The Craftsmen’s Tales

Island workers are laid back. We have lives as well and people have to understand that.” – Billy O’Callaghan, Mason, Vineyard Haven

The Mason

The job I’m doing now, the woman is so sweet she makes muffins every day. She says, “Oh good, the mason’s here. You’ve made my day.” That’s probably what she says to the plumber too.

I’ve had good people all the way. Nobody’s ever stiffed me. People call me directly, but I don’t mind. I like to work with people, let them have an input, and I try to give them what they want. Mostly I build fireplaces from scratch, sometimes brick, sometimes stone. I usually work on houses that aren’t insulated yet.

It’s hard on your back and arms. I go to a chiropractor once a month. I get a massage every three weeks. It’s just maintenance. In the summer I have a helper to do some of the heavy work. I won’t do more than eight hours a day.

I go from the homeowner to the architect. Usually the contractor is on the job and he talks to people and knows what they want. Now they can use digital cameras, scan pictures to the homeowner, and get their

But I’m independent. If I don’t like someone, I don’t have to work for them. I rarely get a contract. People get to know you. At the high end, you don’t have to give a price anymore. People just want you to do the job.

When people hire me, I usually give them a timeline. Scheduling is hard, especially when everyone wants it at the same time. You have to have several jobs going at the same time. And you can’t be there the day they want. Sometimes a little job is nice for a few days. A big job can take six months, and include several fireplaces.

It’s very hard to refuse work, so if it rains in the spring when it’s so busy, it’s hard to schedule since most of my work is outdoors. When the weather breaks, everybody’s going to be, “Billy, we need you.” This last few months has thrown my schedule completely off.

A lot of people come in the summer and expect you to be there right away. They have projects and they want them done. But the Island workers are laid back. They have different schedules. They might want to coach soccer for their kids. We have lives as well and people have to understand that.

I just did a house with California architects and they want everything that’s so different. Very complicated: hollow block, concrete, a one-inch herringbone firebox. I do steps also, and I did a recreation of an eighteenth-century room: a big fireplace with a beehive oven on the side. Recently I needed to find sea stone and Johnny Hoy had a stock of round stone and helped me. He couldn’t have been nicer.

I love the Island. I work one-on-one with good, friendly people. I like working on my own. I can be flexible if I have to do something with my kids: my daughter Gillian, ten; my son Liam, thirteen. I like working on my house. I play hockey. I have a great life.

The Cabinetmaker

Istarted working as a carpenter when I was fifteen, and became a cabinetmaker on the Island in 1986. The majority of my work is kitchen cabinets. The hardest thing about what I do is trying to make a good living. I’m not getting rich doing what I do. I’m always explaining to people that I could make more money as a carpenter than a cabinetmaker, but I like working for myself in my own shop. I love working at home because I can see my kids, Forrest, who’s twelve, and Maya, who’s ten. My wife Kathryn is very understanding about the demands on my time and the money fluctuations and all that.

People say, “Just give me a rough idea,” and it’s a really hard thing to do, because as soon as I say a number, that number gets stuck in their head. Then if I figure it out and it’s more than that, they feel as if they’re getting robbed. And on the length of time it takes, you hear people saying they just wish we would be honest and say we can’t do the work by then. Contractors often say, “I wish people would take no for an answer.” It’s not as cut and dry as everyone thinks it is.

Honesty is an important factor in keeping everything going. The homeowners need to be honest and realistic about their needs, and the contractors, in turn, realistic about their ability to provide that. And it’s very important that people know what they’re asking for. I would definitely tell someone, “Here’s what you can expect.” You’re always learning, and that’s why it gets easier.

Inevitably, I get hammered with a ton of work in the middle or late spring that needs to be done by Memorial Day or July 4. If I’ve filled my schedule without anticipating the contractors who I’ve done a lot of work for in the past, and want to maintain my relationships with, I’m going to have a problem – you end up working twice as hard. On the other hand, if nothing does come from them, I’m stuck without work.

I have developed an instinct about knowing what people will be nice to work with. What sets off my reaction is when people say, “I have this little, teeny job. It shouldn’t be very hard.” All sorts of alarms go off.

