Chris Schwarz's Blog

Kicked out of the Front Office

In high school and college, I spent most of my summers working in factories.

I spent two summers in a liquor factory (I’ll never drink straight tequila again , it’s what we used to clean the concrete floors). Another summer was in a factory that made folding tables , the kind you see at church picnics with the fake walnut wood grain. The highlight there was working alongside a guy named (honest now) Meatfart, who communicated in grunts and sounds that he could make using his internal organs.

And then I spent one long summer building and staining exterior doors at Therma-Tru door company , my first woodworking job.

If you’ve ever worked in a factory, you know there’s a caste system. If you haven’t worked in a factory, then read the rest of this paragraph: At the top of the caste are the people “in the office.” These are the secretaries, corporate managers and other people who make cameo appearances on the shop floor, usually to deliver bad news (you’re fired) or to be wolf-whistled at by the unwashed.

Below the office types are the people who run the maintenance shed, the forklift drivers and the floor managers. These are usually people who started out as grunts on the shop floor and worked their entire lives for the privilege of wrangling the grunts on the floor.

Below that rung are the grunts, who are the backbone, hands and legs of the operation. And believe or not there are people below the grunts: the temps. And that was my lot in life. If you had to fetch a loose part from inside a running machine, you told a temp to do it. If the job was messy, hot or near Meatfart, it was a temp job.

Being a temp convinced me to stay in college if but for one reason: To work “in the office.” I had no idea what happened in “the office,” but it didn’t involve 50-pound bags of sugar, being someone’s pillow during break time or having to use a restroom that would make a Roman bath look like a private garden spot (10 holes, two sinks, zero loitering).

It’s been almost 20 years since I punched a time clock in a factory. But the funny thing is that now I do everything I can to escape the office and get onto the shop floor here at the magazine. I love the noise, the dust, the heavy lifting. Heck, I like taking out the garbage and fishing unknown objects out of the dust collector.

The only things missing are a few wolf whistles and some organic offgassing and I’d by 18 all over again.

– Christopher Schwarz

P.S. Who is now headed back to the shop to build a blanket chest for the Summer 2008 issue of Woodworking Magazine.

18 thoughts on “Kicked out of the Front Office

  1. MikeT

    I was an idealistic undergrad with romantic ideas, and ran into an old cabinet maker at the bar. I said something romantic and idealistic about working with your hands, and he held his up. The knuckles were the size of golf balls from arthritis and scar tissue.

    "Kid," he said, "Get a desk job."

    I still love making sawdust, but it’s a weekends thing, not my day job.

  2. Samson

    Thanks, Chris. I guess I don’t get the "need" to avoid the quick and certain paring. I suppose if I was a professional, the slight time savings would be the reason. I can reliably split the knife line with the saw maybe 85 to 90 percent of the time, but that’s not good enough in my book as I don’t want 1 in 10 tail/pin joins to have a miscue, even if slight. If aim to ride the knife line, I have it’s width of waste as buffer to a cut that is slightly off angle and a paring guide. As a hobbiest, the extra hour or less on a project that will total scores of hours from start to finish seems well spent. Demanding a perfect fit off the saw (at least in hard woods – poplar and pine are MUCH more forgiving)seems like going golfing and expecting every drive to be perfectly straight; even Tiger Woods hits the rough a few time a round.

    Pros regularly pare tenon shoulders (not to mention cheeks) with a chisel or shoulder plane, as opposed to insisting that "real men" have the shoulders fit right from the saw. What is it about dovetail "cheeks" that makes paring anathema?

    I think the conventional wisdom that equates paring dt cheeks (as opposed to baselines – or tenons – etc) needlessly intimidates a lot of hobbiests who would like to dt by hand, but worry they must wait until they have practiced sawing to the point they split a knife line in all dimensions every single time.

    Just my two cents.

  3. Christopher Schwarz

    Sean,

    Actually the chest will be finger-jointed. We have a very very interesting article about this topic in store.

    As to dovetailing a chest (which I’ve done many times), here’s my advice. Always shoot to hit the line and avoid the paring.

    Here’s how: Do a warm-up joint. Just a couple tails and pins. Then, when you dovetail the chest, start at the back corner — the least visible corner. Then do the other least-visible corner. Then move to the front joints.

    I bet you’ll be a dovetailing madman in no time.

    Chris

  4. Chris C.

    Tom Knighton is correct; I think most woodworkers enjoy
    the craft because it is something real to do that
    they control the entire process from soup to nuts. Success
    or failure is up to you, no safety nets, no team work and
    no excuses.

