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Honor the Craft

How to earn respect and guarantee higher profits.

There was a time when tradesmen were some of the most respected citizens in a community. Wheel-wrights, masons, joiners, carpenters—people who worked with their hands—were respected like doctors, lawyers, and accountants are today.

Until the industrial revolution modernized construction, tradesmen studied their craft. They apprenticed for years with master craftsmen; they learned to distinguish and draw details from the classical orders, and they supported the publication of pattern books. They lived in neat, tidy homes near the center of town; they wore bib-overalls or heavy pants with white shirts and ties. They came to work clean-shaven, and they were well spoken.

Back in the early 1980s, when the recession stopped my career as a desk-bound general contractor and I started working on jobs as a carpenter, my mother told me that I’d never get anywhere working with my hands. She couldn’t have been more wrong, but her attitude towards tradespeople couldn’t have been more in tune with our society.

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(Note: Click any image to enlarge)

These days, people who work with their hands have a tough time getting respect. And if the clients we work for don’t respect us, how can we expect them to pay us respectable fees?

A couple of years ago, I had an early breakfast at a diner on Long Island. Being close to the Hamptons, the diner was in the middle of a large remodeling project. The outside of the building was stripped bare and wrapped with fresh building paper. Carpenters had installed a cherrywood entablature across the upper front of the building, with seven stained pilasters beneath, flanking six picture windows. The design and workmanship were beautiful.

The restaurant was full. I’d taken the last seat near one of those front windows, and was eating eggs and pancakes as the two carpenters arrived for work. They drove a big, loud van. Their jeans were worn through with holes and covered with paint, dried glue, and who-wants-to-know-what-else. They wore ragged t-shirts. On the back of one shirt was a large black skull; beneath it, the word “DEATH.” The shirt didn’t bother me. I’d seen a lot worse.

They slowly unloaded their tools: a miter saw on a homemade stand, a table saw and stand just like mine, a compressor and hoses, power cords, saws, nail guns—tools that every carpenter in the country uses. Like any other carpenter, I watched and compared the tools I use to the tools they used. The taller one unrolled a 100-ft. cord to a power strip, and then, as a final act of preparing for the day’s work, he turned his profile to the restaurant, put an index finger against his nose, and cleared his nasal passages, one at a time. I wasn’t the only customer who stopped eating.

Construction—carpentry in particular —seems to have become the last refuge for the American Cowboy. Maybe it’s because we work outdoors, and we frequently travel from job to job, from campsite to campsite. Maybe it’s because we get dirty; maybe its because we wear leather tool belts with holsters, and we use guns (nail guns, screw guns, heat guns, and so on.)

Sure, construction is a great career for folks who want to be free from the cubicle life of office workers, but too many carpenters today think they’re also free to dress as they please, free to swear and spit, free to wear their hair in any fashion, free to take their shirt off in the summer, free to leave home for work without shaving, or even without showering.

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If our industry has a problem with respect, it’s our own fault. Many contractors and carpenters fail to uphold even the simplest standards of behavior; some believe that the fancy logo on their business card is the secret to success. Phooey.

Most carpenters and small contractors know they can’t rely on advertising to build or support their business.

In more than 30 years working as a general contractor and more than 25 working with my brother as a finish contractor, we never advertised our business. 

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Larry Katz, Coast Door & Hardware, Westlake Village, CA

I probably handed out fewer than 50 business cards—and most of them went to other trade professionals. Our steady stream of work always came from referrals. Our most powerful advertisement was our appearance and the appearance of our crew.
That first knock on the door at an estimate or at a new job carries a lot more weight than most people think. When a prospective client opens the door to their home, they’re judging you instantly. First and foremost, they’re judging if you’ll respect them, their home, and their family. And yes, respect is a two-way relationship. If you don’t respect your customers, how can they respect you?

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Derrell Day, Dayco Construction Inc., Panama City, FL

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Dan Parish, Millworks By Design, Agoura, CA

For those reasons, I always wear a collared shirt to work, whether I’m working on a job or submitting an estimate—since you never know when you’ll meet a prospective client.
The first day on the job is crucial, too. When a customer opens their door to your crew, they’ll be judging you all over again: They’ll be wondering if you’ll keep their home clean; if you’ll do good work and not overcharge them; if you’ll work regular hours and arrive on time each morning, and finish their job on schedule. The way you and your crew dress, and how you behave, is all your client might know about you.

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Greg DiBernardo, Fine Home Improvements, Waldwick, NJ

Respect isn’t something that comes with a handshake. Respect must be earned over time. That’s why your crew must be dressed appropriately, too. Getting some of our carpenters to give up t-shirts isn’t easy, but we try to discourage the habit. We provide our crew with collared shirts and t-shirts with our logo. A crew that’s dressed alike, even if they have green hair and nose rings, has a professional look. That’s the first step toward earning respect.

Here are a few other tips that could help separate you and your crew from the competition:

For the Estimate

  • Carry booties for bids and estimates, or remove your shoes before entering someone’s home.
  • “Do you have a cat or dog?” should always be one of your first questions. Ask questions about your customers and how they live so they’ll understand you care.

