All I Ever Wanted to Be Was a Carpenter
A former editor gets back to his roots by becoming a tradesperson once again.
It was in third grade when I realized I wanted to be a carpenter. One Friday afternoon in the spring, a truck from Gardener’s Lumber showed up and delivered a stack of lumber in our driveway. My father was going to enclose our side porch and extend our kitchen into the space. Even from inside the house the smell from the fir and pine was alluring. I was never so excited for a weekend. I had visions of working alongside the old man, turning that pile of lumber into part of our house.
But I was too young to be more help than hindrance. Despite my protests, Mom sent me to my friend Butch’s house on Saturday, and, after a battle royal, to Sunday school the following morning. I’ve rarely had a more disappointing weekend. The situation improved by fifth grade, when I was allowed to spend a weekend mixing concrete for the foundation of one of Dad’s serial additions. Going to school on Monday, I knew I’d done a man’s work. I had never felt better about myself. There would have been a spring in my step had I not been half-crippled with pain from muscles whose very existence I only discovered that weekend.
At twenty, I dropped out of college and became a carpenter. Banging nails fed me and my family for fifteen years. I only left the trade because, through a chain of events that surprised me more than anyone, Fine Homebuilding’s long-time editor Kevin Ireton offered me a job. I had every issue of the magazine. It was my Bible, and Kevin its chief apostle. How could I say no?
I spent the next 22 years in media; mostly at Fine Homebuilding or Fine Woodworking, but also as a freelance author (Taunton’s Building Stairs and Carpentry Complete), and then as the editor of Professional Deck Builder magazine, and then back to FHB, and then managing the live-action clinics at JLC Live and The Remodeling Show.
There’s no denying that it’s been a pretty cool career, but for the last few years, I’d been restless. Work that I’d once loved had become mechanical and unfulfilling. Six months ago, I realized that what I knew about myself at 8 was still true.
All I ever wanted to be was a carpenter.
Last week, I gave notice at my corporate job and dusted off my Occidental tool belt.
You’re probably thinking, “What the hell, Engel? Why would you, at 57, want to be a carpenter again? Was corporate life so trying that you miss digging splinters out with a utility knife? Icicles hanging from your nose in the winter? Headaches at two in the morning from the summer’s heat? Are you even physically capable at your advanced age?”
I’ve asked those same questions.
Call me a masochist, but I miss the elemental discomforts of building – they’re what outdoor enthusiasts call Type 2 fun. Plus, I never really stopped being a carpenter. Since going to work for FHB in 1996, my wife and I built the house our family lives in. And the garage/shop/apartment/tractor shed that sits behind it. And we renovated the house in New Jersey where I grew up. And I mountain-bike, hard, a couple of times a week. That physical fitness, along with the knowledge gleaned from 15 years in the trades and two decades in the magazine world, ought to make me valuable as a carpenter, particularly given that the leading complaint I hear from builders is the lack of qualified help.
Mason Lord and Dave Seegers, the owners of Hudson Valley Preservation Corp. in Kent, Conn., agreed. Now, along with Ian Schwandt, I’ll be one of two lead carpenters working for HVP. The company specializes in old houses, and this part of New England has some of the oldest ones in the country. Mason, Dave, Ian, and I all come from diverse backgrounds, and I’m very much looking forward to learning from them.
This blog will be about a couple of things. One is the transition of a middle-aged man back into the trades. The second, probably more interesting part, will be about the cool projects I’ll get to work on. I hope you’ll check back in.