The Long Journey

Travel adds excitement.

Travel adds stress.

Travel also adds a story – or three

As one might expect one of our longest journeys made for the most stories.  This one started as a stair, a mere 1800 miles away.  We were hired by a contractor to do a curved stair in the Key Largo area.  Sight unseen – we worked and designed off their measurements, sending a full sized floor plan for them to lay out at the site and approve.  This was a freestanding irregular curved elliptical stair.  We added some curved treads and risers, curved rising railings and iron balusters.  Price wise not a huge money maker, but it wasn’t that long after the bust.  We were eager to do what would turn into a magnificent stair.  From the full size patterns, they realized the initial run of the stair was too long.  Major catastrophe avoided!  We made the changes in design and went straight into production.

Not to oversimplify, but four months later we had the mahogany stair, railings and balustrade completely assembled in the shop.  Wonderful!  We usually take a nice deep breath at this point – almost to the point of giving ourselves a hardy pat on the back- then we realize we still have to load, transport to the site, get it inside, get it to fit and then finalize by installing the rail and balustrade.  So much for that pat on the back.

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The back of our shop has a drive through 16′ x 14′ door.  I’ve always wanted to build a big boat in there, just so I could ease it out of that doorway.  It works great for stairs as well.  I loaded up with the assistance of a tractor lift and a few straps.  After carefully lowering onto our open trailer, we built a nice knee wall underneath for support.  Screwed everything down securely, and double tarped everything, just in case – although I’m not sure why – it never rains in the south!!

We’re ready for the 26 hr trek.  One thing about long road trips – it’s a good practice to not overthink everything that could go wrong.

Come back next week as we continue on our journey.

Until then take five!

Wood, Glass and Steel: part II

As with a majority of our projects, this one started with an idea, a space and a picture.  The design of the house was very contemporary.  Very minimalist with a lot of glass.  The entire west side of the house was all glass, to take advantage of the great view.  The original plan was to put in an all metal stair – but the price was too high.  That’s where we came in to the picture.  We could do an open riser wood stair, add some glass for the riser to comply with code.  We designed in some custom newels and handrail with a stainless steel cable balustrade.

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The kicker was what we were able to do for the landing.  We did a two riser landing that curved around the doorway.  In all the ‘wasted space’ of the landing we designed a secret compartment re the owners request.

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Take note of the some of the details in the landing – notable: the reveals and curves

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The other design option we were able to provide was some glass and wood for the balcony railings.  This was originally going to be drywalled with a wood cap – with the end run having a large ceiling to floor post for support.  It was very obtrusive because it cut off the sight line.

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We finished off the design by wrapping the outside stringer with stainless steel.

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That’s right folks!  Tell all the haters and hacks that Steve does contemporary !!

 

See you next week!!

 

Wood, Glass and Steel

We’ve got an interesting project where we really put the custom into custom built.

We’ll be starting with a picture, an idea and a space.

We’re going to use wood (of course) stainless steel and glass.

The basic design is a very contemporary stair.

It’s one of those projects that brings you to the shop in the morning – it’s really cool!

Here’s a picture of the stair treads with tenons, 2″ thick white oak:

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Here we are mortising out for the glass

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Here’s a pic of the stringers – mortised to accept the treads

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Be sure to join us next week as we progress into this project!

Green Tractors and Lost Jobs

We Recently lost a job for some beds.  They were to go in a new house that was being constructed.  In the end the building project had a few too many overruns, and their budget was strained.  Not an uncommon occurrence. In fact, most custom homes stretch the budget over original project estimates.  Once you get in the middle of a project, it makes sense to do things right the first time.  I can’t recall ever hearing someone talk about their building project by saying ” I cut corners and cheaped out all the way – I’m pretty darned happy with the results!”

I had a similar experience this winter.  At the end of last fall I declared to my wife that our old Oliver tractor might have seen it’s last productive days.  I had found antifreeze in the oil and that ” It was time to drag the old girl out back and shoot her!”  Thanks to todays technology, within hours I was receiving caterwauling and gnashing of teeth.  You can’t get rid of the Oliver!!  That’s part of our past, our history.  Seems the wife had engineered a quick offensive to keep the tractor.

Ok, so I caved.  Everyone does at some point.  I did call in some owed time from son #1.  I figured with an online engine kit, and some free labor I’d get out of this for just over a large buck.

