My parents are very perplexed by all this
July 24, 2015 5:09 AM   Subscribe

Tell me about your transition from white collar to blue collar work. Bonus points if you're a woman or in a trade union.

I asked this question in March. Since then, I've applied for, been accepted to, and am halfway finished with a pre-apprenticeship training program for women. And I'm doing pretty well. So the idea of my becoming a carpenter has gone from a total pipe dream to an actual possibility.

But I am a person who does not like to make big life changes without having all the facts, and I'd like to hear from anybody who has left an office job for a trade. (Any trade, not just carpentry!) How did your life change? What weren't you expecting? What's awesome about it? What's terrible about it? Do you have any regrets? Tell me everything!
posted by showbiz_liz to Work & Money (18 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
I do not have any personal experience - but SJ at is doing something similar to you and might be good to bounce ideas onto/off of.
posted by VioletU at 6:29 AM on July 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't have experience in this and this is a while ago but. When I was in my 20s, my long term partner switched from office/non-profit work to carpentry. We have kept in touch over the following 15+ years and I can give you a sense of her trajectory:

At first it was frustrating to be a woman in the world of acceptable sexism. Also, unlike you, she didn't go through any kind of training program, so she genuinely had no idea what she was doing. It's one thing if you're a man who knows nothing in the trades, another if you're a woman. She mitigated this by getting her first work with women contractors who were less sexist and, speaking in massive overgeneralizations, tended to be better if imperfect teachers.

Pretty quickly she had a big advantage over many other tradespeople in that she came from a more formally educated world and had better social skills (of a certain type) that allowed her to better communicate with bosses and then clients.

She basically slowly worked her way up the ranks as an employee for various contractors, basically by listening and working hard, and being assertive too, and eventually got a job for a large home remodel company and, because of her growing carpentry skill but also the aforementioned social skills, worked her way quickly to a supervisor there. They supported her eventual efforts to study for and then get her general contractors license, at which point she started her own business (occasionally doing sub contracting for that employer as a way to build up business).

Once she owned a business, she hired others to do a fair amount of the more grueling part of the physical labor, which corresponded well with her starting to feel a physical cost to doing that kind of work, which does wear you down after a while.

Around this time, she bought some property with a semi-habitable barn on it, and lived in the barn while she built her own house, according to her own specs, which was amazing (even if she forgot to put in any closets), and she lives there now with her kids.

Now, almost 20 years later, she really reached burnout on the physical labor and being a small business owner (imagine all the nit-pickyness off people getting their kitchens remodeled) and went back to school in Social Work. She's now starting a new career as a psychotherapist, but while she transitions, she continues to run some jobs for additional income. I imagine she will phase this out over the next 5 years.

One big cool benefit is that her sons have gotten to grow up around her working - she has always taken them to jobs and done home carpentry projects with them, so they have a lot of skills and knowledge they will take with them forever.

I think she would say she's very glad she did what she did, even if now she's about done with it. It enabled her to have a long period of being her own boss, living the way she wanted to, building her own house, etc. I'm sure she'll always use the skills for the rest of her life, and also she has connections with so many local tradespeople that I imagine will continue to come in handy.
posted by latkes at 7:27 AM on July 24, 2015 [18 favorites]

Oh, and I just remembered I had another friend who basically did service jobs and activism and then got accepted into the electricians union (acceptance is based on a a written test) and within a couple years was a foreman, probably for similar reasons stated above (worked hard, good communication skills). Her income probably quadrupled. She works a lot though.
posted by latkes at 7:30 AM on July 24, 2015 [5 favorites]

I started out as a teenager in the usual retail/cashier jobs, then slid in the standard female-dominated bookkeeping/office clerking paths. Then I took my own sharp turn, into the then almost entirely male-dominated theater projectionist field --- back in the day, almost all females in theaters were ticket sellers: men did the technical (higher paying) work running the machinery, women did the (lower paying) 'housework' sorts of jobs, cleaning up or cooking popcorn/hotdogs/etc. It's just the way things were, right? But like you, I was good with my hands and machinery, I was bored by the endless paperwork in office jobs, plus I've always HATED customer-contact jobs.

So I found myself a union projectionist training program, and about 32 years ago I became the third ever female in my union local --- we were sworn in the union alphabetically, so #1 had about ten minutes seniority on me, and #2 about three minutes. Heck YES there was an amazing amount of sexism, so much that both of those two women sworn in with me left within the year. But I'm either tougher or (more likely!) too stubborn to surrender; in the end, I beat back the worst of the sexists with an impromptu dirty-joke contest --- luckily for me, he ran out one joke before me! Sounds silly, but it got me his respect.

I love the job, the machinery and the technical aspects of it; it also suits my introverted nature --- if all goes well, I can work an entire day and rarely talk to anyone. And believe me, while it hasn't disappeared entirely there is FAR less sexism than there was!
posted by easily confused at 7:57 AM on July 24, 2015 [8 favorites]

Congrats on doing well in your training program!

2 accounts for you:
A friend in her late 20s decided to go from bookkeeping to being a mechanic. Loved the training, got a job in a shop, enjoyed it and found that folks responded really well to seeing a woman mechanic in the shop. Meanwhile, as the rookie, she got the crap jobs. She did a *lot* of oil changes as I recall and doing more interesting stuff and learning on the job was dependent on one of the guys taking her under his wing to show her stuff. While it wasn't a bad experience, she got frustrated by these limitations and after a few years, went back to an office job.

