in: Career, Career & Wealth, Podcast

• Last updated: December 19, 2023

Podcast #950: A Carpenter’s Notes on the Art of Good Work

After forty years working as a carpenter, and not just any carpenter, but one who is often considered the best in New York and who executes some of the country’s most elaborate, expensive, and challenging projects, Mark Ellison has filled hundreds of notebooks with drawings of his plans. He’s also made plenty of observations about the nature of work, craft, and doing a good job at whatever you pursue.

Mark is the author of Building: A Carpenter’s Notes on Life & the Art of Good Work, and today on the show, he shares some of the lessons he’s learned over his career in high-end construction, including those that center on the less romantic aspects of being a carpenter. We discuss the comparative importance of will, talent, and interest in learning a craft, the challenges not only of construction but managing personalities, mistakes, and expectations, why speed is essential for a successful craftsman, and how the principles that make for a master builder carry over into other pursuits.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. After 40 years working as a carpenter, and not just any carpenter, but one who’s often considered the best in New York and who execute some of the country’s most elaborate, expensive and challenging projects, Mark Ellison has filled hundreds of notebooks with drawings of his plans. He’s also made plenty of observations about the nature of work, craft, and doing a good job at whatever you pursue. Mark is the author of Building: A Carpenter’s Notes on Life & the Art of Good Work. And today on the show, he shares some of the lessons he’s learned over his career in high-end construction, including those that center on the less romantic aspects of being a carpenter. We discuss the comparative importance of will, talent, and interest in learning to craft. The challenge is not only in construction, but managing personalities, mistakes and expectations, why speed is essential for a successful craftsmen, and have the principles that make for a master builder carry over into other pursuits. After the show’s over check out our show notes at

All right, Mark Ellison, welcome to the show.

Mark Ellison: Pleasure to be here.

Brett McKay: So you are a carpenter who specializes in building and remodeling lavish homes for wealthy clients in New York City. Did you start off your young life with a goal of doing what you’re doing now, or did you kind of fall into this?

Mark Ellison: I’m much more fell into it than did it intentionally, as the only thing I knew as a young man was that I didn’t want to do most of the jobs that I saw people around me doing. I wasn’t very interested in them. I spent a lot of time in the woods as a kid, and I considered becoming like a forest ranger or a guide, but those are… I’m not a solitary person and those are solitary pursuits, and I just happened… And when I talk about it in the book, I happened to meet an itinerant, Armenian-American carpenter, who wound up on the couch of our apartment in New York City way back in 1980, and he asked me to work on a project with him, and I just liked it. I really, really enjoy working with my hands. And I come from… My mother has always… She sews, she’s a tailor, she’s woven, she knits all the time. My father always had a workshop. And so working with my hands was something more or less second nature to me. It’s just that I didn’t know you could make a living at it until somebody paid me to do it.

Brett McKay: And then how did you end up working with the clients you’re working with now?

Mark Ellison: It just was a progression. I moved from one company to another, and I always liked… To me, the most interesting things on every job were the most challenging projects in every job. I really enjoyed seeing if I could make things that I didn’t know how to make, and if I could move up a step and move up another step and another step, and incrementally over the first, say, 10 years of my career, I went from working to… The early projects I worked on were just people up on the Upper West Side who… Bankers and lawyers. And they were regular people. And then as I got better and better at what I did, I started to move into a higher echelon of building until by about 1992, I was working for one of the top companies in the city that did the kind of work that I do now, which is fancy renovations for super rich people.

Brett McKay: So you’re a carpenter, and I think when most people think of carpenter, they think of a guy who build a bookcase or some cabinets. But your work goes well beyond that. You not only build things, but you serve as a bridge, someone who can take a theoretical architectural design and then make them concrete in the real world. So when someone hires you, a builder does a general contractor, you take the architect’s plans and you spend a lot of time just going through with a red pencil saying, “Okay, this is possible, this is not possible. This’s how we have modify it to make this work.” And that’s a challenge, and that takes your expertise that you’ve developed over the past 40 years to know what’s possible and what’s not possible, taking theory into practice. What other challenges does your line of work present? Besides that that’s a big challenge in and of itself, but that’s the thing that really impressed me about your book is that your job just seems really hard. There’s just so many moving parts. It’s complex, complicated. Give us an idea of what it’s like working on a project.

Mark Ellison: Well, one of the reasons I still to this day enjoy what I do is that it’s such a massive challenge, even just one house. Right now, I’m building two side-by-side town houses in Brooklyn, and it’s essentially one building, but you start with the personality of the architect. So I have an architect, the architect went to Yale, and people that go to Yale are accustomed to thinking themselves as knowledgeable, successful people who have achieved something. So the very first thing I have to watch out for is not to… I don’t wanna take a set of blueprints and mark them up so badly and treat them so poorly and say, “This is such a pile of crap,” that I’ve bruised their ego and they never wanna talk to me again and they never wanna work with me again. And these days, aside from the building challenges, the biggest challenges I usually face were challenges of personality. How do you take somebody who has 10,000 times more money than I do and manage their expectations so they wind up happy with their home? And how do you take an architect who’s very, very well-educated at the top of the educational ladder, and tell them that 75% of what they drew is wrong, and then correct it, but get them to work with you to do that rather than work against you?

