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The Sign On Their Foreheads Said "Don't Fuck With Me"

I've been on a lot of construction sites and met a lot of tradesmen and women. So who's the toughest? Well, in my humble opinion, anyone who spends their entire life working in the construction industry deserves an honorable mention, but I'll do my best to come up with the one trade that I think has the toughest workers based on my experiences in residential construction, where I spent close to 40 years.

Everyone on a construction site wears a sign on their forehead that reads "Don't Fuck With Me", and they mean it. There's a lot of tough guys earning a living in construction who have short fuses and working in conditions that are never ideal doesn't help. It's hot, it's cold, it's raining, it's snowing, it's windy, everyone deals with it. You slip, you fall, you tear something, you break something; you take something and you show up for work the next day. You earn your living.

There is a lot of ball-busting on construction sites, but that's much different than actually fucking with someone. After you've been at it for a while you can tell the difference and it's a lot of fun busting someone's balls and then them busting you back. It certainly breaks up the day.

Wayne Parry. Shutterstock Images.

Here are the trades starting from the ground up. The heavy equipment operators do the excavation from inside the cab of their equipment, pushing and pulling levers all day, digging and moving dirt and rock. They have to be careful, one wrong move and someone could be badly hurt. It takes a great deal of intense concentration and hand-eye coordination to operate heavy equipment. You do not want to distract them. They can be very feisty… 

Then there are the form guys, who are nothing short of total animals. The panels they carry can be as long as 8 feet and weigh upwards of 100 pounds each. They take them off the form truck, install them, then remove them, load them back onto the truck, and then head to the next job. And, the forms have to be plumb, level, and square or the foundation will be off and that affects everybody else. Not many people get to see them in action, but they are truly the heavy-lifters on the job site.

Stone Masons and Block/Bricklayers are pretty hardcore too. Ever mix mortar by hand? Or carry concrete blocks, bricks, and stone all day? They do. Check out the corner of any brick or block wall. If it's perfectly square, plumb, and true, and it usually is, that's no accident. Masons use plumb lines and spirit levels and take great pride in their work. 

Concrete guys have the task of pouring and finishing concrete floors, driveways, patios, and slabs. It's a very labor-intensive job and when it's done the surface is level and either smooth or textured depending on the spec, and if it's done right it doesn't crack. Check out the video, finishing a concrete driveway is a lengthy and involved process, but very satisfying to watch.

Construction Photography/Avalon. Getty Images.

Do you have what it takes to be a residential framer? They cut and rip lumber using saws that'll take your fingers off if you're not careful. And because the insulation codes have gotten stricter the dimension lumber has gotten wider to accommodate it. They carry around 2" x 12" x 16' boards, LAM and steel beams, and they do it 40 feet in the air. Then using a nail gun or swinging a big-ass framing hammer, they make everything straight, plumb, and level. And, they carry sheets of plywood, sometimes ten footers, like they're nothing. You have to have skills, be daring, and have a whole lot crazy in you to frame houses for a living.

How about roofers? Put down your barbells and carry a couple of 80-pound bundles of asphalt shingles up a 40' extension ladder. And then install them in the heat or on a windy day. Oh, and they're pretty skilled with box cutters too…

The last floor-standing boiler I put in. Oil-Gas conversion. (Dan Holohan Pump Away with a Boiler Bypass and a Spirovent))

Plumbers, Electricians, Sprinklerfitters, Gasfitters, and HVAC Techs, drill and cut through wood, steel, and concrete, and install pipes, wires, ductwork, not to mention fixtures, appliances, boilers, furnaces, and A.C. units. I thought plumbers had it tough until I saw an electrician install a $4,500, 100+ pound crystal chandelier in a front foyer of a multi-million-dollar house. After he was done he took me outside to show me that standing on the sidewalk at night, the fixture was dead center on the half-circle window above the front entry. Impressive.

Drywallers sometimes carry double sheets of sheetrock/blue board that are 4'x10' and can be 1/2",  5/8" , or even 3/4" thick. I'm staying out of their way. Finishing involves either plaster or joint compound and it's applied with a trowel/knife and in high areas, it's done walking on stilts. It's demanding work that's done at an unbelievably fast pace.