My own story:
I always loved to cook and in HS, considered cooking school instead of college but decided I had to do the "responsible" thing, so off to college with me. I had a whole career in brand development & marketing. Then, at 36, I jumped at the chance to attend a well regarded culinary program at my local college. Before I started classes, I gave myself permission to do the training and try this new thing and that if it didn't work out, I would just go back to my previous career and not beat myself up over it or feel like I had wasted the time/money/effort. By graduation, I had a job as a cook AND a fledgling food business. I also was making about 25% of my previous income. Ouch. I had to radically change my lifestyle. I was tired and sore a lot of the time and poor all of the time. My work hours shifted to evenings and weekends and holidays so I missed a lot of celebrations and events with family and friends. Those years were hard. Yet I was (and am!) much happier than I had been before. Today I'm working as a Chef Instructor (at the very school I attended). My success has been in part due to my life & work experience in my previous career. Not only did I have applicable skills, but I had a focus and drive.

Now, my new focus is on my escape plan and how to reduce/remove the physical labor of kitchen work as I head towards my 50s. It means more managment and less time at the stove. This makes my heart sad but my back is grateful. I am in my mid 40's and I definitely don't bounce back as easily as the kids do. While in school, we were advised to "protect your feet and protect your backs." Take this advice. Your livelihood is now directly tied to your physical wellbeing.

As an Instructor, I've watched other try to make the career change. Some succeed, some don't. I think on balance, most folks are happy that they tried.

TL;DR: Give yourself permission to try this. You can always change your mind. Think about how to transition out of the hard physical labor as you get older. Good luck!!!

Feel free to memail me if you have other questions...
posted by jenquat at 8:19 AM on July 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

The book Hammer Head is about your situation!
posted by bookmammal at 8:25 AM on July 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

My brother is carpenter, and my Dad taught various kinds of shop for 25 years.
You'll probably hear things on sites that would get anyone fired in any white collar environment. "Nice tits" sexism, so to speak. It's hard to overemphasise how much of this there is.
On the other hand, at his last gig, my brother worked under a native woman who was thoroughly respected by her's an industry that runs on results, for better or for worse, basically.
If you produce, I'd expect you to advance. If you can organise your way out of a wet paper bag, speak to clients, and keep a schedule, you've got a massive head start.
The specific, measurable outputs of trades work can do wonders for your sense of purpose and satisfaction. I'm not saying everything runs on time, but coming from the kind of jobs you've talked about in your earlier questions, I think you'll like seeing a (real) house (that actual people will actually live in) that you can see your direct impact on take shape around you.
posted by Kreiger at 9:30 AM on July 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

I went from working as a software developer in an office environment to being an RN in a unionized hospital.

The increased physical strain mentioned above was one of the big differences. Don't wait until you hurt yourself to start paying attention to proper ergonomics, lifting technique, etc. By then it may be too late, and it sucks to be in pain every day.

The other thing that was hard for me was going from a feeling of being a valuable individual contributor to feeling like an interchangeable cog in the organization. I know I was a really good nurse, and I dare say I was better at it than some other nurses. I worked harder, I paid more attention to detail, etc. (Of course there were also nurses who were better than me as well, typically due to more years of experience and the accumulated knowledge and intuition.) But in the eyes of the hospital, I was the same as any other nurse. Being in a union meant I was paid based on my years of service, not on my actual level of performance. If I was sick or wanted to go on vacation, another nurse could work in my place without anyone noticing a difference.

Being treated interchangeably certainly had its benefits. I never felt guilty going on vacation, and I never came back to a giant pile of work that had built up while I was gone, because things kept running as usual in my absence. I didn't have to negotiate my salary or benefits, because the union did it for me. But it also took some mental adjustment on my part, to feel worthwhile and like my contributions were valuable. I knew my patients appreciated what I did for them, but it was an interesting change to feel like my employer wouldn't even notice a hiccup if I got hit by a bus or suddenly decided to quit or something. Some of that change was related to moving from a small organization to a big one, but I think moving from white-collar to blue-collar work also played a big part.
posted by vytae at 9:34 AM on July 24, 2015 [5 favorites]

I read the book Limbo by Alfred Lubrano when I went from blue to white collar. I gave it to someone to help them better understand their blue collar clients and people making the transition. I imagine it might be somewhat helpful for you to read. It looks at white and blue collar cultures.

When I was younger and saw a psychologist, just after university, my UK-trained psych insisted that I was wrong to say I was going through a big change. She insisted that Canada had no class system and that I was imagining the differences. She said it was because I was younger and that, by the time I was 30-something, the world of others in the workforce would seem more accessible.

Now that I'm 20 years older, I still know she's wrong. While I have worked very hard to establish myself in the middle class, I still see big differences between my assumptions/expectations and those of people who grew up middle class.

This book does not assume one is right and the other is wrong.