And that goes all the way down. That goes all the way through the entire project. 75% of the people I work with on my job site, their first language isn’t even English. So how do you tell somebody who… [laughter] How do you tell a tile guy who… My current tiler is barely conversing in English. He’s Chinese. And how do I communicate with him a really exacting tile pattern where every tile has a place, and the specifications, there’s no room for movement one way or the other? He really has to pull it off exactly correctly. And the challenges of that are some of the most interesting and to me fun part projects these days, ’cause I’ve had to learn so much patience and so much… And I’m not a great diplomat. I’m sort of angry by nature, and I have to curb some of my more brutish impulses a lot…

In order to pull these things off.

Brett McKay: And so, yeah, so you’re dealing with the architect, you’re dealing with the client, you’re dealing with the different workers who are working with you. But then you’re also having to deal with regulations, right? In New York City, there’s a lot of…

Mark Ellison: Oh, God.

Brett McKay: Regulations. And you have to deal with… That’s part of the environment, so it’s like, well, I wanna do this thing to make this work, but then the historical regulation says, “No, you can’t do that.” So you work around that.

Mark Ellison: Every single pursuit has its set of rules, and very few of us get to make the rules by which at least we work. I try as much as I can to make some rules by which I live, but I don’t make the rules by which I work. And all the paperwork has to be done, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission is gonna come around and inspect to make sure that the molding that’s on the front of the house matches the molding from the historical photograph they have in their archive. And there’s certain things like that, that there’s nothing I can do about. I can’t do it, and I don’t try.

Brett McKay: So there’s a lot of constraints. And I think this is why I love this book ’cause you show how in a very subtle way, how this carries over to other parts of our lives. Everyone else has the same problems that you experience, maybe a different scale. You have to deal with people who are frustrating. You gotta deal with personalities. You have to deal with regulations. There are these rules you have to conform yourself to in order to do your work. And so in your book, Building: A Carpenter’s Notes on Life & the Art of Good Work, you share lessons on how you’ve managed to learn how to do this from your 40 plus years of work. And you start off the book talking about the importance of WILL. And you capitalize will, W-I-L-L. Very philosophical, I think. How do you define WILL in your line of work?

Will generally to me, even outside of my line of work, I define will as the ability to do. That’d be my broadest definition of it. And it’s a big discussion, but how do you complete anything? You could talk to a chef about, how do you make a beautiful meal, and what are the psychological and physical and temperamental elements that go into making a beautiful meal for somebody or making a beautiful house or realizing any vision of any kind? It doesn’t matter what the year is; it can be anything. And I think if you spoke to people who’ve become accomplished at doing in their respective field, they would pretty much all tell you the same sort of things that they went through the same sort of struggles. And it’s only by really mucking things up and making huge mistakes in my life that I’ve learned, “Oh, the problem isn’t everything around me. The problem is, I don’t know how to do this.” The problem here is me. I don’t know how to talk to people so that they will work with me. I don’t know how to be kind enough to somebody who I kinda don’t like, so that they’ll take me upstairs in the elevator every day without complaint.

Mark Ellison: Those are the sorts of things it takes to get something done. Doing something in this world is not just a matter of having the skills, that’s a whole matter of practice, but also being able to engage people and make friendships and find your allies and find people you can rely on, and to work on something with you. And all of those are components of developing the world to realize a vision of any kind. It doesn’t matter what the vision is or what area you’re working in. The struggles are always the same. To be able to really realize a vision takes an enormous amount of learning and practice, and skill and effort, and swallowing one’s own failure so that… I realized the primary problem here is me, and that’s what needs fixing.

Brett McKay: Right. So will, this is something… It can be developed. It’s not something you’re just born with, you can develop this?

Mark Ellison: Yeah. I think it’s… You can certainly be stunted early on in life by poor parenting and rough circumstances, but it’s definitely something that could be developed. Because it’s a learning process. It’s like a rewiring of your brain, essentially, or my brain. My brain has been pretty much rewired by this business over the years.

Brett McKay: So you mentioned that will isn’t the same as skill. Will requires skill, but they’re not the same thing. And you had this chapter on talent. What have you learned about talent during your 40 years of doing what you do?

