Welcome to the site; I hope you find it informative. I'll discuss a wide variety of trades-related topics that reflect my own path in the trades, and issues relevant to what is happening with the new "College of Trades" here in the province of Ontario. Be sure to check older posts, and I'd welcome your comments


Saturday, August 29, 2009

Self-Awareness of Mastery

I don't know how wide spread self-awareness is, of individuals being aware of what they are doing; but I do feel acheiving mastery is very much universally experienced to some degree.

One of the things that separates craftworkers from others, apart from seeing visible results at the end of the day, is owning one's own skills, ability and competence. A factory or office worker, and also a great number of professional people toe the line every day to someone else's beck and call and are very conscious of other's expectations. This is true regardless of how good they are at what they do.

The experience of mastery came vividly to me one Saturday morning when I was doing maintenance at a Burger King restaurant. I did all building maintenance and repairs for a group of four family-owned restaurants on a part time basis for several years. On this particular morning, I'd gone to this store and been given the list of things needing fixing. The biggest concern was a broken section of wall behind a large kitchen sink, where the drywall had rotted, and there were a number of loose tile. To do repairs like this I'd learned to find methods to get the job done in one shot. I removed loose tile beyond the damaged area, cut back the drywall to a nearby stud and replace with 1/2" plywood, clean up the tile and glue them back in place with PL premium and grout and clean up. The job was 1 hr. 20 min. from home, so multiple trips was out of the question.

This was the first time I'd taken this approach, and once I'd gotten going on the task, getting ready to install the plywood oon the cutaway area, I had a jolting realization of wondering how i could "know" what to do. I do electrical work every day, had though I'd only seen the task an hour before I had arrived at a workable solution.

Being a novice is a mix of small victories, and uphill efforts to do what others around can do easily. You often have the feeling of working extremely hard; may think on some tasks you are the hardest working individual in the organisation. You may, though, be confusing effort with results. All part of the process; leading to the point at which most of the hard struggles to accomplish complex goals are behind you.

I would imagine Paul prefers to have work ahead of him, so that he usually has time to think about work, at least I do. You can start a job, unseen on Monday morning, but if I have a couple days, when I do come to take tools out of the truck I'm right ready to get at the work and it goes easier. And by 10:00 A.M. the work is going well, the customer expresses suprise at how much has been done, and you don't even feel like stopping for coffee. That's bliss.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Studley Toolbox

I thought I'd share a post I just did on RC Forum, great set of discussions right now on the historical aspect of carpentry.

When I was a lad, my dad had a tool chest of 1/2' G1S fir plywood, as I recall, built as a box about 8" wide, maybe 18" high, by about 28" outside, cut after building, piano hinge installed so that side folded down, with storage for handsaw, chisels, etc. My dad also had a lumber yard, and when things weren't busy we could make projects out of scrap. So I remember trying to build a toolchest like dads, maybe 14 yrs old. I measured the inside, 26 1/2" long. Why the half inch, I wondered? I knew when my chest was done and my Stanley handsaw wouldn't fit inside. I wish i could say that was the last lesson I learned the hard way. http://www.phoenixmasonry.org/masonicmuseum/studley_1993_tool_chest_article.htm Like it says, a greatly detailed article on the Studley toolchest.

"The Printer"

I'd like to share and comment on a post I made on a forum this morning.

Some years ago, as an electrician, I as called in to a service all in downtown Toronto, to a small but very busy print shop which was beginning to change to automated print machines, but still had a few that were manually fed. One of several run by one particular operator/ master printer had been set up to print engraved wedding invitations. The printer came in late, had the aura of owning the place; knowing that "these machines are mine" since he kept them running.

I've since thought long and hard, of the sight of him standing at his machine, manually feeding blank cards into the press and removing the finished product. If you were to stand at the kitchen counter, palms down flat, then move them about a foot to the right simultaeously and then left, back and forth in a rythmic motion you would be doing what he did for a living.

