A Carpenter’s Story
By Daniel Foster
I have been a carpenter, cabinet-maker, designer and builder for many years. I have done others things as well, but always I came back to working with wood and to building or remodeling houses.
I have worked in Massachusetts, Vermont, Virginia, Maryland, Washington, D.C., New York, New Jersey and both Northern and Southern California. I have moved back and forth between several of these places, living in Vermont, for example, for three separate periods of several years each, and in California for two extended periods, including the present.
In addition to working as a carpenter and builder I was also always a student of building and architecture, constantly studying and reading on techniques, materials, tools and projects. I would become preoccupied with the study of an architect or a type of building for a period of time and then move on to study another.
Several years ago I was taken by the urge to write and I began to reflect in writing on my experiences in carpentry and building over the last 50 years.
These last 50 years have seen a lot of change in the business of carpentry and building. The continued rise of tract developments and national builders has taken place during this time. Artisan carpenters have come and gone. Powerful electric tools and nail guns are in everyone’s hands. Building has become more regulated, more complex and more expensive. The quality of building has improved in some ways and diminished significantly in others. Like everything else, building has become much more corporate. The simple, skilled carpenter is no longer considered such an important player, and more than ever, like everything else, it’s become all about money.
Also as with everything else, building has become more stratified. At the low end are houses in developments built for those with the beginnings of the means to purchase them. At the top are architectural and technological masterpieces, some with bathrooms that cost as much as whole houses at the entry level. Many of these wonders at the top level are third, fourth or fifth houses of the very wealthy.
I have had the good fortune to experience building on many different levels, from hunting camps in the Newfoundland bush to apartments on Fifth Avenue and new homes in the enclaves of the uber-rich in California; from Vermont to Los Angeles and many spots in between. Along the way and through the years I earned an undergraduate degree in economics and then a master’s degree in business. I dabbled in some other industries, but always I came back to working with my hands as a carpenter and a builder. I couldn’t escape it, though there were times when I wished I could. It was always there and I could always find work, which may not have always paid well, but always paid some, and gave me the benefits of independence in scheduling my own time and being in control of my own life.
A lot of the work I was able to do was interesting work for interesting people and the fields of building and architecture were always capturing my imagination in new ways. I went from framing houses to designing and building decks; to trimwork and stairbuilding; to cabinetry and kitchens; to major remodels and to designing and building entire houses. I worked with some of the best architects in the country and with some very good craftsmen.
I served several years as a carpenter’s helper before I could really call myself a carpenter. I had no formal training. Mine was simple, on-the-job training – sometimes sink or swim – coupled with my own study of the trade. Oftentimes in my career I would take on a project without having any real experience in the specifics required. The results were usually truly excellent. I didn’t know enough to do it poorly. Fear of failing impelled me to do every part of it well.
The terms ‘journey’ and ‘journeyman’ were invented by tradespeople.
A few hundred years ago a tradesman learned his craft through the stages of ‘apprentice’, ‘journeyman’ and, for some, ‘master’.
As an apprentice a young man (and they were always men then) was not paid for his work. His only pay was in the training he received and in the form of room and board in the house of the master tradesman to whom he was bound by contract. This apprenticeship typically lasted six or seven years, depending on the trade and location.
At the end of his apprenticeship the young tradesman rose to the rank of journeyman. The term comes from the word ‘journee’, meaning ‘a day’, later coming to mean ‘a day’s work’, for the journeyman was now allowed to charge for a day’s work.
Upon reaching the level of journeyman he now embarked on a new period of learning. He was given a small amount of money by his master – perhaps a couple hundred bucks in today’s money – and told not to return to the village for at least 3 years. He was given a suit of clothing that identified him clearly to all as a journeyman of his trade and papers to prove his status to local officials wherever he went. For three years his job was to learn from other masters and through working for householders in need of his services. He was to return with no more money than what he had left with. This was a pilgrimage of education, not for the accumulation of wealth. This system was not only a means for the tradesman to gain a greater knowledge; it was also the means by which knowledge spread throughout the trade.