Mark Ellison: I just think that talent is one of the most useless concepts that the world has to offer. And the reason I say that is because… People certainly are born with certain proclivities. There are people that are born seven feet tall that are much more likely to be a basketball player than I am. There are people that are born with live athletic bodies that are gonna be a better ballet dancer. There are people born with very active minds or an acuity for music. People are born with acuities, and you might call that talent, but it’s not really a useful concept because talent doesn’t matter at all without practice and development and regular daily practice. It’s funny ’cause people say, I’m a talented carpenter. Okay, I have been a carpenter for 40 years. So I’ve put in 80,000 hours of carpentry now in my lifetime. So I’ve had a lot of practice. I’m well beyond Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000. I’ve done that eight times over. One would hope that I got pretty good at it by now, otherwise something’s wrong.

And also, to me, talent is less important than like genuine interest and being attracted to doing something. When I started doing carpentry refurbing, I was attracted to it and I was interested in it, and I studied it, and I would read books, and I would go to the… Back then, you had to go to the library and check out a book on how to do framing. And to me, my interest and my practice was far, far more important than some… I don’t know if I have any native talent in carpentry. I also have been practicing music for 50 years. Nobody early on would have identified me as a prodigy in anything. But I have keen interests in things, and I pursue them and I practice them. I do have a strong habit of if I want to learn how to do something, I will practice. And I will practice six days a week for an extended period of time at all sorts of pursuits.

Brett McKay: How long did it take for you in your career before you felt like you had some skill at carpentry?

Mark Ellison: It took about 15 years before I could say, “Okay, I got a handle on this.” And specifically the trade of carpentry at that point, like woodworking and building… Like home-building-style building. ‘Cause that’s what I do. I build basically single family homes; I just happened to build within apartment buildings a lot. At about 15 years when I felt like I could kinda handle anything anybody threw at me, and that was before I got into sort of the crazy stuff.

Brett McKay: And then how long did it take for you to feel you gotta handle on the crazy stuff?

Mark Ellison: Another 15 years.

Brett McKay: All right. So…

Mark Ellison: It’s a slow road. I hate to tell people, but it’s a slow road. I wrote my first book when I was 59, so I’m not exactly a prodigy.

Brett McKay: So one thing that stuck out to me from the book, from all these stories you tell about projects you’ve worked on over the years, is the importance of resilience in your line of work. When you’re working on a big complex project where there’s millions of dollars being spent, there’s potentially hundreds of different people working on this project, something is guaranteed to go wrong. What’s been the biggest, costliest mistake you’ve ever made? And then how did you learn to become inured to those setbacks?

Mark Ellison: I don’t. I would be lying if I said I was inured to setbacks. I hate mistakes. I hate my own mistakes. I fret over mistakes. Whenever I make a mistake, and I still make mistakes on jobs, I don’t make nearly as many as I used to, and my entire focus on a project is to make sure that there’s few mistakes as possible. To me, one of the most costly things on jobs is mistakes. And they can be made in all kinds of different ways, from ordering the wrong materials to making a poor decision about the order of things should be built in. And I am in no way inured to mistakes. To this day, even small mistakes on any project upset me. And I try to figure out why they happened, and if there’s a way I can make them not happen in the future. It’s funny because the most consistent costly mistake I’ve made over the years is to underestimate the difficulty of what it is I do and to not prepare well enough for the things that will go wrong.

And I’m still shocked to this day at the things that go wrong on projects. Sometimes you just don’t know with… I’ve got six or seven different design professionals. On this job, I have four different clients, and I have 30 different trades that I work with. And you just don’t know where the thing is gonna go wrong, it’s gonna go wrong. Even things that are beautifully planned can go horribly wrong just because somebody didn’t read the plan right, or didn’t read the drawings I sent them correctly as carefully as I tried to, or they just assumed something… They assumed that I wanted it done the way they always do it, even though I tried to explain 50 times that we’re doing this one a little differently. The thing that has cost me the most money over the years and the most pain is that I didn’t see… I got blindsided by something, and I didn’t see just how difficult it was gonna be. I was overly optimistic.

It’s weird because my optimism is actually the thing that allows me to do the crazy stuff that I do and go like, “Well, sure, I can do that.” And then [chuckle] I have been beat up so badly so many times for underestimating the time, underestimating the cost, not realizing the person I was working with wasn’t up to it. It’s a tough row to hoe. These days, things… I’m knocking wood. These days, my projects tend to go pretty smoothly and things go well and very, very few mistakes are made. But that came with great cost. I did projects where I calculated at the end and find out I made like $8 an hour for a year.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and there’s stories… I think one story that stuck out to me is like little small things you didn’t see being a problem, ended up being a big problem. It was when guys were trying to… It was something with the windows where they were trying to reshape a frame, they had to use a grinder. And it would shoot out these sparks, and the sparks were getting to the glass, and it would kinda cause these divots on the glass. And you’d have to replace the whole pane of glass, and it was tens of thousands of dollars.