For the Job

  • Never approach the front door without a roll of rosin paper, a drop cloth, and blue masking tape in your hands; don’t step foot in the house without rolling out drops.
  • Be polite.
  • No swearing.
  • No yelling.
  • No radios inside a home; no loud radios outside; no offensive radio stations period.
  • No smoking, eating, or food—that means coffee!—of any kind inside the jobsite.
  • Always keep the jobsite clean and neat.
  • Every day, stop work half an hour early to do a thorough cleaning.
  • The word “NO” is a dull chisel. Try not to use it.
  • “Let me ask my boss about that,” is the best response to most questions.

My mother was wrong. Working with your hands isn’t a job that goes nowhere.

Being a successful tradesperson is a serious career, requiring serious effort and serious study, all of which can lead to a rich and successful life. Honor the craft and your customers will honor you.

This article was originally published in the LBM Journal.

Comments/Discussion

54 Responses to “Honor the Craft”

  1. Timothy Rozenboom

    Couldn’t agree more. Great article. Cant wait wait to share with my colleagues.
    -Tim

    Reply
    • Paul

      Your article reminds me of my first day on a framing job in California in 1973. I had moved from Boston with my bride in Nov of that year, having turned out as a Journeyman earlier in the spring. When I got to Mountain View, where we had decided to live, I found the Local Union and “moved my book”. Even so I would be considered a traveler for 6 months and as such could only take a job after everyone else on the list that was in the hall that day refused. Being eager to get to work I raised my hand after the last carpenter passed when the call came in for any all-round framer and finish carpenter to dispatch to an apartment tract. I guess all the other carpenters at the hall that morning, knew the Contractor and his crews had a the reputation as a bunch of Cowboys. Anyway, I walked up to the dispatch window showed my dues card and took ticket. The business agent kind of smiled and commented on my overalls, which were all we ever wore in Boston in those days. He said something to the effect, “those Outlaw Framers your going to work for don’t wear whites kid”, you may want to get some bags and a rigging axe”. It only took a few to get to the job so I was still able to arrive early and pulled in behind a 60s something pick-up. The tail gate was battered and couldn’t close. The bed was full of jumbled of cords, nail guns and all the rest of a framers kit, tossed in like it was dumped by a back hoe. Rock and roll was blaring in the cab and I could just make out the silhouettes of a couple of bushy haired guys obscured in a haze of smoke. Almost on cue the music stopped the doors swung open and the occupants tumbled out laughing and staggering around to the back of the truck. I was a little bit of a “tuff-nut” in those days having grown up in South Boston so I wasn’t put off by the comments about my whites as I passed the two clowns trying to haul their bags out from under the tangle of tools. In fact it didn’t take more than a couple of hours working with these guys and the rest of the crew to learn just how little they understood about what they were doing. What I did find out that week was that most of the guys on that crew had “bought” a card. Collaborated that is, with the contractor and a corrupt BA to qualify as a journeyman and make scale. There were kick backs factored into the arrangement, a piece to the contractor and a piece to the BA. It opened my eyes to the fact that most of the guys I was working with treated our trade as a means to an end no more no less. This was very different from my local back home. If there was one thing that a four year of apprenticeship had instilled in me was that I was learning an honorable and ancient craft. And that the skill in my hands and my brothers was indispensable to providing shelter for the community. So this trend to the bottom of the barrel in skill and pride and dedication has been going on for some forty years by my count. Maybe longer since we no longer seriously require apprenticeship in the trade But what I do notice on the some jobs, regardless of weather they are Union or non-union, is a resurgence of pride and skill from time to time, in some small quarters of the business. In trying to do my part to pay it forward, every time I get the opportunity I encourage those young carpenters to practice and study the trade with pride and dedication.
      Let me end by saying a heartfelt, thanks Gary, for all your dedication and efforts in this area. Not only are you a talented carpenter, you have a calling to teach.

      Ps I still wear my overalls although I’ve gone from white to brown, and, I keep a cut off pair for those hot Northern California summers!

      Reply
  2. Joe Adams

    Great article! I always felt that professionalism is what set my remodeling business apart from all the “two guys in a truck” outfits. If you want people’s respect and their business you have to earn it. Company shirts, typed estimates, protective measures, and a clean jobsite go a long way in establishing this. Doing top quality work is not enough is a customer’s perception of you is poor. To be recognized as one of the best, you first have to present yourself professionally and then have the skills to back it up.

    Reply
    • Bernie Bowe

      I echo your sentiments Joe but would warn you to respect the “guy in a truck” as I’m 54 years old and spend a lot of time thinking about the next 20-25 years. More and more, I imagine myself as a one-man, one job at a time remodeler. Wearing a collar, driving my custom built utility truck, working out of custom built tool box, delivering detailed, fixed price proposals, and quality craftsmanship delivered by a gentleman.
      I think we are on the same page but my dream is to be that “guy in a truck” doing what I love and less time as a business manager.

