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Not So Big

A not-so-big carpenter gears up: Shopping for equipment to fit size small in an industry that caters to XXL.

I’ve been a woman in the construction trades for over twenty years now. I’ve learned to frame, finish and fix along with the other guys. I can trade job-site humor with the best of them, and I can even deal with patronizing salesmen, with their soft pink hands and spotless work boots. But for me the hardest part of all has been finding professional clothing and equipment that fits a not-so-big carpenter.

Clothing: Kids boots with Tonka trucks

(Note: Click any image to see a larger version. Hit "back" button to return to article.)

What prompted this article was a catalog I got in the mail one day. It was from a company called Duluth Trading Post, and it promised to supply every- thing a hard-working woman might need. Even though the cover girl had hands like a salesman, I placed an or- der right away. Some of the stuff was really nice, but I’ve still had to find a lot of what I need elsewhere.

I’ve long known that the companies making clothes for construction workers don’t cater to women. After years of shopping in the little boys’ section, and enduring the associated abuse (my boots used to have little pictures of Tonka trucks), I’ve discovered that farmers are more open minded to not-so-big marketing. Agricultural supply companies such as Gempler’s or Agway sell a good range of women’s bibs, coveralls, boots, gloves, and other professional grade work clothing.

A couple of the things I got from Duluth Trading were right on target. One was a pair of work boots, heavy duty, steel-toed, triple wide, and in a size 6! The other was the first set of pro-grade knee pads I’ve ever had that fit.

Safety Gear: Nurses have the right glasses

I almost always wear safety glasses; a couple of near misses converted me. You need a bigger head than mine to wear standard men’s glasses, though. After 15 years of dealing with this problem I discovered that nursing isolation specs have the same ANSI specification as carpenters’ safety glasses, and they are sized for the smaller person. They also have the added advantage of coming in a variety of patterns and colors. I usually sport pink or flowered ones, because they rarely get borrowed by my co-workers. Very early on, I learned a valuable lesson about keeping my long hair tied back.

Safety on a small scale. Medical supply houses carry eye protection for smaller faces. The headband above keeps ears warm and long hair out of the way.

While drilling a hole in concrete, my hair got caught up in the chuck. In a split second the drill ripped out of my hands and smacked me in the head. Since then I’ve tried every solution short of cutting my hair, but a new product from Duluth Trading just addressed the problem head-on: a headband with a pony-tail exit hole. Very cool, and great for cold weather too.

The tool belt

When I first started building I bought a nice tool belt with lots of pockets and pouches. Before long it was gathering dust, and I’ve been searching for the perfect belt ever since. The average size belt almost goes around me twice. Pockets designed to sit in front end up in back, making them virtually inaccessible. Standard pouches are too wide for my shortened belt, and too long as well; they almost bang on my knees. The best system I’ve found is using a standard belt that is wide, strong, and comfortable but that can be shortened. I accessorize it with removable pouches, which I stitch in place where I like them. Duluth Trading sells a variety of pouches designed for the working woman. They worked well once I stitched them in place, but the smaller clip-on pouches tended to pop off unexpectedly. Most long-time carpenters I know support their belts with a set of suspenders, but alas, these too are designed with a man in mind. I’ve yet to find a set with cross-your-heart comfort.

Tools to (over)fill the belt

Framing hammers can equal bruised shins.

Just because I’m little doesn’t mean I don’t need big tools. By the time I put a 30-ft. tape, speed square, knife, pliers, chisel, catspaw, screwdriver, marker and a few pencils in my pouches, there isn’t much room left. I keep my boxes of nails close by and refill more often. I shorten my pencils so they don’t puncture my chest when I bend over; on the other hand, I don’t get stuck when I step through a framed wall. I’ve always carried the same hammers as everyone else; after all, I’m hitting the same nails. They’re not too heavy, but they’re often too long; my framing hammer almost drags on the ground and my roofing hammer has been known to dip in the tar bucket when I step over it.

As part of a tool test we did recently, I got to try out a couple of Stiletto titanium hammers. These are small, light, beautifully balanced, and pack a wallop (like me, according to my husband!). Unfortunately, their retail price of $250 each, puts them into the jewelry department. Last fall I suggested to my husband that every woman deserves a pair of stilettos in her stocking at least once in her life, but no dice this year.

Power tools for small hands

There are so many different power tools out there, some suited for every size and shape. Here are the ones that I have found easiest to use with my smaller hands:

 

Saw for bigger hands. Circular saws like this one are hard to operate for small hands, especially keeping the guard retracted while pulling the trigger.