But I have lots of clients who are just great. They have realistic expectations, and the jobs turn out really well, and everybody feels great in the end. Anybody who’s working for anybody really will go the extra mile for a customer who appreciates their work. Constantly complaining and criticizing, and the response is not good. You can see it on the job.

Rosalie McCullough once called me on New Year’s Eve and she was dancing on the table that I built for their house in Maine.

That just made me smile.

The Painter

Nothing is too hard in dealing with people. Sometimes, after finishing, I have to go and check the job. I am responsible, you know what I mean? If I finish the house, it may need a couple of touch-ups to be perfect. We go back there and look. We make people very happy, because if I do a job for you and it looks nice, then you’ll give my name to somebody else, your friend or somebody, and I’ll get more jobs.

We did a house with a lot of decoration, a lot of color. The walls were one color, the crown molding another color. Different colors in different rooms. And when the woman comes to see it she’s so surprised and very happy. She says, “I don’t know what my address is anymore because the house looks so different.”

Old houses need a lot of preparation. They’re big projects. I do power washing. I wash the molding with bleach, seal it up, fill the holes with wood sealer, and caulk. I like to do one coat of oil base primer. I use Bin. It’s a lot of work. I don’t like to touch up. I like to make a fresh start. New houses are easy if you have a good guy, very professional, to tell you what it will involve. I love working on new houses.

We write down everything that we’re going to do: ceiling, doors, fill the holes, take off the hardware, put back the hardware, cover the floor, clean the trash. Someone comes in, I ask, “How many windows do you have? How many doors? Old trim?” And I give a price. But before I give a price, I need to see everything. I ask the people, “Are you going to put crown molding here?” I write it down. I put in how much the material costs and how many hours we’ll work.  Everything is explained. If there’s something we forget, we get a call, and we go back.

I don’t like to take two jobs at the same time. If you want to paint your house next Monday, I’d say no, I have another job to finish next week. After next week, I’ll start your job. I don’t like to have two jobs together. I have a lot of good work on Martha’s Vineyard, and I have two people I work with. Sometimes when my guys do a good job, when they do hard work, we get tips.

Sometimes the people will not be there when we paint. I have sometimes thirty-five keys to houses. The people who come here in the summer, they call and ask me, “Can you come and paint the bathroom, or the ceiling?” And I go.

I tell the people, if you pick a color, write the number of the paint on a piece of paper and stick it on the wall. If I think they’re making a big mistake, I tell them. I tell people if the walls are large, it looks good if the trim is a different color. If the wall is small, the same color trim looks good. A woman said she wanted a stain, not a paint. I say, “I can’t put stain on a trim if it’s been painted. The paint would come off in maybe six months.” She didn’t believe me. I said, “Call Edgartown Hardware and ask.” And she called and said, “João, I’m sorry. You were right.”

I tell my guys, “If you’re confused, stop, don’t worry about it, call me and I’ll come there.” If you have a small job, maybe I’ll ask, “Can I do it next week?” And I don’t care if it’s a big job or a small job. If you call me from Gay Head, I’ll go there.

I work sometimes twelve hours a day. Sometimes we start at 5 a.m. We don’t stop for nothing. But if the guys work too long for too many days, they get too tired. I like seeing a good job. I need that. They have to do it the way I do it.

The Carpenter

Everybody is so busy. I’ve had people praising me on the telephone when I’m telling them that I can’t do the work. I say, “I can’t help you.” And they say, “But you’re the only one who called back.”

The thing that I dislike most about this job is when, before the homeowner knows anything about you, the first thing he says is, “Are you like all the rest of the Island help?”

That bothers me to no end. I’ll never forget one gentleman I did a roof for who started talking about Island people. I got very upset. I was almost at a point of being argumentative. He says, “Well, I’ve had some guys in the past,” and
I said, “I’m not one of those guys from the past.” There are multiple, multiple, great contractors on this Island who do incredible work.

I tell people to shop around. The Island is a small place and word of mouth does go a long way. There’s so much work on this Island. Whoever you get, make sure they’re insured. And don’t be upset if the schedule isn’t perfect. Sometimes you just have to sit back and grin and bear it. Give the contractor or the builder the benefit of the doubt. They’re doing the best they can. Sometimes architects tell customers to put in a deadline and assign a penalty clause. I knew someone who told a customer, “I’ll put that in my contract only if you agree that you will pay me for every additional day that I finish early.” So they took that clause out of the contract.

