Monday, March 29, 2010

Trade Ya?

If you're between the ages of 14 and 19, you should be learning a trade in your spare time. Whether that means your working Saturdays or on your school vacations, you should be working with someone who can teach you how to make, build, or fix something tangible.

If you're 21 years old or over, you should already know how to build, make, or fix something. If you don't, learn.

When I was a boy, I'd often work with my father on Saturdays helping him on his aluminum and, later, vinyl siding and gutter jobs. I hated it at first. Most of my time was spent picking up small chips of siding and wood off the ground and out of bushes and generally keeping the job site clean. As I got a bit older, my dad had me running the saw. Eventually, I learned how to use a utility knife to cut vinyl siding freehand. (You want a useful skill? Learn to cut well with a utility knife. You'll never go hungry.) Ultimately, I became his cut man. He'd be up on the staging measuring pieces of siding for me to cut and hand up to him. Frankly, thinking about it now, I wish I'd never bothered to go to college. He and I could have been a pretty good team.

When I was 16, my dad got me a summer job with a mason he knew. While my friends were all earning $3.35 an hour stocking shelves or serving food, I was making $6.50 and hour and learning important skills to boot. I learned to mix mortar and concrete; and I learned how to set brick and block. It was hard work. Brutally hard work. I thank God I did it.

During another summer, I worked with a company that poured concrete foundations. I learned how to set the forms and how to pour concrete footings and foundations for a house. You don't know what heavy is until you've tried to throw an 8' form back up onto the truck.

I've worked with a landscaping company dropping large trees in sections, planting shrubs, and installing sod. J'ever lay sod in the pouring rain?

Before I started college, I spent two summers working for a small roofing company. The owner used to wear an army cap with the words "Slave Driver" written in felt pen on the back. I started off doing nothing more than lumping the packs of shingles up the ladder all day long for the other guys to install. Eventually, I was taught to lay the shingles myself. After that, I learned how to weave them, how to cap the roof, and how to measure a roofing job.

All told, formally worked with every aspect of general contracting except plumbing and electrical work, and I've certainly experienced enough of both of those to install sinks, toilets, spigots, electrical outlets, and lighting fixtures without the aid of a professional.

OK, so what's my point?

The point is that as an adult homeowner, I've saved myself untold thousands of dollars doing a wide range of projects for myself that would otherwise have required hiring a professional.

The Mead Hall wouldn't exist without the skills I learned when I was a teenager. The brick patio in my backyard would still be a compost pile and patchy grass without those skills. I've painted every room in my house. I used an excavator to break down a retaining wall. I've installed dimmer switches, outlets, and chandeliers. I've installed a gas oven and the range hood over it. I laid ceramic tile on my kitchen floor and linoleum in my basement. I've replaced toilets well as faucets. This spring, we're adding a small addition to our home. The only reason I'm not doing it myself is that I don't want to take the time off from work. But my experience did warn me that the quotes I received for $25,000 were way overpriced and it enabled me to find a contractor to do the work for only $14,000.

This is a short list of what I've been able to do for myself. I could also point to the work I've been able to help others with.

Last week, Math Guy asked me to help him install ceramic tile in his bathroom floor. The job should have taken about 3 hours. But once the old linoleum had been torn up, it was clear that this floor would never adequately hold ceramic tile. Sometime in the 1950's, a previous owner thought it would be a good idea to cut out floor joists to make room for plumbing lines. It took us all of Saturday to shore up the floor, but dammit, we got it done. We laid a new subfloor and a layer of duraboard. On Sunday afternoon, he had himself a very nice tile floor.

I don't buy the notion that these skills aren't for everyone. Everyone should know how to do something, especially you beings who call yourself "men." These are basic life skills. I don't do this for a living. I've never wanted to do this stuff for a living. Heck, I've got a graduate degree from Virginia Tech. I work in the IT field. I'm as soft and spongey as the next pathetic lump sitting in a cube farm. But when I got laid off from IBM, I picked up my hammer and saw and paid the bills for almost two years as a carpenter.