Mark Ellison: That was on Central Park West. We were on the 18th floor in the penthouse, and a metal worker was really just cutting… We were doing demolition at the time. He was cutting away a sort of straggling piece of steel that was hanging out of the ceiling, and he sprayed the sparks with the grinder he was using. He sprayed the sparks towards a picture window that was, I don’t know, probably 12 feet wide and 7 feet tall. And he pitted the glass. The little hot sparks that came off of the steel pitted the glass in a way that we could not repair. We tried like hell to repair it. We had glass companies come and try and grind it and bulge it, and it would not repair. And so here’s this enormous piece of glass, and the only way to get it up there was with a crane. These days, just one pick with a crane cost over $15,000 in New York City, just to get the permits, get the crane, get the people in. So just the crane alone cost $15,000, [chuckle] and then there’s the cost of the window. And that was the only fix for something that happened in 10 seconds.

Brett McKay: So when you start a project today, do you feel pretty optimistic about how things will go? Or have you accepted that something will always go wrong no matter what you do?

Mark Ellison: I am wise enough now to know something will always go wrong. And I try to figure out what it’s gonna be. And one of the reasons I work so much with the architect’s drawings and try… The last project, I did about 300 drawings on this last project I did. And the reason I do drawings is I draw drawings of actual assemblies. I’m not so concerned… The architect draws, but it’s gonna look like I draw the actual assembly, how it’s put together, every single component that goes into putting it together. And that is in an effort to get people to build things correctly. And it mostly works. Mostly, mostly works. But we’re still waiting on that project. We’re still waiting for countertops that were ordered in February of this year because they’re terrazzo countertops, and they got shipped from England and they all broke on the boat. Something happened where the crate got hit, and all of the countertops were destroyed. And so that opened a whole problem with, who replaces them? What insurance pays for them? How do I get the guy to remake them? Do we have to send them more money? Then I gotta talk to the client. Things like a ship coming across the ocean got hit by too big a wave, my creative countertops went over, and here it is 10 months later and I still don’t have counters for my kitchen in Brooklyn. [chuckle]

Brett McKay: Yeah. And there’s no way you could have foreseen that, that was just not even on your radar.

Mark Ellison: This is actually the second time it’s happened to me. The same thing…

And actually, truth be told, at the beginning of the project, I had a stern talk with the architect and said, “Well, whatever you do, order as little as possible from Europe,” because there’s just huge problems with things coming from Europe. It’s expensive. There’s all these duties and taxes, and it takes a huge amount of time. And it actually takes a lot of my time just having to deal with getting this stuff here. And if something goes wrong, you have no recourse. You can’t sue. And the architect in this case overrode me and said, “No, we’re getting this terrazzo from Europe,” and here we are 10 months later and we have no terrazzo. Despite my warnings. So that was something I actually did anticipate there being a problem with. But it didn’t matter. It didn’t do any good. It’s his decision exactly what material gets used. And so he ordered this very special terrazzo from England that we still haven’t seen. [chuckle]

Brett McKay: So what can your line of work teach people about planning and carrying out complicated and complex projects? What are some lessons that you’ve gotten there that you think carry over to the rest of life?

Mark Ellison: It’s the same in anything. If you’re trying to do something complicated, I try very hard at the beginning of the project to look at where are the likely failures so that they don’t happen. And people have all these different matrixes for doing it. You try and identify all the different little points where if something goes wrong there, the project is gonna fail. And I know from experience where failures generally occur. It’s where a lot of different things come together in the same place. But I was watching a special… Some TV show, a documentary on the making of a James Webb Space Telescope. And they went through a testing phase where they set up the entire telescope. They did the whole thing, they set up the whole thing, and then they shook it to simulate the shaking that would happen as it launched off the launch pad and got sent off to space, and hundreds of bolts fell out because somebody had not bothered to use thread lock to permanently fix the bolts.

And you just go like, “Something with a million parts, something’s gonna go wrong.” At least they had the sense to test it and the damn thing works now. But the first time they tested it, all the bolts fell out, which would’ve been a shame if it got to space and they set it up and all the bolts had fallen out. It’s good to know things go terribly wrong. I try to bring all of my experience to bear mostly on the things that won’t go right. The things that go right, go right. The things that people know how to do and are more common things, they pretty much know how to do it and they usually get it right. So it always pays to look between the cracks at the things that won’t go right. I think you can apply that to almost anything, almost any endeavor.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I’ve noticed that when I’ve taken on big complicated projects. I go in thinking, “Oh, nothing should go wrong. Everything should be seamless.” And then I’m always disappointed and I get… It’s just, it’s managing my own expectations. That’s been the big learning curve for me. I think when you’re young, you have this expectation that things will just go right and smoothly for you, but that’s not the case, and you just have to plan for Murphy’s Law to rear its head because it’s gonna happen.

Mark Ellison: Yeah. I think that what separates people is that some people go ahead and do it anyway, except for maybe two projects in my life. I’ve pulled off every single one of them sooner or later, and to different degrees of customer satisfaction and… [laughter] But I pulled off almost everything sooner or later. And that stick-to-itiveness I think is what’s probably served me better than almost anything else in my life. And it’s allowed me to go branch into other things.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So it requires will. It all goes back to will. We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.

