Ten years ago this month, I started working in the skilled trades. My older brother’s best friend from childhood had been working as a trim carpenter in between touring with his band, and was just starting to get into cabinets. I was his first real hire. I couldn’t read a tape measure. Together we set out to learn the ins and outs of building cabinetry the hard way, by trial and error. All the tooling we used in the beginning could be bought at a hardware store, except for the cabinet saw, a Jet, which was and is a nice saw. We worked out of a bare cinder block addition off a city alley. The concrete floor was decent. The bathroom barely worked. We sprayed lacquer out in the open at the end of the day, clouds of overspray hanging in the air as we locked up.
Our first big job was a distressed raised panel kitchen. Face frames. Half overlay. There might have been glaze involved. I still don’t know cabinet sales lingo. Maybe the style was country traditional? French provincial? Romantic rustic? All in hickory. I ran every piece of rock hard hickory through a Delta lunch box planer, and then across a table router, profiling the door stock and raised panels, the wood shattering occasionally as the tiny router bit chattered and wailed through each pass.
Since then I’ve spent seven of the last ten years in five different cabinet shops. One of those shops I can barely call a shop. It was a storage space. In a basement. I had to tail the owner like a detective to the bank to get a check.
I worked for a year in a bronze foundry, plaques, signs, medals. Around a year on renovations. I’m coming up now on my first year as a welder. It’s hard to say what I’ve gained in that time.
My first boss, the one who had been a trim carpenter and bassist in metal bands, has become very successful. Over fifteen employees, owns the 7,000 square foot building they work out of. Owns I can only imagine well over a half million in tooling. Vans. Trucks. Fork lifts. He hasn’t worked on the floor in some years. He dresses well. Doesn’t drive a truck anymore. He’s a good guy. He’s done well.
In my own case, I’ve amassed very little wealth. My tools are hand tools. My truck is old. My boots are cheap. I’ve gained a great deal of skill and experience, but as the saying goes, all I’ve got to show is the muscle in my arm. I’ve shifted from shop to shop, from trade to trade, in an unplanned pursuit of I’m not sure what, hoping along the way that something or somewhere would click. If anything has clicked, it is a click only I can hear. Years later. A memory.
Most of what I’ve gained in terms of ability is difficult to define. There are simple skills. Hand work. Where to hold. Not blowing out. Calculator math. And there are indefinable skills. How to estimate time so that I’ll complete a step right before clean up time. Where to set up. How an architect or designer might be playing me. How I might be playing myself. Knowing more than I know.
As the years go on and I get better at building, it’s easier to forgive myself mistakes. Even rookie mistakes. As my confidence grows, I’m less rashly angry with myself for slipping up. Everyone does it. Only fools throw it. But the game of building becomes more mysterious, a giant cloud of semi-understanding. A personal internet where I can look things up that I don’t know.
It is a very different experience than what I assumed when I started. Maybe I thought that the majority of learning would be skill based. But almost all of the game is mental. Almost all of it is humility. Understanding why something works, and why something else does not work. Understanding without knowing.
Most of the lessons I’ve learned were ones I taught myself. Any guy that actually knows something probably doesn’t know how to tell you. Of course this sort of thing isn’t quantifiable. When the bank looks at my assets, they aren’t interested in whether I know what I don’t know, or if I can read the future before I start a project. When I look at my assets, what do I think?