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Tuesday, Aug. 02, 2005
I have this little streak of reading frenzy in me that loves to know about what other people do for a living. I love to bone up on other people’s jobs. I don’t know what it is, but chances are if you’re writing about your work I take more than the usual interest in the words. Some seem determined to indulge me, like:

This guy, a waiter, is fluid with words and often hysterically funny about the trials of food service. This guy, a bouncer, is a little more grim but I dare you to try to read just one post. They’ve been writin’ up a storm between them and those of you who cast a wide net have likely seen them before. Just really good stuff if you haven’t, they take their work and turn it into wonderful tales.

I write a fair amount about work in the construction fields. Not too many do, it’s always been a tight lipped community with exhausted slingers of tools and machines coming in from the fields at night wanting only to forget about the daily toil. It’s likely what keeps me from making this exclusively a carpenter story, that need to get away from the job rather than draw it out for another hour or so. Takes a true lunatic to actually want to spend time recanting a typical day flipping lumber and cursing the architect.

Those guys linked above have it a lot tougher than I do, though. They actually have to go out and intermingle with the public. Totally taboo in my camp. On any occasion that the public actually gets within sight of me at work, I’ll lay down the tools and walk away. I know the drill. “Ooooohh,” they’ll coo. “Look! There’s a real live cabinetmaker and he’s building stuff! Let’s trot over and take a look-see, hmmmm?”

Oh no you won’t. You’ll watch the cabinet guy discover powers of flight. Looking over my shoulder while I try to seamlessly match up some madly expensive mahogany paneling with dowels and glue and clamps, settling them in exactly the right spot so that the mouldings will lay out correctly during phase two, cutting out holes for receptacles and plumbing cleanouts and cable boxes all the while? You don’t get to watch that. I’m usually testy enough onsite, and this isn’t being filmed for a documentary later.

Watch what happens the next time a plumber is in your house, or an electrician. You bring them in, show them the problem. Then you stand around waiting for something to happen. There will be a great shuffling, several runs back to the truck, more meandering. Sooner or later you get distracted or bored and wander off, and by the time you get back, the deed is done. It probably took all of a minute, disguised as a half hour of settling in, but what the lad was really doing was waiting for you to leave. Watched work takes an eternity and for good reason. I learned it the hard way.

Long ago when I was just getting started in this madness Ally managed to finagle a side job for me. We were living in a one bedroom walkup, I was making just north of minimum wage as an apprentice in a cabinet shop, I needed all the side work I could get. One of her bosses needed some work done on a bathroom vanity, a door replaced or something. Easy. I made up the door to match what he had, yanked the old door and salvaged the hardware, put the new one on. The bathroom was small enough that no one could get in there but me, and there’s that whole stigma of being in a bathroom with a stranger anyway, so they left me pretty much alone. Result? Done in an hour and everyone pleased, standing in the little doorway peering in at the finished result.

Well of course we couldn’t leave well enough alone. And by “we” I mean my well intentioned wife. “Honey, the next door neighbor wants to know if you can come over and look at some of her cabinets that need some work. My boss had her over just now, while you were in the bathroom. Seems like a really nice lady, I told her we‘d be right there.”

We trotted next door and a woman answered the bell. Well, that’s not exactly right. This was no woman, this was one of the gilded ones. Six feet worth of blonde construction that put definition into every sleek angle. If you were looking for a capper for your trophy case, this one had dibs. I mean utterly spectacular.

I was tremendously aware that I was sweaty and unshaven and had a young wife in the immediate vicinity, and wasn’t quite sure which was the greater problem at that point.

“Ooooohh, I just loved what you did next door,” gushed the Blonde. “I’ve got some cedar work upstairs in the bedroom that I’d love to have you do. Can you come up?”

There was enough innuendo in that line to kick start every smoke alarm in the county. And following this diva upstairs, with her wearing a pair of custom fitted denim shorts, was one of the great moments in 20th century flow dynamics.

She wanted a door added to an open closet, something to match the cedar paneling in the rest of the room which had been installed by someone else. Now this wasn’t the brittle aromatic cedar you’d find in a hope chest (or a typical cedar closet, for that matter). This was the soft western red stuff, roughsawn and unfinished. They were going for a contemporary look. The closet was huge, it was busy with rods, full of clothing worthy of the gilded Blonde. Looked just fine to me. But it needed a door, she said.

I measured and scribbled. “I’ll need to get some material, of course. Maybe we could install this thing next week?”

“Why, that would be just super!“ she growled throatily. “I can’t wait to see it.”

I dragged Ally the hell out of there and down to the old Chevy truck in a daze, and I don’t know if it was the disorientation of being around someone who could star in any given movie or the little voice in the back of my head (persistently, and annoyingly saying “Hey apprentice stud. Just how many big panel doors in cedar have you built in your day?”) that was causing me more grief.

The first problem was getting the materials. I was foolhardy enough to think that the profit from the other side job would carry the cost of materials for this bigger one. A quick check around showed the holes in that theory, cedar was cheap but you needed quite a bit of it. So much for paying the electric bill that week.

