This soulful piece of writing comes from SMC Production Manager Newell Isbell Shinn. I’m proud to share it, and I dedicate it to my husband DeWayne Bruce Gregg, a master carpenter, and my grandson Christian Hart, a master carpenter in training.
A carpenter’s intimacy with a building is particular and visceral. They know, for instance, how every material in a house smells when it is cut, what kind of dust it makes. They know how many pieces of each thing they can lift by themselves, how many with help, and the ratio of pieces moved today to tomorrow’s aches and pains. When they walk away they know a building with their body in a way other occupants probably never will.
Carpenters wear layers, and rarely argue about whether to set the thermostat at 68, 72 or 76. In fact, on those few halcyon days when temps stay in that neighborhood, it is cause for celebration. If eating your food on makeshift seating while exposed to the elements is a picnic, then the life of the carpenter is a picnic nearly every day.
Going to work as a carpenter may mean spending the day in a dank crawl space, a blazing roof top, or a sheetrocked room with a million dollar view. The material of the day may be heart breakingly beautiful wood grain or back breakingly awkward OSB and foam panels, and what it is is usually beyond the carpenter’s control, a result of decisions made elsewhere and earlier by clients, architects, managers. Those decisions can feel capricious.
The work of making buildings is full of hazard, discomfort, and disappointment, and lends itself to a certain natural grumpy cynicism. Carpenters know every way in which reality as verified in field can make a joke of plan, schedule, and budget. Carpenters have seen, or at least heard of, every way a beam or a machine can slash, crush, disfigure, or destroy a body, and they work in the shadow of them all.
The work of making buildings is hard work, but also full of magic, of spontaneous improvisational genius, and transformation. Carpenters do their work in a world that isn’t square, level, and plumb when they get there, but is (mostly) when they leave. They are mechanics in the old esteemed sense of that word.
Character is quickly evident in the way one walks across a cluttered deck, holds a tool and puts it down, and in the way one strikes a line. A carpenter must trust the person on the other end of a heavy load or the other end of the tape, and can therefore be quick to judge. They can also be patient, kind, and generous teachers. Everyone learns from someone else. Carpentry requires camaraderie.
At a time when fewer and fewer humans make anything of physical value, carpenters engage in a profoundly creative process, drawing on intellect, muscle, machinery, and materials to produce objects of lasting value, to create shelter, to fulfill basic and archetypal human needs. The carpenter is in some ways mid-wife for the visions and dreams of others, bringing buildings into the world with all the attendant clamor, muck, and uncertainty of birth. It is hard work and, done well, it is honorable, elegant, and inspiring too.