If I Were A Carpenter

How many of you out there are good carpenters, builders, understand basic construction? How many of you know what a joist is, and can build one and put it where it belongs? What’s the lowest temp that you can successfully pour concrete? What’s the standard distance between the studs? What is a header? What is a kick-space, a cap, a  mortice? How do you toe-in, or shim?? What is a snap-line, and would someone please tell me what the hell a high-heeled roof truss is???

Until four years ago, I couldn’t have told you what any of these things were, or why, or where… except for a shim. For some weird reason, I had run across the concept of using shims years ago. My ex, Lisa, has always been a good carpenter. She designs, builds, finishes, paints… whatever is needed. She’s good with power tools, she measures twice and cuts once and she’s big on quality. She demanded that we screw down our hard wood floors on the main floor of our new house so they wouldn’t creak later. We did, and they didn’t. Took us the better part of a week, however, and my back and knees still occasionally remind me that those floors still don’t creak, even though we sold the house 6 years ago.

Lisa always seemed to begin a project of any size with, “Oh, it can’t be that hard, can it??” And though my answer was always, “Yes!” she’d do it anyway. I learned from her that one could start out with a rough plan, and even when one hit a bump or two along the way, there was usually a way around it… a fix. A lot like life.

So after I got moved back to Montana five years ago and got settled and looked around, I realized there was much to be done around my little camp. (More on this in my book, Deep Into Paradise) At first I didn’t have the energy, as surviving a Montana winter was the first priority for one who hadn’t had to survive one for 35 years, but rather wore light jackets to work every winter day in Atlanta. But upon getting my Montana legs under me after two years, I realized it was time to get started… storage shelves were needed, both in the kitchen and in the garage, The east side of the cabin needed to be shored up, as the east wind in the winter was seeping through the cracks in the chinking, slowly freezing my butt off. I had sealed off the upstairs during the winter, to keep the heat downstairs, and now needed a wall to bring some privacy into the new downstairs bedroom I’d created.

Because I was now semi-retired, and because I’d had a good carpenter teacher, I decided to try a few of these small projects myself. If I failed miserably, I’d simply hire someone to do it right, and I’d burn the mistake in the fireplace or the wood stove. And besides, it couldn’t be that hard, could it??

I was getting scrap wood from a local sawmill for winter heat, and in pouring through it I found quite a few boards and pieces that were easily good enough to use for small building projects. I set them aside, and later built a hanging place in the garage to store it all, where it was up off the ground in case the snow melted on it. You see, there was still no door on my garage after 31 years. I had run out of money while the garage was being built and never got the garage door done.

Having the sense to start very simply, I built two storage shelves in the kitchen, which worked quite nicely. Getting my confidence and courage up, I then built two saw-horses and a workbench with which to really launch my new building career.

Next came two vertical stands to hold winter wood inside the cabin. Having knocked those babies over with relative ease, I then built rolling palettes for my snowmobiles, so they could be moved around the garage with ease when needed.

This was all going very well, so far. I was getting into the swing of it, going out to the garage 4-5 days a week and cutting, hammering, screwing, gluing, all the time thinking of what might be done next within the realm of reasonable possibility. For this new exercise was becoming almost…….. fun!

It soon became clear that there was enough material around to do almost anything that was needed. There were even 5 or 6 pieces of 3/4 inch plywood stacked along the walls. I used two of those to seal the east side of the cabin on both sides of the fireplace. So caulking, plastic and the plywood sealed it up and made a world of difference inside the following winter. Damn… I was getting the hang of this.

Virginia City has probably 30 good carpenters in its diminutive population of 140, so it was easy to go downtown, have a beer in the bar and ask anyone whether a 2X4 or a 2X6 was better for the project at hand. The projects I was attempting were painfully simple, so not much direction was needed. And because it was a cabin, after all, virtually no finish work was required. Thank god.