Over the next couple of months we sneaked out a couple of working weekends, and got the new engine up and running.

That’s when some form of an epiphany set in. While all the sheet metal is off the tractor, why not paint her?  Not sure where the idea came from, not sure why I agreed – no wait – I do remember why I agreed.  I figured a quick auction yard paint job, two gallons of central tractor paint at $33.45 per gallon.  Why not?

So we set to prepping the metal work.  Next thing I know – instead of a mask and paint in place, we’ve got every piece separated from the tractor.  Anything white, separated.  Lights, counterweight, floor boards, battery boxes – separated.  You get the picture.  The tractor indeed had gotten a new life and was growing by leaps and bounds.  So after weeks of prep work on all the individual pieces it was time for paint.

I made the mistake of asking opinions on the paint.  Should have simply gone to Central Tractor and bought the cheap paint.  Two gallons, $33.45 each, a little thinner, a little hardener, a gallon of primer.  All done I’d be in for around a buck twenty five.

Ohh noo!  Can’t do that – all that work in, you need to buy the good paint.  Seemed  the popular opinion of all those not spending a dime on this project! I succumb  to peer pressure and go for the auto body paint.  They shoot the color match camera – “yep we can do that color”

Wonderful – you can make …green?!

“yep!”

“So what’ll that run?”

“That would be $1,000.00 for the two gallons, sir”

“WHAT?”  ” No, no it won’t”

Hey – $250.00 a gallon sounds cheap after that heart attack.

So two gallons of paint, a gallon of primer, hardener, thinner, a quart of white paint, sandpaper and who knows what else.  I think we kept it under a thousand.

Are you kidding me?!

I hope the old girl was getting a new life because the project had taken on a life of it’s own!

That’s how every building project that has any meaning goes as well.  It grows, takes on a life of it’s own.  While there are definite limits, shortchanging the quality and substance of the job never pays in the long run.

While not complete, when we unveil this girl to the fields in the spring, there will be no regrets

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Only a little tractor envy from the neighbors!

 

Weekend Workbench

We recently had to redesign and repurpose a trestle table. In the squabble, we ended up with the old top.  A 3″ thick x32″ wide x80″ long solid white oak behemoth.  It took two full grown Mexicans to load it into my truck, but I had it earmarked for a workbench top.  “Well worth their effort” I thought.

I had some left over lumber from other projects – earmarked for the base.  Four 4″ x 4″ posts- hardwood (maple & mahogany), and some carriers – 1 1/2″ x 5 1/2″ (maple and yellow pine).

So I’ve got the materials set aside- ready to go.  What I didn’t have was enormous amounts of time.  I’m sure I’m not alone on this point – the plan wasn’t for one of those intricately designed workbenches with the dovetailed bench vises- we simply didn’t have the time.  Even though we needed to keep the design simple, we wanted a bench that would last.  We weren’t going to air nail a few 2 x 4’s together. . . .

The answer was joinery.  Simple joinery – that will work without throwing the bank at it.

The rails and posts would be lapped with a narrow notch to accept the rails. (see next photo)IMG_0896

add the side rails attached with lags

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then add the front and back rails to complete the frame

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the next step was to notch  a center and bottom shelf around the posts, glued and fastened.

Add a down and dirty paint job from our left over paint stash.  Fasten on the top-

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You end up with a sturdy, solid workbench that will stand the test of generations. Built in a day!

Until next week – take yet another five!

The traveler

Most people travel to their work place and/or for their work.  Same goes for most of us in the trades.  We travel to our work, we travel for our work.  What sets us apart from the daily to and from work sedan driver is that we truck our work to and from work.

We get ourselves to the job site, we get our tools, as well any materials or product (such as a set of stairs) to the job site.  We manage to do this in any terrain, and any weather.  You know the any terrain part – the houses that are built on top of the tallest mountain with a nearly impossible driveway to navigate.  Even in dry summertime weather they’re tough, forget it when the snow comes.

The weather aspect again became apparent this week.  We had scheduled a pick up of materials from a job site on Tuesday.  This would work well because I could build a quick stringer template and test fit right on -site!  The weather called for a couple of inches of snow.  We could have put off the date – but the on site fork-lift was being returned Wednesday – so we went forward with the schedule.  What’s a couple inches of snow?  Childs play!

