Behind the Quoted Price


In order to test a box-joint jig, I made a couple of small boxes. Fortunately, my wife and daughter like them.

I collected a few comments on my last post that hinted at the perceived high cost of professional trades-people. In general, people hate paying other people to do things. Whether it’s the plumber or the electrician or the guy doing concrete work in your driveway, there’s always that twinge of sticker shock when they give you a quote. You can get a similar shock from quotes from creative professionals.

Whether it’s woodworking, construction, photography or baking a cheesecake, there’s more to see than the finished product. I’m not here to defend every fly-by-night operator, but people who work at any skilled labor or creative task have a lot of costs that you don’t see. Some of the things people forget include:

The countless hours of training and the materials bought and often discarded while learning one’s particular craft. I have sample doors, push sticks, boxes and a lot of kindling that are the result of teaching myself how new tools operate. We have boxes of artwork in our basement that Faith says we can throw away and I’ve eaten my share of cookies and loaves of bread that were declared not-ready-for-prime-time by my lovely wife.

Overhead. Those tools hanging off the electrician’s belt cost money, and they usually cost more than the home-owner variety you might buy at Home Depot before darn-near electrocuting attempting the repair yourself. Those tools would last an electrician a few months before returning to the scrap metal from which they were forged. The truck he drove up in also cost money. Just like Faith’s camera and the baking pans in my wife’s cabinets. What, you don’t have a good springform pan? Join the club, most people don’t because you can buy a cheesecake for less than the cost of one of those puppies.

Otherhead. OK, that’s not a word but even the people that understood that I had to rent my cabinet shop, and that I had to buy tools and lumber seemed to forget that I had to feed my family and pay for insurance. Actually, it was the cost of insurance – so many types of insurance – that put us out of business. It took a lot of money just to have a shop to go to, tools to work with, power for the lights and insurance in case I spilled something on your carpet, set the building on fire and the off-chance that you would sue me after falling off a chair that I made while you were changing a light bulb.

Falling hazard. Follow the written instructions for use of this chair.That last example couldn’t happen, my insurance company wouldn’t let me make chairs because people stand on them to change light bulbs. If I wanted to make chairs, I would have had to put warning labels on them. I – kid – you – not. Oh, and I also needed health insurance for those trips to the ER.

My favorite example of sticker shock reality was when I gave a couple a quote on a kitchen remodel job. It was higher than they thought it would be. They asked if there was any way they could reduce the cost. I offered several suggestions:

Get a dumpster that I can use for all the debris.

Eliminate some of the requirements

Be here to help me when I need an extra set of hands.

Nope, nope and nope. The woman asked “what if we were to take down the bricks?

The previous owner of this house had added a brick wall behind the stove to blend with a chimney. I told her that that would save “a couple of hundred bucks” considering that I still had to dispose of the bricks. She humphed and accepted the quote as written.

The first day on the job, my part-time helper and I fired up an air compressor and took a demolition hammer to those bricks. 10 minutes later, we were shoveling rubble into my pickup. The woman apologized for being indignant over the quote:

I didn’t think it would be that easy. I can see why you wouldn’t lower the cost much. It was much harder when I tried removing the wall when we thought about doing this job ourselves.”

How were you trying to remove the bricks?

I used the end of an old spoon to scrape out the mortar.”

A spoon? Yeah, if you made me use a spoon, I would have charged a lot more.”

Having a portable compressor – $350. Having a helper – $10 per hour. Having a dumpster – $55 per ton of debris. Not having to use a spoon to tear down a brick wall – priceless.

Posted in DIY, Perspective, Woodworking | Tagged , , , , , | 44 Comments

Go Pro

For the love of beer

The perfect place and beverage to share some casual conversation.

If we were having a beer, you would order up the first round as a way of toasting the hard working “young man” as you often refer to me.

You know, you’re only two years older than me. It’s not like it matters.”

It mattered in 1970.”

Yes, yes the whole draft thing, but we’ve been there and done that so I know it isn’t age you’re going after today.

It’s just that I wonder when you’re going to wise up to the lessons that I’ve learned over my longer span on the planet.

Here it comes, what is it this time?

Not only did you fix your own driveway, but when that repair failed, you fixed it again. When are you going to break down, pry your wallet out of you’re a** and call in a pro?

It has nothing to do with money.”

