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Book Review: From the Top Plates Up

If you’re building today you’ve probably succumbed to the demands of the ubiquitous smartphone, being assaulted with job-related texts, emails, and notifications—not to mention Instagrams from Mike Guertin and tips from Gary Katz on THISisCarpentry.

As much as I love technology, it can be a relief to take an afternoon off, and just hold and read a book. This is exactly what I did when my roof framing expert and friend, Will Holladay, emailed me asking if I would review his latest book, “From the Top Plates Up: A Production Roof Framer’s Journey.”

(Note: Click any image to enlarge)

Longtime readers of FHB, JLC, and TiC might have already seen Will’s articles, books, or videos on roof framing, including: A Roof Cutters’ Secrets to Framing the Custom Home, The Complicated Roof–A Cut and Stack Workbook, and Roof Framing for the Professional.

Those books did our trade a needed service by explaining in clear sketches, photos, and words, the mind-bending geometry needed to understand how to frame simple to complex roofs.

The “Framers Journey” isn’t a how-to book, rather it’s a “where I’ve been, and how I got there” story, told by a true carpentry legend. Holladay has been roof framing for over 40 years, and he covers a lot in this lengthy narrative. However, like a 50-lb. box of 16-d common nails, the book is “parallel packed for your convenience”, with a table of contents that lets the reader grab a handful of stories and anecdotes of interest and leave the rest in the box. Want to know how the Hart brothers created the modern framing hammer, or how to modify a Skilsaw 77, Will was there, and he tells you. Or better, share with your crew Will’s 10 Commandments of Skilsaw Use.

Chapter titles include: One Swing, One Nail—the art of the hammer; The Making of a Framing Crew; Roof Cutters—a flash in time (the history of production roof cutting); Framing is a Street Fight—treating and avoiding jobsite injuries; and more. Will Holladay is one of my construction heroes, and his book, if nothing else, gives tradespeople a close look at someone who proudly took his profession to new levels.

A note from the publisher:

These days, it isn’t often that you’ll see an article by Craig Savage. Craig authored the first contemporary book on finish carpentry: Trim Carpentry Techniques (Taunton, 1998). Like a lot of carpenters in the late 1990s and first decade of the next century, I was deeply influenced by Craig’s book. I was also influenced by Larry Haun’s books and videos. In fact, if you haven’t read Larry’s last book, A Carpenters Life, you should, regardless of your age.

Will Holladay is a ground-breaking author and production/custom roof framer from the same generation as Craig Savage and Larry Haun. Countless carpenters have cut their teeth and their roofs from lessons learned reading Will’s books. In his latest book, From The Top Plates Up, rather than more roof cutting instruction, Holladay provides a rich historical narrative—from trucks to tools to techniques—of what life was like for carpenters from the 1970s through the turn of the 21st century.

You may not shim the guard back on your circular saw, you may not use a suicide or sidewinder blade, but trust me, you’ll be interested and entertained by the techniques used on framing crews from that period.

And along the way, you’ll certainly pick up techniques that you’ll find useful today.

So much has changed in construction, and so quickly, making From the Top Plates Up an invaluable record of our industry—saving what might otherwise be lost, and helping us learn from the past.

• • •
AUTHOR BIO

Craig Savage has a 50+-year construction-focused work history that includes carpentry, contracting, construction writing and editing, magazine publishing, building education and training, tradeshow production, and marketing and sales. But residential construction and better building practices are the threads that weave through his entire work life.Craig began his career doing construction demolition, where as a three-year old he hammered a hole in the party wall between his house and his grandmother’s. In high school, he repaired apartment units—mostly learning to caulk and repair toilets—and then put himself through college framing houses on the steep cliffs of Laguna Beach. Then, like many hippies, Craig felt compelled to forego his father’s business, and moved to Sandpoint, Idaho to “get back to the land.”

After a brief, but unsuccessful, stint as a marijuana grower, Craig remodeled houses, and built custom homes for the next 20 years. It was during that period that he was introduced to craft, subscribing to Fine WoodworkingFine Homebuilding, and Journal of Light Construction magazines.

But, as they say, “those that can’t do, teach,” so when he wasn’t building or remodeling, Craig published two construction-computing newsletters, wrote two construction books, and traveled the country teaching construction office automation at conferences and trade shows such as IBS, AIA, Remodelers Show, EEBA, and more. Moving sideways, but always focused on best building practices, he began an editing career at The Journal of Light Construction magazine. Because he was a terrible editor (just ask Sal Alfano or Clayton DeKorne), Craig was “elevated” to VP of Sales where he helped the magazine add the (then unique) social website jlconline.com, and invent an interactive, demonstration-driven trade show, JLC LIVE. It was at JLC where Craig got to meet many of the construction-craft heroes now recording and transferring their knowledge through THISisCarpentry. Next, Craig did a short stint selling and producing show houses for BobVila.com. In 2002, he helped start and run Building Media Inc., an online construction training company.

At the age of 70, Craig retired for 3 weeks, and is now involved in the construction of affordable, disaster recovery housing in the Florida Keys, Santa Rosa, CA, Antigua/Barbuda, and seemingly anywhere the next natural disaster strikes. When he’s home in Santa Barbara, CA, Craig works out of a 9 x 12 shop, mostly using restored antique hand saws, planes, and chisels to build furniture pieces. But if truth be told, he enjoys (scary) sharpening his chisels more than using them…and he splits the rest of his spare time teaching two grandsons how to do demolition.

Comments/Discussion

3 Responses to “Book Review: From the Top Plates Up”

  1. kathryn Schneider

    Sounds like a truly remarkable look at tried & true techniques and practices. I’ve always wondered if East Coast and West Coast mindsets align at least in regard to construction techniques.
    Or for that matter, North & South – there seems to be regional preferences in carpentry.
    If anyone would like to expand on this or comment. I’d love to hear your perspective on it.

    Reply
  2. Chip Phipps

    Love seeing the modified skills from our past. Have not seen a dado saw in quite a while and all of my sidewinder blades are in exile, hiding in my shop from cal osha. Last year I purchased a flop table modified from a skill 825. It was built in the 80’s by Jim Boston, one of the best residential carpenters in so. cal. from that time frame. He was a true craftsman that we lost way to soon.

    Reply
  3. Mike Guertin

    Don’t stop reading when you see “Note from the Publisher” and “Author Bio”! They are integral parts of this article. In addition to reading ‘From the Top Plates Up’ I’m hoping to someday read a similarly themed ‘journey’ book by Craig Savage. He’s another intriguing champion for residential construction, tradecraft workers and skills knowledge.

    Reply

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