Not too many years ago, a carpenter would have been proficient
in framing, siding, interior trim, and even cabinet and
furniture making. Although there may be some tradespeople who
still wear the many hats of a true journeyman carpenter, the
reality is that most have chosen to specialize in one area.
This is especially true in the competitive, fast-paced realm of
new home production building. In the Charlotte, N.C., area,
where my business partner and I work as interior trim
carpenters, the landscape is dotted with countless new home
developments flush with retirees and northerners escaping harsh
winters. Capitalizing on the influx of people into the Sunbelt,
many large national builders have set up operations to cater to
these new arrivals.
We decided to specialize in servicing the needs of these large
national builders, so we've had to develop systems to cope with
the large volume they require. In a sense, we've created
subspecialties within the already specialized trade of interior
trim carpentry. Our current methods allow us to produce a
high-quality interior finish for our customers while working
quickly and efficiently. In this article, I'll focus on the
three major subspecialties that enable us to trim hundreds of
houses a year with surprisingly few people.
Rough Trim Crew
We start with the "rough" trim crew; this is the group that
trims what I call the meat and potatoes of a house. To
guarantee that this crew can work as efficiently as possible,
we first make sure that all the material is stacked in the
garage or the house. By doing that, we avoid an unnecessary
trip or a lost day.
Next, my partner or I make sure that all the appropriate door
swings are clearly marked on the doorjamb rough openings. If
the house has been primed or the drywall has been
splatter-textured, it may be necessary to remark the door
swings. This step is important, because it enables the
carpenters to start spreading the doors throughout the house
right away without having to consult the blueprints.
All the termination points of specialty trim such as crown,
chair rail, wainscot, and so forth are next marked on the
drywall in the appropriate rooms. Although we specialize in
tract housing, a number of builders we work with are now
offering semicustom homes, so marking out the specialty trim
accurately is crucial.
Trim upgrades are clearly defined for us by the builder's
sales center, which typically posts an option sheet on site for
us to consult. This careful communication helps to ensure that
customers get the upgrades they are paying for. It also helps
to create uniformity in the builder's houses, so a customer can
get the same finished product as a model home she visited in a
Once these tasks are complete, the rough crew is prepared to
work with few impediments. On occasion, a slight problem may
arise — a door rough opening that is too large or a bowed
stud in a wall, for example. Minor problems like these are
communicated directly to the building superintendent, who then
makes the necessary repair.
A precise spec sheet from the builder
clarifies trim options.
Stocking the site with the complete trim
package and marking door swings and special trim locations
ahead of time (top) allow AMK's carpenters to do what they do
best — work competently and efficiently. A two-part
carbon form (bottom) records missing items before they get to
be a big problem.
As a matter of good recordkeeping, as well as to limit the
potential blame game, we note any such problems, whether minor
or major, on our company's two-part carbon forms. We record the
date, subdivision name, lot number, and the supervisors of both
our crew and the builder. If there's a need for extra material,
for example, the quantity ordered is recorded and both the
builder and our office get a copy. This serves two purposes.
The first is that it prevents the inevitable confrontation that
would happen when we needed the material to finish the house
and no one remembered whether it was ordered. The second is
that it allows us and the builder to track trends. If, for
example, both our office and the superintendent notice that a
particular floor plan is always short of base molding, then a
revision can be made for all future takeoffs. This is
especially helpful when a new home plan is developed. Using
this method in some of the larger subdivisions, we have gotten
material takeoffs so accurate that we've eliminated returns and
saved the builder the cost of leftover material or
Stair & Rail Crew
Assuming everything goes as planned, the house is then ready
for our next subspecialty, the stair and railing crew. Although
we call them our stair and rail crew, they concentrate mainly
on railings. In our area of the country, most stairways are
prebuilt in a factory and set in the field by either the frame
carpenter or the stair maker. Nevertheless, our crew is able to
site-build stairs when it's needed.
Although the stairs are prebuilt, the railing systems are not.
Depending on what the customer selects or the style of the
home, our crew might encounter post-to-post railings, volutes,
pin-top easings and goosenecks, or occasionally wrought iron.
We supply the stair crew with a well-appointed van equipped
with any tools they might need — the usual trim equipment
such as miter saws, finish guns, and table saws, as well as
routers, a biscuit joiner, an assortment of clamps and glues,
and, for the occasional blocking installation, a framing
Adding missing blocking for a stair rail
rosette from the back of the wall produces an invisible
Blocking is critical for a secure, sturdy rail connection when
the rail and rosette intersect with a wall. Unfortunately, the
needed block is often overlooked by the rough carpenters. Our
first reaction used to be to rip open the wall and nail a block
in from the front side, but we've learned that it's far less
obtrusive to cut the drywall on the back of the wall. After
locating the stud bay where the blocking is to be installed, we
cut the drywall very carefully so that the same piece can be
reinstalled for a perfect patch. After the block is nailed off,
we screw the drywall patch back to the studs and mark it
clearly with an X so the touchup crews won't miss it.