Seriously, it has nothing to do with money. When I’m ready to replace the entire driveway, I’ll call a pro. This was a repair around the foundation of the ramp we put in. You don’t call a pro for stuff like that, they won’t come for such a small job. I’d try to explain that, but you’d have nothing to do with it.

Offer them enough money and they will do the job.”

It’s not worth offering them more money, it’s a small bit of work. Even with busting up the old stuff, it only took me two hours.” Then I would show you a video of how easy it was to break up that old concrete.

What’s time to a pig?


Then you would tell me the joke about the farmer and the pig and the apple tree. It’s an old joke. You heard it on A Prairie Home Companion, but it’s been being told for years. When I mention that I’ve never heard it, you quip:

You’re a lot younger than me.”


It’s more than time. You hire a pro because they know what they’re doing. Obviously you didn’t know what you were doing the first time you filled this hole.”

I know what I’m doing. I’ve been mixing concrete since I was 12 years old. My father taught me back when you bought sand and gravel and cement in separate bags.”

Yeah, but who taught your father? Information is only as good as the source.”

My father learned how to mix concrete from guys who were making shoes with it.”


This is the building my grandmother owned. There are four apartments in the front building and a detached house in the back.

We had a good laugh at that. I explained that it wasn’t much of an exaggeration. My grandmother was widowed right before the start of the Depression. My father was only four years old. She owned an apartment building but most people were out of work and couldn’t afford to pay rent.

What did she do?

She rented the apartments to the mob. They used them to make the booze they were selling during prohibition.”

Really? But did they actually teach your father how to mix concrete?

I’m not sure. They did pay him 25-cents a bottle for every bottle of booze he could pour down the drain when they were raided.”

You sure that isn’t just a tall story your dad told you?

I’m sure. They paid his sister too. My aunt is actually the one who told us the story.”

You’d stop me from ordering the next round.



I’m in the mood for something different.”

You want a suggestion?” Asked Cheryl, the bartender.

An offer I can’t refuse?

No silly. I’ve been making Jameson and Diet Coke for people recently. It’s very refreshing.”

That does sound good. I’ll have one of those, he’ll have another Yuengling and he’s buying.”

With that taken care of, I would try to convince you that even professionals make mistakes or end up with defective products. My neighbor is a concrete pro. I showed him the deteriorating concrete and he said that he has seen that happen before, and on much larger jobs. I’d send you a link to Cordelia’s Mom so you could read about her two-year-old-professionally-installed roof that leaked. In fact, there was an article in the local paper about lots of home foundations cracking.

Yeah, yeah. So, these mob-guys? Did they ever whack someone? Did they ever mix up some concrete shoes?

I don’t know. People used to tell stories about people who were taken for a ride and never returned. It was a tough little town, but it wasn’t Chicago.”

You would take another sip of that Jameson’s, toast the end of prohibition and bathtub gin. Then you would tip your glass to Cheryl, give her a thumbs up and remind me that sometimes, you do need a pro. I would agree. It would be cheaper to sit at home and have a beer, but it’s really not about the money, it’s about spending time with interesting people.

Posted in DIY, Family, Home Repair, If having a beer | Tagged , , , , , , , | 63 Comments

Thursday Doors–Bleeker Street


This is one of the doors to the condos in the building at 367 Bleeker St. I love the panels.

When Faith and I exited the Highline in New York City a few weeks ago, we continued south along the Hudson for a while. We kept snapping photos and walking until our feet started to hurt and we were hungry. The problem was that by that time, we were pretty far south but not south enough to notice any landmarks. So, we headed east. We figured that, at some point, we would figure it out.

While trying to avoid some sidewalks that were closed for construction, we stumbled onto Bleeker St. I remembered two things about Bleeker St. One, it was featured in Bruce Springsteen’s song “Kitty’s Back” and two, it kinda-sorta connects with Eighth Avenue at some point. Bruce Springsteen and I both spent some time in nightclubs on Bleeker St in the 70s. It felt good to write that. To be honest, it’s not like we were pals. We didn’t spend time in those nightclubs together. I think he was there much earlier and much more often than I was and I think he probably had a better time.

In any case, we weren’t looking for nightclubs at 2:30 pm, we were hungry. So hungry that I think I heard Faith sigh when I said: “wait here, I’m going to go get a picture of that door.” It wasn’t much of a sigh, I wait for her to get pictures of this, that and the other thing all the time. Still, as we headed northeast, I was snapping door shots pretty fast. In fact, most of the photos in the gallery below had to be rotated to keep the doors from swinging open.