      Reply
      • John Haboob

        I’m with you Bernie. I’m now 58 years old and have been a carpenter since I was 13. I have gone from 2 men to 8 men and back to 4 men and all that time I trained my men to be an extention of what I wanted our company to mean to our customers. We are professionals that know our craft and even when we seemingly have what some people would call a bad day, we still love what we do for a living and very much appreciate the fact that we can stand back at the end of a day and see what we’ve done and thank God for the talents and abilities He has given us. Customers notice when people love their jobs.

        Reply
        • Craig Savage

          Hello Bernie
          In my spare time, I’m doing “one-man, one job at a time” remodel of an upstairs bedroom in my 1904 house, and as I carefully remove one piece of molding and pull the nails out (from the back to preserve the moldings), then carry the pieces down stairs and stack them, then vacuum out the rafter detritus, then drive to the land fill with minimal waste, I’m struck by the “zen-ness” of the work. No deadline, no management, no payroll, no stress. But lots of time for reflection, good music from Pandora, and opportunities to look at the craftsmanship of people who, more than 100 years ago, spent the morning sharpening their saws.
          And like you, I’ve tried to conjur a “next career” where I remodeled for clients in that “one-man, one job at a time” model. Are there clients out there with that much patience?

          Reply
      • Joe Adams

        Bernie,

        My brother and I began work as “two guys in a truck” but differentiated ourselves by the level of professionalism we embodied. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a one or two man outfit. In fact, it’s what we ultimately went back to after growing into a larger but less fulfilling operation. What I meant to conjure with that description was the many “contractors” in our area that do not operate in a businesslike fashion at all and act more like gypsy laborers skipping from job to job. I support all skilled tradesmen who show enough pride in their craft to conduct themselves in a way that demands respect.

        Reply
  3. Will

    This is some golden advice.

    But you forgot one thing about getting business: Call back any request with in 24 hours, preferably by 6 pm that night, and show up for the estimate.

    Reply
  4. Jim Restin

    Wow, what a concept. Respect must be earned. Thank you for taking a stand for civilized behavior. You’re still the philosopher I looked forward to working with every day.

    Reply
  5. Greg

    Gary,

    I can’t think of more truer words said than this article. I have since retired after more than 40 years as a carpenter, from apprentice to contractor, and one thing I have noticed more than anything else, this type of ignorant behavior is becoming more commonplace than ever. Our trade has become the worst trade of the bunch, in my opinion. Why? I cannot figure it out nor do I know why, but this article really speaks volumes for how I feel about this representation of our trade also. I am speaking from working out of a pool of over 1500 carpenters in my local district. Dayco Construction is headed in the right direction. In all my years, I have never seen such a sign posted on a jobsite. My hat’s off to this company and to Gary, who has posted a sincere obligation to better this craft. I have seen much worse than this and truly believe when you tell someone you are a carpenter you are not respected in the least because of the above representation witnessed. And yes, there are exceptions to this as to every situation, but it is getting worse and not better.

    Reply
  6. John Bunday

    Now retired, I have always followed the spirit of this article.
    Another dimension added to the professional presentation is the order and manor one keeps his tools, equipment and rolling stock.
    In addition to appearance I have always judged the professionalism of a tradesmen by the way he organizes his tools and their condition. Are edged tools sharp, are cords on electric tools in good condition, and are ladders and staging safe and in good repair. Trucks and job site trailers covered in rust, mud, and dis organized are a good indication of shabby job performance and future headaches.

    Reply
  7. John Whitney

    This essay should be required reading in every Career Technical Ed program in the country. I will certainly forward it to those instructors at my community college. Many thanks!

    Reply
    • Andrew Pamenter

      Well said everyone – we are referring our students to this article and your comments. This really supports the message we try to give to our carpentry and masonry students – where we use the focus on work with heritage buildings to emphasize quality, craft and thoughtfulness on the site.

      Reply
    • Peter Kelley

      I was a Carpenter for 10 years, the first few in Boston working along side guys who write for this website and JLC. I now teach a 2 year carpentry program to high school juniors and seniors in New York state. This article is now required reading.

      However, all my memories of Jed Dixon were of him wearing a worn out sweatshirt (granted it was over a collared shirt).

      Reply
      • Gary Katz

        Peter,
        Thanks for writing!
        First, did you see a photo of Jed Dixon in that article? :)
        And when did you ever think that Jed is representative of ‘normal’ carpenters?
        Frankly, knowing Jed the way I do, I’m surprised that he remembers to get dressed every day, especially in the summer. He is definitely an Einsteinian character, unusual and rare. You’re lucky to have worked along side him. I’m lucky to see him once a year.
        Gary

        Reply
  8. Dave Cooper

    I agree with all your points but suggest that those of your second paragraph should be added to the list.

    A commitment to learn and continuously improve must be demonstrated and reinforced in others to truly honor your craft. Something clearly evident in all you do.