I can still to this day picture him standing there, tall, dark hair and glasses, around 50, would have apprenticed as a lat during the fifties. He was single, likely played cards late at night with his buddies, had some kind of interesting sidelines (intelligent fellow), but what he took pride in was being able to hand-feed a press faster than an automated press of the time, with a cleaner, crisper product. His pride was unmistakable.

What he felt was something that Marx and time study efficiency "experts" have never understood; that even operating simple machines repetitively may be excruciating to some but is the source of subtle but real mastery for others. Certainly he would have been made obsolete since then. I'm personally of a very different makeup; I'm the kind to be always looking for better ways of doing things.

Farming is a prime example of an area of skill where methods and machines underwent extremely slow transitions, like 400 years at least before steam engine refinements inthe early 1800's made possible new inventions. In both the U.S. and Canada, from 1830 on numerous inventors and manufacturers brought new products on the market with amazing rapidity.

Strange? Not to me. what is strange though, is the thought of all the men who followed a horse or ox down a field day after day, and never tried to figure a better design for a plow. It's even more interesting and equally pertinent to our discussion, to go to a rural plowing match, and watch how engrossed a farmer can get in lining up and accomplishing a perfect furrow. Skills perfected while following the horse down the field for many years, turned into an art form.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


At my last place of employment, I was fortunate to get to know a motorcycle mechanic who taught at a community college in the Canadian mid-west, and also travels all summer to teach Harley-Davidson mechanics in Ontario and Quebec. He also had an extensive collection of antique motorcycles.

As I usually do when I meet any experienced tradesman, I sounded him out to see if he had done any thinking about craft issues. I expected a little bit of discussion, but was supprised to have him say the one word "experience" as if that closed the subject. Needless to ssay, the discussion ended and there was no point going further. Actually Paul at the Remodel Crazy forum is the only active trademan I have met who thinks about trades issues with any depth. That is, wanting an answer to the question, "What is it to be a skilled worker?".

What my biker friend demonstrated, as I've come to learn, was the tendency of skilled trades workers to be comfortable and self-sufficient in their own zone of knowledge and experience, and not feel any need to alter it or be open to external influences. That self-sufficiency grows with competence in the core area of his or her scope of work. It's obvious that the more renovations a small contractor does, his projects improve in workmanship, he's better able to deal with the unexpected, be ready for customer problems, anticipate how long a job will take, until finally, if he or she is good enough, can be selective about the jobs taken on.

"Comfort zone" is usually taken negatively, but I'm using it here as a positive. In studying and writing some time ago on nursing and professionalization, asking if nurses paid too high a price by giving up craft to gain professional status, I learned that those most motivated by the status issue had become frustrated by nurses who simply didn't care about getting a degree and "moving up". To this "scorned" group, nursing as they experienced it gave them exactly the direct connection with patients that they had been called to when they entered training. That caring, ministering practice was what they wanted to focus on, and degrees and higher status in vocational pecking orders served only as a distraction.

Offering that illustration had a purpose, since the role of craft in nursing has been well studied in contrast to trades, where most research is done by the trades unions and focuses on conflicts rather than analyzing what make tradespeople do what they do.

Correcting that deficiency will be the object of future (and past) posts on this blog.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Papa's Pride and Joy! C'C"

This little girls is Papa's pride and joy. Cassis loves water, boats, and showing off to Gramma. Which is only fair, since Papa loves showing her off too. Sometimes her mother is just a tad envious of the attention we give her; she has asked us if we only come to see Cassis. Don't tell her; but she is only partly right.

A Concord Carpenter Comments


I was directed to this blog by a friend at MikeRoweWorks, Whiterose, and I'm glad I was. I'll let him tell his story;

Cop and Carpenter ~ started both at same time and liked them both enough to continue them as parallel occupations. I write about what I know... I'm a cop and carpenter, a husband, a father and a blogger. My blogging combines the other four, ranging from the teenage trend known as "sexting” to notoriously loose handrails.