The featured doors are in the building at 367 Bleeker St. In case you’ve fallen in love with the idea of entering such a door at the end of your work day, it appears that one of the condos in the building is available. According to Zillow:

367 Bleecker St # 2,
New York, NY 10014
2 beds 2 baths 1,729 sqft

“This apartment is housed in 2 adjoining mid 18th century legendary West Village townhouses. Once the home of Pierre Duex and the shop’s owners Pierre Moulin and Pierre LeVec. Appreciatively, the Pierre’s left their trademark style as they decorated each of these apartments. The apartment entry foyer is lined with Louis XV boiserie pine paneling behind which is a wet bar and generous closet.…There is central air and a washer dryer. This is a pet friendly condominium.”

Maddie will be glad to hear that she’s welcome and the place has AC.

However: The last time it sold was on 10/17/2012 and it sold for: $2,920,000. Yes, there are two commas in that number. Zilliow’s Zestimate® this time is $3,887,660.

OK, then, let’s take a look at some of your soon-to-be neighbors’ doors.

What I really like about these old neighborhoods are the ways in which people and businesses worked to distinguish their portion of a seemingly monolithic block of buildings.

This post is part of Norm Frampton’s Thursday Doors series. I you love doors, like doors or just think you found an interesting door, snap a pic and join the fun.

Posted in Photography, Thursday Doors, Travel | Tagged , , , , | 73 Comments

Code, Beer and Thunderbolts

Triumph Spitfire

The only time my Triumph Spitfire had a proper passenger. That’s David in the passenger seat.

When I wrote about being at The Molly Wee Pub, David Pennington commented to remind me that he and I spent some time in that bar. There have been plenty of posts where I could have included “David moments” in the description, but I realize that since I’ve never introduced David, I’d have to add a few hundred words to an already over-the-limit-post. I have been telling myself that “the right time to introduce David will come” but every time I try to write that post, I don’t know where to start or where to end.

As you have probably guessed, I have found a starting point.

Actually, if it hadn’t been for the fact that fathers trump all else (except maybe mothers) and a 500 word limit (of which I am already over a quarter of the way to hitting) I could have used the Cherished Blogfest to introduce David. He’s not cherished, well that’s not true, we cherish David in our family; I meant to say that I have a cherished object from David. Actually I have several. So, before I get too much further, allow me to introduce David Pennington, a.k.a. Long-Haired David, a.k.a. “our eccentric Uncle David.

David lives in England, and we are not related. He and I started working together after I purchased some software from him in the mid-90s. Now that he’s been being introduced, I’ll be able to tell that story at a later date. After several years, we had our first opportunity to meet face-to-face at a technical conference sports bar in Cincinnati. I knew that I liked David before we met, but that first evening cemented a bond between us that has lasted over 20 years and routinely crosses 3,000 miles and five times zones. David might be the most interesting person I have ever met. I have to think about that, but if he isn’t the most interesting, he’s in the top 1%.

Trade show

Manning the Totally Objects boot at Smalltalk Solutions in Cincinnati

David has been: a currency trader, a magazine publisher, a software designer, a programmer, a consultant and a software vendor. He has owned a scrapbooking store, a model shop and a mail-order business and he blogs about making models, model railroading and life alongside Ipswich Harbor, or is that harbour?. Wait, did I mention that he’s been a very, very good friend? After post edit: I forgot that David also operated a cabinet shop for a couple years.

David and I have worked together, traveled together and, remarkably, we have visited each other’s houses. That’s remarkable because, while David easily fits the description of “world traveler,” my visit to England is the one and only time my feet have been off North American soil.

In future posts, I may talk about when we visited Canada and Niagara Falls, visited the Molly Wee and other bars, completed various software projects and when I showed him around north central Connecticut and when he drove me around the middle east side of England (I think). At least those are all the draft posts I have squirreled away in Evernote. Today, though, it’s about an A-10 Thunderbolt II a.k.a. Warthog.

Last week, as I was viewing the blogs I follow, I stumbled upon a story about a model A-10. Comments were exchanged and I was led to another story on that modeler’s blog about another A-10, one decorated in the fashion of the Connecticut Air National Guard (CT ANG). Now, I know something about CT ANG. They were based about two miles from my house and before the idiots in Washington transferred the A-10s out of here, they used to routinely fly over our back yard.

