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Ghosts From The Past (Tradesman - A Fading If Not Altogether Lost Art)

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This is actually a repost from TIJ in 2011, but folks new to home inspecting should clearly understand how profoundly new construction has changed in a little over 100 years. This is now my 28th year of inspecting homes after working in the masonry trade and Design/Build construction. As I am confident many home inspectors from my era can confirm, there are no true tradesmen anymore in construction. There are no doubt still gifted craftsmen who have passed on skills from generation to generation as a hobby, but it is rare to find anyone possessing such skills on a construction site. 

My hope in starting this thread is to: 1. enjoy posts from others who have met and watched masters of a trade at work and 2. remind home inspectors that much of what they behold when inspecting old homes is more than simply a good work. It is the product of tradesmen that loved and took great pride in what they did.

Again, this was actually posted here in 2011 and is slightly modified:

"I find myself dwelling on an element of old homes that makes me sad - something that I know Bill K, and many here can appreciate: One of the things that makes old homes outstanding, is the fact that they were constructed by true masters - men obsessed with finding near perfection in their field of endeavor. It was a bug that they caught - a sense of pride and tradition.

I had that bug. I don't say this "about me", but rather about "that bug" - that obsession and drive to master a trade: In commercial work, I was often one of three men installing masonry on a long gymnasium wall. The other two guys were killing themselves to meet me in the middle of the wall. My work hardly needed to be cleaned (neat as a pin) and theirs looked like a train wreck. I went home relaxed, while they went home exhausted. (Truth be told, I usually didn't go home. I went on to a side job and laid more bricks until dark.) There was nothing special about me. Anyone could do what I did. Most simply didn't care to get that good. All they wanted was a paycheck and a six pack.

In masonry, to achieve that level of knowledge and skill earned one the title "mechanic" and it was not a word thrown around lightly. There was a level of respect that came with the title. And, there was a deep sense of pride and accomplishment in knowing that I could walk onto any job site and do without hesitation do anything the foreman asked me to do. I met very few mechanics during the time I was in the trade. The funny thing about masonry is that you know a man's skill level in less than two minutes. You'd hire a guy and ask him to do something, and by the time he had set up and begun, you already knew he had stretched the truth about his ability.

At the Design/Build firm I used to sell and design for, was a master carpenter, Irving Polan. Watching Irving do trim carpentry, was like watching one do ballet. Like me, he had a pencil on his ear, and he knew where it and most of his other tools were, without even looking. He could just reach for them like a blind man. He was so fluent that trying to help him actually slowed him down. Every time he rocked right, everything that could be done on his right foot was accomplished, and as he rocked left the motion continued. It was all about harnessing inertia and teaming it up with method and knowledge. Watching Irving work was amazing. He'd do this, while gnawing on a wad of tobacco the size of a golf ball, and singing or telling joke. He was happy when he was working. Sadly, he was diagnosed one day with pancreatic cancer and was gone in a matter of months. But his memory lives on in my mind anyway.

I think the saddest thing of all is something that a lot of folks don't even understand: tradesmen from early American History were gentlemen - often multi-lingual mathematicians and architects all rolled up into one neat package - truly brilliant guys. If they met us, they'd think we were absolute dunces. Well, if they met many of the guys here on TIJ, they'd actually be pleasantly surprised to have stumbled upon an oasis of knowledge and understanding, in a wasteland.

In example: I used to watch masons try to establish right angles by projecting outward with a taut line and a square, or the old 3, 4, 5 technique, both of which are really unreliable ways to do it, when one can simply swing large arcs to establish the precise point that is at right angle. Or... Using triangulation to check the squareness of the points in a foundation: I once laid out a foundation for a New England log home that was really cut up. It had fourteen bearing heights. The guys that came to set the log home, actually asked the homeowner for my name and called to inform me that this was the first time they had set one of their log homes on a foundation and it fit like a glove - no shims, no overhangs, etc. (Thank heaven for triangulation and a good transit.)

All such skills were a snap - a given - to the masters of the past, and are mostly lost to the average alleged tradesmen of today. It seems there's always a trade off, with the advent of technology - production goes up, but the mastery of the trade fades away. The tradesman gets dumbed down.

That fact is difficult for the young to realize and appreciate, because they have never had the pure pleasure of watching a master tradesman in motion. It is a difficult experience to adequately describe.

On commercial jobs fellow masons would sometimes, in total frustration, say to me, "Mike, slow down. You're making us look bad.", when making them look bad was the very farthest thing from my mind. I wasn't competing with them. I was quite simply in my element and cruising along at a peak level of human efficiency. I was in love with what I did and was in the heat of doing it. Everything else had melted away into oblivion.

When I look at the old stately homes that so many of us inspect, I see those tradesmen - mechanics, master carpenters and plumbers at work, as ghostly figures in my mind. If you're really looking, there's so much more to these old homes than meets the eye..."

Edited by mgbinspect
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