And now back to the show. So speaking of not meeting clients’ expectations a few times, let’s talk about that. ‘Cause how do you deal with the expectations of your clients? ‘Cause they want things done primo. They’re paying tons of money and they want it done as quickly as possible ’cause they want to get back into the house and live there. What have you learned about managing people’s expectations when you’ve had to go to someone and say, “Hey, it’s gonna be months, maybe a year behind schedule,” or, “It’s gonna cost more?” What have you learned about that? ‘Cause I think that’s a big problem that a lot of other people face as well, is managing other people’s expectations.

Mark Ellison: I try very hard from the outset, right? Really from the very first time I meet a client, I try very hard to, as gently as possible but also firmly, deliver as close to the brutal truth of building as I can. And that usually starts with… It’s funny, the project I’m doing right now, I was asked to bid on the project, and the architect sent me drawings and I said right from the outset, and I said this to the… And this came up in our very first meeting with the client. I refused to bid on the project. And the reason I refused to bid on the project was because in my estimation, the drawings and specifications were only about 25% complete. So there were a couple of different people, contractors in the city, who had bids from two or three other contractors that were actual bids all written down like, “We’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do this.”

And I’d seen the drawings and I was like, okay, we don’t know what the hardware is. We don’t know what the plumbing fixtures are. We don’t know what the light fixtures are. I don’t know what the appliances are. I don’t know what the various finishes are throughout the rooms. I know maybe 25% of what this project is. And I said to the client, right on the very first meeting I said, “So any bids you have are nonsense. You’re looking at a pile of bullshit.” This is just things that you asked for bids, these people sent you bids, here’s a bid. But I said, “If you look through the bids, you’re gonna see that every single line on the entire bid is written as an allowance because they don’t know what the hell they’re doing in that particular instance.” So with the client right from the outset, I try to say, “I promise you the first struggle on this project is gonna take at least a year, which is to get the drawings and specifications up to the point where we actually know what the hell we’re supposed to build. I know you want to be in in two years. Well, the first year is gonna be spent just figuring out what the hell we’re supposed to build because it’s not there. It’s not in the drawings.”

And that can be an embarrassment to the architect who’s trying to say like, “Oh, no, no, no, we’re ready to go.” [laughter] And I kind of give it to ’em tough right from the start. I don’t try to be insulting, but I try to at least say, “We have to operate in reality here. And the first reality is you don’t have a plan. So the first thing we need to do is get to a plan.” And I said, “You don’t have to hire me. I don’t care if you hire me or not. But I have a very long track record. I have a whole list of people you can call that say that I dealt squarely with them, and I will move this along as quickly as I can.” The project we’re doing right now is a year over the original schedule. It’s probably 40% over budget, over the original budget. But also the project has completely changed in scope while we’ve been doing it. They added a whole backyard. They added this incredible green roof. We’re doing a handmade glass mosaic covering the entire primary bathroom that shows scenes from the sinking of the Titanic. That wasn’t in the original [laughter] scope.

So things like that bump up the price, and they extend the amount of time it takes to do the project. But I just tell them that. I’m like, “You don’t have to do this.” You’re telling me you want scenes of the Titanic in your bathroom. That’s going to take some time and it’s gonna cost a lot. Like a lot. But you don’t have to do it. You’re controlling your budget, and you’re controlling your schedule. I’m just sending you the cost. I don’t mark up costs. I’m like, “Here’s the cost. Here’s the person who’s gonna do it. Here’s how much money they want to do it. Here’s how long they say it’s gonna take. I don’t believe them. I think it’s probably gonna take 50% longer. If you want to do it, great. If you don’t want to do it, no problem. We’ll just put in conventional tile.”

And so I try to make them understand that I don’t really have that much control over the schedule and budget. It really depends on what we’re doing and what you want, and how crazy you want to get with the place. And they tend to believe me. People still blow their stack now and again ’cause it’s a tense process for everybody and nobody likes to move and nobody likes to… It’s just, it’s dirty and messy and gross and… But I do try to make them understand that it’s their decisions that affect the budget, not mine. I know how to do the things. I can actually, for the most part, pull things off in a pretty smooth fashion now. But if you throw a handmade glass mosaic at me that covers 300 square feet of space, that’s gonna take a little doing. Which is fine, but just do it with open eyes. I’m not gonna promise you that I’m gonna get that done in the same timeline that the conventional tile was gonna go in.

Brett McKay: All right, so proactively manage people’s expectations, be honest with them. But what do you do when someone does blow their stack at you? Let’s say you’re in the middle of a project and something, just some unforeseen thing happened, right? The countertops fell into the Atlantic Ocean. [laughter] How do you tell a client the bad news? Like, “Well, this act of God happened and it’s gonna put us back another year.”