I have also seen the A-10s up-close-and-personal because a former coworker was the maintenance manager at the base and he invited us to attend Family Day with him and his family. Our daughter Faith got to sit in an A-10 (soooo jealous).

David, well aware of my love of that particular aircraft, turned his considerable model-making talent to making me one of the best Christmas gifts I’ve ever received – a model A-10 in CT ANG colors as they were painted when they deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Desert Storm.

I looked for a blog post to share with amateurairplanes, but I couldn’t find one. David has written about tons of model projects. Could it be that he never wrote about my A-10? Maybe he didn’t want to spoil the surprise. Maybe he’s still waiting for me to send photos. Maybe the search option on his blog isn’t working properly. Oh well, now the post has been written, David has been introduced and other stories can be told.

Posted in Family, Friends | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 65 Comments

Cherished: A Portrait, a Photograph, a Memory, a Feeling

Note: This is a guest post for the Cherished Blogfest. It was written by my brother Bruce and I am honored to present it to you.

1976 Mt. Tamalpais

1976 Mt. Tamalpais

I have an oil painting of my late wife Barb from a picture we took in Mt. Tamalpais State Park in 1976. It was painted by my daughter, Sara for Barb’s Memorial Service in 2013.  It shows Barb dancing at the top of a trail in the park in front of a huge tree. She is happy and carefree and that is how I always want to remember her. The trip was a family reunion, our fourth anniversary (June 24), and we spent the Bi-centennial in San Francisco, with dinner on the wharf and fireworks shooting up through the fog!

We were twenty-one years from the onset of symptoms of Huntington’s, but there was no way to know that. Still barely noticeable in 1997 but progressing over the sixteen years to follow, the disease slowly took one freedom or ability after another until she was taken from us on Feb. 15th, 2013.

The details of the loss of her abilities over time cannot be confined to five hundred words, so this post will be about “The Plan.” We suspected the disease would show itself by age 50 or so, as it had with her mother. If it didn’t (there was no test developed yet to let us know), we would continue to work as long as we could. In the meantime, we decided to do the things now that most people planned for their retirement. It would be more expensive because we were less able to afford these trips in our twenties than we would be in our fifties or sixties, but we were younger and could camp and motorcycle… We climbed up into that tree on the trail at Mt. Tam, where six miles of winding road to the southwest and about 1000 ft. lower is the entrance to Muir Woods.

Muir Woods became a favorite place for us. We would not get there often, but on every California reunion there would be a day spent at Mt. Tam, Stinson Beach and Muir Woods. A motorcycle trip in 1977 would find us in Juarez, Carlsbad Caverns and on the beach in Galveston. In 1979 it was Mt. Rushmore, Devil’s Tower, Yellowstone, and Estes Park. Later that year we biked to a motorcycle rally in Ruidoso, NM. A 1983 trip to California included a visit to Glacier National Park, this time with a three-year-old Sara along. That trip would be tragically cut short by my father’s untimely death at age 60.

We would take Sara to Washington D.C., Disneyland and the Grand Canyon, and Disneyworld with Grandma, who would also accompany us to Maine, Colonial Williamsburg; other places. There were family reunions in Pittsburgh, Jackson and Vicksburg, MS, Traverse City, MI, and Painted Post, NY, and numerous short trips to Duluth, MN, Galena, IL, and Kansas City. I can recall any of those joyous times when I lose myself in that cherished painting, those memories. 


Posted in Absent Friends, Family | Tagged , , , , | 60 Comments

Cherished – Scroll Saw Project

Plaque - The Lord is my shepherd

This hung in my dad’s workshop for about 20 years and has hung in mine for about 30.

The hardest part of this blogfest was narrowing the field of cherished objects down to a single item. The second hardest part was staying south of 500 words because WordPress counts the photo descriptions and, well, I do tend to go on. I quickly decided that I would go with an item from my father, but that didn’t help me much. I have several of those. This one got the nod, courtesy of a recent project our daughter completed in my workshop.

When I was about eight or nine, my father bought a table saw and a jig saw. The table saw was a Delta 9” contractor saw and was considered so dangerous to a man with two curious sons that he cut the cord to a length that wouldn’t allow the saw to be plugged into an outlet. Then he locked his extension cords in a closet. That also kept neighbors and relatives from using his saw. The jigsaw, on the other hand, was a pretty safe tool to operate. Not at such a young age, but a few years later, he was willing to let me try following a few lines on some scrap stock.