The morning went great – we got out of the shop ahead of schedule.  The sky was blue, temperature in the mid 20’s.  Weatherman – wrong again!  We got to the site, they had the materials out and ready, within the hour we were loaded tarp’d and strapped.  It took a little longer to test fit the stringer templates, but shortly after lunch we were back on the road.  The sun was now buried behind low clouds, but no sign of precipitation – clear sailing. A three hour trip and we’d be at the shop.  On our way home my wife, who was an accomplice for the trip, suggested a lunch stop.

“Well, how about McDonalds’?”  It’s reasonable, and we can get in and out, I thought.

“NO!”  was the only reply.

I didn’t take her response lightly, when you’re on the road time and expense must take top priority!  I had to put my foot down on this one!

So as we were about half way through our meal at the nearest diner, we overhead a couple mention a snow storm hitting a town up north.

Hmmmmhh?  “That’s where we’re headed!!” we looked at each other, eyes widened.

We finished our meal quickly to get back on the road.  It wasn’t far up the road and the weather turned.  The winds came along with the snow.  Both the traffic and the snow were light at first.  A minor annoyance at this point.  As we hit the interstate the snow got heavier, wetter and slippery.

We kept moving at a reasonable speed – around 45 mph.  A car here and there had spun out into the median or guardrail.  I couldn’t help wondering if they bothered to slow down as the inclement weather had hit- the roads didn’t seem that bad.

As we got off the interstate we knew the challenge lay ahead.  Two separate mountain peaks to traverse. We barely started our ascent over the first mountain and I could feel the wheels spinning.  I reached down and shifted into four wheel drive.  The roads were slippery for only an inch or two of snow.

“You didn’t have it in four wheel on the highway?!?”

“Didn’t need it”

The change in altitude became quickly apparent.  The slight dusting of salt used   was rendered useless in the gusting wind and lower temperatures at the higher altitude.  The absolute absence of any road crew didn’t help matters.  The road hits it’s steepest climb at the last peak.  Tantalizing you with potential success until the very last ascent. We were still going, but hit enough of an icy spot that the back gave to the right, like losing your footing on an icy sidewalk.  I steered into it bringing it back, until the front broke to the right.  Like most county roads, there was little shoulder – with a drop off to get to that. The truck veered sharp right, I braced for being sucked off into the ditch by way of the shoulder.  As my wife said “God reached down and tapped the truck back into the road”

We eased up and over the top.  I’m not sure if the driver behind me, who planted themselves under the bumper of my trailer, knew how thankful to be.  We crawled down the other side in low gear.  We passed an armored van that was spinning but going nowhere, up the other lane, as well a white sedan that was preceded by a revolving figure eight set of tires tracks from the other lane into the ditch on our side.  Nothing gets your attention like vehicles off the road.

As we made it to the bottom we prophesied our good fortune and looked forward to the next peak.  Bear spring is never as bad as Colchester mountain!

We weaved trough the valley with ease, the snow seemed to let off, and the road crews had gotten ahead of us.  Salt melting the roads clear.  Again, as we went up, the conditions worsened. As the effect of the salt diminished, our successful ascent came into question.  There was just enough salt on the road to get us to the top.  Not with ease, but we got there.  As we went under the blinking yellow lights warning trucks of the long steep descent ahead, my wife questioned why the auto parts truck was turning around and parking on the side of the road,

“He made it to the top, why’s he stopping now!?”  As the truck had made it’s way up from where we were now headed.

Our answer lye around the first corner.  Two vehicles, crunched together, in our lane!  I tapped my brakes and immediately sped faster down the hill.  My heart went right to the bottom of my stomach.

“augt- ohh”

My wife grabbed on to the seat with her left hand and crash bar with the right, just in case.

I let off the brake and regained control, able to steer around the cars, get around the wreck and back into our lane before the plow truck,  Just before!

We eased through town and to the shop.  Made it, with the load in tact.  We sat for a moment to catch our breath.

“Drinks on me tonight, Hon!  I’ll unload in the morning.”

Might be time to find that sedan-driving day job!

