Tom the Carpenter is Good with Wood and Likes Men Who Work with Their Hands

Interview by Kevin Killian

Like a lot of independent contractors in the US, Tom the carpenter in San Francisco was hit hard by the 2008 recession. Even as the economy slows, you’d never convince him to, say, come over to your Victorian home in the Castro and install a staircase naked. He did let Blake Little (who first brought Tom to our attention in his book, The Company of Men) shoot him in his woodshop. And he did talk to author, Kevin Killian, about surviving the downturn and where he gets his intense work ethic.

Kevin: My father-in-law was a carpenter in Indiana. How did you get into carpentry, Tom?
Tom: When I was a kid, I was always building things. I was built shelves in my bedroom. And forts — my forts had multiple rooms. My biggest fort had a living room and a porch and a kitchenette and an upstairs with bunk beds. I was always going down to the junkyard and picking up scraps and hauling them home. My bedroom was my workshop. In my early thirties, I hooked up with a construction guy who specialized in fix and flips. He referred me to some of his clients. Then I decided to go back to school to get licensed, so I could start my own company. Since then, I’ve been specializing in high-end interiors, almost exclusively so. Kitchens, bathrooms, decks…
Where are you from?
I was born in Boston, but I grew up in a small town in upstate New York called Hamlin, between Rochester and Buffalo. I came from a working-class family where we thought only rich kids went to college. Everyone had blue collar jobs, so I just assumed that was gonna be my path in life.
When did you move to California?
I came in January 2000 for a life change. Never thought I’d be here this long. I can’t believe I’m still here.
Did you fall in love with San Francisco?
It’s more of a love-hate relationship. For what I do, it’s great because there are a lot of potential clients with the means to work with a designer and clients who aren’t afraid to step out of the boundaries. It’s taken me so long to build my business. To take it somewhere else, and build it up again would just be financial suicide.
Buildings in San Francisco can be so rickety. I can hear everything my neighbors are saying. Are buildings sturdier back East?
The real difference between carpentry done in California and in the East is with the work ethic. Here, it’s laidback, and back East, it’s nose to the grindstone. My northeastern work ethic gives me an edge. I’m the man who arrives fifteen minutes early. I’m the man who goes back after an inspection and fixes every little thing the client doesn’t like.
How has the recession changed the market?
It’s weird, Kevin. Last winter was the first in ten years I didn’t work, and the previous two winters were pretty rocky. In 2007-2008, I was still doing well, but with the economy now, people aren’t doing huge remodels. Instead, they’re pouring what money they have into smaller projects, a kitchen or a bathroom maybe. Plus you’re competing against carpenters from outside the city, guys who are willing to do the same job for less money — though usually not as well. Hundreds of thousands of construction companies have had to shut down over the past few years.
When you walk out onto Market and Castro, go down the block, and see the work you’ve done, do you feel proud?
Because I specialize in interiors, I don’t see that much of my work from the sidewalk. When Harvey’s [the Harvey Milk tribute bar] caught on fire, they had me come in and build a new stage. Sometimes when I’m there, I flash on, ‘Hey, I built that stage…’

The facade that Tom the carpenter built on Capp Street, between 18th and 19th.
It’s the only house with a formal staircase and railings on both sides…

Any regrets about your vocation?
The only regret, or frustration, I have is that I spend all this time making the dreams of others come true, but live in a city where I can’t afford to buy a house of my own.
Maybe that’s why you’ve got such a great body, it’s like a construction you can walk around in, and no one’s gonna foreclose on it. Do you work out a lot?
On and off.
Do you get a lot of action because you’re a carpenter?
Some guys are drawn to a man who works with their hands. I know I am. It’s something I understand.
Maybe after this interview is published, you’ll get even more calls, providing you agree to come to work naked.
Well, despite what some of my clients might want, I try to keep things on the up and up.  I want to be known for the work I do, not how I look when I do it.

More about one of BUTT’s favorite authors, Kevin Killian (and his extensive collection of Amazon book reviews) here. Blake Little’s coffee table book is full of hot working class guys just like Tom. It’s called The Company of Men, and is available from August 22 at his website. Need a little help with your fixer-upper? Tom the carpenter can help.