    Thanks for another excellent article

    Reply
  9. Robert Current

    This article and the responses are right on the money.
    As a tradesman and contractor practicing this same advice has allowed our company to not only survive but prosper for 37 years and into the second generation.
    Amen,

    Reply
  10. ian stone

    I wholeheartedly agree with the comments made. Here in the UK the craft of carpentry and joinery, along with other trades, are seeing a decline in common manners and professionalism within the trade, be it the suppliers, or the trades person themselves.
    When I started my apprenticeship nearly 40 years ago, the foreman, often a tradesman at the top of their trade, used to wear a bowler hat and a tie with a collared shirt so every body knew who the master tradesman was.
    Also in the UK there is a entrenched class system. At one time a tradesman was viewed as an artisan. Such a status often enabled them to have humble but comfortable homes, and from what I can deduce from historic trade literature they were respected and respectable members of a community.
    Now in 2015 the work environment is entirely different. I was told recently that school leavers do not see carpentry as glamorous enough, preferring to pursue IT! I have experienced customers who look at you through their class-consciousness and have no respect for the skills, often acquired after years of practicing the art, just wanting a cheap job quickly. My reply to such comments is you can have a cheap job, a quick job, or a proper job, but not all three.
    I guess what i am getting at is if you honour the craft and that comes across being polite, professional, and helpful giving advise when requested and having testimonials from previous customers then you are in a position to sort the wheat from the chaff.
    I do look at some tradesman and just know from their appearance and the state of their vans that they are in it for a fast buck, with no passion in the finished job.
    We can and do stand out.
    ian southamptoncarpentry.com

    Reply
    • paddy

      I am going to tidy my van out after reading this article and your post Ian ha!

      Reply
  11. Drew

    I’ve been a looking at this site since day one, this my first response. I could not agree more, I wish more people would realize that we are a professional trade, but sometimes it is very discouraging to see what the industry looks like.

    We’re doing a substantial remodel currently and the “professional” that did the plans, left more spelling and grammatical mistakes than anyone could ever imagine. (it actually overshadows the huge dimension error!). The clients laugh about, all the tradesman that look at it are almost embarrassed He is, however, the respected professional and we’re just the carpenters, plumbers and electricians.

    Reply
  12. Kent Brobeck

    Gary, awesome stuff right there. I always think back to your words about tradesmen of yesteryear and how they where respected. It’s an honor knowing you.

    Reply
  13. Tim Uhler

    We find the same as the article. No swearing, look and act professional and listen to good music. We don’t play it low, but customers always like our music. Especially when we are playing Spice Girls :-)

    Reply
  14. Matt Flynn

    Great article and thanks for all you do for out craft Gray!
    I would add that WE ALL have done this to ourselves by not sticking up for ourselves and allowing ourselves to be used and abused for years. WE blame the economy or minorities or “hunger” for the position we think we are in. WE ALL have to stay professional as mentioned and say NO to builders, developers, designers and homeowners who don’t respect themselves or US!

    Reply
  15. alec milsttein

    Bravo Gary. Interestingly enough, I recently did a job for one of the Spice Girls here in Brentwood – NO music allowed on that job- per her request!!! This is just respectful conduct and me and my crew can be focused on our work. This gets through to the client louder than any music on the job.

    Reply
  16. Mike Schuler

    Great article. As a general contractor and finish carpentry specialist, I’d like to point to another great benefit of Gary’s advice about keeping the job site clean and organized: care is contagious! Many times I’ve fielded comments from subs about the neat conditions when they first step onto my job sites. When we create a professional atmosphere with our own daily habits, it spreads to everyone involved in the project — and when we do the opposite, it’s human nature that all but the best, who hold themselves to their own high standards no matter what, automatically downshift a gear or two…

    Reply
    • paddy

      I was just having this conversation with a builder today..he runs good sites, hoarding is good,signage is good, pedestrian doors have code locks and the sites are neat and tidy. he said it looks Right to the customers and trades work to a higher standard. good to be reminded to keep my end right

      Reply
  17. Lemke

    I like the article, I think this is only the tip of the iceberg though, I could go off, meaning society as whole/higher education. But to keep it in realm of carpentry, I think we are talking about your stereotypical construction worker compared to the often mistaken for carpenter. I don’t think a lot of workers, PM’s, GC’s, clients, engineers, designers, etc., have any idea that there is truly a craft or art to the trade so how can they respect it? How much does the old $ play into it? “They” will almost take that low bid every time not leaving much chance to run professionally. Kind of like what you eat is what you are. What you make is what you are. Get paid like S**, you are…
    I’m no angel, between slinging nails, life and kids, my truck can get a bit haggard and I might not shave everyday, try not to wear pants with big holes at least:)

    Reply
  18. Gene WIlls

    To all of you that agree with Gary,

    If you live near Southern Chester County in PA, I would like your contact information.

    I often need the services of a trades person that actually enjoys their trade and seeks to continually improve. It is very difficult to find someone that is a professional and isn’t afraid to work for someone that has done their homework.