Robert E. Robillard

His site combines interests in the trades and their promotion, his dual careers, and by the looks of it, family values. I only see one problem; anyone with a trailer this organized.... just jealous!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Interesting Thread on RC Forum

The pictures below were posted on RC Forum under "General discussion, Main Forum".
I asked for lessons learned from older construction, and the "Loneframer", a widely respected master framer from the NYC area, submitted them and contributed to a discussion on some rather unique framing methods. The framing method was almost like an early version of a roof truss. Here's some of the discussion.

"One thing that surprised me recently was some trusses that were in a 103 year old building that I'm doing some work in".

Q. Any idea why bracing only in one direction, and how recently (threaded rod) might have been added. I often catch myself being surprised by engineering at that time, which is ridiculous, when engineering principles are centuries and millennia old.

A. "Unless the building was damaged by fire, it's original as far as I can tell. The entire job is fastened together with cut nails and there is no evidence that would lead me to believe the trusses are not original. The rods are actually square headed bolts that appear to be about 1" in diameter".

Q. Those pics open a lot of questions. How much snow load, any? Fairly low pitch, no sign of rotting for that age. Will structure stay exposed? Wonder if uniformity today excludes some of the unique solutions you see there. Are the cross pieces morticed into the top chords of the trusses?

Be interesting to have an engineer comment on the direction of bracing.. now there's a thought I never expected to have. Wonder if an architectural historian would be able to trace the design back to a technical school in NY.

A. "These trusses freespan 40' and when sighted from end to end, they have a slight crown up on the bottom chord. The top chord is jointed into the bottom chord at the plateline. The fit of all the joints is remarkable.
As for snow load, In the 70s we had over two feet of snow in one storm. I realize that may not be much by some standards, but for here it is a huge amount of snow".
Here's the links to the pictures;

The Way of the Blacksmith

I'd like to share a post I entered on mrWorks recently in which I reminiced on my childhood and a
study that relates to a link posted on that forum, http://www.dfoggknives.com/wayof.htm take a look at what this chap has written.

I'm not normally a links guy, but for me personally you've struck gold on this one. First with a childhood memory, second with an important text book I bought in a bookstore for $5.00 with a broken spline (value over $125) on a Russian neurophysiologist, and lastly, on its discussion of craft. Do you mind if I pick a few segments when I have time and comment on them? It's very meaty and demands several rereadings?

When I was 6 my dad had just come to a small town, to a tiny church with cramped living quarters behind. I could play on the wide steps at the front of the church, and watch as teams of workhorses with hay wagon's were brought to a halt in front of the church, lined up to have the massive (to a 6 year old!) belgians and clydes unharnessed and led unside the blacksmith shop right next door! I can't imagine how dangerous it was for a child to be so close to those horses, would never happen today. I was less than 10 feet away.

Peering into the dark recesses of the blacksmith shop, I could hear the farmers and the blacksmith getting the horses under control so their hooves could be prepared, new shoes take from a wide selection on the wall, then heated and shaped in the coal forge and on the anvil..

It was 50 years before that book came into my hands due to a major consolidation of book chains in Ontario, which precipitated a massive clearance of hundreds of thousands of books. The book was a major treatment by two fellow countrymen to Nicolai Alexandrovich Bernstein, a brilliant scientist who grew up watching his highly intelligent mother dextrously performing needlework, then went on to a premium Soviet education, and was assigned to watch a blacksmith work and teach him how to work more efficiently, but fortunately for us but not him, Nicolai, a small man with striking features and almost tsar like bearing, was not about to teach anyone anything.


As Nicolai watched the hammer being swung by the smithy, swarthy arm raising high over his head and striking the hot metal repeatedly, other hand moving the beaten metal ever so slightly, something happened that caused changed his life forever.

What Nicolai observed was that the hammer never struck the iron in the same place twice; the implications of that led Nicolai to extensive study on skilled work that led to publication on dexterity, quoting western research at a time when the Russians were fiercely proud of the fame of their star boy, comrade Pavlov, of salivating dog fame. The short story is that Nicolai's offices were smashed, he descended into obscurity more or less, and his written work would have disappeared had not the two authors interrupted a descendent cleaning out his apartment while she was readying to trash piles which included his manuscript, which became the core of the book.