Eventually, if he chose to do so, the journeyman could seek to rise to the level of master in his guild. To do so he would create a ‘masterpiece’ under the observation of the guild and this piece would become the property of the guild when submitted for approval.
Only upon reaching the rank of master could the tradesman then employ other tradesmen or apprentices.
So we tradespeople (and we are not all men now) literally invented the journey. And the masterpiece.
I have been on my extended journey for decades now. Sometimes I have been a master, with a shop and employing and training others. Oftentimes I have worked by the hour for other contractors or individuals. It has been a long time since I was a carpenter’s helper or apprentice, but I have never stopped learning.
So here are some stories from my journey. They are stories of wood and steel and concrete; of buildings and interiors, but mostly they are stories of people – plain, ordinary, run-of-the-mill, complicated people just like you and me.
My life in building started when I was eight or nine with treehouses and snow forts and with drawings for live-aboard rockets and for river-journey rafts that I hoped to build someday. My golden age for treehouses began when I was ten, when my parents divorced and we moved from the large house I had lived in since I was an infant to a new house my mother had had built in a subdivision on the other side of town. The lots on Sears Road were very large by today’s subdivision standards. Ours was over two acres and included field and woods, with an additional stand of woods on the empty lot next door.
There were other houses being built nearby and on weekends I would raid the sites to collect wood for my treehouses. Mostly it was cut-offs and scraps that would have been thrown away or used for little more than blocking, but I do remember taking a whole eight-foot 2×4 on at least one occasion. I still feel guilty.
When I made friends in the neighborhood the treehouses became forts and many a battle was waged defending our ground with slingshots and crab apples. I also remember great falls with the wind being knocked out of me on hitting the ground.
When I was twelve, my mother remarried. She did not choose well. The man who at first looked daring and exciting blew like a hurricane through our lives and left us all in tatters. Over the few years of their marriage we moved first to a new home in Carlisle, Massachusetts and then to Vermont. All that time we were prey to my stepfather’s grandiose plans to strike it rich and to display his daring to the world. His schemes included an Appaloosa horse-breeding farm in Vermont, hunting camps in Newfoundland and efforts to control the patents on the anodizing process used to harden aluminum for the manufacture of military light-weapons. Amidst the excitement of ski trips in New Hampshire and summers on Martha’s Vineyard, there was a constant booming of guns and a howling of dogs. There were 38 guns in the house and nearly a dozen Plott bear-hounds in the pen.
After three years Frank was gone, along with all of my mother’s money, and our family was in ruins. He went on to ruin the life of some poor woman in California, and then to mining ventures in Nevada, an activity from which he was eventually barred by the Nevada court system. He lived the last of his days with a native woman in a small village several hours north of Luzon in the Philippines. My guess is that the village will never recover from his presence. I would also guess that where Frank is now is very, very hot. I sincerely hope you never meet such a person.
But, as they say, it was fun while it lasted. At least in some respects.
There were two aspects to the reign of Frank that would begin the process of taking me beyond treehouses. The first was the 1760 farmhouse in Carlisle that we renovated and then lived in for two years before the relocation to Vermont.
The Carlisle farmhouse was set at the end of a dirt road, far removed from any other houses. The original building was a simple two-story structure with a central entry hall and stairway: a very common colonial layout. There were two rooms to either side of the hall on each floor, with a smaller section to one side housing the kitchen and a rear stairway to a small bedroom above. An ell had been added at the rear of the house many years before, containing another two bedrooms and a bath. Our renovation entirely gutted and rehabbed the ell as well as making over the entire original structure and the kitchen. A new living room was added at the rear of the building, Bauhaus modern in its shape and materials and providing a wonderful contrast to the older structure.