    Gary,

    Wouldn’t it be great if the people that take the time to read ThisisCarpentry, JLC, Fine Home Building,…had a way to connect with each other. I have found that most of the “tradespeople” in my area have never heard of any of these resources. And, it is hard to find anyone that takes advantage of continuous learning opportunities. We need a searchable DataBase that contains professional tradespeople by location and services performed. What do you think?

    Reply
  19. Ger

    i really like the article. You got to dress the part to play the part! It like doing a great job for a client and not making sure the job site is clean. All they see is the mess. As far as I can see ye boys are light years behind in workwear over there. Here in Ireland even with the deepest recession in living memory, professional tradesmen are all wearing snickers workwear, costing more than a suit. No tradesman I know or work with goes to work wearing jeans.

    Reply
    • Bob Fankhauser

      Ger,

      I’m curious about the status of tradesmen across the pond. As I noted below, I think respect for everyone is very low in the US, but from what little I’ve seen, tradespeople are much more respected in Europe than the US. If my observations are accurate, what do you think has made the difference?

      It seems to me one factor might be that in the US, if you aren’t rich, it’s because you’re lazy; in Europe, there seems to be more recognition that it may be the luck of the draw or that you’re a sociopath like Berlusconi.

      Perversely, I think that might be because of the European history of “nobility.” In the feudal system, if you were born poor, you’d very likely die poor and everyone knew it was your heritage, not your ability or hard work that mostly determined your fate. In the US, there’s the assumption that we live in a meritocracy and if you really work hard, you’ll be richly rewarded.

      Now that Europe has mostly gotten rid of the “nobility,” I wonder if there’s more room for skill, honesty and hard work to pay off in respect.

      Reply
  20. Bill Thomas

    Good article as always.
    I do agree with you 100% but do remember when I could not afford a nice truck and wore pants with holes and a tee shirt. Fortunately that was many years ago.
    Perhaps it would be a good idea if you, Gary, contacted some of the other trade magazines and shared these thoughts. I say that because after reading you article I looked at several trade magazines, Deck Builder, JLC , and others, and except for Remodeling, all of the issues I saw with workers on the cover were wearing tee shirts.
    What does this say to the workers that read these magazines?
    I said that you should contact the other publications as you are a respected person in the same field as opposed to just a worker like myself. See if they will promote what you are saying by only using cover photos with professional looking workers. Perhaps it will inspire their readers to dress better.
    Keep up the good work.

    Reply
  21. Paul Buckel Jr

    Gary, excellent article. I used to have a shabby truck and it was embarrassing to have the homeowner run out to meet me with cardboard to catch the leaks. However, my reputation for good work and manners meant that I was only driving an old truck. I am amazed at the stories new customers tell me about previous contractors. Loud offensive music, cussing, horse play, liquid lunch, etc. It seams that society as a whole is declining and this is just another indicator. Many of the same bad qualities can be found in other professions. Doctors without bedside manner to journalists that can’t construct a proper sentence. This is a great opportunity for us to stand out however sad it may be.

    Reply
  22. Chip Kiper

    What is so bad about the tee shirt? I mostly work in Leavenworth, Kansas for retired military officers. Grooming and mannerism much more important than a collared shirt. As a full service remodeler focused on historic homes, often finish the day covered in over one hundred years of filth. White logo tee shirts without holes tucked into pants seem professional enough for me. Should probably do something about the power steering pump in my van.

    Reply
  23. Ray ginsbury

    A very good article, but too bad it has to be written. There is an expected amount of respect when you first meet someone and shake their hand, but after that, it has to be earned and maintained. If I’m looking at a kitchen or bath remodel, I’d never open a cabinet or closet without asking if it was ok to do so first. Also, I try to use the customers bathroom as little as possible as its a personal space. Sweating the small stuff can make for a much better relationship which means repeat customer and references.

    Reply
  24. James Smith

    Fantastic article, Gary. I’m retired now but I must plead guilty to poor dress and a messy truck – neither one seemed to limit my business though. But these days people do expect more in terms of professional appearance and behavior and you are absolutely right that it makes a difference between getting a job and wondering why the phone doesn’t ring as much.

    Do you still use that worm drive SkilSaw?

    Reply
  25. Jim Coshow

    Great article, Gary. Thanks for your continued efforts to set the bar high!

    Reply
  26. Bob Fankhauser

    I agree w/ Gary in general. You have to respect yourself if you want your clients to respect you.

    However, I want to add a couple of points.

    I was talking to the lady in Millwork at my local HD the other day & she said, “Ya know, it’s amazing how many contractors make a living off the work of other contractors.” Those carpenters (plumbers, plasterers, electricians, masons, drywallers, painters, tile setters) that Gary talks about were professionals- as he says, they served an apprenticeship and weren’t turned loose on the public until they knew their trade. That doesn’t happen much on any formal level any more. There are some unions that still have apprenticeship programs, but they’re scarce. There aren’t many trade schools any more either. So, lack of professionalism, both in style and performance, earns us some disrespect.

