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One Craftsman’s Thoughts On Traditional Carpentry and Work Ethics

Posted by Shawn McCadden on Thu, Mar 27,2014 @ 06:00 AM

Mike Ushka


Guest Blogger: Starting his working career in the mid 1970’s, Mike Ushka is lifelong craftsman.   Mike has spent the better part of nearly 40 years dedicated to traditional American carpentry and building.

Today Mike spends most of his time facilitating residential remodeling in Fairfield County Connecticut.

In this guest blog Mike shares his history and his thoughts regarding craftsmanship and work ethics.


One Craftsman’s Thoughts On Traditional Carpentry and Work Ethics

Having come from descendants of the 18th and 19th century, I was given the privilege of a mechanical upbringing that was rich in history.  Not to be confused with what we know today as "The Yankee Craftsman" who has every tool and vehicle that NASA can muster at his fingertips to get a table built.  I am referring to classically trained carpenters who are well seasoned, with an appreciation and respect for their craft.   Carpenters with an understanding of why things are done the way they are, and how they used to be done before battery powered yellow tools took over.

Old Time Craftsman being lostMy Great Uncle's brother was a custom wood worker and built everything from tiny jewelry and cigarette boxes with minute inlay and detail, to a full spectrum of furniture and woodworking.  He built his shop in the cavernous basement of an ancient brownstone five blocks from the harbor in Philadelphia. In this shop he had every true carpenter's tool of the day including an entirely leather belt driven coping lathe that he built himself.  Every tool had a place and there was a place for every tool, all sharp, oiled and at the ready. From my uncle I learned the necessary task of stone sharpening; honing the edges of every tool, from chisels and planes.  I also learned how to sharpen each tooth of a circular blade and the art of "setting" the teeth of each handsaw in the shop, positioned teeth down and stacked front to back in the handmade wooden tool boxes that cuddled every tool.

I started my first paying job when I was nine years old in the early 70's.  I was clearing lots to build homes by the time I was thirteen, having become fluid with the chainsaw and sharpening the chains by eye without a jig.  By fifteen I was framing houses after school and on weekends, nailing off plywood and sheathing by hand, sharpening the "non-carbide" circular saw blades, hatchets and chisels by hand every night at home before returning to work the next day.

At that time the jobs at hand were conducted as poetry in motion.

There was no wasting of time as there were only so few minutes in the day.  Each minute was precious as this was our livelihood.  Once on site to frame or trim a building the job was set up in minutes. Pouches on, saws and hammers in motion, there was no time wasted. If you had to move it was for a purpose and you never left your work area or task unless every possible thing that could be done was complete; and then some. By the time I was seventeen and out of trade school I was into full blown house construction.  My skills as a fine wood worker had peaked and the jobs ran seamlessly.

Traditional CarpentryEventually the first miter boxes, buck saws and smaller radial arm saws arrived and we started to move away from the hand tools like the Yankee screw driver, the brace and bit and the miter knife. We started to use nail guns, carbide blades and a plethora of modernized tools to save time and money; not knowing that we would forever kill the "Traditional Carpenter".  I witnessed men become unwilling to use a hand tool.  They were unwilling to know, understand or simply feel the joy of building something you hoped would be there forever, built with your own two hands. Those days are gone.

We now live in the care free age of “get to work late” and chat over “five buck coffees’

If the nails won't set, the gun must be broken (send it out to fix it.)  “I can't do it yet the screw gun is still charging...If the miter is close just caulk it...I can't work the power is out...I need a table saw to rip that stud...Who has the hammer?...The header must be level...The floor must be level...I can only work eight hours, you can't make me work more than 8 hours...where's the laddervator?  Step flashing?  It's not my job to clean up after myself”--AND SO ON !?!?!


Best of both worlds

Building without power tools

As an experiment a few years back I decided to take a modernized crew and show them the light. The only power tools I allowed to frame a house were circular saws (without the $800.00 green attachments) and a sawzall (even I won't bitch about this as I hacked off a billion rafter tails with a hatchet as a kid.) The rest were hand tools. We not only finished the job in a fraction of the time with a much higher quality level, all the men had an earnest appreciation for not only what they had accomplished, but for themselves as well. They all went on to be better craftsmen, still working with the ethic that I had instilled in them that cold winter we built that house by hand.


Today I am a building and remodeling contractor enjoying the mature end of a proud career as I manage and consult in all levels of construction in New England.


Thank you for the opportunity to share this story and my opinions,

Mike Ushka Sr.

Topics: Worker Training, Guest Blogs, Opinions from Contractors