So I wonder if reading this might be of some help to you.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 9:51 AM on July 24, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I have a degree in biochemistry and cell biology. I'm a 5'0" woman. I quit grad school and joined a union carpentry apprenticeship at 29 (so, less than two years ago). Other than the fact that I got injured in my free time this spring and haven't been able to work in five months, I've been enjoying my new career for the most part. Expect that none of your white collar friends will understand just how hard you have to work every single day. At dinner parties, my parents are pretty embarrassed to tell other people what I do for a living and I've received nothing but discouragement from them and constant urges to leave that career path.

Once I'm back to work, the job will keep paying tuition for my graduate degree in construction management. Carpentry is not a good long term plan, so make sure you have a way out, also lots and lots of savings to get you through rainy days.
posted by halogen at 11:21 AM on July 24, 2015 [9 favorites]

Best answer: hello! I'm a 27 year old lady, about halfway through the United Brotherhood of Carpenter's apprenticeship program, and currently working as a finish carpenter until my main company (where I've been doing more concrete formwork and general carpentry) has more work in town.

I had a bachelor's in psychology and two years of case management with little kids under my belt before I moved cross country and decided I wanted to try the trades. I joined the union almost two years ago and I've been working steady ever since. I absolutely without a doubt, love my job and the people I work with and the things I do and the union and everything involved with my career change. Because there are not many younger folk and women coming in, there is almost guaranteed room for upwards growth both in the field and in the unions. In January I was selected to attend the Sisters in the Brotherhood conference in Vegas, and I am pretty active in union goings on. They already attempted to elect me to an officer position so I can get experience, but I haven't quite been in two years yet.

Adjusting was a little hard physically. For about two months, my hands were stiff in the mornings before they'd warm up (but keep in mind my first job was also outside in February). I am considerably stronger now though, and as long as I continuously face tasks at work with a "try it even if it'll be hard," attitude, I keep improving physically and can keep up with the guys. Being 5'1 though I do sometimes come across tasks I can't complete, but there are dudes with the same physical limitations and no one really calls me out for it. If you're lucky you'll find people who can show you tricks and short cuts to get around your size, like turtling full sheets of formply on your back. You've just gotta be willing to learn and listen.

I do miss a reliable expected climate at work. You are at the whims of the weather when it comes to comfort. Keep working when it's cold, drink a lot of water when it's hot, and learn to dress for comfort and high-visibility. I think the thing I miss most about working in an office is fashion, but I am miles more comfortable working in athletic high vis shirts and thrifted jeans than anything else. I wear almost exclusively greyscale off the clock nowadays because I get sick of colors with all the neon orange and green.

I don't like being tired and needing time to recoup before I can get stuff done. I don't like that work isn't always in town. If something doesn't come up before my current job is done I might have to commute an hour and a half one way for the next one if I don't want to take time off. I don't like that I get dirty every single day and I have to shower every day and do two sets of laundry at least each week. I don't like that very little construction/trade specific work clothing is made in smaller women sizes. I don't like "voluntary" mandatory overtime. But I didn't get paid overtime at all at my old job despite working a lot of it.

There is sexism, but if you go in super enthusiastic to fuck everything up but at least to try it, you'll start to prove yourself. I found one of the best ways to counter latant sexism with the older men was simply to ask them what their experiences working with women was when we were on a task together. You learn what they see that seems "weak" or "lazy" to them, and work hard to counter it. There are women in the trades who are "in it for a husband," or keep their jobs because of the minority requirements some jobs have, I am sad to say, but there are dudes who are just as lazy and worthless, too. If you've always got your hustle on, you'll outwork the lazy. I don't like that I sometimes have to bite my tongue with lgbt phobia, but sometimes you can say those one degree things that will start to shift a person's ship onto a new course. I've removed "fag" from the vocabularies of almost all the journeymen I've worked with thanks to a couple statistics about homophobia I've memorized.

If you're coming in from the office/white collar world, it is a lot different. It's an entirely different culture. I did not know how sheltered I was as a college grad/office person until I started meeting tradesmen. You'll come to realize that knowing the difference between you're and your is not a reliable measure of intelligence. It's a world of people with incredible work ethic, insane spatial reasoning skills, and the best approaches to humor. Coming into it I felt and still feel like I finally found my people. My family and friends have all been supportive and positive about it. My friends tend to be just as disillusioned with the concept of higher education as I am, though. Mileage may vary.

If you have any other questions feel free to MeFi mail me! I could talk for days and days about my experiences in the trades and I am likely less gushy when confronted with specific questions.
posted by teslacoilswoah at 4:27 PM on July 24, 2015 [13 favorites]

f you're coming in from the office/white collar world, it is a lot different. It's an entirely different culture. I did not know how sheltered I was as a college grad/office person until I started meeting tradesmen. You'll come to realize that knowing the difference between you're and your is not a reliable measure of intelligence. It's a world of people with incredible work ethic, insane spatial reasoning skills, and the best approaches to humor.

I agree with this. I work in both worlds and it is jarring going back and forth. The work cultures are totally different, as are a lot of values and behaviors. On the job site you are expected to work through pain and physical discomfort of all kinds. If it is Friday at closing time and the boss says that everyone needs to stay to get something done, everyone stays. There is a lot more confrontation and aggression, but also a tremendous amount of trust -- you are literally trusting someone with your life, multiple times a day.

