People Who Work with Their Hands Know

For almost 30 years Mike has helped build casinos and hotels in San Diego, Las Vegas, and even Honolulu. For several Gucci stores, he has handcrafted shell-shaped archways surrounded by exotic veneers. His work is exquisite.

We always chat about what’s new in the world of woodworking. New hand tools, like the $375 Iron Shooting Miter Plane, and the Original Yankee Style Screwdriver. We also talk about current projects, like the custom router-accessory box I’m building and a trellis he’s designing for his garden. It’s nice to talk shop, since I’m cooped up in a classroom most of the time.

As I make my way out the door, I notice his limp has gotten worse.

“How’s the ol’ leg holding up?” I ask.

“Not so good, bud. It’s tough getting old, you know.” But it’s not just age that’s slowing him down. Mike’s fought polio since he was a kid. It was first diagnosed in his right leg then spread all the way across to his left arm and down his left leg. With much practice over the years, Mike has trained himself to be ambidextrous. I feel embarrassed to complain about intermediate algebra when I’m around him.

Mike and I have been through a lot. We made money in construction until it collapsed in the subprime earthquake. Now we’re trying to piece our lives back together. I’m a lot younger, by 33 years, so I’ve got more time. But my career choices so far have been horrible. Like the time in Kensington when I got sprayed in the face with fermented feces.

It’s a hot summer day in July 2002. I am stripped down to my boxer briefs and hosing off in my client’s front yard.

“Seriously?” I yell at my partner.

He stares at me in silence, a ghostly expression on his face.

“Did that go in your mouth?” he asks.

“What do you think? Of course it did.” I am so pissed, I almost punch him out. “What the heck were you thinking, man?” I shout. “Why are you jamming that digging bar into the ground so hard?”

“The dirt’s rock hard, bro. What was I supposed to do?”

My partner is not the sharpest tool in the shed. On the job, he always takes the easy route, and this time I’m paying the price. The neighbors are looking at me funny. The client opens his front door to a wet-plumber contest. Not a good look.

I decide that I want to get as far away from sewer pipes as I possibly can. So I start installing rain gutters instead, clinging to the edges of three-story buildings.

In November 2003, I’m at an older apartment complex in La Mesa, standing halfway up a three-story extension ladder that looks like a palm tree blowing in the wind. I’m swaying back and forth, and my legs are shaking. Slipping my arms through the rungs, I seek reassurance from my partners below.

“You sure you got a good grip?”

“Yeah, no worries, D,” they say. “We got you.”

With the top of the ladder resting against the existing rain gutters, I slowly climb. I feel the wind pick up as the temperature drops. There’s a chimney to my right. To my left, a 30-foot drop to the sidewalk. I’m irritated that there’s no roof access from inside the building.

A gust of wind comes through the alley. The ladder begins to slide against the slippery gutter. I reach out for the chimney.

“That was a close one,” my partner says with panic in his voice. “You okay, man?”

“Yeah, I’m good.” My heart feels as if it’s beating out of my chest. “That’s it, we’re done. I’m calling the boss and telling him we’re pulling off the job.”

At our next stop, as I stand next to the tailgate of my work truck, an older gentleman approaches me. “How’s it goin’?” He introduces himself with a firm handshake. “The name’s Mike.” I can tell he is a working man.

He has a scruffy white beard, and his outfit is stained with dried glue and paint splatter. I sense he’s a genuinely nice guy, real down to earth. He asks me if I could give him an estimate on some rain gutters for his shop. As we approach his property, the scent of freshly cut wood lures me in. Man, it smells good.

When we round the building, I peek inside the front door. Before me is the most incredible woodworking shop I have ever seen. I look around in amazement. Mike has a 12-inch Powermatic table saw, two band saws, a stationary power sander, a thickness planer, a 16-inch jointer, a 4x10 assembly table, a mortising machine, two power feeders, a drill press, a couple of chop saws, a scroll saw, a lathe, an elaborate dust collection system, a rack of various-sized clamps, and every hand tool you could imagine, some dating back to the early 1920s. Not to mention the endless amount of power tools he has lined against the wall of his shop: nail guns, staple guns, cordless drills, Skil saws, a reciprocating saw, jig saws, a right-angle drill, orbital sanders, tool sharpeners, and a variety of routers.

The shop is a mess; everything’s covered in dust from the 16-foot rift White Oak bar top he’s been sanding. I admire the wood. The straight lines of the grain are subtle at first, but up close, the richness and warmth come to life.

His shop is insane. I forget that I’m supposed to be working on his neighbor’s house when my phone rings.

“Where you at, D?” my partner asks.

