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A Carpenter's View

A Carpenter's View

PIECE WORKERS in the Construction Trades

comments (12) August 24th, 2010 in Blogs
redwing44 redwing44, Legendary author

Today, the San Fernando Valley looks a lot different than it did in 1950, when I first moved there and started building houses. We had 345 square miles of valley floor on which to build and 25 years of stored-up energy from the Depression and the big war to get on with the job.
Pacific Palisades, Calif. By 1951, I (left) had given up the Sears bib overalls, like those worn my brother Jim (right), in favor of jeans and a cloth apron, which allowed more freedom of movement. In the next few years, I would buy my first leather nail bags from a local shoe-repair shop.
State-of-the-art nailing in 1959. The first pneumatic nailer was the “walking nailer” made by Nu-Matic Nailer. After filling the hopper with up to 500 nails, the operator slipped his foot into the loop and, walking along, fired nails as he went. A skilled operator could nailoff 7000 sq. ft. in a day and, according to the brochure, could work on roof pitches up to 6-in-12.
Today, the San Fernando Valley looks a lot different than it did in 1950, when I first moved there and started building houses. We had 345 square miles of valley floor on which to build and 25 years of stored-up energy from the Depression and the big war to get on with the job.Click To Enlarge

Today, the San Fernando Valley looks a lot different than it did in 1950, when I first moved there and started building houses. We had 345 square miles of valley floor on which to build and 25 years of stored-up energy from the Depression and the big war to get on with the job.

Photo: Dean Della Ventura


The Second World War caused a dramatic change in how and where we lived. For one, many veterans from the frigid parts of our country trained or passed through southern states and liked what they saw. I know it happened to my older brother, Jim. Come war’s end he, along with many thousands of other war vets, had no desire to return to their home states.

They found the mild climate in places like Southern California to be quite preferable to the harsh, long winters they experienced as young men and women. This, along with plentiful jobs, caused a massive movement of people relocating from north to south.   

In the span of 15 years after the Great War nearly 750,000 people moved into the San Fernando Valley alone.

This migration, in the late 1940s and 1950s resulted in a demand for housing unparalleled in our history and was a major cause of the revolution in construction that took place (FHB 177, p 96-101). Everything had to change. Tools, methods, and materials that were used in the construction trades from the time of the Civil War had to be laid aside in order to meet the housing needs of these on-the-move veterans and their families. Endless numbers of new houses needed to be built rapidly.

Better than a handsaw. In 1951, I got my first power saw, a scary-looking sidewinder with no lower guard, made by Sioux Tools. Within a year, I switched to a Skil Model 77 worm drive, which became standard equipment for California tract builders.

A new generation of tools -- The old building methods, many of the materials, and even the razor sharp tools in every carpenter’s kit that had been handed down from father to son were fast becoming museum pieces. The handsaws that had been used by many generations of carpenters were replaced by the power saw. Braces holding bits for drilling holes in wood members were laid aside for the electric drill motor. Short-handled 16 oz. hammers were replaced by long-handled 22 oz. California framing hammers.

Then air operated nailguns allowed carpenters to leave their hammer hanging from their nail belt. The wooden folding ruler was replaced by a retractable metal tape. Jeans became the work uniform of the day rather than the white, bib overalls with their numerous pockets to hold a variety of tools and nails.

The traditional tools worked great to craft one-house-at-a-time. They were inadequate when we were charged with building five hundred in a row.

A new generation of carpenters -- One of the unforeseen results of this need for mass production was that we carpenters became specialists instead of generalists. I was trained by master carpenters. They taught me how to build an entire house. We dug the trenches, set batter boards and foundation forms, mixed and poured the concrete, framed the house, installed the siding and roofing, and completed the building process until the last door was hung and the last cabinet built and installed. Our foreman then handed the key to the new owners. We were general carpenters and contractors, but believe me, “The times they were a changing.”

posted in: Blogs, framing

Comments (12)