I would also pay attention to how many older people you see in your chosen trade or specialty. It varies a lot -- you don't see a lot of older framing carpenters or roofers, but you do see older cabinet makers, say. That tells you a lot about the physical demands and injuries on a given track and about the potential for making a long term career out of it. Maybe it is just me getting old, but I'd think about risk and if possible select a specialty with less physical risk -- the trades pay well, but not well enough to lose a limb or die.

Lastly, a lot of trades are very seasonal or tied to boom/bust cycles. When things are hot you work ridiculous hours and make crazy money, but then you might be off entirely for months. Budgeting for that is a lot harder than budgeting for a regular salary, and it makes planning harder, too.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:30 PM on July 24, 2015

Best answer: I work at a trade apprenticeship school, not carpentry. I also was a steelworker for approx. 5 yrs. when I was younger. As a female, you have both advantages and disadvantages. Employers like hiring women, it's great optics for them in many ways. But you will at times be subjected to real workplace sexism, and sadly the best way to get ahead and stay in the trade long-term is to learn to deal with it, shut it down yourself and not rely on mgmt. to save you. I hate saying that but it's true. I had numerous instances of harassment but only complained about the guy I was afraid would actually rape me. (He tried to attack a coworker he met in a park one day in fact. Really bad guy.) The company did NOTHING, and all I asked was to be assigned to a different work area. Grow a thick skin, learn to joke and deflect, let the assholes save face when possible. If you embarrass them they never forget it and will always look to get back at you. You cannot change this on your own and trying will only drive you crazy. That's why I advise you to learn to adapt to it early. If they find out it's not getting a reaction from you the shitty guys will ease off in time. A few will never, those are the assholes. In the office they're the snide creepy ones, in the trades, they can escalate things. Supervisors aren't always around to protect you. If you humiliate them, they can make your job miserable.

Always strive to do more work than the guys, and better quality work. Don't play up your looks, use minimal make-up & jewelry. Sexism in the trades is real and it can be ugly. Do NOT date coworkers, whatever you do. I used to drive a coworker to work, he lived nearby and had no driver's license, and by the 2nd week, I got to enjoy walking down the plant aisle w/a rag on my head and a piece of steel for a flower bouquet as the guys sang the wedding hymn for me. I did it, and I laughed, because it was easier to let them have their fun than to fight them. It was widely assumed I was sleeping with Car Pool Coworker. I was not. If I went to lunch with a guy, I was sleeping with him, etc. Don't let that shit get to you. It WILL happen and if you handle it well, it won't derail your career.

Make sure to friend all other women in your trade. If you're union, get involved. Go to all meetings you can, be active, ask questions. Run for a position when elections come up. Develop a relationship with your rep at the hall. the smart apprentices make sure their rep. knows them, and not just as a member calling with problems. Let them know when you had a great job, that you liked that employer and why. This is assuming you work for different employers, you may have one only, not sure.

For me the line in the sand was any man telling me I had no right to be there. A man told me I was taking a Family Man's Job, that as a young woman w/o kids, I was overpaid and didn't deserve the job. Yet I outworked him and all the men in my dept, except the guy who was built like a brick outhouse, he was part Jolly Green Giant and could do stuff regular humans could not. I outworked every other man in my dept., not because I was stronger then them (i wasn't) but because when they stood around shooting the breeze, I was working. When they refused to bring me my steel, I got it myself even if it meant I dragged the damn steel along the ground. They got some shame when I kept up that work ethic and soon I got the supplies when I asked for them.

Tell your concerned loved ones that you enjoy the work, study up on the dire lack of women and minorities in the trades and tell them about that too. Depending on what you were doing in blue-collar work, you may end up earning more in carpentry than the old work, tell them that. My experience was, the work is hard but can be really fun, you get a sense of accomplishment when you see what you made, you don't get the same feeling from a report you wrote.

At the apprenticeship school I'm at now, the ones who have the most success are the ones who are eager, savvy and willing to put in the work. Keep up a good attitude, learn all you can, communicate well your successes and barriers/weak areas and you should do fine. It's good paying fun work, enjoy it.

Feel free memail if you have any questions any time. Good luck and welcome to the trades!
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 7:53 AM on July 25, 2015 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I went from the trades to an office, bass ackwards from what you're doing. You know about the office, I'll write about the trades, my experience there.

Start here: If a company is continually working you six days a week, or even five tens a week, they are poorly managed and they don't give a shit about their employees. It doesn't matter how much money you're making if you're always exhausted. And your output will drop; it's a fact. Two weeks, three -- okay, it's a big rush, you want to be loyal, and they're paying you time and a half. Which isn't enough, but it's something. More than three weeks, it's that they can't keep people because they are shitbirds. So now they're pushing you. They are using you. Use is abuse. Get another gig.

I can't stress this enough. I've worked for too many bad outfits; please, learn from my mistake here. Going from a bad outfit to a decent company is a dream. You won't know it if you get started with a tacky outfit, but the day you walk onto a jobsite that has new, safe scaffolding, and quality safety equipment -- including a great first aid kit -- and insists you wear eye protection and a hard hat and has high quality extension cords and new power tools... A dream. Hard to believe, it was for me anyways -- your foreman actually cares that you don't get hurt! The whole company cares that you don't get hurt! They want you to produce -- every construction outfit on the planet wants their people to produce, production is the lifeblood of construction work, "Bust Your Ass" is actually spelled out on every bit of the DNA of any construction outfit -- your foreman damn sure wants you to produce, and he absolutely will let you know if you don't produce. But -- if it's a good outfit, he'll let you know if you do produce! He'll smile at you, he'll acknowledge that you've been busting it! He'll thank you for busting it! A dream.