 

 

The dowel

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We’ve been working on an interesting project this week – double hung windows.  While not our mainstay be any means, every so often we get a contract to build some – no matter how hard I try to talk the customer out of them.  They match the old time single pane window, but can’t match the energy efficiency of today’s modern windows.  As a project they’re a nice change of pace.  The challenge is all in the set up.  We use coping and sticking blades, along with a slip mortise and tenon on the center rails.  The set up has to be very precise  – not too tight- not too loose.

This brings me to my point of discussion.  At the bottom and top rails, we don’t rely on the cope and stick cutters, we add two dowels.

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These rails can sustain a fair amount of stress – the dowel is just the ticket.   Because we don’t have a set-up for a through mortise and tenon, we can use our existing doweling jig and get virtually the same strength.

We have gone back to using dowels for our cabinet face frames, after a very brief stint with face frame screws.  Do a test- one frame using dowels, one frame using screws.  There’s no contest as to which is far superior in strength.  Of course that would be the doweled frame.

If your working on a project that needs a little extra strength, consider the dowel.

 

Until next week – take five.

 

 

 

Happy New Year

Happy new Year! We enter into a new calendar year today.  Christmas already seems like a distant memory as we forge ever forward.  Each year, in the spirit of the wisemen, we carry on the tradition of gift giving.  For another year the shopping is over and gifts have been distributed.  It’s easy to get swept into the insanity that Christmas gift giving can bring.  Fortunately, by living on a tradesman’s income, we have been able to avoid that nasty habit of spending a lot of money at Christmas (or any other time of year for that matter) .  Still each year, I trek to the stores in search of the perfect gift for everyone on my list. One year I believed I had found the perfect gift, the universal gift of love, something the kids would never suspect.  Fire extinguisher’s for everyone!  The kids were less than excited that year,  but they still talk about it.

Christmas shopping is NOT my favorite thing to do. The crowds, the spending, the immense pressure to prove your worth by finding the perfect gift.  Yet I push forward, each year taking that necessary hour to shop.  This year was no exception

As I made my way through a number of stores, I couldn’t help but take notice of how flat the ‘shopping experience’ was.  OK, I get it, I’m not a big shopper – not big on any ‘shopping experience’.  Here’s the thing – on a daily basis we are barraged with marketing.  Take perfume as an example.  One commercial depicts a highly attractive woman being lifted effortlessly into the air on long, frilly satin sheets.  It seems all your dreams can come true with merely a spritz.  WOW!  I want me some of that!  Off I ventured, to the perfume store.

I stood at the store with a blank look, aimlessly staring.  There were only shelves, stashed with a finite number of dusty bottles.  Just sitting there, stagnant, motionless.  No frilly sheets, no hot babes on satin sheets, just a huge let down.

I persisted on my quest – spraying, smelling.  I even sprayed some of the mens cologne on.  Nothing.

Next up was a trip to the golf store, surely this would bring me pure joy and success.  The commercials and ads all depict people smashing huge drives, running with attractive women and smiling – profusely.  As I got to the store – none of the above, just racks and racks of motionless, emotionless golf clubs.  Other than the color and price tag, there was no discernible difference from one club to the next.  A huge pile of mass production and disappointment!

If the greatest marketing minds in the world can’t fulfill their promises of eternal happiness – what chance do I have as a custom woodworker? We don’t have marketing campaigns, we don’t have models draped across our latest staircase. The longer I’ve been in business the less sales pitch I use.  The more I think about it, how do we sell any jobs at all?  We talk about ideas, design, function and of course- price.  Our process is a lot of work, for both the customer and builder.  It takes time, patience, vigilance.  It is not a one stop shop of happiness.

Maybe in the end – it’s the end results that counts most.  When we work with a customer and get the look they wanted.  THE look, THAT look.  Truly custom, truly unique, for a lifetime.  When a customer sees the final project for the first time and it brings a tear to their eye, you know it was effort and hard work that has true value.

 

As I left the mall I looked over my back, waiting for the throngs of women to run out after me.  After a few minutes an elderly lady, helped through the doors by an elderly gentleman who I assumed the husband, ambled out.

At least the sample was free.

Till next week – take another five!  It’s a new year!

 

 

 

The Unsuccessful Install part 2

Realizing that this post was going to hit on Christmas morning, I contemplated postponing the part 2 post, and instead share some thoughts on this years shopping experience.  Fear of being labeled a Steve Harvey brought me to my senses.  We’ll give the readers what they want with the exciting conclusion of the unsuccessful install, next week I’ll regal with tales of shopping woes.

