure from some online services which allow me to advertise my services for a fee. For the type of work I do, the variety of projects, and the area where I work, word-of-mouth has been my best means of finding new work and new projects.
I’m at the stage in my career where I’m seeking the types of projects where I am challenged and where the results will be visually appealing and “stunning” when viewed in marketing materials and social media — again, I’m always trying to sell the next job. I’ve never worked through a union, and while I recognize the benefits of unions for other trades and occupations, I’ve never seen a benefit to a carpenter’s union in a marketplace where something so naturally “DIY” as carpentry exists.
Because of the vast variation in skill and ability of “carpenters” in the market, I wish there were a guild standard which could be applied to the trade so that clients and carpenters themselves could know what the capability of the tradesman is before they are hired. There is a lot of poorly done work out there, and along with this, there is a wide discrepancy in costs for carpentry work. I’ve had to compete with other “options” whose prices are lower because of their lower skill, lower capability, or simply are poor at estimating. And I’ve also been that guy myself. I choose to call myself a journeyman, because I know enough to realize that even after all of these years, there are still so many aspects of the trade to master, and I am not yet a “master.”
7. What is the work/life balance like in your career?
Because I work out of my home/garage, my worklife is often my homelife. I wouldn’t say that mine is particularly well-balanced but I recognize that this is a compromise I made willingly so that I can have mornings where I choose to sleep in, or days when I leave the site early to go and teach or to watch one of my daughters’ athletic games. Vacations are infrequent, as my wife works corporately and has to schedule her time well in advance, and my opportunities are often only found in between projects — projects whose start and stop dates are always dynamic and never easily scheduled.
8. What’s the best part of your career?
Independence. I am an independent contractor and I am free to work when I want, where I choose, and as much as I want — assuming I’ve lined up the work and the stars are properly-aligned and there is work for me to do. I can go out to the garage after dinner and assemble a cabinet, or paint some trimwork on a rainy Sunday afternoon. When inspired, I can sit at this computer and detail a bathroom remodel design or tweak my logo a little for some direct mailers. Because I am independent and my workspace is just outside my back door, I’m never far from making some money…if I estimated correctly, that is.
9. What’s the worst part?
Independence. I am the captain of my own ship, but I also have to be the wind and the sail. It is up to me to get exposure to potential clients, to estimate accurately, and sell potential leads on my capability to do the work they seek. And…I have to do the work itself. The uncertainty of the next big project is always a specter looming in my shadow. In economic downturns, when the urge for renovation and remodeling dries up, I’m vulnerable to a dead calm. It makes for some stressful hours and days and sometimes, weeks. But, there is always some sort of work for a good carpenter. Maybe not in my back yard, but somewhere there is a way to pay the bills if I go and find it.
10. What’s the biggest misconception people have about your job?
I’m not sure what the biggest misconception is. I know I have looked at it from the outside-in myself. I’ve been in the company of other carpenters and seen the work of other people and have held differing opinions. I think many DIY-minded folk underestimate the skill and capability we good carpenters have developed over decades of repetition and practice. I think there is a sentiment that because HGTV shows a handsome young wannabe-actor swing a sledge-hammer in minute seven, then shows a beautiful (as far as the camera sees) finished project at minute twenty-nine as the credits roll, that any semi-handy fella or lady can do the things that we pros have made a career of.
I often feel that our financial value — our wages or percentage of project costs — is set lower because the threshold to entry into the carpentry trade is fairly low. Almost everyone had a grandpa or an uncle who knows or knew some carpentry, right? How hard can it be? “Why should we pay you that rate when there are so many other raggedly-dressed, semi-alcoholic, somewhat-boorish guys parked all over the lot at the local Home Depot on any given Saturday morning?”
Long ago I worked with a guy who was a bit more experienced than I was and we were discussing our pay and our hourly rate. He told me, “Look, I don’t get paid for what I do in an hour. I get paid what I get paid for what I CAN do in an hour — any hour, anywhere, on any job.” This has always sat inside my mind and I’ve tried to express this in my sales meetings and materials as well. I am a professional carpenter and my capabilities come at a certain cost. So, while you may feel you are paying more for my tradework than you may have to pay someone else, the added cost buys you a conscientious, articulate, sane, sober, and trustworthy professional within your home and at your beck-and-call throughout our contract.
To sum up, and to clarify my own thoughts on the question, I guess the biggest misconception I’ve seen about carpentry is that it is viewed by too many people to be a low-skilled, low-caliber trade not worthy of as much regard as mechanical trades or other skilled trades. The reality is that there are many of us who are consummate professionals…in dusty jeans and sweatshirts.
11. Any other advice, tips, commentary, or anecdotes you’d like to add?
I think the trades have long been overlooked by young people as a career option. I know I had to leave the college I was in and I don’t regret taking up my tools to make a living. I wish I had taken a different course of study, perhaps, but in my heart, I know that I would be a craftsman in whatever career I chose. In popular media, I would like to see more realistic and positive portrayals of working professional carpenters. I grew up on This Old House and The New Yankee Workshop, and while I’ll always reserve a tender spot in my heart for Norm Abrams (the host and carpenter in those PBS shows) — he lacked the twisted-steel-and-sex-appeal that makes a young person want to see themselves in that sort of role. Compare the television celebrity of chefs like Gordon Ramsay or Anthony Bourdain or even Rachael Ray to the notoriety of DIY or HGTV personalities. There aren’t culturally-recognizable carpenters or craftsmen like there are chefs, or even motorcycle customization guys like Jesse James and the Orange County Chopper guys.
I applaud the efforts of guys like Mike Rowe or Canada’s Mike Holmes who are trying to recruit young people into skilled trades occupations. I want to somehow be a part of this sort of movement that makes carpentry — and all of the art, the science, the ingenuity, and the heart that goes into it — an appealing career path for the right collection of young people and of people who have lost direction in a work-life which may no longer suit their souls. I want to see carpenters who actively choose this work as a profession rather than something they move to out of apathy or desperation simply to make a buck.