Take care of your body. Look out for your spine. Your low back, in particular. Myself, I've trashed my low back and my neck; my neck is what got me to have to drop out. I began to spasm, completely lose control of my body, sortof flopping around. It hurt, too, but I got pretty much inured to pain over the years. But it was beginning to happen more often, particularly interesting when I was driving, say, or on a ladder. That sort of thing.

Late autumn 1987, I'd been up in yankeeland for like five months or six, make a few bucks, an old habit. This flopping jive has got me now, a high school buddy had become a chiropractor, he took some pictures of my spine and he's all like "Jesus christ, have you been playing in the NFL or what?" I was 31 years old, I'd started in the trades at 13. I'm like "But it's all I know. What am I gonna do?" Scott says he sure didn't know. But it wasn't going to be in the trades.

I wrote that to write this -- your body is your money. Take better care of it than I have mine. You're going to fall off of a scaffold, or a ladder -- sorry, but you are. You can help your odds tremendously by working for that good company, the one that cares about your safety. You can help your odds by getting to know how to handle your body before you mishandle it. Ask for help. There is someone on the job who will look out for you, be open to them. It takes time to learn who they are, time to learn your body, time to build your stamina. Don't carry things you shouldn't, and if some outfit fires you for not doing something you are not sure of you're better off away from them. Look for that good company.


Good tools. Spend the money, purchase good tools; the difference between a well balanced hammer and a cheap one is unreal, your work just flows better, it goes better, and your forearm is not sore. Good tools are life-time tools -- I still have a nice set of chisels I bought almost forty years ago, they take and hold a good edge, they feel good in my hand, they'd feel good in your hand, also. A lot of my tools I have had for forty-five years, high quality and taken decent care of. Spend the money for decent tools, you needn't go nuts and buy only German stuff but do buy quality tools -- it pays back.

Just as in a kitchen, a sharp tool is safer than a dull tool, and more fun to use. This goes for utility knives, saw blades, chisels, everything that you cut with, you'll be happier if it's sharp. Safer, also. Learn how -- if even just the rudiments -- learn how to sharpen your tools. Have a stone in your tool tray, rougher on one side, almost slick on the other. I'm sure that there are all kinds of oils or whatever to put on the stone but spit works just fine, for sure for your utility knife**, and for your chisels also. You'll want a fine file, also, to touch up a saw blade, and/or for any larger nicks and gouges in your chisel. Speaking of which, I have that good set of chisels, kept in their case, an oiled towel around the blades, and then I also have two other sets of chisels, three each, one pretty dang high quality, the other pretty much pieces of dogshit. The good set, those are my Sunday Chisels, so to speak, the second set get the most use, the last set I'd use to beat against a rock wall, or an engine block, or anything else. I keep an edge on all of them, though as you might imagine, set number three is pretty ragged, most of the time...
** Lots of people just change out the blade on their utility knife when it gets dull or nicked, throw away a perfectly fine blade that could be a razor again with 30 seconds on the stone with a bit of spit. They throw them away! I'd rather see a church burn.

For my money, Plumb makes the best hammers. Notably one 13 ounce trim hammer I had; incredibly well balanced, an extension of my body almost, a really sweet tool. My preference is definitely a rip claw IE straighter, as opposed to a curved claw; as you can see above, that Plumb trim hammer I was so in love lo those long years gone by was a curved claw, if this Plumb 13 ounce rip claw is as well balanced and as good in my hand as the curved claw I'd choose it in a heartbeat over that curved claw.

Why a rip claw? I like a rip claw because it can be used to rip (duh) shit apart, sortof as a hatchet in your hand. (Don't tell any of your instructors in apprentice school that you'd ever think of ripping anything apart with your hammer that way, their faces would get all pained, they'd look like they have gas. Put them on a jobsite though and they'll do the same as any intelligent being would -- they'd use the hammer to rip shit apart.) The curved claw *might* be better for pulling nails in some circumstances but really, there are so many nice pry bars and/or nail pullers of all size and description anymore that having that curved hammer mostly isn't needed for pulling nails.

As I look at the prices on these hammers on Amazon, I'm rather appalled; I'd bet I paid at least fifteen bucks for that sweet hammer I bought (probably purchased at Elgin Lumber Supply; I know that's where I bought those chisels, likely forty bucks for those, maybe more) in maybe 1975; fifteen 1975 dollars would today be worth about seventeen million, five hundred and eighty-two thousand, six hundred and forty two dollars, and sixteen cents. Plus tax.

Things have changed.

A well-balanced 16 ounce hammer is a good go-to, day to day hammer, it'll do most of what you need done, it's easy to handle, easy on your forearm throughout the day even when working overhead or off-balance to one side or the other or what-have-you. Wood handle. Rip claw. You start getting into heavier hammers, they're great for banging 12 or 16 penny nails home and/or knocking shit this way or that way (BFH -- Big Fucking Hammer) and you'll want one in your tool box, but it's mostly a "Yes, I am in fact tough and strong and yahoo look at me, I'm so cool!." ego trip to sling one around all day unless, as noted, you're on a framing crew non-stop.

