An Old-Timer’s Words of Wisdom for Craftsmen and Do-it-Yourselfers

After a whole lot of years working with my hands, I’ve learned some pretty good tips when it comes to building, painting, working with a crew, etc. Now that I’m getting ready to retire, I’m starting to think about trying to pass on a bit of “wisdom,” if you can call it that. The technical stuff is important, but you can learn that through videos, manuals, and (best of all) on the job training. There’s not much about the techniques of craftsmanship that I can communicate in a blog. But I can try to pass on a bit of my experience in terms of a few observations I’ve made. This is my first attempt, so bear with me.

If you are running a crew, you may have to make some tough decisions. As much as I hate to say it, you can’t afford to keep a guy around on your work crew who is going to cost you money. I’ve had employees who were the nicest guys in the world but who were just accident prone, clumsy, or unable to get their act together. I’ve probably lost thousands over the years because I kept nice guys on the crew who broke things, made messes, upset customers, or just slacked off all the time.

This one guy was named Max – great kid but as clumsy as they come. I couldn’t bear to fire him, but I started calculating private estimates of how much damage he was probably going to do on a given job – X$ for materials, X$ for payroll, X$ for gas and vehicle maintenance, and X$ for what I figured he would destroy. I called it The Max Factor. He always broke or ruined something. It cost me a fortune, but I was a pushover. The way I handle this now is, after a few heart-to-heart talks that don’t work, I try to figure out what they are good at and find another job for them. In a few cases, I just had to let them go with a good letter of recommendation focusing on their strong points. In some cases, you just can’t do much for someone. Of course, you should always be as nice as possible about the whole thing, while still covering your own tail.

A lot of things I’ve realized are common sense, but easily overlooked. Working on a painting crew, I learned that it’s worth it to buy the best rollers you can afford. If you actually clean them after each job, and store them in plastic to keep the moisture in (to keep the paint from drying on the roller), you can use the same rollers for months. This may not be the most interesting tip, but it can save you a lot of cash in the long run.

If you experiment with different oscillating tool blades, you can really make your life easier with a lot of jobs. I don’t even know how I survived without a multi tool. They’re relatively light, easy to use, and really versatile. You just need one tool and a bunch of multi tool blades and you can do all kinds of things – cut just about anything, scrape dried paint or concrete, sculpt wood, score stone and concrete board, and many other jobs that would have taken a ton of tools. Having one of these makes it a lot easier to work on tricky job sites. It really beats lugging a giant tool box up ladders, down basement steps, across mud or ice, or into tight spots. The replacement blades can be pricey but you can find inexpensive off-brand blades that are just as good as the name-brand blades.

When it comes to hiring workers, I think college kids are the best. Of course, not all college kids are hard workers, but you can get a feel for your local colleges and which types of students tend to be serious and responsible. Once you find a few good workers, they’re likely to lead you to friends who have a similar work ethic.

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