Learn to do something. Sooner or later, you'll be glad you did. You'll find you'll either enable yourself to do something you'll be proud of later, save yourself some serious money, or you'll help a friend with the same. OK, maybe you don't have anything to sheetrock and plaster in your own house, but your friend will, and he'll be willing to replace the starter in your car if you help him out.

Get it?



Genie of the Shell said...

That is marvelous advice, especially in uncertain economic times, but useful for all times.

I'm so glad my husband has construction/renovation experience. My youth was sadly lacking in learning practical skills (being second clarinet, a master of iki shin do kata, first prize art show painter, and Quiz Bowl winner were awesome and all, but...) so, I'm quickly learning all about gardening, and my next skill to learn is sewing. I figure if my household can shelter, feed, and clothe ourselves, we're off to a good start.

Anonymous said...

Glen, I'm actually really horrified by your bias, that men should be somehow more in need of learning these skills.
I don't have the skills you do. I wish my father had thought enough of the female gender to actually teach me what he knew, although then again, as an alcoholic, he was a horrible teacher.
My worse fear is that I'll start something, and then get stuck. Like I'd love to re-tile our shower, but the few times I've replaced tile, they pop off. Was it me, or the crap they sell these days? Or did I just miss some step? I don't know.
My father was a carpenter and a mechanic, he sewed upholstery, he did some wiring and plumbing, he'd done masonry and god knows what else. I picked up some stuff, but I wish I knew more.
And what does my husband know of such things? Not that much. Why? he really has no interest that I can tell. His interest are in computers and electronics. He can make them sing. I don't begrudge him one iota that that's where his talents lie. I find him invaluable. He keeps up to date with the latest things, he knows a little about a lot and isn't afraid to figure it out. It makes him a great employee.
I think more than anything, you need to be willing to work. And willing to learn. That in itself, male of female, is an invaluable skill. People who want to work work. People who don't, don't. That's not true 100% of the time, but often enough.

Gleno said...

Genie, thanks for your comments and I'm grateful for your appreciation of this topic. I love your statement, "...if my household can shelter, feed, and clothe ourselves..." That really encapsulates much of what I wanted to express. In the novel "World War Z", when the zombies had destroyed the world, it wasn't accountants and computer geeks that society needed. It was welders, and carpenters, and blacksmiths.

CC, as a guy, my only bias is that I was talking to other guys in this post. But there is nothing written anywhere that says that girls can't get involved in any of the trades as well. I knew a very capable woman plasterer years ago. Girls in the trades are out there, but in general, it's not girls who chose to go into the trades.

Perhaps you recall I patched a portion of your shower a number of years ago. I'd say you're due to retile it. Let's do it! Seriously, let's do it. I'll come by and get you going, if you want, and we can either go at it together or I'll take off and you can call me if you run into a part you're not sure about. I'd love to see you replace that ceiling in your living room too. None of that stuff is beyond you. It's just outside of the realm of what you've done before. After you've done it, you'll be amazed by the feeling of power you develop. Let's. Do. It.

Anonymous said...

I'm actually waiting for a certain someone to put my frigging replacement windows in, which maybe I will have to do my self at the rate things are going.
As for the bathroom, yeah, it's going to need to be redone. Not sure what exactly I want to do with it, thinking bead board for part.
As for the ceiling,that requires taking everything out of the one living space we have, which is a pain, and which I do want to do. One of the plans when we got the shed was to do that, and put some of the stuff in the shed, but at the moment, the shed is full of windows. I'd like to do a pod, but haven't done it yet.
What I really need is to get rid of my family for a while. Honestly, I cant do anything with the demands of other people, or those other people being in my way. The two times I did any major things, like build the playset and replace the tiles in the kitchen and such, I think they were elsewhere. Why don't you invite them over for a day, and I'll see what I can get done? lol

Glenn said...

