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Book Review: A Carpenter’s Life

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 Haun (photo by Dean DellaVentura)

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.

Comments/Discussion

19 Responses to “Book Review: A Carpenter’s Life”

  1. Alec Milstein

    Thank you Gary for a wonderful review – I read his book “The very efficient carpenter” years ago, and it changed the way I worked, thought, and taught my crew to approach jobs. I look forward to reading this one, and am grateful that such a man took the time to share his wisdom with all of us, who, if we are lucky, will carry the torch forward with integrity and professionalism in our pursuit of craftsmanship.
    Rest in peace Larry Haun-

    Reply
    • Pete838

      Every time I hear the name Larry Haun I think of “The Very Efficient Carpenter”. I think I learned more from Larry Haun than in 10 years of OJT. RIP, Larry. Your influence will be missed.

      Reply
  2. Dan Kolbert

    I’m about a third of the way thru the book myself. A terrific story. I met Larry a few times at JLC Live but never had much of a chance to talk to him – a regret now.

    Reply
  3. Josh

    I thought I had read all of Larry’s books before I learned that he wrote about 10 times what I had discovered. I learned a lot of basics from him. He made learning easy. I loved watching his videos where he and his brother would frame houses by themselves. They would only get a helper if they really needed one. Awesome guys!

    Reply
    • Josh

      What I meant to say is that I always wished my brother and I could be like those two. Not only was he an amazing carpenter, but he had a big heart for others. It is amazing to see all the conversations on the internet about the impact Larry made on everyone. He really made his life count for others and didn’t squander his gifting. What an example for everyone! A life well lived…

      Reply
  4. Mike Kennedy

    Great review Gary! Makes me want to read this book right now!
    Peace…Mike.

    Reply
  5. Kreg mcmahon

    I am going to go and buy the book sounds interesting and growing up in the late 50’s and on in the San Fernando valley. Who knows he might of pounded a few nails in my parents house in northridge.

    Thanks for the review

    Reply
  6. eleu

    Great review. I have bought and read the book. It is an outstanding book and should be mandatory reading for every carpenter apprentice. The book should also be read by anyone involved with real estate in America. The book is a historical account of American houses. We have all lost a national treasure in Larry Haun.

    Reply
  7. Kent Brobeck

    Gary, thank you for this review. I have not read the book but will be very soon. From your review it seems Larry “loved his neighbor as he loved himself”

    Thanks

    Kent

    Reply
  8. Alex

    “The Very Efficient Carpenter” was the first professional book I bought many years ago. It was at a time when I had just really started out on my own and had suddenly realized that I didn’t know it all. I owe Larry a huge thanks for getting me on track and and opening my eyes to a new way of thinking about my craft. I am really grateful that our trade seems to once again be a brotherhood of craftsmen willing, and even excited to hand down their knowledge and skills, no doubt thanks to folks like Larry and all of us here who read and contribute.

    Reply
  9. j watson

    Thanks for the review, Gary—

    I live in a rock-solid one-story in the West San Fernando Valley and I’ve often entertained the idea that it could be “Haun-built”

    I think of Larry every time I lay out a stud wall. Shortly after reading The Very Efficient Carpenter, I got a nice ground-up room addition where myself and my partner used Larry’s framing techniques. It was fun, and it was fast and clean.
    Boy, did everybody squeal about the efficient stud spacing, though!

    I sure wish I had paid a little more attention to his advice about wearing a long-sleeve shirt while framing in the sun. Sure enough, my skin looks like a lizard’s and tears like paper.
    I’ll be picking up his new book and heeding his advice.

    JW

    Reply
  10. Glen Martin

    I’ve used Larry’s roof framing video in my rafter class here at Green River Comm. College to impress upon my students how quickly a “stick-built” roof can together pretty quick and efficiently for the poast 18 years. I personally have every book Larry has written (read them from cover to cover) and most of them available for my students in our carpentry program library. I never had the chance to meet Larry personally but I certainly feel I now know the man he truly was by reading “a Carpenter’s Life” He will contiune to be an inspiration to me the reaminder of my life. Rest in Peace Larry and thanks for all you did for our craft.

    Reply
  11. Peter Chapman

    Thanks so much for the thoughful review, Gary. I just got back from the memorial service for Larry in Coos Bay, which was a truly amazing and uplifting experience. It’s incredible how many lives he touched, from carpenters and Habitat volunteers to Buddhists, Native Americans…and just plain folks. An inspiration to us all.

    Reply
  12. Tom Bainbridge

    i know of mr haun through another taunton book, one on roof cutting

    i used to find roof framing difficult, larry’s language made it easy to understand, he took the fear out of the job. what i understood was, if you do it this way…. “it works”

    that was a light bulb moment. i now jump at any chance to cut a roof

    … just a long winded way of saying, this man changed the way i think

    Reply
  13. Marvin McConoughey

    This excellent review captures the spirit of the book very well. Minor note: the word intended is likely “sowed” rather than “sewed.”
    Editors note: Thanks Marvin, we performed the necessary alterations and sewed it up!!

    Reply
  14. Earon Kavanagh

    Larry wrote a great book. I did not know who he was but my former social/org psychology prof knew of him as a fellow Buddhist.

    I had been out of the trade for 20 years but found I kept coming back to my tools. Being a journeyman with a lot of experience at finishing, and a love of history, I liked the book a lot, and wrote the following review on the amazon.ca website.
    >>>>>>>

    This book was written through the eyes of a longtime carpenter. Larry Haun reflectively moves through the phases of his life, building structures along the temporal way. He tells his stories, leaving a trail of text and engaging photos. The stories are dovetailed with structures of historical significance: we are introduced to sod houses, kit houses, dugouts, balloon-framed homes, and adobe residences. His interactions with this soulful trade are forever present: from caressing sharp tools, to driving nails, to pouring concrete, to wondering on the health ramifications of asbestos shingles. The relationships he describes are filled with lessons, from receiving instruction and encouragement from a master carpenter, to standing in the spot where Crazy Horse died, to building roads with blacks, who embrace him with warm welcome and songs. Haun links the language of a carpenter with the love of family, a love of the land, and a love of building. As a journeyman builder I found the reading enjoyable, and the photos served as windows into my own past. As an instructor of graduate psychology and on the job learning, I found layers of rich meaning, intertwined with my own tools, master teachers and family members. This is a great book for anyone who loves houses, tools, important relationships, and journeying through the world of craftsmen.
    ~Earon Kavanagh, PhD~

    Reply

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