Then there was the whole construction of the door. I know how I’d do it now, laying up a core of perfectly stable white pine laminations, veneering thin cedar over it, carefully machining a multi-piece floating cedar panel with cedar splines, cope and sticking, pre-machining the door in a shop. Made sure the whole thing was flat with no chance of warping, treating it as a volatile and fragile thing. Take my high-tech and fabulously expensive vacuum activated tools to the bedroom to sterilize the theatre as I jointed the last couple of passes from the edge, bored out the hinges and strike and sanded the sharp corners smooth. Nailed off the door stops. Pushed the door shut and felt that oh-so-happy little gust of air around the margins you could measure with the thickness of a nickel.

Of course, this is now, and there’s many a door gone under my hand since those early days. Naturally enough, I did the first one the dumbass way.

I built it much like a fence panel. I wasn’t too sure if it was the right way, but given the lowly state of my power tool inventory I didn’t have much choice. I cut 1 x 6 cedar to length with a skill saw, screwed it together like a sandwich with a drill and hoped for the best. That really was pretty much it. No finesse, darn little planning. A good bit of ignorance. I did give it a touch of the nice hand plane I had, trusting in some of its magic to transform the door into functionality, I guess

Ally thought it looked pretty. I was leaning on her opinion a lot. But Ally has always liked anything I put together, and is therefore not qualified to be a critic, ‘cause I’ve built some wretched hacks in my day. Wives can be blind in that way.

But one thing was sure, I wasn’t so dumb that I was going to leave her home when I went back into Sheba’s lair.

So we showed up on time and I hauled the stuff up to the bedroom. The Blonde said, with a purr, “Oh I like it already. I’m just gonna sit here and watch this go in, those other guys wouldn’t let me near my room when they were putting up the paneling. Can you imagine? Wouldn’t let me in my own bedroom just to watch. I like to watch men work with wood. Reminds me of my daddy back home.”

She sounded very little girlish here and Ally was chiming in with her, and I figured, what’s the harm? Gosh those other guys must have been awfully mean. The Blonde and Ally took up perch and I swung into what I hoped was confident action.

The door was too big. Not a lot too big, just bigger than I’d wanted. Huh? I’d measured the opening and cut it a little smaller, right? Well nothing to be done, down the stairs and onto the sawhorse and the skill saw screamed and the burn marks appeared. More work with the magic plane. Back upstairs, hang it on hinges. Still too big, it’s binding! Down it goes.

I fooled with that door longer than any five doors should have required. It was half exasperation, half inexperienced frustration. And all the while the ladies sat on a divan and chatted, occasionally lapsing into hopeful silence when I’d (for the tenth time) re-hang it on hinges and swing it shut, only to find one spot or another still rubbing on the frame. A fair part of the install process is being able to cuss effectively when desired, but even that was not working for me. Too much audience. I could literally feel the eyes on me.

I know now, and was learning real fast then, what the problem was. The dumbass way of assembling the door guaranteed that it would swell. Cedar moves really quick in an unstable state, faster than you’d believe. It probably swelled up a quarter of an inch in width on the trip between my apartment and the fabled bedroom. Plus, it was sagging a few degrees to starboard just by virtue of its screwed together design and all I could do was plane away more wood to compensate.

But much worse, it was warping, almost before my eyes. It was early in the warp stage, but there was a very discernable concave happening, like the start of an unintentional barrel effect. And a less detectable twist along the length of the door. Nightmare city. The revenge of the lively cedar in the wrong hands.

I’m not sure to this day how I got it all to work. I remember having to do some pretty artful sculpting of the door stops to shape them into a warped state that would complement the warped door, and when you’re doing this in front of the customer you learn all sorts of creative ways to lie about why you’re making a pile of wood chips on her carpet. The hardware was balky, the door margins a horror. The Blonde was looking just a trifle concerned.

In the end, if I walked to the far end of the bedroom and looked toward the door at a hard angle it looked okay. If I left the house and got in my truck it looked even better. But standing in front of it? A hack job.

The Blonde stood and approached, opened the door and twirled in the closet. I was trying really hard to ignore the door by this time, packing away tools and snatching at stray wood shavings, heartily saying “Well, there you go, that should keep the clothes safe, heh . . .” and trailing off into silence. I’ve never been a very good PR man in these cases.

I don’t know what saved me. Maybe the Blonde felt pity for me, or she just didn’t notice all the things that I was seeing, or maybe she just didn’t want to see them. But in any event, she nodded with a curious smile and said, “Just let me get my checkbook.”

I don’t think I’ve ever gotten off a job, check in hand, as fast as I did that day. I could almost hear the door upstairs cackling at me, “You’d better run, sport. I’m about to warp right off the hinges here. And then you’ll be baaaaaaccckkk . . .”

Usually it’s trips like these that build character and reputations. You build something the best way you can, with a little knowledge and forethought, you execute the design and fabrication in a swift, economical way. Show up for the install with all the parts accounted for and in pristine condition, and after kicking the customer as far away from the site as possible the door is installed with the aplomb of an afterthought. You chuckle, the customer swoons and the truck departs with a check on the dash and the only voice calling you is the cold beer at the Watering Hole.

I never heard from the Blonde again, which surprised the hell out of me. I figured for sure I’d be back fixing that door, or even replacing it. Believe me, for months, whenever the phone would ring I felt sure it would be her.

Incidentally, only recently has my wife been allowed to accompany me on install jobs again. It’s been just under 25 years by my count. Just barely under.

But I can assure you. In all that time no customer has seen what I do for very long. When it comes to being mean, you’ll find no equal in that regard.

And I haven’t messed with cedar all that much, either.

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