Working on the house was my first experience in building. My brother, a sister, a stepsister and I were the demolition crew assigned the job of gutting the ell. We spent several days removing the horsehair plaster and nailed wood lathe from the two bedrooms, bath and hallway that comprised the ell.
After we had moved into the house, the carpenters my stepfather had hired stayed on to build a barn to house my mother’s and a sister’s horses. Every day I would spend a few minutes talking with them when I came home from school. I enjoyed watching their progress and observing the way they worked together.
My second experience of building involved time spent in Newfoundland when I was 14, at the site of a hunting camp that was being built as part of my stepfather’s hunting camp enterprise.
The hunting camp venture was operated out of Corner Brook, a town on the west coast of Newfoundland. We had three seaplanes, with pilots, and several teams of guides. The guides were fishermen most of the year, supplementing their fishing income with guide work in the late summer and fall. Several members of my family had already spent time in the camps. My mother, one of my sisters and my brother had all gone up the previous year and shot moose and caribou, as had my stepfather. I wouldn’t be hunting this trip, as the season wasn’t open yet, though I did do some fishing, and the fishing was very good. I would return later in the year to hunt and to shoot my moose.
I had flown in commercial planes several times, but never in a seaplane. It is an experience like no other. It is noisy and physically shaking and cast in adventure. To fly into the bush is to go into another world, one without people, except those immediately around you. We would sight moose and caribou and bear from the plane and the pilot would descend at times for a closer look, though not so close as to overly disturb the animals, which were no doubt already frightened by the sound and mystery of the plane. The excitement continued as we eventually descended closer and closer to the water until the noise and shake returned and we skimmed the chop to the dock.
I doubt the interior of Newfoundland has changed much. Beyond the coastal area, the interior is low and rolling with small hillocks and the occasional higher peak of several hundred feet. There are uncountable lakes and ponds, linked one after another, in many places with as much water as land, all broken up into small servings of each. The landscape is tundra, formed by glaciers and surfaced only with flora that can withstand the severity of the climate: lichen-covered rocky ground and low scrub.
There were three guides at the new camp-base. They were carpenters now, building the simple structures that would house the hunters in the fall. These would begin as raised wooden floors with canvas tent structures on top, which is how I knew them. Later, perhaps, these would grow into structures with wood and shingle sides and roof.
After over 50 years I have only a few distinct memories of my time there. I do not remember the structures well. I remember the lake and the dock and the meals and the men and the conversations I had with them. One of my strongest memories is of the guides unloading wood from the seaplane. We brought a small load with us when we came in and more came on later flights. I was amazed at the strength of these small, wiry men, each lifting a stack of six or more long 2×6‘s or 2×4’s onto their shoulders and climbing the path up the small hill to the camp site. Only a few years later I would be doing the same thing on building sites in New England.
Of these three men, Morris stands out most clearly in my memory. He had been my sister’s guide when she hunted the previous year and he would be mine when I returned in the fall to hunt. Small and weathered, he was probably still young when I knew him, perhaps in his late twenties. He, and the others too, were capable and honest men. Capable as carpenters, capable as guides and, I’m sure, capable in fishing and everything they did.
After Frank was gone, I would have no contact with Newfoundland. But later the papers and the news would report the crash of the cod fisheries resulting from the intrusion of fleets of foreign factory-trawler ships. The limitless cod were pulled from the water until they were nearly gone. By 1993 the stock of cod had been depleted by 99% and a cod-fishing moratorium was called that would last for over twenty years. The world changed quickly for those men I had known and I can only imagine the suffering they and their families endured. I would read of the effects of the ban on fishing and of the displaced local fishermen of Newfoundland. I knew these men. They were fine, hardworking men whose centuries-old lifestyle was devastated nearly overnight by corporate greed and ignorance.
Sometimes I remember those men and my time at that camp. It’s often been triggered by the smell of framing lumber on an early fall morning, as I prepare to hoist a stack of lumber onto my shoulder.