My dad was a general contractor, and he started out specializing in kitchen and bathroom vanity countertops. He was a young man then, maybe 30 years old. As I grew older, I remember him doing a diverse range of new tasks as his experience grew. One day I asked him how he learned so many things and how he became good at each and every skill. He said he only knew a set range of tasks, but hired out tasks that he has no experience in. One particular task got me thinking: I asked how he got the work if he told his customers he did not know how to perform the task. He grinned and said he told the customers that he was especially talented at exactly what they wanted him to do. As he left the estimate, he told me he would begin thinking of which person to call who had the skill needed to help him complete the contract.
I was amazed at how resourceful my dad was. I remember he was hired to install an electric water heater that was a large commercial 440/3-phase unit in a bar in Michigan, and not too many people find that as easy as it sounds. Well, Dad knew Bennie. Bennie had a 1971 Chevrolet station wagon filled with so many electrical wire spools and connectors that the rear end was in a permanent droop. Because of him, customers thought my dad was an expert at 440/3 phase, and over time, my dad was considered an expert on so many skills that I can’t count them all.
Today we have Youtube, cell phones and Facebook. Even better, we also have easy access to the NWFA, NOFMA literature, CFI, and factory reps for all the products we use—and we all know a verified expert of some sort at a highly technical level. In short, we have it good now.
I did not have time to learn everything before heading out on my own back in 1994, but I did my fair share of faking it before I became comfortable making my own way and speaking confidently to a customer on a new skill. I am more apt to admit I do not know a certain portion of our trade, because learning is so much more accessible now than ever before.
This all comes to a floor that I recently completed. When I look back on it, I appreciate the people I consulted in humility. They stood tall next to me (virtually) and got me through a rather difficult and new task I had never done before. It was a site-milled herringbone, and when it was done, the customer remarked over and over how commanding and beautiful the work turned out. Talk about relief on my part!
I had installed a prefinished herringbone–once, in 1995 or so. Back then I was super-green at this trade, and considering what I just went through, I have to believe my first herringbone was terrible in comparison. I had no one to lean on, no one to ask—not a single soul. It was a Lauzon product, and if you know that brand, you know how awesome their products are. I more or less relied on their good milling and let the herringbone take shape as I laid down more and more pickets. Somehow I got paid and did not have a single callback, but I would turn red with embarrassment if any Master I know saw it today, knowing what I know now about herringbone.
I began this project asking a ton of questions, and I have my friends in the industry and on Facebook to thank for it. Wayne Lee was instrumental in mentoring me through the project. I would text a single question, and he would call me back in two minutes or less and quiz me on fine details just to make sure I knew what had to be done. Impressing me with an extreme level of accuracy was just the beginning. He answered questions from milling the pickets to exacting standards of length, to more than one lesson (again) on the correct use of trammel points during layout. I watched the Youtube video of him and Daniel Boone so many times (over and over) that I lost count. Such a simple tool, and the wisdom on how to use them (which I never had till now) resulted in a perfectly balanced floor. Side to side, the dimension of the end pickets was the same (what a bonus, but I learned that was normal and expected!). You just know I showed the customer that balanced feature because it was a real prize.
Before I get too far, I have to tell you that I merely installed a herringbone in a standard way. I do not cut a board better than anyone, and if the truth be known, I am the lesser of all the Masters. The access I had to pros who know more than I do made all the difference. Where my dad used to rely on other people to perform a skill he did not possess, today we can “come up” and learn the skills ourselves more easily than ever before.
Toward the end of the herringbone project I admit I felt very tired. I was consumed by the exacting parts for so long that the last days seemed to drag on and on—but somehow I stayed in it. Now that it’s complete, any feelings of “burnout” do not exist. Perhaps in my case being challenged helped, so I have come to realize that I look forward to the next challenge to sharpen my skills. A picture I saw on line of a floor the pro called “chev-bone” comes to mind, but I know I have a wee bit more to learn before I can handle that. Maybe a chevron is next? I tell you the truth when I say the chevron pattern intimidates me to no end, but I do know who to call in case I land that project … 😊.
See all of Angelo DeSanto's popular blog posts and magazine articles here.