A wood hammer handle absorbs the most shock, thus best on your wrist, forearm, elbow. Fiberglass is next. Steel is the worst, it transfers the shock right up your arm; you'll feel it in your elbow, by the end of the day you'll feel it all over. I've been out of the trades for years now, might be that fiberglass has improved somehow; watch what the others are using. Not to mention that so much wood carpentry is going to be handled with air-guns now, nails and staples and brads, and all of this is a world I do not know about -- you'll soon be able to fill me in. It looks fantastic, truth be told.


I did say wood carpentry. Notice that the field is huge. It's a big tent, this carpentry thing; one person is building cabinets, indoors, in a shop, another maybe is installing those cabinets in houses or condos or apartments that are already dried in and heated and cooled etc, another carpenter is banging nails (and/or slinging big nail guns -- you tell me) whilst framing houses in wood, another carpenter is hanging miles and miles of sheetrock, another is inside the house after the sheetrock is finished and is installing trim around the windows, hanging doors, installing baseboard, and then there is the carpenter crew that comes in and installs the oak stairwells and railings and balustrades, and yet an entirely different breed of carpenter is working with metal studs, maybe mixed in with aluminum, also, commercial carpentry, building out supermarkets and office buildings and restaurants and beauty shops and the like. All of these people, and about 17,946 other types, they're all carpenters, some of them -- perhaps most of them -- specializing in one small area, while a few can do damn near any of it.

In theory, by the time you are through your apprenticeship you're competent in all of this; in reality, you're not going to be. What you will be is able to understand the basics of any/all of it -- straight, level, plumb, square, true -- and have an understanding of how to make those happen. You'll have a journeyman's soul, you'll have the fundamentals hard-wired into you, and now just time to apply it to whatever situation you come up against, using whichever materials the job calls for.


When I stepped off the jobsites and into mainframe computer gigs, I quickly came to see what someone noted upthread, or at least alluded to -- people who are natural programmers, they would also be natural carpenters. I was a very good carpenter, a good lead, also, and a good foreman. I had a lot of strengths. I was good at it. But I wasn't a natural, I wasn't great at it. A natural carpenter can just "see" things, way ahead of the game, they'll look at a set of blueprints, look around the humongous mess that is a supermarket under construction, they just see the whole thing, and they set to work, moving well but not running, and they do things in three hours that I maybe would be having to look at the prints again and again to grok it, I'd just be getting underway. I'd do it, and do it right -- I really am stubborn as hell -- but I have to bleed for it. It's work. It's difficult. It's a piece of cake for the naturals I've worked with.

I'm absolutely positive they'd have been spectacular programmers, also. I was a good programmer, never great, not a natural, I did well because by god I was going to do well. I have worked with naturals, a few of them, people just able to "see" an entire software system laid out in front of them, and they'd just step into it, not bleeding like I always had to, just that they were moving, and doing more than the next six programmers. I've worked on software systems that have to be every bit as detailed and interwoven as a 747, and I'd be over here working on this one fuel system (metaphorically) on just one wing, while the naturals are slamming together the entire fkn jet! Amazing people.

They seem to me to be very much the same person, though one is in khaki's and brown shoes and the other is in jeans and boots. I enjoy to watch either of them, though it is of course much easier to see the progress -- thus witness the brain process behind -- the carpenter, because he is building something that I can physically see, and touch.

Which leads to this: as a programmer, let's say I've banged out code all damn day, slugged it out, hammer and tongs. And hey, I've created these programs, or these fixes, and they compile, and they produce clear data when fed clear input. So I'd know what I did, my boss would know what I did, maybe another programmer or two on my team would know what I did. But that's it. There's nothing to see. I'm not going to say it's intangible because it's by god tangible, just invisible.

But if I've had a good run on a jobsite, when after blowin' and goin' for eight hours I can see the work, and touch it -- it feels good. Very different than code. I've been known to hang out, the crew all gone, and I've maybe got a notebook and a pen and looking to see what tomorrow is going to be but really that's not what I was up to, at least not wholly that -- I was looking at the days progress. Gibran says that work is "love made visible" if I recall correctly, and if he didn't say that he ought to have.


If it was me, and I had a choice, if I'm in your shoes today (which I suspect would not fit my big galoot feet, but anyways) if I were in your situation I would seek out the opportunity to be able to learn to work in oak, to create those staircases and install the whole of that. Because oak is such a pleasure to work with. Because oak is so beautiful. Because an oak stairwell and/or entry way is such an important piece of a well crafted home or office, because it will be seen, and it will be utilized, and it will be admired. It will be admired even if unconsciously: the person walking up to and then walking up those stairs while holding those rails, they may not be aware that they are admiring the exactly fitted, gorgeous wood, but they will be. They'll feel -- correctly -- that the rails are supporting them, and keeping them safe, while also giving them beauty. It's craft, yes, the work done with oak is craft. But done right, and seen right, it is Art.

I missed that boat, too bad for me. Tried a couple of times to get on those crews but as I was already making scale, and likely due to the fact that they were jealous of their gig -- I do not blame them -- I never got on.


So that didn't happen. What have I done?