    And that brings me to my second point- there’s not a lot of respect for anybody in society any more. The lawyers don’t respect us, the bankers don’t respect us, the politicians don’t respect us, the cops don’t respects us, and we, in turn, often don’t respect them. Sometimes that’s because they’re not doing a good job, sometimes it’s because we tar them all with the same brush.

    So, I think we need to insist on respect and respectability throughout our society. If the kid at McD’s does a good job, she deserves respect. If a teacher does a good job, he deserves respect. If a cop is respectful to suspects, she deserves respect.

    Be the respect you want to see.

    Reply
  27. B. C. Carter

    Thanks for the reminder to always bring your best game. All you’ve said can only work in favor of all trades people.

    I think having standards not only gives the right impression to others, but actually helps a lot with self-respect. There are jobs and days that can really challenge your confidence and judgement. If you have made a commitment to yourself you will face those knowing you can get through, and add to your skills and knowledge in the process.

    I admit, I have been on the other side. I never had any of the bad faults you mention. I never bring a radio, never smoked, and I’m always polite and well spoken. I always look for chances to inform those customers who are interested. But, there were times when my budget didn’t include a nice truck, and if I knew I would be spending a day crawling under a house I didn’t dress for something better. But I found that it didn’t make that much difference where it mattered. The people who will truly respect you can see the whole picture. Those who will always look at you as hired help seem to actually enjoy demeaning you, regardless of what they pay you or how professional you are.

    And by the way, carpenters still rate at or near the top in sex appeal. Another reason to keep your act together.

    Reply
  28. Scott Ross

    Thanks Gary, but the way I see it, every carpenter deserves their customer and every customer deserves their contractor. The truth is, if you want outstanding customers, behave outstandingly. And a final note, there will always be people in the trades circling the drain but don’t let appearances deceive you…I have seen wood butchers hiding behind new trucks and slick presentations while my friend “The Hippie” (picture this – too short cutoffs with tied dye t-shirts, a tiger striped truck and classic rock bouncing off the trees) does exquisite work for customers who love him.

    Reply
  29. Paul Wahler

    I enjoyed the article and the many positive comments. I would like to second the mention of other tradesmen besides carpenters. A lot of what’s wrong with the public today is a lack of respect for trades of all types. The education-industry complex has fooled everyone into believing that the only way to “succeed” in this country is to go to college. That is just plain bull…. There are lots of ways for a person to be educated and there is no reason to dis-respect a whole category of hard working people just because they get their shirt dirty every day (collared or not). Bring back “shop class” education to our high schools and expand hands-practical education in community colleges and even full colleges.

    Reply
  30. Russell Martin

    I disagree with Mr Katz. One can point out the bad apples in any profession – lawyers and doctors have plenty of them. The article is an over-simplification which reduces the lack of respect to lack of professionalism. I wish Gary Katz would expand on his comment that his mother could not have been more in tune with society. Our society does not value our skills, it does not value craftsmanship (on the whole). Why we (tradespeople) are at the bottom of the vocational status latter I’m not completely sure. I don’t think it is because of our T-shirts or how we blow our nose. (“If our industry has a problem with respect, it’s our own fault”). It has to do with the fact that our society does not respect jobs of real importance. Like teachers or farmers or anyone who does manual labor. President Obama has publicly declared that the key to our future prosperity is more high-tech jobs. Not quality designed and built infrastructure, not homes that are well built, not good food, not better education. Of course he is wrong; everyone’s job is valuable, every job that needs to be done needs to be done well.
    The article is still a good one – we need to focus on “professionalism” – it just misses the mark on why working with your hands is not respected by society.

    Reply
  31. Rich Dowd

    Amen to all. I’m a solo handyman, in my 13th year of this second career. I came from a “white collar” world where professionalism is SOP. But when I apply that same attitude to my “blue collar” craft it makes me stand out like a sunflower in a soybean field.

    Reply
  32. Barry Shepard

    This article speaks volumes on the trades person of today. If you want to make good money you can’t give a potential customer any reason to feel uncomfortable with you. Sometimes your trades person and designer , which I just love , because I then become the expert in my field. Good reviews help and mine are so clean you could eat off of them. I’ve done some extras as well, nothing elaborate, and if for no other reason than to follow what I believe to be right. Funny , but I was having this very same conversation with someone who teaches cabinetry at Cal State San Marcos just a few days ago.

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Barry,
      Thank you for your note! And all the notes from ‘like-minded’ choir members. It’s not really a difficult or hard concept to get your arms around. But please don’t think I’m a huge believer in any self-help stuff. I’m not. And respecting your customer and yourself isn’t going to save your business or instantly reap you huge profits, a wife who loves you, and kids who have no demands. There are no real secrets that anyone can tell you that spell the difference between success and failure in our business. So often success is luck and timing and learning along the way. So often failure can be avoided by humility. But far more often, our jobs are a simple struggle to try to satisfy customers who have little respect for you, who want more than their budget can possibly afford. That’s a typical lose-lose situation and we all find ourselves in those relationships from time to time, some not so often, others far more frequently. Though living a life defined by respect won’t change your business overnight, with long and steady effort, you will begin to recognize that the people you work for aren’t nearly as distasteful as you once thought they were or might be and they might even be paying you more than you could have gotten out of them before. So, respect does work. No question about it. But it works slow. And from the inside out, mostly.
      And by the way, who is the contact at the cabinet school in San Marcos??? Is it a good program?
      Gary

      Reply
  33. Anonymous in Virginia

    Great advice!! This is something that everyone should embrace, no matter what their profession is.