Mark Ellison: One of the things that’s hard to learn is the worst news you have to deliver the quickest. The worst the news is, the faster you have to deliver it, and the more upfront you have to be with the client about it. There’s just, I’ve worked for a bunch of bosses who would try and hide things and cover it up, and something like that would happen. I had a boss, the millworker died and stopped making the cabinets, and he tried to hide the fact from the client that his millworker had died. It didn’t go well. It’s better just to say… With this thing, We just went to the client saying… The day it showed up, we sent the client the picture saying, “Here are the slabs. They’re destroyed, they’re useless. I’m sorry this happened.” I always give people the right to scream and yell. If something bad happens, people react badly a lot. Not everybody is a monk, and… Actually, I don’t even know any monks.

And something bad happens on their project and they get upset. So you let them get upset. If they attack me personally, I usually will tell them, “I’ll come back and we can talk about this later.” You can yell your head off, but if you… There’s a certain level of of personal vilification that I won’t take. Everybody makes mistakes. I really try mightily to limit them, and it depends on the situation. Powerful people are used to mistreating people. And I won’t suffer mistreatment, but I will give somebody the right to blow their stack if something terrible just happened to them.

Brett McKay: So you don’t take it too personally when they do, unless they’re attacking you personally. I think one thing that stood out for me in this book is you pointed out that I think a lot of people have this romantic idea of a carpenter who takes his sweet time to artfully create something that will last a lifetime, right? Mortis and just making the dovetail joint. But you argue that speed is an important element of being a good craftsman. Why is that?

Mark Ellison: There is a romantic notion of that, and there’s a lot of… If you have to make your living at this, I do this… Carpentry sent my kids to college, and college wasn’t cheap. And if you have to make your living at it, there’s just no getting around that the more you produce and the faster you produce it, the more money you’re able to make. That’s just the formula of productivity. So learning how to work fast is something that will set one apart from everybody around you. If I can put in six doors in a day, I’m more valuable to the contractor than the guy that can put in two. That’s just math. And it also helps me to think like, how can I economize my processes? How can I do things in a way that I’m not wasting movement, that I’m not wasting material?

I talk about it to some extent in the book about different ways that I’ve made myself a more efficient carpenter. There’s actually a really wonderful book by Larry Haun called The Very Efficient Carpenter. And that man can build a crazy pitched roof faster than any human being on the face of the earth just because he’s got it down to a perfect little science. And every movement he does, every movement of material and every movement of his body is geared towards efficiency. And so that’s the first reason to develop speed, is to make better money and get paid better. ‘Cause physical work doesn’t always pay that well. The other reason is that that romantic notion of somebody sitting in their candlelit shop hand-cutting dovetails, one thing I have found in my work and also with work with a lot of my colleagues, is that people’s brains, like thinking brains, mind brains, actually spend a lot of time interfering with the movements of their body.

And after you’ve practiced skills, if one has practiced chop hand chopping dovetails for years and years and years, you get to the point where your thinking brain is the wrong tool to chop hand cut dovetails. The right tool is your body. And if you’ve watched somebody who’s very practiced at it and who doesn’t think about it all the time, they will chop up those dovetails so fast, you can’t believe it. You’re like, how can that chisel move so fast? How can that person just… They’re just like clack clack, clack, clack, clack, clack, clack, and the work emerges underneath their chisel. That’s because their brains aren’t interfering with their body. And one of the ways you learn to train the skills of your body so that the brain doesn’t interfere with them is to work very, very quickly, like two times or three times faster than a normal person would.

Because what it does is it allows the intelligence of the body to usurp the intelligence of the brain. And at the beginning of a job, when I’m planning it, I need my brain all the time. But once I’ve done the math and once I’ve done all the planning and I know what I’m doing, then it’s time to just work. And I have learned that the faster I work, actually the better my body works. It’s actually more skilled and it’s more efficient and it’s more accurate. There’s some caveats like it’s easy to make a stupid mistake when you’re working really quickly. But most people I know who are really good at a physical trade, a physical task, they do it so fast, you’d be astounded at how quickly they do it. They don’t think about it. It’s not happening in their head; it’s happening with the skills they’ve developed in their body. People talk about the intelligence of practice motion. There’s all these funny terms for it, but…

Brett McKay: Embodied cognition.

Mark Ellison: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Mark Ellison: Yeah. It’s a different way of thinking. And I can touch things with my hand and know with one touch, is that thin enough? Is that strong enough? And it’s a really wonderful thing to develop and a very joyful thing to develop to the point where when I’m working at my fastest and things are really going well, it’s a joyful process.

Brett McKay: Another thing that stood out to me in this book, is you point out that people pay millions of dollars and you spend months or even years renovating or building a home, and you’d think with that much investment in resources and in time what you do, your work would last decades or even generations. But you point out that most of what you build will be destroyed in 10 years. Why is that? And how do you stay motivated to build something knowing there’s a good chance it’s gonna be destroyed here in about a decade?