I also get calls from people pretending to want work done, but it’s really someone who’s just shown up here and wants to find out what price they can charge somebody else. They don’t know what they should charge.

I don’t mind making changes. This is the homeowner’s home, so if they want a change I have no problem with that. A lot of people can look at things on paper, but they can’t visualize what it will look like after it’s completed, so you do the best you can to help them. There are reasons for things having to be how they are sometimes, and you have to get that across to the homeowner.

I don’t know a contractor who hasn’t had to make changes – move a wall, change a closet, slide a window or something. Once I had to remove the same window five times. I had someone say he wanted to move a wall two inches. I’ll do whatever I can to make someone happy. It can be as good as you’re willing to make it. The best thing is to have the homeowner look at the work and show complete and utter joy. Absolutely.

The hardest thing is when you order something and somewhere along the line things get messed up. There’s setbacks. Once we were doing a job in Vineyard Haven that had a bunch of very, very, very expensive windows and doors. And they were manufactured improperly to the tune of $87,000. So I noticed the defect and we ended up having to send them all back. If you really let it bother you, you’ve got to find something else to do. I can get wound up, but there’s no sense in it. It doesn’t get you anywhere.

I’m a native to the Island, actually third generation. My dad, Leslie, was a carpenter on the Island all of his life. My brother, David, is a contractor in Hyannis. We’ve worked together for years. I started at K.T. Galley when I was in high school. Growing up and working with these old-timers, I used to love hearing their stories. They talked about guys building houses on the wrong lots, tearing the wrong barn down. I’ve been very fortunate. I haven’t had that happen.

The Electrician

My dad started the company probably thirty years ago, and my brother Leon and I have expanded it to encompass all the modern electronics. Leon’s in charge of the service side of the business and I work with the contractors. It’s really hard to find good electricians to work for you. They are a limited resource.

I understand that people complain that they can’t get an electrician. I’ll be frank: service work is not as profitable as contractor work, and most of the problems we have with people who either contest their bills, or don’t pay their bills altogether, are with service customers. I’ll get a call and someone will say,  “Thanks for coming over, it came out great, but my uncle’s an electrician and he says it shouldn’t have taken three hours, it should have taken two hours, and back home I could have gone to Home Depot and bought this light ten bucks cheaper.”

So when we get these kinds of calls, and my guys could be on a contracting job making more money, it leaves us with a sour taste in our mouths. The problems are few and far between, but they leave such a bad taste. We scratch our heads and say,  “Wow. Where did that come from?”

But if someone called me and said, “You know, it’s cold out. When your guy gets here I’m going to have hot chocolate and cookies on the counter for him,” my guys would fight over going to that job. Those are the kinds of things that make a giant difference. I have one service customer who calls, and every time my guy gets to the door, she hands him a tip. People need to know that if a customer exhibits some kindness and some trust and some humor, that’s going to go a long way. And I get a good feeling when I can help someone out.    

Scheduling is very hard with service calls. People want to know what time you’re going to be there and how long it will take, and I can’t tell them that. I can tell you what day we’ll be there, but after that it’s a phone tag usually. Keep calling in a friendly manner. Just say, “Hey, it’s me again. I’m just checking in.” It definitely helps. If you call us like you’re calling your buddy, give us some slack, and be persistent, then you’ll have the best luck.

And any information people have about their problem helps immensely. I can tell what most problems are before I get there. Most people are pretty educated. They check the circuit breakers: “We  checked this or that and the lights still don’t work.”

People need to be flexible or they need to arrange to have the house open. It’s really an organic process, but it works out. My brother will call in the morning, and whoever he gets ahold of he goes to. But if someone calls and they’re a sweet person, then one of my guys will stop on the way home, after working ten hours. If one of my good customers calls me at eleven at night, I’ll get in the car and go.

Between March and July, most projects are in their final stage, so that is the worst time to call. People have to realize that’s the busiest time of year. It’s a fact of life.

