To the dismay of his mother, who was hoping her son would go to college and become an attorney, Andy Engel is a carpenter by trade and a carpenter at heart. Yet he spent much of his career in home building not working as a carpenter. For far more time than he installed trim and stairs, and built spec houses, he worked in a lumber yard, at the most important home building magazines in the country, and at the industry’s most important trade shows. At 57, Andy is swinging a hammer again, and loving it.
I recently exchanged email with Andy hoping to discover how he created such an interesting career path, which it turns out was a combination of hard work, curiosity, and the willingness to follow his heart. I asked him to share his thoughts on the state of the building industry, the value of trade shows for builders, and any advice he could share for someone considering entering into a career in the trades (hint: Andy says, go for it). You can read our exchange below and I hope you find it as interesting and beneficial as I did.
BP: How did you get into the trades?
AE: I wanted to be a carpenter since I was a kid. This led to some battles with my mother, who was convinced I should be a lawyer. After high school, I took a job as a carpenter’s helper, installing expanded metal stucco lath. Once cut, handling expanded metal lath is akin to handling razor blades. After a few weeks, I tired of the constant bleeding, so I asked for my last check and left. That actually soured me enough on carpentry to try some other things—working at a home center, community college classes, and eventually, going to Rutgers University. I flunked out my first year, having discovered that beer was more fun than studying. That summer, I worked scraping paint for a friend’s father, and then found a real job working at the Warren Lumber Door Shop, in Washington, NJ. (see You’re too Smart to be a Carpenter).
BP: You have worked as a carpenter, a builder, an editor for home building magazines; you have been a presenter at and coordinator of trade shows. Please give us the short version of your career…
AE: The Door Shop held my interest for three years and working in a lumberyard was a perfect start. I got to know the culture of building, the products, the local contractors. In many ways, it was the best job I ever had. I learned from some of what’s called the Greatest Generation; WW2 vets like Bob, Werner, and Harry. The lessons weren’t just about building, but about how a life can be lived. I loved being a part of that world.
But the economy was booming and I wanted to go out on my own. I left there, took most of the summer off to travel to the Olympic Peninsula, via Florida, Texas, and Salt Lake City (where I spent a few weeks hanging around with my high school best friend Patricia, who’s now been my wife for 30 years). When I came home to NJ, I’d spent so much time sleeping in a tent that it took a few weeks for me to be comfortable in a bed again. But that didn’t matter—I went out on my own as a carpenter. I took on any kind of work from framing to trim. In time, I specialized in trim, stairs, rails, and decks. Around that time, Fine Homebuilding magazine assumed a major importance in my life. It was the formal education in building that I never had. I read every issue, cover-to-cover.
Still, I wasn’t the best businessman, so it sure helped that my wife had a good job with insurance and everything. But there came a day when she just couldn’t handle a corporate job anymore and she up and quit. Two weeks later we found that she was pregnant with our first child. I managed to double my income that year. And about two years later, I went into a partnership with Bob, one of the owners of Warren Lumber, and then later, his son, building spec houses. That lasted about five years, when I realized that I just didn’t want to be in a partnership anymore. The 80-hour weeks were keeping me from seeing my wife and kids (two of them now), and I was about as unhappy as I’d ever been. At the same time, I saw a note Fine Homebuilding magazine that read, “Editor wanted…”
Honestly, I wasn’t even sure what an editor did, but working at Fine Homebuilding? How cool would that be? I cobbled together a resume, wrote the best cover letter I could, and sent them in, never expecting anything more than a businesslike rejection to come in the mail in a few weeks. What I got was a nice note from Joyce, Fine Homebuilding’s admin at the time, saying that things were busy, but my resume was one they’d kept and that Kevin Ireton, the editor, would call me sometime.
More weeks passed, but Finally Kevin called, and we talked for I don’t know—half an hour maybe. The results were inconclusive, but I was tickled to have had the chance to talk to the guy who ran the magazine that had such an impact on my life.
Still more weeks passed. Then, Joyce called and asked if I’d come to Connecticut for an interview. I should allow a full morning, she said. Well, the interview went until 3 in the afternoon. I drove the three hours back to NJ in a weird combination of elation and exhaustion, unsure if I’d gotten the job, but delighted to have peeked behind the curtain.
