Friday, April 28, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Work Ethics

Workmanship: 1:10

“Happy is the man…”

“Defects are not free. Somebody makes them, and gets paid for making them.”
W. Edwards Deming [1900-1993], 
Out Of the Crisis (1982), p. 11

There is a show on TV calledHolmes Making It Right,” on the channel HGTV, which shows Mike Holmes [born in 1963, growing up in the east end of Toronto], a contractor, first revealing and then fixing the mistakes and defects found in homes. The idea behind it is that when things are done wrong or shabbily, there are consequences. The houses often have structural defects, some serious, which eventually become evident. 

Without a doubt, it is always better for home builders to do their job in accordance with sound engineering design principles and in accordance to industry code; taking short cuts has consequences. In the end, there is a right way to do things. This TV show, in showing a crew taking things apart and then putting them back together in the way it should have been done in the first place, reveals much about humanity and what happens when fast money is to be made. 

Yet, the cost of fixing the defects due to shoddy workmanship often runs to tens of thousands of dollars. Some people like to break the rules to take advantage of others; but, thankfully, there are professional contractors like Mike Holmes, who do what is supposed to be done, who care about doing things properly. This speaks of a certain work ethic, in taking pride in one’s work. He says that he was taught his work ethic by his father. This doesn’t come easy or cheap.

My father was taught in Europe as a cabinet-maker (where he built furniture) before the Second World War, and in Canada later became a carpenter where he finished basements and kitchens among other jobs. By then, in the early 1960s, furniture-making, once a booming profession in Montreal, was becoming less so. There were less people interested in paying what it costs to make fine, hand-made furniture.

This is what my mother told me as to why my father was no longer making furniture, although he did hand-craft in his basement wood shop a beautiful dark mahogany coffee table and two end tables for our living room, thus matching the sofa (which we called a chesterfield) and chair (both without the plastic slipcovers) in the French provincial style common then.

Starting at a young age (around eight), I often accompanied my father to work-sites where I was chiefly a gofer, getting him tools, holding things, and cleaning up. Sometimes, he let me hammer in a nail or two into a piece of wood, or add glue before placing two boards in a C-clamp, and in some cases in an I-bar or ratcheting clamp. As I got older, I could do more. These tools were heavy, made of cast iron; I was proud when I could eventually lift up these tools with some ease.

I had a lot of time to watch. I learned from him the right way to use tools and the right way to put things together. This often meant that it took longer—no short cuts—but it also meant that it was put together the right way.  The first time. There is a pride when you eventually learn how to do something that took a lot of effort, when it doesn’t come easy.

I hate to see shoddy workmanship, and I see it more often than I would like, especially in furniture making, book-cases and other wood products that are poorly put together. Well, there might be some wood veneer or it might look like wood and be made of some sort of plastic laminate, particleboard or some other manufactured wood. Such pieces might look good on the outside, but more often than not the outside hides what’s inside.

The inside is cheaply constructed. Who knows how durable they are?

Well, I actually had experience in this area, buying a few pieces of badly made desks and bookcases the last few years in an effort to save a few bucks. They were low cost and they all fell apart after only a couple of years. The outside was a thin veneer of wood over particleboard. This is what happens when you start with a poor foundation, with a poor work ethic. No longer will I buy such pieces of crap; I can’t afford it, paying for defects. Lesson learned: I will save up to buy a good solid piece of wood furniture made locally when the need arrives.

What I expect to see is quality craftsmanship. Speaking of a good, solid foundation and an excellent work ethic, my dad also made us a pedestal desk and a four-drawer dresser out of solid wood for the bedroom that my older brother and I shared. All were heavy solid pieces of furniture that were durable and made to last. Although all were in good condition after decades of use, these are now all gone, after one too many moves. Dad might have made other smaller pieces, but I have forgotten what these were.

Come to think of it, these were all one-of-a-kind pieces, all original. Just like my dad, who is also long gone. I did not sufficiently appreciate the originality of both back then; I did not sufficiently appreciate the quality. I do now.

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