The next thing was a downstairs bedroom wall, to separate it from the entrance hallway. It had initially been “the hobbit bedroom,” for guests and storage. But now it was the master, and needed some attention. Two more pieces of plywood and a few sticks and hardware took care of the matter. In all the projects you see here, I spent a total of $84. And I know… it looks like it, too. $34 on two more pieces of plywood and $50 in screws, bolts, lag bolts, washers, nuts and corner braces and “L” joints, which I got right handy with. The labor was free, of course; I didn’t have the heart to charge myself anything for this shameful brand of shoddy carpentry.





Inside bedroom wall                               The hanging post  is a sawed-off broomstick

When the bedroom wall was up, I realized the opportunity for some shelves on the inside of the wall, as well as creating a modest closet for hanging a few clothes. Now we were really rolling. Confidence soaring, it was decided to tackle the building of a garage door, and connecting wall. A quick look around proved that all the materials needed were at hand… the only thing left to do was to do it. gulp…

Long story short, it took over a week to build it all. I hung the door three times before it finally worked the way it should. Strangely, no one told me there were a few tricks to successfully hanging a door of any size. I have since learned them for myself, having failed miserably on the first two attempts and then having to figure out what the hell the problem was.

Two young people walked along the road behind my cabin that summer. I was working outside the garage and heard their conversation as they passed.
“Who lives here?”
“Don’t know. All I know is that he’s been out there working on his garage door all summer…”



Well, it seemed like it. But it was finally up and working properly, so I screwed some funky rough wood pieces on it to make it try to fit in with the cabin a little better. About this time I realized there was a word in the English language that was going to perfectly describe my carpentry skills and eye for building and design, such as they were. And the word was ‘rustic.’

My dad used to call carpenters “wood butchers.” That describes me to a “t” and I’m actually proud of it. Now, because of my modest (if pathetic) attempts at carpentry, my living room is warmer on the colder nights. My garage is warmer and dry… no more snowdrifts piled up in the middle of the floor. My wood is stored above the floor to stay dry and out of the way. My snowmobiles move effortlessly around the garage when needed. The kitchen shelves provide nearly half again the space I had in there for storage. My new downstairs bedroom is cozy and functional. What’s next?? Perhaps a small, protective garage for my new “old” ’59 Chevy truck. But that’s next summer. The autumn winds are already blowing chilly here, heralding yet another long winter in the Rockies. So we’ll make room to put Roxie in the garage this winter after the snowmobiles move outside. Then, next summer, when the snow *finally* recedes and the robins return, we’ll think about building a shelter in the space between the cabin and the garage. Am already thinking about the materials I’ll need, how much is left here that I can use, how much cement will be needed for the permanent posts, should the roof be flat or angled, should I build a door for it or simply pull a big piece of canvas across… I tell you, I’m stoked.

Steve Hulse

6 Replies to “If I Were A Carpenter”

  1. Awww, Geez, I’m blushing! Thanks for the kind words! And, I’m glad you’re enjoying your new-found skills! You forgot to mention one of your very first projects – the “jazz bricks” under your wood stove (okay, so it’s not carpentry, but they’re really cool!) Will we be seeing you soon on our local PBS station starring in “The New Mountain Man Workshop?” 😉

    1. You’re right, I’m very proud of the jazz bricks. Perhaps in another post…
      meantime, I’m working on, uh, no, not The New Mountain Man Workshop,
      (though it’s a thought…) but The New Mountain Man Kitchen!!! Just learned
      to make beef stroganoff last night. Not too awfully hard, and when you substitute elk for beef… well!!
      And no, Lisa, the jazz bricks were not my first project. My first project was helping to build and paint that GD picket fence you insisted on back in Decatur! ;^)

  2. Wish I could have videoed your process. Rustic doors are in, I think! Again your storytelling gets me. Reading your words was, in a sense, like hearing you and watching. Good Job!

    1. Thanks, Fave. Coming from a published author, that’s high praise. I’ve
      been reading your words as well, in Heroes, and am enjoying it even
      more the second time around! Your characters are real, human,
      fascinating. I don’t know how you do it. My friends, do yourself a favor
      and order my favorite mother-in-law’s book, “Heroes.” You’ll love it!

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