Landscapers, irrigation guys, painters, flooring guys (wood, tile, vinyl, carpet), gutter guys, finish carpenters, paving guys, vinyl siding guys, they're all working long, hard days, sometimes on ladders or their hands and knees, doing very labor-intensive jobs.

There are other jobs that are specialized like kitchen cabinet installers, granite guys, fence Installers (wood, vinyl, chain link), swimming pool installers, security installers, and straight laborers who do everything and anything they're asked to do.

If you're not physically and mentally tough and have a thick skin, you'll never make in the world of construction. And, you have to get along…

Thinking back, over my career, I always had a lot of respect for framers. Before nail guns, they used framing hammers exclusively to nail everything together. Watching them swing those big hammers and run boards through table saws without fear, got my attention.

One winter morning in 1989, it was in single digits and I was home, looking out my kitchen window at the thermometer, wondering if I should go to the new house I was roughing-in. I thought about not going and taking the day off, but instead, I decided to take a ride over to the development to see if my buddy Bobby was framing the big contemporary a couple of lots over from where I was working. On the way over I was hoping him and his crew weren't there. It was fucking frigid! I turned the corner and there they were, wearing union suits and winter caps, up on the second floor nailing rafters. I beeped as I went by and then went to work for the entire day. Because there's no sun inside an unfinished house, and the one I was working in had no garage doors, it was actually colder working indoors than working outdoors. I should've stayed home…

Back in 1986, I was still an Apprentice Plumber working for a Master who hired me to help him rough and finish houses in a large development. I met Jim when I was attending night school at the Regional and getting my classroom hours. He was the Instructor. One night after class, he approached me and asked if I wanted to make some extra money. As an apprentice, I was always trying to supplement my income with side work. I asked him what we'd be doing. He said we'd be re-piping two commercial bathrooms in an old leather factory, that it would take two, 8 hour days (8:00-4:30, 1/2 hour lunch) and he'd pay me $300 cash. We'd do it Saturday-Sunday while the factory was closed. He didn't have to twist my arm.

Saturday morning I showed up early and Jim took me and his nephew over to the factory and after we brought the tools in, Jim laid out the job. Then he left in the van. The kid and I worked our asses off, snapping cast iron and re-piping two bathrooms, one men's and one lady's, one directly above the other. Jim didn't come back until 5:30…

By the time we stopped working and put away the tools it was almost 7:00. My wife made plans, thinking I'd be home by 5:30. When I walked in the door she was upset. She's good at math and told me I had worked close to 11 hours and that my hourly rate was nothing to write home about.

When I arrived Sunday morning I told Jim that I had to get out by 4:30, that on Saturday night my wife had to cancel our plans last minute because of how late I got home. He said okay. Same deal, he set us up and then left and didn't return until 4:30. Me and the kid finished setting the toilets and hanging the sinks at 4:30. I was dirty, tired, hungry, and a little pissed off. In the end, it didn't seem worth it to blow off an entire weekend to make $300…

PAUL J. RICHARDS. Getty Images.

Jim thanked me for my effort and took out a roll of bills. He handed me a $100 dollar bill and said out loud, "one-hundred"… Then "two-hundred… three-hundred". Then he shocked me and kept going. "four hundred… five hundred". Funny, with all that cash in my hand I no longer felt the least bit tired, in fact, I could've worked another four hours! I thanked him and then he asked "How would you like to come work for me, Vin? I'll increase your current pay by $1.00 an hour and give you a pickup truck and put gas in it". It was a 40-minute commute if I broke the law, which I made a habit of doing anyway. I told him I'd have to talk with my wife. I was working for a good plumber, his shop was close, and he let me keep my pride and joy (1972 Yamaha XS-2 650) in his barn. Once I arrived home and flashed the five $100 bills in front of my wife, she was all in on the job change.

The developer Jim was working for had eight different style houses in the development, and once I finished one of each they got pretty easy. The frames were always perfect. The framing company was a family-owned business and the three brothers had a reputation on the site for being excellent framers, a bit crazy, and guys you wouldn't want to fuck with.