Circular saws:

We’ve tested a lot of saws over the years, and the Milwaukee would be my first pick. The grip is manageable, the guard is easy to use, and I can change the blade efficiently. Many circular saws require that you hold the guard up and lock the blade with one hand, while operating the wrench with the other. On some saws, this stretch is impossible for my hands. The Porter Cable, Hitachi and Makita saws are all comfortable, but some of the other popular saws are just sized for bigger hands.

Cordless drills:

I like the drills (cordless and otherwise) with a smaller handgrip. The two I’m first to grab out of the van are the Panasonic and the Hitachi. Another design feature to watch with all cordless tools is the battery release. Some tools have a release button on each side of the battery. These are very difficult for me to use because I can’t reach both release buttons and squeeze at the same time.

 

Reach for the switch. You should be able to hit the switch with the hand operating a jigsaw, and only a few cordless drill handles are comfortable enough for small hands.

Jigsaws, routers, planers, sanders, grinders and other tools:

The determining  factor for these tools is whether or not I can turn the tool on with the same hand that is driving it. Most tools require that I use two hands to turn them on and off. For smaller jobs that require a router, I reach for a laminate trimmer. Sanders often come in my size, but I like to hire big strong laborers to operate them!

Other tools, like jackhammers and Cuisinarts, will always be out of my league.

Two decades in the trades have been pretty good to me. Being self-employed, I get paid the same as a man, and I’ve never hit a glass ceiling (though I did once get to break a big glass window with a backhoe). I enjoy my work, and I’ve learned to be ‘one of the guys’ and still be a lady when I want to be. Cold beers after work come in exactly the right size, too. Now if I could only see over the steering wheel of the truck.

Read this article in its original format (with more images) at TiC Issue 1!

AUTHOR BIO

Kerri Spier may be slight in stature, but she more than makes up for that in her personality. Born and raised on Block Island, Kerri graduated from Brown University in 1989. After college Kerri returned to the island, where she and her husband, John have run Spier Construction for the past 22 years.

Four years ago Kerri, John and their three kids decided to follow a dream. They packed themselves up and sailed off on their 45-ft. catamaran, Aldora. The first year, they explored the East Coast and the Bahamas. They followed this with a trip down the eastern Caribbean to Curacao. Next, they took the boat through the Panama Canal and sailed as far as Australia with countless stops along the way. Last winter they worked their way up to Malaysia. Each year they return to Block Island and keep their hands in the building business, working for a few months before heading out again. On board Kerri and John boat school their kids with the ocean as their classroom. They hope to complete their circumnavigation in the next couple years before their oldest graduates from high school. And for the record, Kerri keeps her best tool belt on the boat for those rare trips up the mast.

Comments/Discussion

5 Responses to “Not So Big”

  1. Becky

    Thanks for a great article packed with tips! I’m about your size – right down to the size 6 boots – & am forever looking for jeans & tools that my small frame can handle.

    I don’t do much heavy stuff since we’re primarily cabinet installers of kitchens I design, but we still have to frame knee walls & replace trim. I love my Hitachi cordless drill – my installer is always swiping it over his heavy 18V DeWalt – HA!

    There are advantages to being small on a jobsite, like squeezing into tight spaces to grab dropped screws.

    Thanks again for the inspiration & knowledge! What a great way to start my week. :)

    Reply
  2. Yannis

    I hope you got your stilettos… I have big hands but don’t want the extra weight in my rig.

    Great to see a woman in the business.

    Reply
  3. Paul Elshoff

    It’s refreshing to see the world from the other side for a change. At 6’9″ tall and just shy of 300 pounds, my problems are diametrically opposed to yours.
    Safety glasses? $350 for the special order frames.
    Hard hat? Gotta use a shoelace to keep the liner done up.
    Tool belt? 6 inch extension anyone?

    For the hammer in the shins problem, try getting a tube like golfers use to keep their clubs separate and cut a piece about 10″ long, then hang it at a backwards slanting angle with a lengths of chain or wire on the back (lower) end and a belt loop at the upper end so that the head is held higher that in the usual sling holder and the handle is always behind you, sort of like a cavalry officer carries their sabre, only with the “business end” at the top.

    Hope this helps.

    Paul “Tiny” Elshoff
    Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

    Reply
  4. Sara

    This definitely made my day. At 5’3″ with a size 5 foot it’s almost impossible to find things to fit and tools that won’t pull my pants down from the weight -_- It’s good to know that there are tools out there that can fit my small hands :)

    Thanks for posting this article

    Perth, ON, Canada

    Reply

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