It is appropriate to take a moment to honor and praise our Lord and Savior, Jesus as we celebrate his birth.  It’s a great time leave the commercialization behind, gather with family, reflect on our blessings and look forward with hope.

 

 

 

Part 1(repeated in Italic)

Because of the nature of our work, Installs are a necessary evil of what we do. I suppose if one were to have an unreasonably optimistic view of life they might think that the installs were the best part of the job – shall we say “the culmination of weeks of hard work!’

Maybe.

There are two absolutes with installations-

*they add excitement

*they add stress.

Not too long ago we had a large stair project, two stories of stair, using all reclaimed barnwood of substance. It was a large project with large lumber, heavy and bulky! The stair consisted of one main 12″ x 12″ beam that ran vertically from the basement all the way to the second floor. The beam was 25′ long, a tremendous specimen of the wood used in yesteryear. The 4″ x 16″ stringers, wraping around the beam, were all mortised into that beam. Four-inch thick treads were also all mortised into the stringers. The stair was U shaped with two landings. The landings were of the same materials and method – timber framed with mortise and tenon joinery, the landings were integral to the stair – not built in place. It was very substantial construction. While it was basically a simple stair by plan, due to size, scale, materials used, and construction methods – it was anything but simple. Any slight error or miscalculation would result in catastrophy.

I brought in a young gun to help on this one! Youthful enthusiasm, energy and muscle were just what was needed. Sam worked like an old man, thought like a teenager, and apparently partied like like someone that got paid a lot more than I thought I was paying. It was three weeks into the project before I learned that he had gone to college for woodworking. Imagine that! Despite his shortcomings, his young man muscle (5’8″ and 135 pounds of screaming force!) and desire to learn kept us going. We finished the challenging main build on schedule and were ready for the install!

One long day, a tractor, a Sam, as well as a few tie down straps, canvas tarp and we were loaded up. An early morning wake up, a 2 1/2 hr drive and we were on site before the contractor and crew.

So far so good, I prophesied!

The job site was the usual confusion. I had made three calls and untold number of texts over the past week to make sure the GC and the on site contractor knew the exact day and time to expect us, how much extra on-site labor would be needed and how long I expected the job to take. I could have been a UFO zapped from the grey clouds above, entered the job site with thin green legs an extra large head, and there would have been less surprise that I was there!

Ted the GC was nowhere to be found, ‘can’t make it until the heavy lift…I mean can’t make it for at least four hours’. Frank, the carpenter in charge, was late. No one knew where he was, but finally, with three calls from the helper – he was reported to be on the way.

Yippie – such efficiency!

PART 2

Frank pulled in with a cloud of dust kicking. It appears they didn’t realize I would be there on the exact day and time I had told them for the last two weeks. “if only they’d a known!” The main egress, where we could easily back directly to the door, had scaffolding and a pile of building materials blocking the way. We would have to go through the back.

“Just back down the road, take the road to the left. Just make sure to avoid the wet area, veer left hard to go through the orchard and watch the huge woodchuck hole behind the light colored grass. Otherwise no problems.” Frank deadpanned in a serious tone.

I got near the orchard, there was a driveway running beside the orchard. No need to risk running down these expensive saplings, I thought. Just as I got up to speed, I ran directly into a woodchuck hole. More like an enormous sink hole. I was absolutely sure both my front and back bumpers bottomed out simultaneously. Even as Sam’s face ricocheted off the windshield, I couldn’t risk slowing down as the ground was wet and soft. Only a little blood from the nose, he was fine!

We somehow keep all axels intact, I saw the yellow grass and aimed wide right of it. Hammer down. Unfortunately the yellow area turned out to be a large horseshoe area – and I was in the shoe. Yellow chunks of sod the size of Ted’s head kicked up from all four tires. The more I pushed the accelerator the slower I went. We kept inching, closer,closer to the dark green spot just ahead.

We succumbed to the yellow grass. It must have been a good show, as Frank pulled around on the dark green grass, backed up and ready to hook on before we got out of our truck.