I was supposed to be doing the work with Jim, but once he set me up, he left and didn't return and I ended up doing all the work myself, plumbing, heating, and gas. I should have known, based on what happened at the leather factory, that I'd be doing all the work. At first, I was happy doing everything myself, but then I was getting tired and needed some help.

After talking with Jim, he hired Mr. Parker, a middle-aged man with no plumbing experience. He wasn't very physical and he looked like "Aqualung meets the Cat in the Hat". He showed up every day with a mini T.V. and a jumbo thermos full of coffee. He had the television on all day and kept pouring himself what seemed like a bottomless cup coffee from his red plaid thermos. At first, I was happy just to have him clean pipe and fittings, but after a while he started getting on my nerves. Who the hell sits cross-legged on the floor, sipping coffee and watching T.V. all day working for a plumber? Eventually, I walked over to him, told him to put the thermos and the T.V. in his car, and that I'd tell him when it was time for a coffee break. He got a little pissy, but he did it. We took coffee breaks twice a day and he got used to it. He wasn't an ideal helper, but it was better than working alone. Jim wanted no part of the work, just the profits, and he rarely showed up at the job site other than for inspections.

When we were ready to do the baseboard heat in one of the houses I asked Jim what we'd be using to attach the baseboard to the wall. Jim said to grab an unopened box of roofing nails in one of the houses and hold on to it. I preferred sheetrock screws, but Jim always looked for the cheapest way out and that meant using free roofing nails.

When I got to the job site I found an unopened box of roofing nails and cut it open with my boxcutter. I was nailing up the baseboard when all of a sudden in walks Ken, the owner of the framing company. He was average height, had medium length hair, and a build like WWF Superstar Ivan Putski (The Polish Hammer), very intimidating. He looked at me and asked, "Whose roofing nails are those?" I said I wasn't sure. "But you took them, opened the box, and started using them…" I said, "Yeah, my boss told me to grab an unopened box and use 'em to put up the baseboard." He laughed momentarily and then gave me a stern look and said "Well, those are my roofing nails. I paid for them and you have no right to think you can use MY roofing nails-" I hadn't even considered that using them was at anybody else's expense or the wrong thing to do. "I'm an Apprentice and my boss told me to use 'em. I'm sorry. I'll stop using 'em and tell my boss to buy his own roofing nails". Ken knew he had me on the ropes, but I knew it was really Jim he wanted. Ken had seen me working hard to complete the rough-ins at several lots and so he cut me some slack. "You can use them, but remember, if you didn't buy something on a job site, know that someone else did. And you can't use that stuff without asking first." I thanked him and told him I'd speak to my boss. He actually taught me a very important lesson about job site materials, one I've never forgotten.

I was relieved. I had seen Ken viciously swinging a big Estwing framing hammer and I wasn't looking forward to any type of altercation with him. I told Jim about what happened and that he had to buy his own roofing nails, which he did. He tried to get away with everything he could and when someone called him on it, he'd back right down. Sometimes he'd hide in his house on payday and send his nine-year-old son to the door to tell me and Mr. Parker he wasn't home. I'd tell the kid to go wake up his daddy, that I knew he was home. We always got paid…

I could hardly wait to get my Journeyman's license so I could leave and open my own business. Needless to say, it didn't end well, but that's another blog, "Have You Ever Told Your Boss to Fuck Off? And, How Did That Work Out for You?".

After that incident, despite all the "Don't Fuck With Me" warnings on everybody's foreheads, I fucked around a lot with Ken and his brothers, in a good way, and we enjoyed every ball-busting minute of it. My respect for framers had a lot to do with my time working with them. I rank framers as the toughest guys on the residential construction sites I worked, with the form guys a very close second…

There's a lot of tough-guys on construction sites. My experience was in residential construction. How about you? Is your experience on a residential or commercial construction site? Who do you believe are the real tough-guys? And why?

If construction's not for you, maybe you want to get into some DEMOLITION!