Only the very latest books on motor theory are beginning to correct the foolery of comrade Pavlov, whose stupidity regarding motivation and learning pervade all literature today. Books on motion study are exactly like what Bernstein was hired to do; tell a skilled person how to grasp a hammer. There is simply too much invested in Pavlovianist theories to change.

I wouldn't go on so long, but the implications for skilled work and respect are enormoous. how can one respect what one equates to salivating dogs. Bernstein was a brilliant man, but his respect for skilled work was profound. I recommend reading with the utmost care "the mower scene" from Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, which was quoted and commented on by Bernstein. it will give you a taste of his thinking. Thank you again for that contribution. It bought back a lot of thinking, that I didn't expect to ever bring to light.

This is the link http://www.dfoggknives.com/wayof.htm

Monday, August 3, 2009

Lindeman on Emerson

There's a bit of a story behind the quote in the header; it's from Eduard Lindeman, considered to be the father of adult education in the U.S. His writing still has a place in any good library collection on the subject. He was also a great admirer of writings and quotations of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose essays and addresses to graduating students are rightly considered classics. As a self-educated person, I've stuck to a comment of Emerson's from one of those addresses to students, expressing the thought that education should teach a person how to teach themselves. But, if you can teach yourself, then why do you.. more later.

What's true of Lindeman is true of any contributor of the past; always look for both the timely (current) and timeless (legacy) in any field. .This holds true from neurology to sociology

New or Used?

Here's a question; I have a single volume of an ICS course from a century ago when study texts were well bound volumes; well worn, smudged and marked up with pencil. Also, I have three volumes (explain how to make a steam locomotive!) in pristine condition, look lovely on any bookshelf. Which are more valuable?

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Used Books: Craft in Fiction

I've seen a rare few excellent examples of craft principles portrayed accurately in fiction. One was recommended by a colleague, "Pillars of the Earth" by Ken Follett, a life-long enthusiast in Medieval cathedral building. There's also a short section in "Anna Karenina" by Tolstoy on the mower, full of observations on community and also automaticity inthe graceful, rythmic sweep of the mowers' scythes. British novelist Nevil Shute wrote a facinating work, "Trustee in the Toolroom" about a hobbyist who gained world renown for his craft knowledge. Finally, the final chapters of "The Prodigy" by Herman Hesse details what life was like for a metal working apprentices at a time when parts were fashioned with a file, not a CNC lathe.

It's my desire to do a post on each book, but these books are all old: has anyone seen a more recent example of fiction that highlights a realistic portrayal of skilled work in fiction? Let me know.

Why does it matter? Just for the same reason the "egghead" issues portrayed here matter; because almost everything done in sociology and philosphy of work is either focused on labour issues or portaying workers as victims in a variety of forms. That is no more desireable than recent hero-ization of tradesmen. Simple respect, and deeper understanding of their wisdom and contribution.

The above books are on Amazon or Chapters.ca

mrW Tradesman, Reworked Site

Keep a watch on the Toolroom section of the newly revamped site, it's featuring mrW Tradesmen, (including me) who will answer questions related to trades work, rather than "How To" as the Remodel Crazy" site does. Also, fans of the "Dirty jobs" show, persons interested in how to effectively promote skilled trades and trades people can meet and share experienced- or just hang out at the "Water Cooler".

For my part, I won't be telling anyone how to do electrical work on either site. It is far too dangerous to be done casually by homeowners. It ain't a hobby. I can help prospective apprentices learn about what the trades are about.

Check it out!

Remodel Crazy Forum

I urge you to check out the latest forum on the web, Remodel Crazy Forum, created by a couple renovation contractors to bring skilled contractors together with homeowners seeking advice on their home projects. As may be guessed from the title, the site is not overly serious, but wants to remain accessible to someone with a "dumb question" or unsure if they are being treated fairly by the contractor they've hired, or even whether to shop for price, or how to find good service.