    Contrast that to almost all other aspects of life: Everything
    planned, somebody else looking over your shoulder. Nothing
    much to think about because somebody else has already done
    the thinking for you. Like in Francis Bacon’s creepy
    utopian New Atlantis. Woodworking is a revolt against
    Solomon’s House.

    Chris

  5. Samson

    Thanks, Mattias, On close inspection of all 4 sets, one can certainly find a sliver of gap here and there, but in my experience, gluing up tends to obscure small imperfections and BLO applied with a fine sandpaper can create a hardening slurry to fill any slightly larger gaps. I’m hopeful to avoid the BLO strategy here, and thankful I got through it without having to think about having to prepare any shims for large gaps(a fix I resorted to once or twice at the outset of my dovetail cutting career ;-)).

    The toggle clamp sled in the t-track idea came from a recent issue of PWW – an article by Rob Pocarro (sp?).

  6. Mattias in Durham, NC

    Chris, my jobs brought me across the Atlantic, twice, in the merchant marines. In reality, I worked as a painter on the ships. Paint, paint, paint. If it was too cold to paint, then I might do rust removal or greasing equipment. At night, if under way, we would be on watch, maybe dodging icebergs. In the summer it could be pretty nice. Drinking games usually started by bringing out a big bottle of 80 proof and throwing the cork overboard. Not having worked in a factory, I imagine the characters you would find there are pretty much similar to those on a ship. It does make me appreciate my comfortable desk job (to fund my woodworking hobby), and my workshop where I can make saw dust when I so choose. Thanks for reminding me!

    Sean, that looks great – very tight – at least from what I can see in the photo. Neat ideas for clamping, too.

  7. Samson

    I agree that some tough summer jobs during college give one great incentive to study hard. I spent a summer as an apprentice pipefitter working 12 hour night shifts on the construction of a nuclear power plant. Another summer I was a laborer doing all sorts of activities from jackhammer waste toter (I wasn’t heavy or skilled enough to operate the jackhammers themselves so I had to work in fron of them picking up and wheeling away the big hunks of concrete they produced) to concrete truck chute manner in the construction of moving form jersey barriers to flag man (that was the worst as it was so boring).

    On the chest, I assume you are dovetailing the sides? If so, I have a question. I’m working on a large cherry cabinet right now with a dovetail carcase where the DTs will show, sort of like on a chest. I fancy myself a decent sawer, but in hardwood, with so many prominent dovetails, I find I needed to plan on a touch of (pinand tail)cheek paring to ensure a neat fit. I know many old hands think the cheeks ought to fit right from the saw, but man, that’s a tall order as even a few thousanths into the good (as opposed to waste) and you’re in trouble. I also don’t find that the paring of the cheeck take much time (I essentially leave only the incised lines) when I’m already paring the baselines anyway. Any thoughts?

    A pic FWIW:

    http://good-times.webshots.com/photo/2472910950032524639gSwqYc

    Thanks,

    Sean

  8. Ethan Sincox

    Chris,

    You actually got to work on the production floor at your first factory job! You lucky dog!

    See, the job I had the summer after my Freshman year of college was even lower than the temp position… My title, "maintenance", was a bit of a misnomer. The only thing I was hired to do was maintain the cleanliness of the bathrooms, windows, and floors of the factory.

    I took some classes at the community college in the early morning and showed up at the plant by 11:00 a.m. That was just in time to clean all of the restrooms (four in all) after the first break. During the factory floor’s lunch shift, my job was to clean up under the brazing and soldering machines while they weren’t running (and their internal temps were dropped down to a low 900 degrees!). After lunch, I had to clean all of the bathrooms again and then I started working on the factory windows, which apparently hadn’t been cleaned in years. Some of them were two stories high, inside the plant… not fun for someone afraid of heights. Before I left for the day (about 6PM) I had to get those bathrooms one more time so they were ready for the next morning.

    That job did more to keep me in school than anything else…

  9. David Pearce

    Growing up in the middle of a farming community I’d worked alot of short summer stints with friends and neighbors. Hay baling (so that’s what heat stroke is like…), cleaning cow pens (don’t light a match!), and even a couple of days at a pig farm (the worst job ever!). I bet Meatfart had nothing on these things. Took me a few weeks before I could eat bacon again. I knew after that I wasn’t going to be a farmer. Ever.

    I’ve been working in the "office" for nearly 20 years now, for the last 12 as an IT professional (code monkey), and I’m sure I’d love a position that allowed me to get my hands dirty, even part of the day. Being constantly chained to a desk is not good. One day I hope to change that.