    I think a main reason for tradesman looking rough today is basically money. Those guys you saw at the restaurant are the ones that got the job after the owner saw several quotes. Their quote was probably the lowest or next to the lowest. Respectful craftsmen are expensive and you often only see them in million dollar dwellings because the budget allows them to be there. In my area this is common and I feel like it is throughout the country, customers are usually willing to endure the smoking/cussing crew if they get what they want for the price they want to pay.

    It is very frustrating to see this especially being on the crew that I’m on. I’m the only one that doesn’t smoke or leave a job site dirty; I’m constantly going after my boss to pick up his coffee/red bull containers and I have to literally run to put ram board down before the crew starts to demo old plaster straight onto finished hardwoods, haha. Mind you this is the highest pay I have received to date.

    Another factor is the common practice of giving free estimates. Company owners are over burdened with administrative tasks like these (among many others) so they are absent from the job sites and dependent on the employees to keep them updated.

    Lastly the old saying holds up: “Good help is hard to find”. Those guys you saw at the restaurant are the actually the better ones, haha: they didn’t get into fights, have DUIs, or do drugs. They are the ones still willing to work for the rate that was advertised and they know they can’t be replaced. There aren’t many people fighting for that position and those rates so the snot monster will remain, haha.

    I’m in no way defending their actions nor am I happy about the state of carpentry in the country but maybe this sheds some light as to why they are there and why the trend won’t stop until pay increases and people stop paying for bad carpenters. We can demand more money but if we lose jobs to those mentioned above; we won’t stay in business for too long.

    Reply
  34. Mike

    You can wear what clothes you want. You can conserve your speech and just turn off the radio. It doesnt mean you know quality work or have even seen it. The best plumber i have ever met, wore a potato sack to work and wrote the name of the company he worked for on the front with blue tape, while he was at a clients home. I thought it was a disgrace. He was not fired because his manifold work is something a billionaire would photograph and post on facebook, declaring, “my mechanical room looks like the starship enterprise.”

    I am a young carpenter, but have been in the business for 14 years. This industry has been raked over the coals long enough for me to know, price matters and nothing else does. I work on 12,000 sqft homes and 1500 sqft homes. It doesnt matter what job i am on, windows are not plumb or square, drywall is not screwed off, the spray foam company always finds a way to crown the jambs. The exterior doors are hing bound by the time i have to trim them.

    I spend most of my days troubleshooting. Meaning i have to fix the work left for me prior to me performing my task. And, if i cant perfect the trim on a 6 window conglomerate, which are not plumb square or even in plane, i get hell. And i am talking half inches.

    I am a perfectionist, yet i find it hard to be proud of my work when no one else cares. My crew and i claim from time to time, ” no one has shown this home any love.”

    I am an interior trim carpenter, i have been doing interior trim carpentery for at least 40 hours a day for the last year. My pay is based upon time spent doing my job, not how i present myself. My respect for the job is fixing the subpar work of the subs and making it look reasonable without losing my temper.

    Reply
  35. Josh Briere

    Great article Gary thank you for this. I have found that for a large majority of the clients I meet for the first time I am being judged by my appearance rather then by my work or pricing. Some people are more concerned about who they are letting in their home and around their family, rather then how good the work will be. I see some contractors licensed and unlicensed walk on to the job with holes in their work books and raggy old tshirts with weld burns, smelling like cigarettes and sweating beer out from the night before writing their estimate on a office max template. Those guys win bids based on their pricing usually and do not profit. I used to be that guy so I know, well not that extreme but I was a little rough, you know what I mean. A while ago I started to take my craft more seriously. Partly because of JLC and this site. I really do have a love for this trade and can’t see myself doing anything else, so I figured I need to start acting like it and dress the part. I do not go over the top but I got my business in order and started to dress like the owner of a company. Amazing how when I knock on the door and I am wearing clean boots (separate from my work boots) a collared shirt with my company logo on it, business card in hand with a license number on it how much more serious I am taken by clients. It’s really is worth noting how differently people interact with me. I open up a printed book portfolio and my laptop with my website on it and start my consultation. You build value on your initial first meeting and clients are willing to pay a little extra to feel confident and comfortable by hiring a professional I’ve come to find out.
    Basically the small investment in me and my business, the change in dress and the positive attitude adjustment has made me a higher percentage in bids won and higher profits. It could be just me but I feel like when I have the appearance of a professional I seem to act more professional in all my affairs. By having that sense of professionalism, my work seems to have changed for the better and my days go by easier with less stress. Funny how much our attitudes affect everything in our lives.

