Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Here's something you shouldn't ask on a construction site:
"What's that smell?"

The nail guns (which are cool) operate with little CO2 canisters. So when someone's been shooting, or nailing, a strange but distinctive smell fills the room.
hhhmm, there it goes again: nailing fills the room with a distinctive smell.

Anyway, when I asked, they smiled and I almost clarified, "No, it smells like gas," when I realized that's why they were smiling. I guess if you had gas you could mask it with the nail gun smell.

Speaking of what to say, I have encountered some Hispanic workers on the job. My Spanish is very weak, limited mostly to menu items, counting to 12, and whatever else I remember from Sesame Street, like agua. I suppose I could say "Beunos dios, amigo. Que pasa?" But I'm nervous they would try to talk to me more in Spanish.
Any advice? I need to put in my daughter's Spanish language CD-ROM I guess.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Trying to reconstruct myself as a full-time working single mom hasn’t been an easy transition. Like the kitchen remodel I’ve been assisting with, it seems I get a little closer to the finished product every day. Some days the changes are significant, like putting doors on the cabinets or installing new appliances. Some days it’s under cabinet trim and ceiling panels in the basement. It’s hard to be satisfied with baby steps when you have a vision of a beautiful finished product. But that is the only way to get from one place to another, isn’t it?

I did get to use my new favorite tool again today: the Fein tool. It’s fun and I like the smell it makes. I’m going to have to get one of those. (I don’t know what I would do with it at home, but I’d think of something.) I also got more practice with caulk today. The secret of doing a good job when sealing cracks is a damp finger. hhmm…

Two abstract tools needed for most construction jobs are math skills and patience. I had to calculate half of 355/8 inches. I could, but not in my head. I felt a little like the tin man in need of an oil can. You’ve heard that phrase, “measure twice, cut once.” Really it’s more like measure 5 times. I felt like my old jr. high math book come to life.

The patience comes into play when what seemed like a simple task, putting on drawer pulls in this case, becomes an ordeal. I say you should always double the estimated time for a job. We again had a cheap screw snap off, this time inside the hole of a drawer pull. An attempt to save the pull required a trip to the hardware store for a tool called a tap and die. Although that tool sounds like a frat house game, it was supposed to re-thread the hole once the broken screw was drilled out. That tool actually broke during use. Counting the trip to the hardware store it was easily an hour on one drawer pull that we still didn’t get on.

So more lessons from screws today.

· Did you know that there are adjustable length screws called snap-off screws? They can be as long or short as you need them. Convenient, huh?

· With special equipment, you can fix a screw-up – sometimes.

· And the following is good advice whether you are attaching door handles or starting a new relationship:
If you want everything to line up right in the end, you need to be careful how you measure things up, have some good cognitive skills, and maintain the patience and determination to finish the job.

Friday, February 24, 2006

I was wondering why this job has been so fun. Is it because it's new? Is it because it isn't my only option? Is it because I'm the only girl?

And I was wondering why it is so flirtatious. Is it me? Is it because I'm single? Is it just the guys I've worked with? Or is it because I happen to be in a job with so many phallic tools?

Would the experience be similar if I did this in say, the auto mechanic field? as an electrician? as a banker? as a miner? as a lawyer?

Would it be the same if I were married?

What do you think?

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Construction Girls, like any apprentice, sometimes get stuck with what can only be described as grunt work. If you are observant, however, lessons will still sneak up on you.

Yesterday I worked at a house that is still recovering from a major fire. What wasn't burned was water logged. Some of the dried out possesions had been heaped in the large furnace room along with various scraps from the rebuilding. A mountain of...stuff needed to be sorted into keep & toss, the toss pile needing to be compressed. It is interesting sorting through a strangers belongings. Some things were obvious keepers and some made you wonder what they were thinking. Some was clearly trash.

After sorting a heap of garbage about the size of a VW, the tiles on the floor needed scraped up since half of them were loosened already by the water damage. That was actually fun, permitted destruction - a chance to get out some frustrations. But the mountain of trash had to be moved from one side of the room to the other. The subsequent sweeping created a fine cloud of dust. I was happy I had put on gloves. I wished I had put on a mask, but kept thinking I wouldn't be in the dust for long.

That was a dirty day. I came home and showered and scoured. I was grateful I had thought to protect my hands, making them better for touching skin later. I thought I had scrubbed off all the dirt, until I blew my nose and realized I missed a spot. (Sorry, I know that was gross.)

So here's the lesson.
Construction Girls - and guys too - should always use protection.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Today I spent an hour driving around trying to get to a place to work. I went to the new job site, but took a couple of wrong turns getting there. When I finally found it, the guys weren’t there. They had cancelled because it was a windows job and it was snowing and raining today. So I called and they directed me to their next stop, but first they had to stop at the hardware store. I ended up taking a scenic drive through some farms to the next site. I saw a field covered with a fresh layer of snow where a flock of Canadian Geese were having their breakfast. I made a pit stop on my way and gave a lost woman directions back to the highway. I beat the guys to the jobsite, but fortunately had my laptop so I could start my daily blog.

