Soon after Larry Haun published his book, A Carpenter’s Life, I overheard someone complaining that the book was ‘repetitious’. They said: “Larry just keeps saying the same stuff chapter after chapter—take care of the earth, don’t be greedy, care about your neighbors. I thought the book was going to be about carpentry!” I didn’t have the courage to speak up then, but I will now, from the safety of my desk. Yes, Larry Haun’s final, and perhaps most illuminating, book is repetitious—and it should be.
The lessons Larry wants us to learn from his last published work (Larry passed away on Monday, October 24), are important enough to require reiteration. As Larry writes:
Change, even minor change, can be tough to face and doesn’t come easy for most of us. We get used to our habitual ways of living, even when things are not what we would like; we prefer to stick with ‘the tried and the true.’ Even a change like switching off a mindless TV program to read a good book is not easy. We get in a rut and find it difficult to get out. But is not change really all there is?
Accepting and adapting to change is what A Carpenter’s Life, and a craftsman’s life, is all about: making mistakes, learning, then repairing your work and avoiding the same mistakes later. If we don’t dedicate our present moment towards appreciating and understanding our past, how we can ever hope to manage our future?
A Carpenter’s Life is a trip through Larry’s past, told by the houses he lived in and the homes he built, right up until the end of his miraculously simple yet endearing career. The book is filled with hands-on homilies and simple life-truths, sometimes expressed through bumper stickers and maxims from folklore. Larry says: “Times do change, but not necessarily for the better. We do have more things, but do we have more happiness? I was born at a time and in a place where no one had electricity, people talked to each other face-to-face because there was no radio, TV, or telephone.”
It is these stories and perceptions that punctuate each chapter of A Carpenter’s Life, lessons Larry returns to repeatedly—maybe to make sure we are listening, that we understand, that we remember: hard work, accomplishment, and consciousness of the present moment form our core strength, and that is what we miss from the “good old days, when we were more in touch with the earth and our place on it.” As Larry puts it so poetically: “We long to feel, sometimes in the evening, that gentle breeze that comes, touches our faces, and tells us who we are.”
The publication of this book is miraculous, too, and a testament to Larry’s discipline and drive—his ‘won’t give up’ attitude. As Larry told me on the phone last year: “No one wanted to publish it! So I just started writing it, chapter by chapter, and sending the chapters to Peter Chapman at Taunton. Finally, I don’t know why, I guess I just wore them down, Taunton decided to publish it.”
As usual, Larry’s self-deprecating humor hid the truth: the editors at Taunton recognized the importance of the book almost immediately, and even though it had no place in their catalogue, they knew real value when they saw it. As Peter Chapman, Editor of Taunton Books said in a recent New York Time’s article: “There was this wellspring of feeling [at Taunton Press]. Everybody who read it found something in it. I knew Larry was a good writer who could clearly explain how to install a step. But I kept wondering where this other stuff was coming from. It’s a very spiritual view of the world.”
I can’t imagine any carpenter not being moved by Larry’s book, by the experience of his life, the years he spent in construction, the revolution he lived through, and his simultaneous search for meaning and value in what he saw as an America run wild with materialism and greed. Ironically, Larry played a part in that wild and greedy growth—he helped change the way we build homes, ushering in a new system, abandoning the traditional bib-overall all-around carpenter who could do anything, and ushering in the new leather-aproned specialist: the Southern California piece-work Framer.
Larry’s book brings to mind George Sturt’s The Wheelwright’s Shop, published in 1923, which provides a rich history of a rapidly changing craft at the close of the 19th century, when hand skills were giving way to machine skills. Just think of the late-19th century song John Henry: The Steel Driving Man: “Before I let your steam drill beat me down, I’m gonna hammer myself to death, Lord Lord, I’ll hammer my poo’ self to death.” This was a time when wooden wheels were being replaced by steel tracks.
Larry reminds me of John Henry, too. Even Kevin Ireton, past editor of Fine Homebuilding, uses similar iconography when describing an early encounter with Larry: “Over and over, he drove sixteen-penny spikes with two licks—one to set and one to sink. The nails disappeared so fast I wondered if some magician’s trick were secretly pulling them into the wood ahead of the hammer blows.”
Like The Wheelwright’s Shop, Larry’s book describes a time when revolutionary new methods changed an industry. “I’ve heard people say, ‘We don’t build them like we used to.’ That’s true,” Larry Haun writes. “After tearing down and remodeling many older buildings, my observation is that we build houses better than we used to.”
Larry helped build out the San Fernando Valley in northern Los Angeles, during an expansionary period that this country hasn’t seen since—at least not one that was sustainable. In a country hungry for new homes, when “for the first and probably the last time in our nation’s history, masses of ordinary workers could afford to buy and actually own homes,” Larry developed production methods for laying out and framing walls, cutting roofs, installing windows and doors—methods that didn’t “sacrifice quality for quantity.” As Larry puts it, “We weren’t building gingerbread houses, McMansions, or starter castles. We were building solid, one-and two-story tract houses that working-class families could afford to buy.”
Through a collection of articles and videos, Larry eagerly passed those methods on to other carpenters and framers—he taught classes, he built Habitat For Humanity homes, he installed ramps for the disabled.
For all the ways that Larry has changed how we work, I think his last gift to us is his best. He wanted to change the way we think. Rather than working so hard to forget our past, Larry says, “We need to educate ourselves about where we have been, what we have done wrong, and what a sustainable world will look like.”
“My mother always told me not to make a mess of things for others to clean up,” Larry says. And he shares with us the same advice he gave his granddaughter: “It is not our seed that sustains the world. It is the seeds from the trees, plants, and grasses that sustain us.”
Like his mother, Larry loved plants and seeds and gardening; he measured his life by seasons: “I like to remember, though, that even if I live to be a hundred I will only have seen a hundred planting seasons.”
Larry Haun lived to be eighty, and though he saw fewer than eighty planting seasons, he sowed seeds that will continue to grow in all of us—first, because of the changes he brought to framing and carpentry, but more so for his good will, his care for others, and this last book, in which he shares lessons learned the hard way, from a lifetime of building houses.