    Reply
  36. Roy

    This trade is not about making the perfect cut or posting pictures in forums of some “interesting crown mold” you did or that tricked-out dutch hip with different pitches. This is about service. Customer service.

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Roy,
      I’m in complete agreement…sort of. I think it’s about both, which means it’s about one thing: respect. Respect the trade and the craft, respect the customer, respect yourself. Pretty simple.

      Reply
  37. Rick Seigmund

    Great article Gary,

    It’s interesting reading through all the comments, there are a few themes running through.

    Clients care only about price.

    Good help is hard to find.

    Apprenticeships are (mostly) a thing of the past.

    Gary’s article was mostly dealing with respect, and was well written and thought out. It was not meant to be the answer to all the ailments plaguing the trades.

    I believe that if these are issues we deal with in our work and on our jobs, then the problems are ours to face and correct. Here are some facts. Young men and women are no longer coming in to the trades. By far, the vast majority of them are headed off to a four year degree program, the promise of a diploma, and around $32,000.00 in student loan debt on average upon graduation. Want to know what is missing for many of them? Paying jobs. Estimates say between 30% an maybe up to 50% are moving back home with mommy and daddy with no gainful employment to go into. The others that are finding work are making an average of $15.00/hour with 80% woking at a job that doesn’t require that nice new diploma.

    Ok, so what is going on with the trades (which our beloved carpentry is part of)? The average age of tradesmen in the United States is 55 years old or older.

    Here is what this means.

    Harvard has done studies on industries, and has found that when the average age in any industry or business reaches 35 years old or older, that is an industry in decline and dying.

    This means that within five to ten years from now, all of these highly experienced tradesmen, with their knowledge, tradecraft, skill, and credentials will begin leaving the workforce. WHO will build houses, repair HVAC, electrical, fix roads, patch roofs, weld, you name it?

    Because, you can’t drive a nail from China, right?

    Ours is an industry in decline. Look around next time you go pick up materials. Look at the age of the other contractors and tradesmen. I’ve got the grey hair also, just like so many others out there. Most likely, so do you.

    It is up to us to change this. If our clients have a low view of the trades, do what Gary says, and begin with respect. Beyond that, we have to take the time to educate them. Low wages equal low quality. I have never been the least expensive bid, yet I have almost always had more work than I could handle.

    If good help is hard to find, go into the schools and begin educating the next generations. We have to show them what a successful business looks like. We have to show them the benefits of working with your hands AND your mind. Change the definition of success for them, their teachers and their parents.

    Apprenticeships and vocational school gone the way of the dodo bird? We have to find ways to begin mentoring and teaching. Seriously, no one else is going to do it. Europe does have systems that work, and work well. Time to begin to study what works and bring it to your community.

    We have to take this next project on. If we don’t our businesses, and even our industry is at risk of fading away.

    Just my two cents.

    Reply
  38. David Van West

    Gary-
    I am a HVAC / Electrical contractor, here in Southern California. The majority of my work is residential.

    The three main customer complaints I have heard over and over are:

    1. “They don’t show up when they say they would.”

    This maybe a complaint heard more often by service contractors, such as plumbers and HVAC technicians, than carpenters. But the point is, Value Your Customers Time and in turn they will value yours. If your going to be late, call. Its pretty simple.

    2. “They don’t clean up after themselves.” Or- “They left a mess.”

    Respect your customers property. Don’t stand on the couch to reach a register, don’t walk in with dirty boots, use a drop cloth, vacuum & clean up when you are done. Or in some cases, use a dust collector while you work.

    3. “They don’t act professional.”

    Wearing an offensive shirt, not keeping clothes clean or free of rips holes, etc., swearing, smoking in a non-smokers house, and lack of personal hygiene all diminish a professional persona and subsequently, your credibility with the customer.

    I’ve managed to address, with reasonable success, these three areas of home owner concern. Because of this, I have not gone without work. EVER. The only “advertising” I do is a newsletter twice a year, to my existing customers. Referrals are my only source of new customers.

    And one additional note, I am not the lowest bidder, EVER, but manage to have more offers and requests for work than I have time to accept.

    Dave

    P.S. I thank you for your crown molding installation presentations. They helped with my success in completing the crown molding in the bedroom, and I blame you for my wife’s request to install it in the remaining rooms of our home!

    Reply
    • Kurt J

      Add – Be honest, If you make a mistake admit it. If you can’t make it to a job, tell them. Don’t promise to start a job in two weeks if it will be a month. Just be honest and clients will understand and give you space, lie -get caught, and they will never trust you again.

      Reply
  39. glenn bechtel

    when i was at 5 sitting at dirt piles watching the guys building houses, i was like a mascot the carpenters called me oscar. long story short i ended up taking carpenter shop in high school remodeling neighbors attics at 15 years old. after high school ended up at williamson college of trades.

    Reply

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