He followed a set of jigsaw patterns from DeltaGram magazine. He made a bunch of mail holders that featured a mailman on one side (he was a mailman) and he made several of these plaques for friends and relatives. Once, when he was making one for his sister, I was helping and I asked if I could do some of the cutting. He didn’t let me do that, but he told me if I watched as he made that one, then he and I could make a second one for his shop. He did most of the work. He explained every step, and he let me make a lot of the cuts.

That plaque, my first actual woodworking project, now hangs in my shop.

Faith has been a companion in my shop since she was a little girl. She completed her first project with hand tools, but she has long since moved up to using power tools.

A few years ago, my neighbor was selling the tools her husband owned before he passed away. One was a small Sears Scroll Saw. I bought that for Faith, as a way to start her workshop. It’s still in my workshop, because she’s in an apartment, but it’s her saw. As she was making a gift for a friend, I noticed the plaque on the wall and felt the circle completing itself.

Visit the other participants in the Cherished blogfest here.

Posted in Family, Woodworking | Tagged , , , | 98 Comments

Thursday Doors–Don’t Tell Mom


It is a door. It’s meant to keep us on the land side of this catwalk, but it’s open.

I left something out of the Urban Hike post last week. It was a planned omission because I wanted to save a little bit of sightseeing for Norm’s Thursday Doors series.

We spied this door while heading north from Charter Oak Landing toward Hartford. The catwalk leading out to the door looked a little dangerous, but very interesting, in other words, compelling. One or both of us said “we probably shouldn’t go out there” but the door was open. The catwalk looked sturdy enough. We could easily get out there, get some pictures and get back safely. My editor needs to know that we always consider safety.

I am not sure what this structure is. Maybe it is/was some sort of fuel transfer thing. It’s not like the Connecticut River is a heavy shipping lane, but there are a couple of cruise ships party boats plying the waters in and around Hartford, they must need fuel. On the other hand, we weren’t too far south of the steam generation plant operated by Hartford Steam, so maybe this is a way for them to unload fuel from barges. Then again, maybe this was something that was used by Colt Firearms in the 50s and everybody forgot about it. One thing was certain, Faith was gonna want to take some pictures of it.

If you scroll through Faith’s and my Flickr accounts, you will find numerous combinations of me taking a photo of her taking a photo and, eventually, the photo that she took.

Sometimes I watch as she’s taking a photo and I think “what on earth is that girl doing?” I also sometimes think “why is this taking so long?” Occasionally, I think “I’m not sure she should be doing that/going there,” but not often, she really is pretty careful. Editor, did you get that? Really, she is careful. And, her results are always worth the wait. Sometimes, the photo opportunity results in a “Don’t tell mom moment” (DTMM).

Most DTMMs have been revealed to mom/wife over time. The first DTMM that I remember was when Faith was about six and we were driving my red Dodge 4×4 out of Spring Park the “back way” a.k.a. through the woods. I’m not sure if it was related to our activity, but the Parks and Recreation folks have since put barricades on each end of that exit road pickup-truck-wide-path. Anyway, we weren’t the first people to discover that path. We were sometimes the first to use it. That’s because I used to get Faith up early so we could go for a ride in the truck before the plows came and ruined everything cleared the snow from the streets.

One day, we noticed tire tracks turning to the left, off the path. Faith asked (yes, I am throwing her under the bus on this) “where does that go?” Having no idea, I simply turned left to find out. It – didn’t – go – anywhere! The tracks ended, abruptly, at the edge of a cliff. OK, it was really only a severe drop-off-point but it would have required a tow truck to get us out (and this was before cell phones). Fortunately, that big Dodge stopped as well as it went in the snow. We backed out, and exited the park. Faith looked at me and said “is this something we should tell mom?

No, honey, not right now. I’ll tell mom later.”

I did tell mom later…about 18 years later but the point is I told her.

As for the catwalk out to the pump-thingie, Faith posted her pictures on Flickr within a week. Mom might still be trying to figure out whether she raised an irresponsible child or married one, but she’ll have to accept that we are curious adults who always exercise appropriate caution. Really. Always.

Posted in Family, Photography, Thursday Doors | Tagged , , , , , , | 68 Comments