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The Down to Earth Woodworker
By Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

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Hiring It Out

Speaking of language, when I decide to hire a professional, I say I am "hiring it out," as in, "I ‘hired out' the electrical work," or "I ‘hired out' the concrete work." The combination of words is odd, but generally everyone knows what I am talking about. So, I have a question: Does it bother you to "hire out" work that you know you can do yourself? It bothers me… a lot. But I'm getting over it. Sort of.

If you are a woodworker, just starting out or with years of experience, you are likely a pretty "handy" person in general. You can probably install a sink faucet, replace a light switch, hang a curtain rod, clean your gutters, and paint a room all by yourself with no outside help. I'll bet many of you have hung drywall, trimmed doors and windows, installed shelves, fixed the toaster, and in a pinch, even tinkered with the heat or air conditioning. So, with basic "do-it-yourself" skills, no fear of trying things new, and a solid work ethic, why would you "hire out" anything to professionals?

Of course, some folks "hire out" everything. Perhaps they have no mechanical skills, no tools, and no interest or perhaps they have no time due to jobs, kids, etc. Last year I drove thirteen miles to a friend's house to replace a battery in a smoke detector. He couldn't find anyone to "hire it out" to, so in desperation he called me. You might think that is a little extreme, but I have also gone to his house to change a light bulb (really), pump up a tire on his lawn tractor, replace the pneumatic closer on his storm door, and to clean the lint out of his clothes dryer duct. Okay, the light bulb was in the oven, but still, geez! Now this guy is a special case… he's a college professor… so I get that he can't actually "do" anything… yep, that was a cheap shot, but I say the same thing to his face, and to all his college faculty buddies, so I am comfortable with my irreverence.

Another friend has skills, energy, and the desire to do things himself, but no time. He leaves his house at 5 AM every morning and gets home after 5 every evening. A long commute and long work days, three children the oldest of which just started first grade, and a large suburban lawn that takes two hours to mow, all contribute to a need for occasional outside help. Three kids also eat into disposable income, so I help out with projects around his house when I can, but he has to "hire out" some things… he simply has no choice.

The neighbor across the road and south a quarter-mile is at the opposite end of the spectrum. He has never hired anyone to do anything. Adamantly refuses, as he says, to pay someone to do something he can do himself. Unfortunately, he also works five days a week, and every project he tackles seems to take forever, so it seems like nothing ever gets done. Sometimes I just want to go to his house, spend a few days, and get some of the most obvious stuff done, but I know he would never accept the help. He's fiercely independent.

For me, "hiring it out" is a tortuous decision. It runs deeply and seriously "against the grain" to hire someone to do something I know I can do myself. If a project or problem crops up and it is a job I haven't done before, I am confident I can pull it off. And if work needs to be done and I don't have the right tools, I find myself justifying a new tool purchase by the money I will save doing it myself.

Sometimes the ultimate decision to "hire it out" is driven by expedience, sometimes by priority, sometimes by local building codes. Last year I installed a new post light in the front yard. I bought the light, dug the trench, dug the hole for the light post, but then called an electrician to hook everything up because if a local town official drove by and saw me laying wire in a trench he would have had me drawn and quartered. The electrician got the required permit, charged me an exorbitant fee, and did an otherwise easy job, but I didn't have to worry about making worse the already tenuous relationship I have with local bureaucracy (I should have never argued against that $1.2 million project that should have cost $700K, ‘cause those city council guys really need their kickback money… uh oh, did it again!). If the post light and wire were to have been installed behind the house, out of sight, would I have "hired it out?" Well, I will never admit to a hypothetical, particularly in public.

Where I live, there are weather considerations. Some projects require good weather, and since the weather here is only mildly predictably fair for about a two-month window, it is critical to jam a lot of projects into a very short period… expedience may therefore drive the decision to "hire out" work because I can only get so much done myself during those few short weeks of good weather. For example, two years ago I spent the better part of two days seal-coating my asphalt driveway. This year, I hired an asphalt sealing company to do it. They did the same job in about 3 hours… in, out, and done. It cost about double to "hire it out" but that extra two days to spend on other projects was worth it. As a bonus, they used asphalt material that I believe, based on a couple of months of wear and tear, is better than the stuff you buy in 5-gallon cans in the big box store, and think of all the time and effort I saved lugging all those cans home!

There have been occasions when I have hired someone to do something and the results were disappointing. Of course, being somewhat handy, I tend to critique other people's craftsmanship, not in a nit-picking way, but more in a post-project sort of reminiscence, like, "He did a pretty good job, but I would have done it a different way." What I am really doing is not criticizing another person's work, but actually beating myself up for paying for something I could have done myself. In those instances, I have to remind myself that time-savings was the goal, and that was achieved.

So, when do you "hire things out?" Does it bother you as much as it does me?

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Steven Johnson is retired from an almost 30-year career selling medical equipment and supplies, and now enjoys improving his shop, his skills, and his designs on a full time basis (although he says home improvement projects and furniture building have been hobbies for most of his adult life). Steven can be reached directly via email at sjohnson@downtoearthwoodworking.com

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