How I got into building

When I was 12, I helped my Dad build a house on the outskirts of Colusa, Calif. It was a concrete block house on 440 acres he had bought and turned into a rice farm. Also, he was a serious duck hunter and it served the dual purpose of farm and duck club.

We’d leave San Francisco early Friday afternoons and work long hours Saturday and Sunday. My job was shoveling sand, gravel, and cement into a concrete mixer (which I still have, still working, 63 years later). We’d usally pick up a laborer early in the morning on the streets in Colusa, then drive the 8 miles out to the ranch. I found I could work harder than the guys we picked up; they’d usually been drinking heavily the night before. I liked the work. I got some rare praise from my Dad for working hard. I still like shoveling, although I always tried to hide this skill on construction jobs so I wouldn’t end up on shovel detail.

As much as I liked shoveling, it was nothing compared to hammering. One of those memorable moments in my life: the concrete slab was finished, the block walls built (by travelling masons), grout poured in the blocks, and the walls and roof framed by Pinky Smith, a cigar-chomping carpenter who was also the leader of my Cub Scout troop. I was allowed up on the roof with a hammer and canvas apron to nail down the roof sheathing. I still remember that morning, sun shining, smell of the wood, the satisfaction of hammering nails (acuracy wasn’t that important here), the thrill of creating a surface, and then walking on it. I was hooked.

My next carpentry experience was in college (’53-’54) when I got a job working summers for a shipwright on the docks in San Francisco (which used to be an actual working port instead of a tourist destination). When ships came in and the holds were loaded, we’d go in and shore up the cargo with wooden bracing so it wouldn’t shift around out at sea. I got $2.50 an hour and double-time for overtime, a fortune in those days. Some times we’d work 24 straight hours and I’d get close to $100 for the day. In down time, when no ships we’re in, we’d build pallets at the shipwright’s yard at the foot of Hyde Street, right down from the Buena Vista bar. The Ghirardelli chocolate factory was a few blocks away and when they were cooking, the smell of chocolate filled the air. Most of the other carpenters were from Oklahoma and all of them were older than me, and I loved learning the basic carpentry skills and the camaraderie.

When it came to building my own house in the early ’60s in Mill Valley, I had the basics of crude carpentry down. I never got any good at finish work, but I’ve alwyas loved working up to the time a building is framed and sheathed. To this day I love to shift gears and do something with wood. Making tables, fixing chairs, shaking a roof, the smell of wood, the satisfaction of creating something out of raw materials. You know, with all the changes going on in the world now, the art of building a home isn’t that much different. Computers can’t pour a foundation or frame a wall, or lay a floor. It’s still human hands holding the tools and making the connections to provide the roof overhead.

About Lloyd Kahn

Lloyd Kahn started building his own home in the early '60s and went on to publish books showing homeowners how they could build their own homes with their own hands. He got his start in publishing by working as the shelter editor of the Whole Earth Catalog with Stewart Brand in the late '60s. He has since authored six highly-graphic books on homemade building, all of which are interrelated. The books, "The Shelter Library Of Building Books," include Shelter, Shelter II (1978), Home Work (2004), Builders of the Pacific Coast (2008), Tiny Homes (2012), and Tiny Homes on the Move (2014). Lloyd operates from Northern California studio built of recycled lumber, set in the midst of a vegetable garden, and hooked into the world via five Mac computers. You can check out videos (one with over 450,000 views) on Lloyd by doing a search on YouTube:

4 Responses to How I got into building

  1. How right you are Lloyd. So many miss that connection of the hands to work. The last line of your post is exquisite.

    Scrap Wood

  2. beautiful post lloyd, and a great read to start off the morning. i understand about the smell of wood. my grandpaw owned a millworks and built houses in baton rouge. oh, and i think he may have been addicted to pouring concrete. we often went to the shop to visit. the millworks was a magical place for me. to this day few things make me happier than the smell of sawdust or making something with my own two hands [which is a credit to him]. wonderful story and thank you much for sharing.

    take care,

    i have a bunch of images of my granpaw's shop on flickr if you are interested.

  3. Lloyd, i was hoping you could tell me of any good carpenters and house builders that you still know of today in Oklahoma? I would greatly like to find some folk to speak and mentor with. I'm happy to work for free even. Thank you!

  4. Chris, I have no idea about Oklahoma, but I would drive around to construction sites and talk to the carpenters. Offer to help out for free — sweep up, carry sheetrock, anything to be on the job. If you make yourself useful, you'll be able to learn from the carpenters.

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