On being ... tricks of the trade

By Ingrid Sapona

As a kid, I was more inclined to spend time doing crafts than reading a book or playing sports. I don’t know if it’s because I liked working with my hands or not, but I also always liked learning about how things were made. So, I was more likely to watch shows like This Old House than the Brady Bunch.

This Old House made a lasting impression on me in a couple ways. First, I was amazed by the fact that there were specialized tools for all sorts of things. I mean, a miter box for cutting right angles – how clever is that! And then there’s the router. To this day, I think routers have to be one of the most fascinating tools. Hell, even the dictionary definition of router makes them sound cool: a machine with a revolving vertical spindle and cutter for milling out the surface of wood or metal (according to Merriam-Webster.com).

The other thing that left a big impression on me was the idea that every trade has its own tricks – those little extras the lay person simply doesn’t know to do, or doesn’t think would make a difference in the finished product. Tricks of the trade don’t necessarily make things easier. In fact, often they’re additional steps – things you can skip without causing any real problems. But, doing them always pays off because the finished product looks better and more professional.

Though I’ll never be converting an old farmhouse into a stylish inn (like the folks always seemed to be doing on This Old House), the show left me with an appreciation for the little tricks and techniques that elevate competent handiwork to the level of craftsmanship and gave me a thirst for learning about such tricks with regard to projects I undertake. For example, in high school I used to do a lot of needlepoint. I reached a level of skill that many admired and that I was pleased with, but I was always striving to make my work more professional looking.

One day I was showing a project I was working on to a woman who made a living selling her needlework. She commented on the fact that I used black to outline part of the design. She then suggested I try dark brown, explaining that black draws the eye in and therefore de-emphasizes the rest of the design. Dark brown, she said, offers the contrast necessary for the outline effect, but it doesn’t create a visual distraction. That afternoon I bought some dark brown wool and tried it. I was astounded by the difference. It was a simple trick, but one I’d never heard, or read, about and would never have come up with on my own.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done any projects with my hands, but this spring I needed to repair some gashes on my boat’s hull that happened last fall during haul out. I was nervous about doing the work because the last time I did such work was during the first season I had the boat. Back then, not knowing anything about fiberglass, much less about the “gel coat” finish, I asked around and learned as much as I could about how to do the repair. I did an ok job, especially when viewed from a distance, but every spring when I’m washing and waxing the hull, my handiwork mocks me. And, given the location of the gashes, I worried that if I didn’t refine my gel coating technique, the boat might end up looking like something only a mother could love.

So, over the winter I took a fiberglass repair course. It was great because it demystified the processes and helped me get over my fear of the chemicals involved. The hands-on work was also useful because it helped me get a good feel for using the materials. Of course, I was well aware that practicing on a horizontal flat surface in a temperature-controlled setting (the classroom) was very different from working on a vertical curved surface (the side of a boat sitting in a cradle) outside in early March.

Because the course was only four weeks, we didn’t have time for more than the basics in terms of practicing finishing techniques, but the instructor was enthusiastic and eagerly shared his knowledge and experience. As we were working away, he shared many tricks of the trade. We didn’t have time to try most of them in the classroom, but he suggested we try them on our own boats.

One trick he mentioned was to polish the finished surface with a particular brass polish. When he suggested it, many who were familiar with the product were skeptical because they thought doing so might leave a yellowish tint. Though I was familiar with the polish he mentioned, I didn’t have any at home. But, when I was out buying all the stuff I’d need to do my boat repairs, I also picked up a can of the polish, figuring I may as well give his suggestion a try.

Well, you probably know where I’m going with this. I diligently followed all the steps we learned and I applied every trick he mentioned – including using the brass polish – and I’m thrilled to report that the gel coat work turned out terrific. Besides being proud of my workmanship, I’m grateful for having had a tremendously skilled instructor who graciously shared so many tricks of the trade.

I know some may think that my fascination with learning tricks of the trade is a manifestation of a somewhat unhealthy striving toward perfection. Or perhaps it’s a reflection of an abnormal fear of remaining a jack of all trades, master of none. Could be… or maybe it’s just an appreciation for detail and for a job well done.

© 2009 Ingrid Sapona


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