In addition to the necessary tools, we also stock a large
assortment of fasteners, wood plugs, and extra rail fittings
such as goosenecks and easings, just in case of the rare
mistake. Our stair crew requires little supervision; they're
seasoned veterans and are more than capable of spotting
potential problems. Instead, at this stage, my partner or I
take the time to make a trim punch list. If we notice anything
that's missing or not up to our standards, we'll have the rail
crew complete the punch-out before they leave. Victims of their
own efficiency, our rail crew is rarely unable to complete at
least one house's rail system in a day. Rather than have them
unpack all their tools and start a second house, we typically
use their time to catch loose ends. Sometimes the "extra" time
can be used to build specialty items such as bookshelves, art
niches, or mantels.
Although there are local competitors who specialize only in
the fabrication and installation of stairs and railings, our
system is both efficient and cost effective for our customers.
Because we eliminate the need to bring in another
subcontractor, we avoid the scheduling conflicts that might
arise. For example, when our company installs both the trim and
the railings, we're clear on who's running the base cap on the
stringers, and how the various baseboard termination details
will get built. Although items like these may seem trivial, we
aim to finish the house as close to 100% as possible before the
painters are scheduled to begin. We learned long ago that a
return trip into a production house is neither cost effective
nor good for our reputation.
Our first phase is typically finished when the rail system is
complete and the house is completely trimmed. Later, after the
painting is done and the finish floors are installed, we bring
in our "lockout" crews. In our area of the Southeast, lockout
entails installing all the interior doorknobs, exterior locks
and deadbolts, house numbers, and kickplates, and running any
shoe moldings on hardwood, tile, and vinyl floors. Depending on
the scope of work, it might also include installation of bath
accessories such as toiler paper holders, towels bars, and
Lockout crews install door and other
hardware and fine-tune the finished job.
Early on, we couldn't rationalize how these functions fell
under our scope of work, but we've since come to use the
lockout as a fine-tuning process. Any doors that need to be
adjusted or trimmed are done at this stage. Exterior doors,
which are almost always set by the framers, are given a final
adjustment so that they operate easily for the new owners.
Plus, we have one last opportunity to correct any small
mistakes or to finish any task left hanging. For example, the
lockout crew sometimes has to patch in small sections of base
molding that we may have been unable to complete during the
first trim — for example, next to base cabinets that were
not yet set. Lockout gives us a chance to catch these things.
Upon completion of lock, the house should be totally finished,
according to our scope of work.
An added benefit of our lockout process is that it creates a
great opportunity for us to try out potential carpenters before
throwing them into the faster-paced rough crews. It's become a
sort of minor league for our company. We feel it provides a
great advantage for a new carpenter to see what we expect in
the finished house. By creating a familiarity with the final
process, we also believe it leads to greater efficiency when
trimming new houses. Nothing can be more counterproductive than
having to explain every detail of what we expect a finished
house to look like or having the carpenter feel that he has to
ask lots of questions before installing trim. Many of our
long-term carpenters started out on our lockout crews and still
fill in there when needed.
Uniformity and Flexibility
In conjunction with this informal training process, we also
try to keep the same group of carpenters working in the same
product line when possible. One of the biggest demands that our
national builder clients make is for a uniform finished
product. One builder told us that they like to enter a house
and not know what area of the country they're in. Needless to
say, that sort of uniformity doesn't happen overnight, so it's
crucial for us to maintain a stable group of employees.
Fortunately for my partner and me, our carpenter turnover has
been very low. In fact, nearly two-thirds of the carpenters on
our jobs have been working with us for at least three years.
This stability has helped eliminate what I call the "A-team,
B-team mentality" — what you get when you hire some
really good carpenters and some not-so-good carpenters.
Instead, we like to employ exceptional carpenters and excellent
We realized a long time ago that things will not always go as
planned. People call in sick, trucks break down, and houses are
not always ready when a builder says they will be. By
accounting for the many variables of completing a house quickly
and efficiently, we've created a system of redundancy that
allows everyone to settle into their own routine, performing
the tasks they enjoy most and reaping the satisfaction of great
productivity and a job well done. At the same time, there's
just enough flexibility to prevent anyone from getting bored.
Because our carpenters are versatile, if we need someone to
change gears and pitch in to finish a job on time, it's not a
The result is a system that allows us to trim several homes a
day without having to compromise our quality, while providing a
satisfying work environment for our carpenters.Keith Kellyruns AMK Construction in Charlotte, N.C.,
along with his partner, Wally Ackerson.