Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Mommas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Finishers

(Design is certainly more satisfying than cabinetwork was.  But, I couldn't be doing what I am now without the experience.  And I definitely couldn't be where I am had I had anyone other than the stubborn, uncompromising, perfectionist I had as a mentor.  This is dedicated to my favorite miserable old bastard.)  

           After spending the last ten odd years working in a multitude of paint rooms all over Northwest Alabama one central theme has come to my attention:  spray guys are miserable bastards.  And old miserable bastards at that (I was almost always 25 years younger or more than the guys I worked with, over, and under).  I’m slowly coming to realize that I was just seeing my future. 

            There’s a multitude of reasons for this.  One, the finisher is always the afterthought of everyone else in a cabinet shop.  They don’t like dealing with a difficult, finicky product, one that takes patience to use.  And the sawdust caddies never want to smell fumes all day, so you’re sure to be pushed to some sealed away hole.  I still remember the paint room of one shop I worked at in Tuscaloosa that was akin to a dungeon way in the dark recesses of the shop.  A dungeon that flooded every time it rained.  Flooded with sewage.  Lovely.  And the finish guy gets to fix everyone else’s half-assery.  You don’t feel like polishing out your sanding marks?  Finish guy will catch it.  Don’t want to fill your joints?  Finish guy will do it.  You can’t cut a 45?  That’s why the paint room has Bondo anyway.  A few hundred hours of doing a carpenter’s job on top of your own and you get a little cranky.

            Then there’s the owners, usually old bench carpenters who lost one too many fingers and whose knowledge of finishing doesn’t run past brushing some Minwax on.  Not that that will stop them from telling you how to do your job.  You come up spraying with an HVLP, wet sanding between your coats?  Well here we use $15 pot guns that couldn’t atomize water and I’ve only got 100 grit, we never had a problem before.  You like Lenmar lacquers (or ML Campbell, or Sherwood, whatever)?  Well I get this stuff from Home Depot (nothing from HD is ever worth the gas it took to get there) for twice as much.  It says “professional” right on the can.  Or the brainiac owner who loves reading specs and getting the latest greatest stuff that comes out.  Never mind that lacquer is so temperamental that it will spray totally different with just a slight drop in temperature or humidity, much less a totally different formula.  And you wonder why it takes me half a job to iron out the kinks.  Again, not exactly good for the disposition. 

            I still love to tell the story of my time in one cabinet shop.  I have to start by saying that we did AMAZING work.  I don’t think we turned out a kitchen that was under 80 grand.  But after discovering that I had a few chops with a spray trigger and knew my way around faux finishes my owner went a little nuts.  He had built a huge, multisided, ornate island with tons of hidden drawers, doors, and corbels for days.  It was gorgeous.  Only thing was, he’d listed it to be made out of MDF and flexboard when the customer thought he was getting oak.  So the obvious solution would be to rebuild, right?  Nah, Tyner’s used graining tools before.  We’ll just put a faux wood finish on it.  I’m a hopeless perfectionist, so I can’t just slap this thing through and let him face the customer with a muddy looking piece of @#$%.  So I spent a solid week, with four layers of different colored glaze, topped with painstakingly pulled graining, and finished out with artist brushes.  It worked though.  Without getting right up to it and looking you’d be hard pressed to say that it wasn’t a piece of glazed oak.  And the old man loved to show it off.  Everyone that came in he had to run it in front of ‘em.  And I was proud of it to, until he started telling people he had done it.  Pay me a paltry wage, overload me with work not in my job description, ask me to do the (near) impossible?  Fine.  But don’t take credit for my work.  Ever.  If you could have done it, you obviously don’t need me.  I was gone the next week.

            Which brings me to my last reason for our collective surliness.  Finishing at a high level requires you to be an uncompromising perfectionist.  And a self motivated one at that.  I’ve seen a fair share of hacks in my day, and for the most part they got away with it.  Some owners, and some jobs just don’t care all that much.  But what’s the point in that?  Why do a thankless job, working mostly alone, in dusty smelly and unhealthy conditions, sanding your fingerprints away if you’re not going to do something you’re going to be proud of at the end of it?  Now I was fortunate in that I learned from someone as competitive and anal as myself, if not more so.  My mentor (and the best damn finish guy I’ve worked with) taught me that you never cut a corner, you never take a shortcut, and you never let anything leave your booth that isn’t your best work.  It’s one of the few occupations where the labor, skill, and care you put into your work are immediately obvious to anyone who sees it.  Standards are important and the second you drop yours you’re no better than a hack with a paint brush.  Doesn’t matter if the customer doesn’t know his lacquer from latex, you’ll know it and if you’re fine with that then it is time to sell insurance.

            I’m slowly seeing myself turn into Steve (my mentor).  He was a miserable bastard for the best of reasons.  It personally hurt him if some glue sniffing install guy put a ding in his flawless, painstakingly cared for 12 step finish (the way more than adequate technique I still use to this day) regardless of the fact that he’ll never see that work again.  It’s why we’d sit around patting each other on the back for the deepness of a finish we’d put into that closet shelf no one would ever see.  We were doing a good work.  A good work that not many people can or will do.  Not for the pay (definitely not the pay), or recognition from our peers or customers, or for some fear of losing our job.  We did it because it was against our inner code, our hardwired nature to do anything that wasn’t something we could say was the best of ourselves.  And god help anyone who asked us to do anything less. 

            I expect there’s no avoiding my fate.  I still kick empty cans like a child when a piece blushes in the summer.  I still have to burn the extra hours of dry time it will cost me to turn the couch upside down and give the inside of that back leg the same full on 6 coats the visible spots get instead of just spraying it indirectly.  I still cuss everyone within earshot when someone dares to put a ding in my final finish moving it.  I still secretly wish hot death on customers that set their keys down on my tables in the storefront.  And even though it does give me a thrill when a fellow woodworker, family member (my Papa was a master craftsmen and restorer who could finish with the best of them), or knowledgeable customer runs their hand over my finishes and asks me “how do you get it that smooth and rich” -it wouldn’t matter if no one else ever saw it.  I know what my standards are, and I don’t do work that doesn’t meet my standards.  And if I become an old miserable bastard because of those standards, then I’ll be a fulfilled miserable bastard.  I’ll take that.