Sounds to me like cemeteryconsort is a "get things done" kind of person. I like people with a little fire in their belly. Some family members and I were recently discussing the fact that almost all of us know how to do something, so there is no reason we all can't help do just about anything for anyone. It costs so much just to exist in Massachusetts that I think it is time for us to get back to that "village" mentality. If a friend needs something done, then let's go do it. I'll get my turn soon enough.
Perhaps this blog has come full circle. We would need less government and also be victim of fewer financial institutions if we all simply worked together to accomplish what we need. Let the rest of society kill themselves waiting for the government to solve their problems. We should get together and solve our own.
So let it be let it be done.

AsterixChaos said...

We would need less government and also be victim of fewer financial institutions if we all simply worked together to accomplish what we need. Let the rest of society kill themselves waiting for the government to solve their problems. We should get together and solve our own.

Bugger--this was just about what I was going to come here and say after reading the first post. Curse my tardy fingers!

I cannot agree with you more, Glen. My dad was never the type to really care about anything beyond his own comfort. When he was 16, his parents had given him a gas card, a credit card, and a brand new camaro--which he wrecked and they replaced--but my maternal grandfather was a different story. Until my dad made him stop teaching me "all that useless crap," he taught me a lot of the fundamentals of carpentry, and a world or more about gardening. Right now, I can build pretty much any basic piece of furniture--tables and chairs, at least. I can plan and build a deck, a small room... I can build one heck of a shack.

I just wish that I could have learned more. Despite just having a small apartment in the city with a tiny 5'x10' balcony, I've got enough fruits and vegetables growing that I won't have to pay for any of it, starting around summer--and I should have enough to make it to next year's planting season! The best part is that it's all organic. No fancy chemicals, no fertilizers or sprays or anything, and no paying a premium at the store for getting vegetables the way they should be grown in the first place.

I'm definitely short on tradecraft, though, and I certainly feel that there's more that I should know. Despite that, most of my friends think that I'm some kind of a wizard when I pick up some hand tools and go to work on something. It makes me rather sad.

Here's to hoping for the village!

Gleno said...

(Just to clarify for those who may not know, "Glenn" is a different person than me.)


I'd be happy to invite them all over some time, but I'd like to offer my services to be there with you. Are you sure there isn't a way to get them involved. That's how they learn. "Himself" should see this work and learn from it. Everyone needs to start somewhere.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking but this was a few days ago, so I forget exactly what I was thinking, but it had to do with the fact that Himself no longer qualifies for any tax credit in regards to camps or such. Which is appropriate, since at this age, it's just about impossible to find camps of any kind that will take him, because of his age. Which to me is really stupid. While he's old enough to stay at home, who wants to have a teenager at home by themselves all summer, sitting in front of the computer doing nothing? Wouldn't it be so much better to get them out and doing things? Isn't this exactly the age they should be out learning things like trades, or at the very least getting exercise? We need more camps for kids who are not yet actually working, but who are too old for the average pot holder and pinch pot camp. There just don't seem to be many options out there.
This year, he may end up washing headstones all summer.

Anonymous said...

I don't know how to do anything, unless of course you consider killing plants a trade. I can't say I have much of a desire to learn a trade, however! I have the best husband who knows how to do everything so I make ice tea and bring it to him while he works hard. :)

Gleno said...


Why don't you get Himself involved as a laborer and working? It's an absurdity that a kid between 14 and 19 isn't out working with an adult who can teach them stuff.

Skills are no accident. If Himself sits on his duff right now while he's in the prime of his physical life, what's he going to be like when he's grown up?

I've got innumerable projects going on at my house right now. If he's willing to get himself to my house, I'll teach him as much as I can and pay him to learn it. I've been begging for a young dude to come by and do all sort of things from painting, to mowing my lawn, to working with me in some carpentry.