Mark Ellison: Well, I work for people that are enormously concerned with fashionability. And trends, common trends go in interior design, and they come and go every decade. People talk about the interior design of the ’70s, ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s. You can sort of mark every decade and sort of imagine what the interior design trends were of those eras. The social set I’m working for is intensely concerned with self-image and fashion caters to people’s self-image, and they want to be perceived as fashionable. Not the clients I’m working for right now. I’m working for kind of regular people right now. They just happen to have some money. And I’ve had clients that aren’t so concerned with that. But as a social set, the people I work for are intensely concerned with being perceived as fashionable. So no matter what we build for them, for the most part, 10, 15 years later, it’s out of style. They’ll sell the place or they’ll renovate it all over again, completely cut the place and completely renovated all over again. And they have the means to do it. And it’s not… These aren’t people that are building for resale value. These are people that are building to impress. That’s the whole point. And they say as much. They don’t hide it. They’re building places to impress their friends and impress whoever it is they are trying to impress.

Brett McKay: And so how do you stay motivated knowing that, “Okay, this person’s probably gonna renovate it here in 10 years?”

Mark Ellison: Well, for one, if I don’t work, I don’t eat. So that’s a pretty powerful motivation. [laughter] When my kids were going to college, people know this. There’s a lot of people in my shoes. The bills never stopped coming, and I just had to keep making money and keep making money. A lot of times… There are times, I don’t really get too concerned about… I’ll build anything anybody wants as long as it’s not dangerous or unlawful. I don’t care if it’s ugly. I don’t care if it’s… I don’t have to like it. I don’t have to like the thing I’m building. I have to build it well, and I have to build it well enough so that they’ll like it and pay me. I do this for a living. It’s not really… To me, it’s an artisan form. To me, it’s not my art. I do other things for artistic endeavors, and building is not really an artistic endeavor for me. It’s a craft and it’s my living. And I build for money because without money, I wouldn’t have been able to send my kids to college, and I wouldn’t be able to pursue the things that I’m trying to pursue now that are outside of my craft.

So I’m more than happy to build whatever people want. And I always find… Every project has its challenges and its interests, and there’s always even… Like we’ve already spoken about, there’s the personal side of things. There’s the logistical side of things. There are all so many challenges in what I do. It’s endlessly interesting. I’m never bored with my work. And if they wanna tear it out in 10 years, well they bought it. God bless them. It seems silly. But I think the last couple of jobs I’ve done will stand for decades, the last few. But most of the other ones I build are in the dump.

Brett McKay: So yeah, you have to have a certain amount of detachment. You have your creative outlets where you feel like you’re doing art, and we’re gonna talk about that here in a minute. You do music now, you do writing. But what you do with carpentry, that’s a craft. And all that matters with that is whether the client likes it or not.

Mark Ellison: Well, I’m a hired gun, and it’s work for money. So I can’t let my ego get in the way of what I’m… Once I’m out the door… Also, quite frankly, once I’m out the door on one project, I’m right onto the next project, and there’s a whole new… I’m completely consumed by that project at work. And I actually… It’s hard for me to even remember some of the places I’ve built, except that every once in a while they appear in magazines and stuff like that. To me, it’s a job. This is actually a job. I put a lot of energy into it. I put a lot of attention into it. And I really do enjoy it. I really do love doing it. But it is ultimately my job, and people are paying me to do something, and I’m more than happy to build them what they would like built as long as they pay me for it. That’s the deal. I make this crazy house for you, you give me money. And that’s what work for money is.

And I’ve had a real thirst to explore what I consider my own creative visions and my own creative outlets that I would call more my artistic pursuits. So especially with music recently, and I’ve made two record albums now, and that’s a completely different thing. Those to me are… That’s creating something forever, and it’s deeply, deeply important to me the quality that goes into that and the emotion that goes into that and the feeling that goes into it. I do get attached to those things.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about your music. So what have you learned about doing good work from what you’ve done as a carpenter? How’s that carried over to your passion in music?

Mark Ellison: Well, it’s interesting because I’ve made two records now with a man named Mark Ambrosino. He runs a studio out in Queens called the Madhouse. And this isn’t an exact, you know, but he’s kind of me in the music world. And I’ve played music my entire life. I’ve played piano since I was four years old. I’ve played guitar since I was 12, and I play almost every day, and I work at it because I love it. I totally love it. Music just captures my emotions, and to me there’s almost nothing like a wonderful song. And I particularly like songs. I like songs with words. And Mark is a craftsman with songs. Mark’s worked with most of the greats in the music world. He was a road drummer with Ray Charles. He doesn’t get better than that. And we made a record two years ago that I’m not releasing. That’s the whole art project that’s too long. I describe it in the book. So if you want to know about that, read the book. But then I also wanted to make the record with him for general release. And he’s such a musical craftsman. He’s such a brilliant drummer.