I have hung over seventeen million, billion miles of sheetrock, and that's a conservative estimate. I've hung it on wood with nails, hung it on metal studs with screws, hung it on heavy-gauge metal studs using self-tapping screws, which are essentially hardened sheetrock screws that have a drill bit on the end of the screw instead of coming to a sharp point. Did you know that when you reach into your pouch to grab a few screws to screw the sheetrock onto a wall or ceiling that you're going to find out yet again just exactly how sharp sheetrock screws are? You know now. Did you know that you hang sheetrock on the ceiling by positioning it into place and then holding it in place on top of your head, whilst you spin 'round and about banging nails and/or running home screws into it to hold it in place? You know now.

Did you know that 5/8" fire-code sheetrock gets that one hour fire rating by having LOTS of extra fiberglass fibers running lengthwise inside the sheet, and that it is a fkn bitch to cut to size, and that a 12 foot sheet weighs over 14,000 pounds and is absolutely Not Fun to hang on a ceiling, or anywhere else? You know now. Did you know that it is really, really a big fat suck to get an eye full of sheetrock dust whilst hanging that big honkin' sheet of (esp fire code rock -- gawd) sheetrock on that ceiling, and you'll blink and blink and your eyes will tear up and you'll pretty much just want to just leap to your death but instead you're going to nail up that sheet and move to the next one, which is already cut and waiting and the lead man is yelling "Move it, asshole!" You know now.


I have framed houses, a journeyman hauling and installing 2x10s, and then hustling around 4'x8' sheets of 3/4" tongue and groove plywood decking like a big deck of cards, slapping them down and smacking them into place with a six pound sledge hammer and then five or six 8 penny nails down each joist and "No, we're not wasting any goddamn time popping chalk lines, use your eyes, damnit! and then the walls, doors and windows cut into place, banging nails and hustling all the live long day, hot fun in the summertime, as the song says. Not as much fun in the wintertime, though you'll find out that lots of construction jobs stop come late autumn.

I never hung with wood framing long enough to learn to cut a rafter or competently cut a set of stairs.** You maybe can't imagine how annoyed I am to know that any mope can now go to stupid Home Despot and buy a little puter that tells exactly how to cut the stairs for a given area, given the run and the rise, it'll even tell you how much wood of what size you'll need to buy for said staircase; I would like to stand next to that display inside every store that sells them, smiling nicely but then tromping on the toes of any jerk who buys one of those things, so he can suffer as I have suffered. I won't go so far as to say that I hate those people, though I certainly do; I'll say only that I'm unhappy about it, and unhappy about everything else in life, also, because of it.
**Next time I'm up in yankeeland (which I hope never to be) I can take you directly to a house in St. Charles IL that has one stair in the middle of the staircase going into the basement that is about 1/2" higher than the rest of the stairs. It is a killer, it should never have passed final inspection, not in a million years. Anyone who lives in that house knows it exactly and walks it perfectly; anyone visiting them is a setup to fall down those stairs. It was my first set of stairs; there was a stack of lumber on the floor in the basement, the sale of the house was closing, pronto, and the stairs had to be built right now so they could move in, so just go build the stairs already. So I did.


Commercial carpentry. I have built grocery stores, banks, restaurants, dress shops, on and on, you name it. I built Willie Nelson's Houston nightclub; it was a very detailed job, a huge pain in my ass. Metal carpentry a very different animal from wood carpentry; it is much easier to turn a metal carpenter into a wood carpenter than vice versa -- wood a much different animal, you needn't support it as you build it; it supports itself. Metal flops all over the place until braced off and secured. That said, once metal *is* braced and secured, it is much, much easier to build straight and true with metal than with wood. It's difficult for me to articulate here the differences, and maybe they even can't be articulated, might be that a person would have to work on both types of projects.

Or you can take my word, and I damn sure do know, and I am not lying when I tell you that metal carpenters can much more easily grok wood carpentry than wood carpenters grok metal. It is A True Fact.

Building houses is noisy; commercial carpentry is deafening. The wood framers are the only person on the job when banging a house together, at least up until it all sews up, the finishing touches IE carpet/tile, maybe hanging closet doors after the carpet is installed, plumbers maybe coming in to install their fixtures, heating/AC guys putting in thermostats and grills and registers in the floors or on the walls or ceiling, maybe some mope hanging fans, blah blah blah. So a carpenter building a house/houses will work sometimes with other people mixed in.

On a commercial site, every trade on the planet is in the same damn work place, at the same damn time, and compressors running, and generators running, and welding rigs running, and drills drilling and nail-guns banging and plumbers clanging and screwguns screeching and wailing and every other noisy goddamn thing on the planet also making every other goddamn noisy noise you can imagine, in an enclosed space, and this/that/the other crew on this/that/the other scaffold, and refrigeration people if it's a grocery store, the whole thing is for your first month or two just confusing as fuck, what with everybody banging away at this or that, calling out measurements to the guy on the floor who is maybe cutting the materials, calling out insults to each other and each others mother and all of their forebears, and if they're friends maybe jostling each others scaffold, for fun (a dazzling smile, too -- it really is fun to shake Ralph's scaffold when we're twenty feet up, it jazzes him, a tingle of fear, and then he sees it's me or Jessie fucking with him and he's smiling), or throwing screws or chunks of sheetrock at one another, and harassing every apprentice that is on the site.