    On the positive side, I’m almost done with my Holtzapffel bench, I’ve read Workbenches through, cover to cover, and I’m moving my shop from the unheated backyard shed to a slightly smaller spot in the (heated/dry) basement.

    Thanks for the inspiration Chris. The advice and guidance in your magazine articles and books is invaluable!

    –dave

  10. J.C. Collier

    Whoa Nellie, did you open up a can of wigglers with this one. Everyone who happens upon this one should throw down with a short list of those halcyon memories of days doing gruntage. Here’s mine:

    Gas pump jockey [my first]
    High-end Men’s store clerk
    Cable Guy [$$$]
    Pipefitter’s apprentice [the hardest]
    Electrician’s apprentice
    Newspaper "bundles" truck driver [the worst]
    Night maintenance at a retirement community [golf cart races, woohoo!]
    Limo Driver [the stories I could tell…]
    Set builder for motion pictures [stars really are different]
    Photographer’s assistant [the best]

    Problem is, I think my current position is as temporary as any of the above even though I’ve been doing it for over four years! I guess I’ll have to make up my mind someday… naaaaaa!

    always,
    J.C.

  11. Vic

    Hi Chris,
    My friends made me promise to stop drinking tequila about 20 years ago! Evidently, I’m an extremely overly honest person when I talk to the worm!
    James hit on a topic that is being discussed at http://kaleosworkshop.com/. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what it takes to succeed in business as a woodworker. I’m sure you have gleaned some information over time from the successful woodworkers you deal with through the magazines.
    By the way, just finished Workbenches. Great read. As soon as I finish my shop, I’m starting on the French bench. Very timely publication for me! I bought a bunch of red fir from an 100 plus year old barn a few years back. It’s much more dense than what you can buy now.

  12. James Watriss

    I started out by blowing off a full ride scholarship to Northeastern University, and enlisted in the army as a Patriot Missile Tech. I changed a lot of tires, drank a lot of beer, and served for a while under a guy who dropped out of seminary school to join the marine corps, served for a while as a corrections officer, and went back into the military because he said it was easier to get by.

    After being discharged, I went to school to be a commercial diver and learned to arc-weld underwater. I decided that my peers were too crazy to trust in open water, so I ended up working instead on underwater robotics. I thought it sounded very adventurous and interesting. Picture auto mechanic work with seasickness, surrounded by people missing fingers and talking funny. All this and bad food, too… hours (at least) away from medical care, and covered in grime. At night, I fell to sleep to the soothing sounds of a diesel generator.

    I, too, went back to college with the intent of entering the office life. Then a got out in the middle of a recession, and took refuge in woodworking. 2005 I started at the North Bennet Street School. While I was there, I worked crummy retail jobs at woodworking specialty chains, buying what tools I could afford at a discount, and waiting for school to be done. Last February I graduated and last August I opened the doors to a new shop space up here in the Boston area. I’m writing, and building furniture, and odd woodworking jobs here and there.

    And guess what I found out? Just because I don’t have an actual office doesn’t mean I don’t have the business side to attend to. I do a lot of the organizational stuff on a laptop in a local coffee shop, but it’s still basically like being in an office. Shop time is great, because it gets me away from having to deal with budgeting, business plans and marketing ideas, not to mention the simple fear that comes from knowing that if I screw this up, I get to be a college educated office grunt with a shave and a haircut.

    (eeeeewww…)

  13. Christopher Schwarz

    Tom,

    I’ll buy that. I think for me, working with my hands is in my blood, as well. Try as I did to get away from it, I’d rather be on my feet and making something than working at a desk.

    Chris

  14. Tom Knighton

    I’ve done factory work, and I’ve driven a forklift. Currently, I’m in a warehouse office. However, I find myself drawn to manual labor. The difference is the labor is on MY terms, rather than someone else’s.

    Maybe that’s it? 😉

  15. Christopher Schwarz

    Actually, Mr. Meatfart almost cured me of breathing.

    The square is one of my prizes possessions. Wayne Anderson, tool-pusher extraordinnaire, made it.

    Chris

  16. dave brown

    It’s amazing the summer jobs we go through — they definitely build character. I spent one summer on a produce farm — I’ll never look at a cucumber or tomato the same way. Tomato plants do not smell good when you’re wading in them and cucumber vines are not kind to human skin when it’s wrinkled and soft from working for three hours in the dew.

    Another summer I spent working at an asphalt plant. I was the only one there that wore hearing protection or a respirator around the yard — think jet engine noise and sahara like dust storms.

    It is, however, nice to look back w/ (somewhat) fond memories.

    regards,
    Dave

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