Eight Shortcuts A Pro Should Never Take
I was never a very good contractor. I like to think that my calling in life is writing about residential construction, rather than actually doing it, although I did wear a nail apron and drive around in a pick up truck (usually not at the same time) for more than a dozen years.
I worked with some amazing people in the field from 1978 until 1992, and while I learned a lot from them, I should have paid more attention to how they did things. The best of them never took shortcuts, but I sometimes did, (even when I knew better). Here are eight I took but shouldn’t have:
1. Never Sharpening Your Tools
Mark Fortenberry started every day with his stones and oil can. He’d sharpen and hone the chisels and the planes he knew he be using in the next 8 hours. He was the best and fastest finish carpenter I ever knew.
2. Buying Cheap Tools
Instead of buying my first-ever circular saw when I did, I should have waited a few weeks until I’d saved a little more money on my first-ever construction job. At the time, the guy I was working for, Twig Perkins, said, “Don’t buy that cheap piece of stuff (he didn’t really say ‘stuff’). It’ll break in a week.” Actually, it took about a month for the motor brushes to fry, but by then the spring on the blade guard had broken and the saw’s foot was bent. Fortunately for me, the guy at the lumberyard refunded my money and let me put it towards the saw that Twig had recommended at first.
3. Buying Cheap Materials
I recently heard that Bob Wilder died. Bummer. He was the best plumber I ever knew. And amazingly handsome. All the women in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, practically swooned when he pulled up in his van. I hired him to work on a spec house I was doing one time. Money was tight, of course. Bob told me not to use a cheap grade of stainless steel sink in the kitchen. I didn’t listen. Four months later, I swear to Christ that I stood in the kitchen with a realtor and a potential buyer and almost cringed when the husband knocked with his knuckles on the side of the sink and it sounded like an empty turpentine can. The house eventually sold, but it took a while.
4. Going for the Lowest Bid
Same house. Should have listened to Bob, again, when he tried to warn me about a certain electrician, who gave me a scary low bid to wire the house. Bob had worked another job with the guy and told me he’d heard there were headaches. I should have known something was wrong when I read the electrician’s card and it said, “Preformance Electrics,” instead of “Performance Electrics,” which was actually the name of the company. (I still have the card somewhere. Now it seems funny.) Suffice it to say that the guy really didn’t perform well at all.
5. Not Maintaining Your Vehicle
I drove around for about three months with a bad front left wheel bearing that made a noise like a couple of marbles in a coffee can. Every time Willy Wilson got in my truck, he’d say, “You know, you should fix that or get it fixed. Won’t cost that much now. I could help you on Saturday, if you want…” I just heard it as so much blah blah blah and turned up the radio to drown out him and the bearing noise. When I finally got to the Ford dealer they told me that I was going to need new front bearings and new front tires because the loose wheel had caused the tread to wear quickly and unevenly.
6. Assuming Your Employees Know What You Mean
Mike Donnelly, known as The Swede, worked for me until he quit one day in a huff. I’d given him vague instructions about how I wanted the window in the living room trimmed out. I made a quick sketch on a drywall scrap, and then I’d left to go and do something that I thought was more important. When I got to the house the next morning the trim wasn’t what I thought I’d told Mike to do. We discussed it, rather heatedly, and I won because I was the boss. We discussed it, very heatedly, and I lost because The Swede quit.
7. Thinking Cleaning Up the Job is a Waste of Time
I worked with Roger Goldenberg on a job restoring the front exterior of a museum house that is a National Historic Landmark. It was a dream job with lots of exposure. Fun work. Good money. Last pro carpentry job I ever did before becoming a journalist.
I’d never worked with Roger before, and for the first week or so, it drove me nuts because he would stop work (the real work, I thought) about half an hour before quitting time and clean up the site, including the adjoining barn where we’d set up a temporary shop for milling. He’d get out his different brooms and sweep and clean. Arrrgh! It was my job, I’d landed it, and what the hell did he think he was doing? I was always of the school of thought that you only clean up when you couldn’t find something, even after kicking through the debris for ten minutes look for it.
But man, did I love showing up in the morning on that job with Roger, knowing right where everything was. I wish I’d worked with Roger when I was just starting out.
8. Waiting a Few Days Before Returning Phone Calls
James P. D’Alessio was the best contractor I ever knew. (Unfortunately, he died, too. I miss him.) I knew Jim before all contractors had a cell phone clamped to their belt, in the days when you had to find a pay phone or make calls at the end of the day from home.
One time Jim got too busy to take care of a customer, and he recommend me and my guys for the job. Customer called me, and after about a week of my not returning their call, Jim stopped by my job. “I had to tell Mrs. X that she should call Carpenter Y about that deck she wanted built. How come you never called her?” I made up some lame-o excuse about being too busy working to spend time getting more work, and as I said it, I knew that it just sounded plain-old stupid. When you called Jim’s number the recording promised that he would call you back before the end of that day’s business. That’s good business.