I got the job. And that led to leaving active building for 22 years. I floated around a little, working at Fine Woodworking for a year, then jumping ship to run Professional Deck Builder magazine for six years, during which time I also started doing live building clinics at The Remodeling Show and JLC Live, two trade shows aimed at residential builders. I went back to FHB in 2013, then left again in the fall of 2017 to manage the clinics at JLC Live and The Remodeling Show.
BP: What are you doing currently?
AE: My jobs in construction media were experiences only a few people ever have. All along, I felt lucky to be there. But I always missed working as a carpenter every day. I missed the creativity. I missed the camaraderie of being part of a local building culture. Working the trade shows, I was a guy in a suit walking the floor, surrounded by the Carhart-wearing tradespeople who I really felt were my peers. I lasted a little more than a year in that job. Two weeks ago, I left media and started as a lead carpenter for Hudson Valley Preservation, a design/build remodeling firm that specializes in old houses.
BP: What were the greatest challenges you faced in your career and what do you think are the greatest challenges for builders today?
AE: In the beginning, it was facing my friends and family who thought I was selling myself short by becoming a carpenter. Later, it was mastering the business skills needed to run a profitable business (an area I could still improve on). Of course, becoming an editor—literally walking into Fine homebuilding’s offices with sawdust in my pockets—was a consuming task. And recently, becoming a carpenter again. Frankly, I’m 57 years old. Guys my age are supposed to be thinking about golf and retirement. Neither prospect appeals to me (my pastime is mountain biking). I wondered if my body could still do it. So far though, so good. I think being in decent shape from throwing my bike and my body around in the woods has eased the physical aspect of the transition from corporate hack to carpenter. I was sore the first week, trudging up the stairs at the end of the day, wondering when I could pop a few more ibuprofen. Two weeks in, I’m trotting up the stairs and laying off the NSAIDs.
What challenges builders today? Well, we know a lot more about building science. The materials and appliances are higher tech. To be a good builder, you need to be smart and aware. But that’s an easy fix—we have this thing called the internet where you can find the sum total of human knowledge. A bigger challenge is finding good workers, particularly young people looking to make a career in the trades. Every builder I know bemoans the lack of good help. We’re paying the price for several generations that glorified college-educated, white-collar workers and denigrated people who get their hands dirty. But here’s the truth: Those white collars need the blue collars more than the other way around. Without the people in the trenches, everyone else would freeze in the winter, broil in the summer, starve, and suffer from untold diseases when their sanitary systems failed.
BP: You have attended trade shows and conferences as a builder looking for information, an editor looking for content, and you have presented at and coordinated presentations at shows. What do you think are the value of trade shows for builders?
AE: Shows are tremendously valuable for builders. There are classes off the show floor that focus on business topics. A lot of builders are good technicians and bad business people. To succeed, a builder needs to be both, and the shows provide construction-focused business lessons. On the show floor, you’ll find the live action clinics I used to manage. These are typically presented by well-known FHB and JLC authors such as Mike Guertin, Myron Ferguson, and Gary Striegler. If you want to learn the right way to flash a window, shingle a roof, attach a deck ledger, or finish drywall, there is no one better to teach you than these people. Additionally, building material manufacturers have booths at these shows. If you want to stay on the cutting edge of this rapidly evolving segment of the industry, shows are the place to be.
BP: Any particular trade shows or conferences that you recommend?
AE: Of course, the ones I used to work for—JLC Live, The Remodeling Show, and Deck Expo. These shows focus on small and mid-sized contracting firms. The International Builder’s Show is much larger than any of these, but doesn’t have as many show-floor clinics. I believe it’s intended more for high-volume builders, and it can be overwhelming. If you specialize in kitchens and baths, the Kitchen and Bath Industry Show is definitely worthwhile. And if you’re an excavator or landscape contractor, the Green Industry and Equipment Expo is a must see.
BP: What advice would you give to someone considering a career in the trades today?
AE: Do it. There’s a shortage of good workers. The money can be pretty damn good. Consider attending a technical high school or college, but don’t expect that to teach you all you need to know. Find a good company to work for, one that treats you with respect. Turn off your phone and be present at work. Don’t bitch when it’s hot or cold or raining. Just show up every day, do the work, and make an effort to learn everything you can. Don’t be afraid to change jobs if you need a greater challenge. Read Fine Homebuilding and The Journal of Light Construction. Attend the shows mentioned above. And be proud of what you learn to build.