“I’m next door.” I tell him to finish that job and start on Mike’s place next.

I get lost in his shop because I’m a furniture-maker as well. Back in 2002, I moved into my own apartment with only a bed and a TV. I didn’t have much money to furnish the place, so I decided to build my own. I got the idea from a home-makeover reality show and a guy that was building an entertainment center. So I bought just enough tools to get the job done, while my dad let me open up shop in his garage. Three months later, I completed my first project. It’s funny how reality TV, something I never took seriously, opened up a door to a passion I never knew I had.

As I leave Mike’s shop and return to my truck, I wonder why I hadn’t thought of this before. I may have found a potential career that I’m passionate about. After work, I head home and immediately prepare a portfolio with pictures of all the pieces of furniture I’ve designed. My favorite piece is a 40˝x60˝ picture frame that houses a photograph my brother took at a monastery in Ayutthaya, Thailand. It’s a cement Buddha head entangled in massive tree roots.

My brother’s artistic side first came out when he enrolled in the art program at Coronado High School. He spent his time painting canvases in Dad’s garage as I did my woodwork. We share a similar passion in that way. He’s still an artist at heart, but he now expresses himself through photographs.

School was never for either of us, but self-expression has been our passion. When my brother’s not traveling the world, capturing the visions of life through his lens, he makes a living pounding out dents at a body shop in Long Beach. It’s not his dream job, but it pays well, and it allows flexibility in his schedule to pursue his dream of visiting every country in the world. So far he’s at eight percent. I’m envious of his travels, but he thinks I’m the lucky one when Mike hires me to do woodworking full-time.

“Congratulations, D, that’s awesome,” my brother says.

I know he’s sincere, but it’s coming from my older brother who once tried to knock me out during a water-balloon fight. I had come up from behind and smacked one over his head. The rules were neck-and-below so he turned around and hit me in the jaw with a right hook.

I want to ask him when he’s going to get serious about his photography. But he’s still taller than I am.

So I say, “When’s your next adventure?”

“I don’t know, I’m still trying to pay off the last one.”

I, on the other hand, know where I’m headed.

I am quickly immersed in Mike’s current project at George’s at the Cove in La Jolla. I feel like a kid in a candy store to find myself covered from head to toe in sawdust. Some of it even gets in my mouth.

I’ve finally found a career.

Every day I stay late, working on personal projects. I am hooked; woodworking is like crack to me. Spending countless hours designing new pieces, experimenting with joinery techniques, and finally sanding with the finest of grits.

I experiment with exotic hardwoods such as Santos mahogany. It’s a beautiful mix of reddish-purple tones, and when freshly cut, the scent of licorice emerges. Then there’s Zebrano, or zebra wood. It is visually pleasing with its eye-catching striped grain, but it smells like urine. I had enough of that as a plumber.

Project after project, I grow in my knowledge of furniture-making. I soak up as much information as I can from Mike. He refers to me as his protégé.

“You want to firmly apply even pressure against the fence, as well as downward on the table, when you guide the board through the blade.” Mike demonstrates with a piece of scrap material. “Mastering this technique is key. It will prevent the blade from kicking back, which is extremely dangerous.”

“Okay,” I reply, eager to take a turn. Mike stops me and says, “First things first. Put on your safety glasses, ear muffs, and your dust mask. Just take your time, there’s no rush. But most importantly, remember to keep your fingers away from the blade, and whatever you do, DO NOT let go of the material until you have pushed it all the way through the blade.”

“Got it.” I anxiously approach the table saw.

The workload in the shop is not too bad. But installing the stuff is just the opposite. One time Mike had to spend the night at George’s, pulling a 72-hour shift just to make sure we made the deadline.

Installing interior woodwork consists of throbbing knees, an aching back, sore wrists, loud machines, pounding hammers, guys in your way, and worst of all, the dust causing you to sneeze every five seconds.

I look over at Mike. He’s on all fours, installing a wall panel as the owner of another restaurant in Del Mar breathes down his neck, to make sure we finish on time.

The owner says, “I got the electrician coming at 2:30, and my tile guy will be here at 4:00. Are you going to have these panels finished before they get here?”

“Well, that depends,” says Mike. “Is the plumber going to have the water lines in place soon so I can make my cut-outs?” I can tell the owner is frustrated by Mike’s tone.

“Hopefully, he’ll be here within the hour.”

Situations like this often occur on the job site, especially when it comes down to the final deadline. Scheduling conflicts, permit issues, code violations, time constraints, and my least favorite, trying to work around six different trades in a tiny little area simultaneously.

With an irritated expression, Mike looks over at me and says, “It’s a part of the job.”