As tradesmen on Martha’s Vineyard, we’re very lucky because we have a market willing to pay for our skills. One of the things that I feel most proud of is our ability to have learned and be able to implement the whole future of wiring.

For a home theater or a media center, the architect will ask me to come in, look at the house, talk to the customer, decide what level they want – video screens on the wall, like a web page for your home, that control lights, sounds, alarms, heat, weather station, a total electronic house – and I’ll design something. I love the challenge of good systems.

The Plumber

I know electricians and plumbers are the most in demand and the most complained about on the Island. Housing comes into that as well. There’s a lack of qualified help. It’s hard to pay people enough so they can actually afford to live on the Island.

But this is a special place to work because you have a lot of craftsmen who are really craftsmen, people who wants to use the best quality parts and are going to care more about their job. They’re scratching their heads and making things work right.       

You get more artistic license here. Before you could basically just plumb everything pretty much the same. We would get more houses drawn on napkins than anything else. Now you really need to know roughing dimensions and plans. They say be careful what you wish for. You start looking in those magazines like Architectural Digest and are awed by the beauty of those houses. And now here I am working on those types of houses.

I’ve been on the Island since 1980. I started working for Edgartown Hardware when Lauress Fisher owned it – way back when. After that Kenny Galley bought the plumbing business from him and I worked for him until I went into
business for myself seventeen years ago.

Scheduling is a big thing. Springtime is always the busiest time of year. People have a tendency to call you and say they’re coming down tomorrow or something like that. They’ll give you a call on Wednesday saying, “We’re going to be on such and such a boat Friday and could you turn the house on?” They’ll think far enough ahead to make the ferry reservation, but they won’t think far enough ahead to give their plumber enough warning to get the house ready for them. So I require at least two weeks’ notice.

Year-round Islanders already know that everybody’s hectic at crazy times during the year. If it’s a customer of mine, unless I’m going totally crazy, I try to make sure it all gets done. I try to allot a certain amount of time every day for that. But the biggest thing is you have to establish a rapport with your service person, whoever it is.

Basically it takes patience on both sides. I’ve had customers call me who say, “If you can’t do it, I’ll get somebody else.” That’s an immediate turnoff. Just being reasonable is usually the best bet. Just saying, “Tell me when you can do it.”

Unfortunately, with plumbing work, you can touch one thing and all of a sudden your whole day is ruined. You figured two hours for that job, and you could be there for four or five. You can give your best estimate of time, but that doesn’t always work. If I’ve told somebody I’ll be there on a certain day, the best thing I can do is call you and explain to you why I can’t do it.

I think the best thing in the world is the cordless phone because you’ll get a call from somebody with no heat, for instance, and say, “Can you go down in the basement and check your heat? Can you check your gas tank? You have a switch here, it’s supposed to have a red plate on it. Check your emergency switch by the back door.” And they find the switch is off. And something like that saves them a service call. I think everyone should know where their main
water valve is, so if there is a leak they can at least shut the water off.

As far as pricing, some people ask ahead of time how much and I say, “Less than a million.” It just depends. If you’re going to spend the time to call four different plumbers to have them price the same toilet, I find that kind of amusing. And I don’t think you’re really going to be saving that much money and you’ve wasted a couple of hours which, if you’d just gone to work, you’d have made more than the money you’re saving.

People who live here year-round don’t price out. But there are people who are happy to spend the day on the phone and call everybody. Those are the people I just don’t return a phone call to.

Everybody has to have their own time. Fitting in family life is pretty tough. You just have to mellow out after awhile. It took a while to fall into a rhythm. That’s another thing. It gets a bit much when people call on weekends with emergencies. People will call and expect you to be there on Saturday and Sunday because that’s the time they come down.

I started my own company and I found myself getting up early in the morning to do paperwork and getting ready to answer the phones and stuff and going off to work, then coming home and doing the same thing at night and then starting all over again.

Right now I have two employees plus myself year-round. I do a lot of service work, oil burner work, heating work – the whole gamut of plumbing. I’m a small shop and I don’t do as many as the bigger shops do, but that gives me the opportunity to keep a close eye on the job and make sure it goes the way I think it should.