So here’s what I learned today.
- You may start out your journey headed for one destination and realize that you are going in the wrong direction.

- When you try to reach an alternative destination, look around. There is probably something beautiful on the way that you will miss if you let frustration get the best of you.

- If you can help someone on the journey, then the wrong turns weren’t in vain.

- Be prepared to do some time waiting for things to start. You can’t always start when you want to or when you are ready. You have to wait for all the players to come together.

- You may end your journey at a completely different place than you expected, but enjoy the ride.

That was a little deep for Construction Girl. But there’s more to construction workers than meets the eye. That’s another lesson too, isn’t it?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

When I come home from work now, my kids meet me at the door and ask what I got to do today. Thanks to my new role as Construction Girl, I get to tell them cool things. I got to use a table saw. I learned how to edge band. I got to cut a hole in the ceiling with a keyhole saw. And I got to climb into the attic and throw insulation around. Of course when I tell them I add sound effects. Fern even exclaimed, "I want to be a Construction Girl too!"

Maybe if you've been doing this for years it isn't fun anymore. But after having a sedentary job, it is totally cool. It's so different from teaching because you can see your end product. As with any job, it helps to like the people you work with. Change is good. If you haven't had a change in a while, consider one.

Now I've just finished putting the Mom show to bed, I've poured a glass of wine and I want to tell you a few things I learned today.

Girls, you know sometimes when you need a hammer and you don't feel like running down to the garage so you use a shoe or some other improvisation, construction guys do that too, although they don't usually whip off their shoe.

I learned that compression nuts control the flow of water. (You're on your own with that one.)

While we were attaching cabinet drawer and door pulls, I was also surprised to learn something new about screws and hardware. Sometimes the hole the manufacturer bores into the hardware is off center, making the mounted hardware crooked. Some screws arrive from the manufacturer useless because the threads don't go all the way to the end or the little cuts in the head aren't deep enough for the screwdriver to grip.

So if the screw isn't working for you, it might not be your fault. Some screws are simply not meant to be. The sooner you throw out the bad screw and start over with a new screw the better.

I thought I knew some things about screws, but even at my age I find there is still so much to learn.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Here's a helpful construction tip for anyone working with a caulking gun in the winter. I was working with a product called Liquid Nails. Sounds like something a manicurist would use, although Construction Girls don't have silly fingernails. To use the product you first have to snip off the tip. If you have a cool gun, there's a little hole in the side that will snip the tip right off.
Once I loaded the gun with the tube of sticky adhesive, I squeezed the trigger but it would hardly budge. I tried squeezing with two hands, which made it difficult to hold the gun steady. I was afraid it was the first test of my strength as a girl on this job. Although I wished I didn't have to, I had to let Don try to squeeze out the adhesive. He too had difficulty.
Here's why.
In order to make the sticky paste squeeze out smoothly, you have to heat up the cylinder first.
I guess I already knew that.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

My original agreement about working on the job sites was that I'd do it when my kids were in school. Tomorrow they're off, but I'm hiring a babysitter. (Thanks Eve!) It's great to have a job that's so cool you don't want a day off. If you don't have a job that is that cool, I'm sorry for you. Maybe you should work on that.

One of the days last week we had a bit of a delay because we had to wait for some sub contactors to finish sanding the drywall. The sanding is such a mess that we had to wait until they finished. So I took the opportunity to photograph some of the tools for the future web site.

Stan, being the helpful gentleman that he is, was happy to show me his tools. (I know, we all laughed too!) He opened a tool box of plumbing tools and laid them out, naming them as he went. I asked what each was for until at one point he had to say "tightening nuts." Boy do I need one of those! When he pulled out two other widgets, or hoochies as he likes to call widgets, he was still blushing from the previous double entendre. I asked what the widgets were and his blush deepened.

"You know," Stan said stepping back from the tools like they were stolen merchandise he didn't want his fingerprints on, "I'm not even going to tell you what they're called. You'll have to wait and let Don tell you." Isn't he a sweetie?

Don't you know, I was so distracted by the fun photo shoot that I forgot to ask Don what they were called. I'll have to ask tomorrow.

I don't know if the job I go to tomorrow will be at the same kitchen remodel or the same crew. That's been fun and I like the guys, but it would be fun to get on a site that involves a little plumbing. Just think of the writing material about pipes and nuts!

Saturday, February 18, 2006

I've noticed that many construction boys have tatoos. Construction Girl is considering one.

What hardware tatoo should Construction Girl get? I'm thinking two screwdrivers crossed like swords.