Thomas_McKibben Thomas_McKibben writes: hello my name is Thomas McKibben and i am in a Technical School called Commonwealth Technical Institute in Johnstown PA and i am studying building maintenance and we have watch all your videos we are a big fan and we your instruction on framing roofs, floors and stairs, walls and i was wondering if u can do us a big favor i was wondering if u can come and give our class a lecture on your career we would really appreciate your presents in our school you can email me @ we would be really grateful
Thomas McKibben
Posted: 1:33 pm on January 13th

lowfiron lowfiron writes: Good concise history.
I started in 1970 in Westlake-Thousand Oaks racking horses for Rodger Wiggins, a roof cutter. I did the apprenticeship and stacked then cut and rolled a ton of truss.
Even coming in late it was an interesting time. Hippies were becoming carpenters!!
Look forward to more history.
Posted: 7:30 pm on November 8th

EKDesign EKDesign writes: Great post, Larry! In our design/build remodeling business we try to take advantage of some of the innovation and efficiency of specialization while creating very custom kitchens and baths. We do this by focusing on design and project management (our specialty) and hiring specialized subs when possible. It beats trying to do everything yourself, but the level of efficiency you describe must have been amazing!
Posted: 1:15 pm on October 19th

TheTimberTailor TheTimberTailor writes: Great history lesson, Larry. Nicely done. My feelings and observations trend with richard904 and my livelihood as a carpenter/ contractor depends on the demand for diverse abilities. People looking for "one-stop shopping" in their contractor. Interesting how demand seems to be coming around, full circle.
Looking forward to more of your posts.

The Timber Tailor
Posted: 10:16 pm on September 19th

ragsandbones ragsandbones writes: Great article, Larry. This is a history few know and it is important it be preserved. Please write more, especially about your personal experiences of the post war boom in California and the change to production framing methods. As the division of labor became more differentiated, what was your specialty? In a way, I think perhaps carpentry became more democratized as the exclusive 'master-craftsman' mentality of the trade unions was replaced by the pieceworker phenomenon. Keep up the good work, Larry.
Posted: 10:30 pm on September 12th

konajeff konajeff writes: Thank you, Larry. Ill bet there isn't a day that goes by without my having not applied one of your techniques in homebuilding. Your mastercrafstmanship is reflected in your ability to teach and inspire. Equally interesting to hear your recollection of the evolution of homebuilding. Mahalo, Jeff
Posted: 6:46 pm on August 30th

richard904 richard904 writes: Times have changed so much. Now the homeowner is looking for very good handymen or master carpenters of old to do renovation, weatherization, and other custom modifications. This history is excellent to sketching how a "piece work" era after the war came into place, and now we are seeing the real end of that era and maybe the destruction of the new home market. It is not a pleasant time. Maybe we will begin to see the resurgence of the "master crafts-person" and many home owners like me will finally have access to talent and resources.
Posted: 12:10 pm on August 30th

Dadzor Dadzor writes: This is an intriguing glimpse into the era you refer to as well as the methods used. I agree with Spinosa2. If you ever get around to writing it, I will gladly purchase a copy of the book. Don't forget the pictures. They really help tell the story.


Posted: 11:51 am on August 30th

WeRemodel WeRemodel writes: I was working with my son on the wife's car yesterday and was pleased that he, with a degree in poli-sci, still knew how to work a spring compressor. Passed on from father to son. He then told me he was buying a house and needed help on the remodeling of same. Adding a second story. Passed on from father to son. In this day and age of instant communications and specialization, it is comforting to know how we got here and how to live self-sufficiently.
Posted: 10:59 am on August 30th

spinoza2 spinoza2 writes: This really needs to be developed into a full-length book on the history of the building boom in California, one that ties together the social history with the development of revolution in housebuilding. Only someone with your hands-on experience would have the knowledge of putting this together, a university-trained historian wouldn't have this kind of intimate knowledge. I should know, I'm a university-trained historian who happens to have built my own house!

But I loved the post, we need a lot more of this. If you can talk Taunton Press into backing a history of this kind, I'd be more than willing to assist with the project, it would make a terrific book.
Posted: 9:07 am on August 30th

baltimoreguy baltimoreguy writes: Awesome blog post, Larry. I'm here on the east coast with lots of older houses that are in need of attention and where the skill sets has to be broad and deep to handle what needs to get done if it is to be done properly. While there is still production building going on, there is heaps of renovation and remodeling where assembly line skills aren't enough. The trouble is, there is very few skilled tradesmen left. The work turns?
Posted: 11:21 pm on August 27th

JFink JFink writes: Excellent storytelling, always. Please keep it coming!
Posted: 11:29 am on August 25th

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