Apprentices might as well have a Big Capital A on their forehead. Don't bother trying to hide. You're fuct. It's open season.


Don't see all harassment as A Bad Thing; it can totally be a drag but it's part of being accepted into the crew, and into the tradition(s) of each trade, it's part of the being toughened to accept the work load and the shit conditions you'll sometimes work in and the shitheads you'll sometimes work with and the sometimes dangerous conditions** you're going to work in on construction sites. If you were my apprentice I would within your first week pretend that you cut a board too short, and in a rather cold fury at your incompetence I would send you to the closest carpenter to bring me back the "board stretcher", and they would tell you that no, they don't have it, and they'd send you to the next guy/gal, and of course they don't have it either, and would send you on to the next, and on to the next, and on and on, and then you'll look around and everyone has a blank face but all their eyes are singing a joyous song. It is at that moment that you will notice that you have been asking for a board stretcher, which is a ridiculous thing to do, and you're being ridiculed behind it, and it's awfully humbling. It might be a good thing for you to laugh, or to curse us all; either is fine, really, either or both is completely understandable. If you do curse us, we'll all get a sense of how broad and how rich and how varied your vocabulary is in these matters, which is important for all of us -- including possibly yourself -- to know. In the first month or two you'll be sent searching for the "portable sky-hook." Maybe for "a can of elbow grease," or a "side-mounted philips rimforator." It is likely that you would be sent to the site superintendents trailer to get "the pneumatic concrete bender" from him/her, having been told that they keep it locked in their office for safe-keeping.
**(Think: elevator shafts. Someone has to hang the sheetrock inside of them. Think: You're an elevator installer, and you're working inside the shaft, and I, five stories above, installing metal studs and sheetrock around the elevator shaft, I drop my hammer, and it hits one foot from you. (Happened. He was remarkably gracious; he should have beaten me with that hammer when I approached him to apologize. I apologized as profusely as I possibly could. We'd spoken earlier in the day, he obviously and correctly not at all liking the situation, I telling him that I am an established hand, that I will absolutely be careful, that he is safe. I was absolutely being careful. But I fucked up. Construction sites are dangerous. I owe him.) Think: working on the edge of a 17 story building, on a cold, very windy day, and your feet are numb even inside your boots, and you have a hangover.)

In that dress shop I built (one of the most highly detailed jobs I've ever done, it was something; because I'm insanely stubborn, I got all the highly detailed jobs that Had To Be Done Exactly Right) one day in that dress shop I'd set up the laser, vertically, to build one wall straight and plumb, floor to ceiling, front to back of that shop, maybe sixty or eighty feet. This is maybe 1983, lasers cost a thousands of dollars, they were still pretty new on the scene, never left alone, for fear of theft, etc and etc. It was running all day, that red dot spinning 'round and 'round, long about two o'clock I casually mentioned to the electrician apprentice how amazing it is, that just walking through the beam -- which he had of course done a hundred times that day -- I remarked casually how amazing it is that just walking through the laser beam makes you sterile. He's like "What..?.." He's searching my face intently, having a pretty good sense of what a dick I am but also really hooked by the fear -- he's all like "What? What do you mean?" And I stopped dead, totally dead, I looked him dead on, asked him "Weren't you told? Didn't your foreman tell you?" and now he's starting to shit himself, and I start to pull in the whole gang, and winked at his foreman to get him on board and thank god he had a good poker face, and he's a dick, too, and he's all totally "Oh my god -- I didn't tell you?!?!" and the whole job is stopped now, we're all standing around this kid, we're all really sad and serious, and did he really want children, and on and on. It was great! I do like to fuck, and to paint, and I enjoy a good meal with friends same as anyone else, but this is an important part of life, also, seems to me, a happiness that ought not to be missed. We didn't miss it on that day! Wow. Imagine: 19 poker faces -- give or take -- 19 dirty, sweating, swearing mopes, all attuned to A Higher Calling, and all answering that call with a wondrous fidelity, and a spectacular ability, too.

A time of joy.


It's just like a cold water lake. Just go on ahead and jump in. You'll get used to the water fast, and then the water won't even be cold any more, and you're Inside now, and now you'll send the new apprentice to his or her shameful doom.

Welcome to the crew.
posted by dancestoblue at 9:02 AM on July 29, 2015 [32 favorites]

Response by poster: You oughta write a book.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:18 AM on July 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

You oughta write a book.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:18 AM on July 29

um, I pretty much did write a book -- I went long here. Working in the trades was (and apparently still is) a fairly large piece of my identity. Sorry if I wore you out here ...
posted by dancestoblue at 7:16 PM on July 30, 2015 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: On the contrary!
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:15 PM on July 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've never left an office job for a trade, but I have been a female trying to get trade work. I have been successful at sometimes getting gigs, but never a steady job at a place that would offer consistent work. I think most of this gigs were gained through Craigslist where I wasn't met in person. I have a sense my looks hold me back -- the always-male person interviewing is always stopping short of saying "You look too pretty for this kind of work."

It's too bad because it's one of the kind of work I seem to actually enjoy, but a Craigslist gig every 4 months just doesn't cut it.
posted by Peregrine Pickle at 3:15 PM on July 31, 2015

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