Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Building a house

I spent over 30 years of my life as a carpenter.  Or maybe I should say I worked in residential construction, because carpenters do a lot more than saw wood and hammer nails.  
I didn't have any formal training, I just started out as a helper and learned on the job.  I did my first work helping my Father, who was a master carpenter among many other trades. He instilled in me the importance of doing a good job, which I did my best to live up to.  Getting started I worked on several jobs, learning a little from each one, and starting to collect a few tools.  Then about 1980 I got a job with a contractor named J.R. Sorrells, and stayed with him for 18 years.  He's a good builder, and I learned a lot from him.  We built houses and additions, did remodeling and repair, just whatever came along. 

As the years went by I got better at my job.  I got interested in figuring out the puzzles you sometimes run into doing construction.  Tricky rafter cutting, staircase design, trying to make sense of the crazy things you find in blueprints or odd requests from a homeowner.  Sometimes I'd be found in a quiet corner with a pocket calculator and a puzzled look on my face.  Junior, the other full-time member of our crew, gave me the nickname Quagmire!  But I was surprised one day in 1990 when J.R. handed me a set of blueprints.  He said: "Steve, this is the next house we have to build.  Would you take these prints home and take a look at them?  The roof system is complicated, but nothing I can't figure out.  Except there's a section of the main roof that doesn't have anything holding it up on the front side!  The rafters come down just above a two story high entryway, and the plans don't show any kind of support."

That night I spread out the blueprints and started studying.  About an hour later I had a headache and put them away.  This was the fanciest house and most complicated roof I'd ever worked on.  I was having trouble visualizing how all those sections of roof would be framed up and tied together.  I liked puzzles, but this was crazy!  By the end of the second night I had a general idea of how the parts fit, and where the problem area was.  I think it was after the 4th night that I had a vague idea of hidden beams and posts that might hold it all up.  I showed my idea to J.R., who responded with our unofficial company motto: "Damifino!"  "I think we'll just have to start framing and hope we can work out the details when we get there.  And we'll run that idea past the building inspector to make sure he'll approve it."  So we started building the house like we knew what we were doing.  And we eventually did make it work, but it wasn't easy.

The crew
J.R. Sorrells (facing camera) talking to Billy (yes he really is that tall).  Eddie in red shirt.  Junior is sitting off to the side studying the blueprints.  There was a lot of that going on!  The corner of my old Dodge work van.  This was bigger than our usual crew.  On a lot of more "normal" jobs it was just J.R., Junior, and me.  We made a good team.
The next series of pictures are "before and after" shots taken from different angles.  They show a little of what we were dealing with, this was not a simple job!
I apologize for photo quality.  They are scanned from old 4x6 prints that are faded and kind of splotchy looking.  But they give you a general idea.


For those of you who have done carpentry here's a riddle:
Billy and I were doing rafter layout and cutting.  Complicated enough on this house!  But this one section was a special challenge. 

 Where two sections of roof intersect they form what's called a hip.  There were several on this house.  You have to put in a section of ridge at an angle from the outside corner of the walls up to the main ridge at the top of the roof.  Then the hip rafters are fit up to that, each one a different length.  The top end of the rafter is cut at an angle to match the pitch (steepness) of the roof.  That angle cut has to be made with a bevel to fit the ridge board, so it's a compound angle.  If both roofs are the same pitch then the bevel is 45 degrees.  Not easy, but standard stuff.  But at this one spot the roofs were different pitches, so the bevel cuts were different.  One side needed to be 35 degrees, so you set your skill-saw to 35 degrees and cut the proper angle.  But the rafters on the other side needed to be a 55 degree bevel, which is a problem because a skill-saw doesn't tilt past 45 degrees.  None of us had ever had to do that before.  This is the point where a lot of crews would rig something up that looked like crap and try to cover it up before anybody saw it.  But we didn't work that way.  A real Quagmire moment!  It took some ciphering, but I did find a method to cut a greater-than-45 degree bevel on an angle across a 2x10.  No attachments or jig required.  Non standard saw usage and not OSHA approved but it works!  If anybody knows this or has an idea give me a message or a Facebook comment on the link to this post.

We did a bigger than normal percentage of the work on this house ourselves rather than sub it out.  We did the layout, dug and poured the footings.  Did the framing and roofing (Not an easy house to put shingles on!).  Hung and finished the drywall.  Installed doors and windows, and all interior and exterior trim.  Did all interior and exterior painting.  I'm sure there's more I'm forgetting.  And J.R., besides working every day, had to keep everything organized, figure and order materials, supervise us and coordinate with subcontractors, do the payroll, work with the home owners, and more.  Becoming a carpenter involves learning how to do a lot of different things, but I liked working that way.

Here are some pictures of the interior.  The owners hired an interior decorator, so we're not responsible for colors or decor! 

Living Room

Living Room
I noticed the bottom of the curtains being piled up on the floor, but when I mentioned to the wife that they were a little long she said: "Oh no, those are puddles!"

Dining Room

Breakfast nook


I did the stair framing, Billy did the trim work, and Junior did most of the painting.  I painted enough of the pickets to see how much fun it was painting right up to that stained wood without touching it.

 Master bedroom ceiling
Yes those layers were fun to frame, hang & finish drywall, and paint.  J.R. was the chief drywall finisher, he spent a lot of time on his stilts!

Master Bath

This last picture was taken from the roof, but was the basic view from the decks and windows on the back of the house.  That highest peak on the right is Mt Pisgah.  And yes that is the top of our Porta Jon in the center foreground.
I guess that's about it.  Just looking back at what I used to do, and what a good team can accomplish working together.


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