With Frank’s help we pulled onto high ground and got back as close to the building as possible, so as to make carrying the tons of parts and sections doable. I’m sure we were within a full football field. Maybe. I couldn’t help but notice the scaffolding that blocked the main entrance. The trailer could have been backed up TO THE DOOR!

We shook a full 2″ of sod and mud off the canvas tarp and got to unloading. The good news was plenty of help. The inside of the large structure was all framed with old, large reclaimed barn beams. The crew was situated to lift and carry. The largest of the four sections still labored them.. it was HEAVY. It was a little after normal lunch time, but we were unloaded- tools organized, ready to install.

The portion of the job I expected to be the worst, standing the 25′ beam upright, went quickly and, dare I say, almost effortless. The remaining sections, anything but effortless. The largest section went to the basement, Frank and crew hooked a set of chain falls on to lower it down. “Out of all the huge beams I’ve placed, I’ve never handled anything so heavy and awkward!” Frank gasped. Hmmm…think I mentioned how it might go. Not only did we have to lift all the sections up and in, but also had to guide them into the mortised beam. A push here, a push there, a number of ratchet straps, a few well placed blows with a large sledge hammer, another push here, another push there, a lot of muscle and about five hours latter – Main sections of the stair were up and in! That meant it was time call it a day!

Sam and I got settled in to our motel room and took a quick shower. It was dark and we were both exhausted, needing nourishment. As we left to find an eatery I noticed the thick layer of mud and sod over my entire truck- it did garner a lot of interesting looks from passerby’s.

As we settled in for a slice of pizza and beer Sam recounted the day.

“What a terrible day! Everyone got there late, we got stuck! All that lifting – holy crap- it went together so hard!!”

“Sam” I explained “We got unstuck, had a lot of help with all the lifting, and in the end, the stair FITS!”

“That’s a really GREAT day!!”

 

Merry Christmas everyone – until next year, take five!

The Unsuccessful Install

Because of the nature of our work, Installs are a necessary evil of what we do.  I suppose if one were to have an unreasonably optimistic view of life they might think that the installs were the best part of the job – shall we say “the culmination of weeks of hard work!’

Maybe.

There are two absolutes with installations-

*they add excitement

*they add stress.

Not too long ago we had a large stair project, two stories of stair, using all reclaimed barnwood of substance. It was a large project with large lumber, heavy and bulky!  The stair consisted of one main 12″ x 12″ beam that ran vertically from the basement all the way to the second floor.  The beam was 25′ long, a tremendous specimen of the wood used in yesteryear.  The 4″ x 16″ stringers, wraping around the beam, were all mortised into that beam.  Four-inch thick treads were also all mortised into the stringers.  The stair was U shaped with two landings.  The landings were of the same materials and method – timber framed with mortise and tenon joinery, the landings were integral to the stair – not built in place.  It was very substantial construction. While it was basically a simple stair by plan, due to size, scale, materials used, and construction methods – it was anything but simple.  Any slight error or miscalculation would result in catastrophy.

I brought in a young gun to help on this one! Youthful enthusiasm, energy and muscle were just what was needed.  Sam worked like an old man, thought like a teenager, and apparently partied like like someone that got paid a lot more than I thought I was paying.  It was three weeks into the project before I learned that he had gone to college for woodworking.  Imagine that! Despite his shortcomings, his young man muscle (5’8” and 135 pounds of screaming force!) and desire to learn kept us going.  We finished the challenging main build on schedule and were ready for the install!

One long day, a tractor, a Sam, as well as a few tie down straps, canvas tarp and we were loaded up.  An early morning wake up, a 2 1/2 hr drive and we were on site before the contractor and crew.

So far so good,  I prophesied!

The job site was the usual confusion.  I had made three calls and untold number of texts over the past week to make sure the GC and the on site contractor knew the exact day and time to expect us, how much extra on-site labor would be needed and how long I expected the job to take.  I could have been a UFO zapped from the grey clouds above, entered the job site with thin green legs an extra large head, and there would have been less surprise that I was there!

Ted the GC was nowhere to be found, ‘can’t make it until the heavy lift…I mean can’t make it for at least four hours’.  Frank, the carpenter in charge, was late. No one knew where he was, but finally, with three calls from the helper – he was reported to be on the way.

Yippie – such efficiency!

Join us next week for the exciting conclusion with part 2

Until then – take five!