Later in the day, we’re back at the shop. Mike comes shuffling in.

I’m at the assembly table gluing up panels for the siding of a new bar we’re building for the Wolfgang Puck restaurant located next to the La Jolla Playhouse. I can feel something is wrong. We discuss how the job’s going so far, but things aren’t looking good.

With a long face, Mike says, “Dave, we held on for as long as we could, but there’s just no work out there for us right now.” I nod my head.

“It kills me to have to do this to ya, bud, but we’re gonna have to let you go.”

This is the first time I’ve ever been laid off. It completely catches me off guard. As my heart pounds, I feel my face get hot, especially the tips of my ears. I then realize Mike’s situation is more severe. How’s he going to support his family? He’s got two kids in college, a mortgage, and debt from the company.

Mike’s been like a second father to me. Now our relationship becomes more equal. His shop lasts only a few weeks longer. He shuts it down after he finishes the current job.

When the declining economy forces people to cut back, Mike and I lose more than our construction jobs. Our American know-how and ingenuity goes out the door. Who’s going to stand with us, the blue-collar workers who make honest livings in their trades?

On my way home from school one day, I decide to stop by one of the many inexpensive furniture store chains. As I browse through the various showrooms, I notice a bookshelf in the corner. It’s poorly assembled with sloppy joints. The backing is loose, and the veneer is peeling away. What a disgrace.

“Is there anything I can help you with, sir?” the sales associate asks innocently.

He comes off as an unenthusiastic slacker who could not care less about furniture. His mop haircut didn’t help.

“You guys know this bookshelf’s fallin’ apart?” I ask.

“Oh, really? I’ll have somebody take a look at it.”

“This thing’s light. What’s it made of?” But I already know the answer.

“Particle board and veneer.”

The look on his face is priceless. His smirk says, “Why do you think it’s only $20, dude?” I wonder if the company trains its employees to handle questions like these. I want to ask him where this stuff is made, but I spare him the embarrassment.

Even though Mike’s company went under, we stay in contact. He’s kind enough to let me use his shop for my personal projects. The one piece of advice Mike always gives me is, “Dave, whatever you do, don’t get married.” I can’t help but laugh. His marriage seems to be as solid as a plank of ebony. No matter how bad things get, he always finds a way to lighten things up.

A couple of weeks after Mike’s company shuts down, I manage to find another woodworking position in San Diego. It’s just not the same. Transitioning to a big commercial cabinet shop is rough. There’s 50 guys packed into a warehouse, compared to just Mike and me. The company’s main goal is to push as much material through the shop as fast as possible. I had become so accustomed to moving at my own pace, but that’s now working against me. I can’t do quality work, yet I am not making my quota of finished pieces. As an artisan, I’m getting it from both ends.

Five or six months go by. I cruise down to Mike’s shop to start a new side project, an heirloom-style photo album for my brother, the traveling photographer. Mike is now working for a large corporation as a project manager in the construction department.

“It’s not a bad gig,” he explains.

But the recession is still hammering me. “I just got laid off. Again.”

Mike has a dumbfounded look on his face. “Are you serious?”

I’m going to give school another shot, I tell him.

“Good for you. After a while, a career in woodworking tends to put a damper on doing it as a hobby anyway.”

College has always been intimidating. In 2003, I was put on academic probation at the end of my third semester at Mesa. But now I’m back. I walk to my first class. I sit down and take a deep breath. The professor walks in. It looks as if he’s going to keel over right in front of us. He must be 80 years old. I already miss the sounds of the woodworking shop. As I listen to his droning voice during the lecture, I catch myself daydreaming about what I want to build for my next project. I turn in the first assignment, but I feel no sense of accomplishment. All I receive back is a paper covered in red ink.

There’s no comparison between an English essay and a creative masterpiece. There’s a spiritual connection that occurs between me and my project, as I fight through bloody fingers, sore muscles, sweat, and splinters. It builds pride in a craftsman. People who work with their hands know what I’m talking about. A desk job just doesn’t cut it.

I force myself to find a positive outlook about school. Although the transition to full-time student may be tough, I know it will benefit me in the future.

Once again, I head down to Mike’s shop, during Thanksgiving break, to make some alterations on my entertainment center. He has more bad news.

“They just laid me off, as well as 70 percent of my crew.”

“This is getting ridiculous. I can’t believe they got rid of you. You’re the best guy they got.”

Since I finished my last project last year, in late November, I haven’t worked in Mike’s shop. I miss it. I’ve convinced myself I’ll be back one day when school slows down and I finish an internship. I notice my hands are getting soft. No cuts or calluses. These hands don’t belong to a working man. ■

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