And I met him because I used to go to his studio sometimes to just do a little session work playing mostly steel guitars for him. And I sent him songs, and he agreed that we should make a record together, which kind of shocked me. And then we went and did it. And now we’ve released it. And I just released it in September. And the record is called Hard to Tame. And it’s my first real public effort at music. And nothing… In a way, it’s closer to my heart than carpentry will ever be. Because it’s so personal. Music is so personal. Nobody’s ever written a song that wasn’t autobiographical somehow. And here are 11 songs that are deeply autobiographical, although not necessarily explicitly so. And they’re very similar pursuits. Every note matters. Every sound on that record matters. Nothing can be out of place. The level of crafts are very similar, the way he works and the way I work. And we work together beautifully. We love working together.

And then you bring in subcontractors. There’s a professional piano player on it. Dave Morgan comes in. And then we had professional horn players, David Mann and Tony Kadleck, who… Those guys played with Sinatra. And they’re the horn players on my record. And these are subcontractors. And it’s not that different. And you have to treat… How do you talk to them? How do you talk to a trumpet player who’s played with Frank Sinatra and tell him you didn’t like what he just played? Which happened.

You know? Like, what do I say to Tony Kadleck? He’s one of the living greats on his instrument. And that was interesting. It was really interesting. But I did find, especially musicians, musicians are so generous with their time and their care. A musician like that really wants you to… He wants you to like… The same way that I want the clients to like the place I build for them. He wants me to be happy with what he played on my record. I think the only reason I was able to pull off making the record was because I’d had so much practice doing things. I’ve had so much practice completing artistic visions that I was able to transfer that same attitude into music.

Brett McKay: I think a lot of people these days, both their work and their hobbies tend to take place online or in the digital realm. Do you think it’s important for people to have at least one area in life in which they do something that’s creative and concrete, whether that’s carpentry or guitar playing, et cetera?

Mark Ellison: I find, I don’t really like my computer or my telephone. I use my computer to write on. And then I usually actually… Well, to me, the computer stands… Both the computer and the telephone stand between me and the world. And I like direct experience of the world. I like the feel of stone under my hands. I like the feel of wood in my hands. I like to see what happens when I hit it. One of my favorite guitars is one of my least expensive guitars. And the reason I adore it is because when I hit it, it sounds like wires making wood vibrate. You can hear the wire and you can hear the wood. And there’s no way to replicate that kind of learning and that kind of understanding digitally. The best you can do with a computer is look at it, listen to it, and click your fingers on it. But that’s not… I mean, pick up a vintage Martin Guitar and strum one chord, and it’s a completely different musical experience than sitting on a computer creating music all day. It’s a visceral, multi-sensory, experience that has decades of understanding of guitar-building going into it, decades of the… You can sense the vibrations coming off the instrument.

Honestly, I think the digital world is a very poor facsimile of the real world. And I would encourage people to do as much mucking about in the mud and the dirt as they can. Pictures of nature online, a picture of the Grand Canyon and the Grand Canyon are so vastly different, they have nothing to do with each other almost, you know what I mean? I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the Grand Canyon, but the first time I went to the rim of the Grand Canyon, I was like, oh, like the word “grand” is, they picked the right one. [laughter] It’s mind blowing. It’s earth shattering. It’s humbling. It’s awe-inspiring. And as lovely as a picture online of the Grand Canyon might be, it is none of those things. It’s not those things. It’s like, oh, that’s a great picture of the Grand Canyon. Yeah, walk to the edge of the thing at sunset some night. At that point, I was dating this Ukrainian woman who it was her birthday, and we had to rush there at 85 miles an hour to get there by sunset. And we came up over the crest just as the sun was setting, and we ran down there with two bottles of wine. And that was my first viewing of the Grand Canyon, and our minds were destroyed. I mean, you can’t do that online. There is no online equivalent to that.

Brett McKay: Well, Mark, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Mark Ellison: Well, the book is available on Amazon, and it’s in almost every local bookstore in the country, both in America and England and Canada. It’s really out there everywhere. The book’s been shockingly popular. So it’s Building: A Carpenter’s Notes on the Art… Oh, I don’t know. Yeah, what’s it called again? [laughter]

Brett McKay: Building: A Carpenter’s Notes on Life & the Art of Good Work.

And the Art of Good Work. Yeah. And in England, it’s actually called How to Build Impossible Things. Don’t buy both. They are the same book. Some people have done that and been sad about it. And wherever books are sold, somebody can get that. And my record is called Hard to Tame by Mark Ellison. And if you Google it, it’s on every platform, every streaming platform now. And I’ll probably release it on vinyl at the beginning of next year for those that like vinyl. I appreciate anybody who takes an interest.

Fantastic. Well, Mark Ellison, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Mark Ellison: It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Mark Ellison. He’s the author of the book, Building: A Carpenter’s Notes on Life & the Art of Good Work. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, Also check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM Podcast. Make sure to check out our website at, where you’ll find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you think of. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Spotify, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. And until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you not only to listen to The AOM Podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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