Let me hear your ideas.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Yesterday I did not get to go to my kitchen remodel job because my kids were home from school. So I took the time to re-compose my first blog. For those of you who saw the original, I hope I got it close. In future blogs, I will resist the old English teacher impulse to correct everything. So there will be typos. I just have to learn to live with that. Hopefully you don't care.

I wanted to tell you one of the highlights of my day on Thursday. I was watching Don puzzle together the trim that goes around the cabinets at the floor in this soon-to-be-beautiful kitchen. It was like one of those geometry word problems come to life, trying to get the right angles to fit seemlessly together.

On the last section "we" were working on, the panel under the cabinets called the toe-kick had to have a hole cut in it for the air vent. There was a hole, but it had to be cut higher so the piece of trim would fit in under the vent cover. (Hopefully you all can picture what I'm talking about.)

Since it was in a place that you could only see by lying flat on your stomach in the kitchen, I got to make the cut in the wood. The tool I would be using was one that I had seen Stan and Don use before called a Fein Tool. (My apologies to the Fein family for calling it a fine tool in a previous blog. It is a cool tool.)

I was nervous. That tool really vibrates in your hands and I was close to these beautiful cabinets. I wasn't sure I could hold it steady enough. But Don had helped me mark exactly where I needed to cut and assured me I could do it. (Thanks Don.)

And I did. It was cool. But I had to lay down flat on my stomach with the side of my face pressed to the floor. This is the point where I knew I needed a Construction Girl bandana. I also learned that Construction Girls are dirty girls. That's what you get when you lay down on the kitchen floor with a carpenter and his power tools.

So without Don or Stan or the electrician noticing, I saved the 10 inch piece of wood I trimmed off to show my mother later. She would be so proud of me. I had worried about my self-imposed censorship of this blog because I knew my mother would be reading it. She put me at ease after I published my first blog by saying, "So now you are a professional screwer." You see, this dirty Construction Girl comes by it honestly.

I love you Mom!

Thursday, February 16, 2006

I may learn some construction skills quicker than I learn blogging skills. I went to edit my original post and seem to have lost half of it. And it had all the funny double entendres!
So if I can't find it, I'll have to recreate it. shoot.

Kinda like doing trimwork today. Sometimes when you trim a piece too much, you make it unusable. Then you have to start over with a new piece of wood - or a blank blog page. And it doesn't matter if it is an eigth of an inch you are trimming, or just one misspelled word: once you screw it up, you can't use it. I am amazed at how many areas of life overlap.

Except for this technical glitch, I had a great day today. My kids brought me breakfast in bed for my birthday. The coffee spill blends in quite nicely with the pattern on my comforter. It was dry by bedtime. So I can put off laundry for another day.

Work was fun again. Because they are at the stage in the job where the work shows, I am doing a lot of observing. But the guys have been great about answering questions and calling me over when something interesting is going on. It probably isn't accurate to call these craftsmen "construction workers." But using the term broadly, if more construction workers were as nice as these guys, I bet more women would go into the field. Maybe those early pioneering women working in traditionally male jobs have helped to create a new generation of open-minded construction workers. My hard hat is off to you all. (If I actually got to wear one of those, that is.)

Or maybe it's just that guys just like to talk about their tools. Again, that is one of those comments that overlap different areas of life.

I went to dinner at a friend's for my birthday. She got me a toy tool set. It had a hard hat too! woo hoo!

If you read the first uncut post and you remember a particular part to help me recreate it, you are welcome to remind me with a comment. I know there was a lot about screws.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Construction Wear

Day Two of my construction apprenticeship was just as fun as the first. Mostly my role was similar to a surgery nurse. Instead of scalpel and rib spreaders it was... flashlight, tape measure, sand paper, tape measure, caulk gun, tape measure, fine tool, tape measure. I found a new use for my coloring-inside-the-lines skills. I didn't get my hands on any power tools, but am hopeful for tomorrow. I even got to talk to the electrician about hot wires and shorts.

But I wanted to share with you the dilemma of construction attire. Yesterday I wore jeans, sneakers, & a sweatshirt (a red one since it was Valentine's Day.) The customer, however, did not recognize me as part of the company team. I had to explain to her my new role. I didn't want her to think I was just some woman walking by who came in to check out the construction workers.

So to clarify my status as an employee, I stopped by the office for some logo shirts. Apparently they are not stocking any of the cami tops until summer. So I settled for two gray cotton shirts with the company logo.

This morning when I dressed, I was reminded of the difference in men's and women's t-shirts. These logo shirts were not designed with women's hips in mind. So I considered my tucked-in or untucked options. Then I had to decide if I should curl my hair and put on lipstick like I always have in the past when I get ready for work. I decided yes. Construction Girls aren't ugly. I'm sure there are some others out there. These other Construction Girls are beautiful - I'm sure. We still want to look pretty - even if we have to wear a bright orange vest.

So I threw on a flannel shirt for an extra layer and headed downstairs to face my four most honests critics: my children. My 10 year old son, Kyle said "Cool shirt, Mom." He can be a man of few words, so I took this as high praise.
Then I faced the girls. My oldest, Kat, is at the pinnacle of fashion, being a 7th grader. My youngest, Suzy, wears the free-wheeling styles of an 8 year old. And my almost-daughter, Fern, who I watch before and after school, dresses safely within the acceptable standards of fifth grade.
"Mom, those pants are too high-waisted."
"Try the shirt untucked."
"Maybe you should knot the flannel shirt like this."
"No, that looks too cowgirl."
"If you're going to button, only button the middle button."
"Are those your only sneakers?"

In the end, I went in untucked, a concession to my in-home fashion police. Being Construction Girl isn't as easy as it looks!

As for the double-entendres today (I mean beside the shorts & hot wires) there were many. Here's the best:
Did any of you know that someone actually invented a real-life, very handy tool called a perfect mount?
I dare you to go into a hardware store and ask for one.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

I suppose in life we all construct things. Today, for example, I joined about a billion people and constructed this blog. Last night I helped my son construct a box for his school Valentine's party. Once I constructed a hutch for some pet guinea pigs, although it was rather shaky construction.

Some of my construction projects have been failures. I tried constructing a baby blanket using yarn and knitting needles. That failed. I have tried repeatedly to construct those delicious lemon squares and failed every time. I've tried to construct photo albums with cute decorations for each of my children. I didn't fail immediately, but since I haven't added to them in about four years, I suppose that would slide over into the failure column of my life.

Some of my personal construction projects are on-going. I am trying to construct a new life for myself after a divorce. I am trying build my children into constructive adults. I am trying to write the great American novel.

But since fiction doesn't pay well (at all,) I have been working part time as a technical writer to help construct a future website with my friend, Michael, a general contractor. His business is primarily kitchen and bathroom remodels and residential additions, although his company completes a wide range of residential projects. I ran into a temporary work slow down with the techical writing, however, and I needed to take on more work. So I asked my friend Michael if I could work as a laborer on his job sites while I also learn some of the skills about which I had been writing. I might also be able to gather some photos for the future web site. To my delight, he said yes.

So today I started my construction job. It was just as fun as I'd imagined. I got to use power tools, a caulking gun, and a garbage bag. I got to climb ladders, hold wood, and even snap a line of chalk.

I headed for work with a knot in my stomach like a tangled extension cord. Even though I had come to know the guys in Michael's crews, I was a girl. (OK, I turn 41 this week, so I am using the term "girl" loosely.) They are good guys. They follow the lead of the boss by not cussing a lot on the job. I've never noticed any of them behaving like the stereotypical crude construction worker. When I've been on job sites as a technical writer with Michael, I've never heard anyone make catcalls or behave in any way that made me uncomfortable. They are good guys. But I'm a girl, so I was worried the guys would feel like I was intruding into their territory.

Would they resent me being there? Would they assume I wasn't strong enough for most of the work? Would they let me try anything interesting? Would I be in the way? Would they think I'd be useless?

Or would I really be useless? Would I make a mistake? Break a tool? Scratch a cabinet? Throw the whole job schedule off? Would I get injured or injure someone?

And did I dress right? Should I have packed my lunch? Would I be able to use the bathroom? I felt like a kid going to a new school midyear, after everyone has already made their friends.

I arrived just as one of the guys was backing the trailer into the customer's driveway. Don introduced himself with a friendly handshake and said with a smile,"So you must be the mole I heard was coming out to the jobsite." Apparently the guys also had some anxieties that I had not considered. But his laughter put me at ease.

The job was a kitchen remodel in its final stages. Today's task, putting in shelves, hanging doors, and filling in some floor. There were only two guys on the job today, Stan and Don. They were great about letting me watch over their shoulders and giving me some tasks I could handle with no experience yet. It didn't take long, however, to realize what makes this job so fun.

Carpentry is absolutely loaded with double entendres. I had authentic questions and they had authentic answers. Try to imagine saying any of the following out loud, without blushing or grinning.
"To get the screw in you have to apply more pressure here."
"There are different speeds for screwing. Stan prefers a faster screw. I prefer to screw at a slower speed."
"The screw should be a little longer than the hole."
"If you twist a cheap screw too tight, the head will snap right off."

That actually happened: a screw head snapped off, creating a puzzle of aligning all the cabinet doors on that wall. All work stopped while solutions were considered. I had an observation I hesitated to say aloud. Don noticed my hesitation and encouraged me to share.

"So a cheap screw in the wrong place can throw off your whole day's work?"
"Yes," Don agreed. "A good quality screw in the right place is always better than a cheap screw in the wrong place."

Isn't carpentry wonderful?