It's a great feeling when everything clicks during a house-framing job — the work goes quickly and turns out right, and the crew has a good time doing it. But smooth, glitch-free projects don't happen by accident. They require good organization, the right tools, and a production mindset.
Our company builds 10 or more houses per year; we frame them in-house with a four-man crew that also does exterior finish. We can produce this amount of work because we've broken the framing process down into a series of tightly organized tasks. What follows is an explanation of how we squeeze maximum efficiency out of each step of our process.
Prepping the Crew
No matter how experienced the members of a crew are, only one person can be in charge. Production falls off quickly when every decision must be discussed or decided democratically. But that doesn't mean the person running the crew should treat the other carpenters like a bunch of robots.
As chief of my crew, I want everyone to understand what we're going to build. Therefore, I give each framer a copy of the material takeoff and a set of prints with the understanding that he should study them before we start the job. For the most part, the guys have been very good about doing this.
We'll pay each framer for up to two hours of study time. It's a worthwhile expense because it reduces the time I have to spend explaining things: The framers know what to do and are ready to work the moment they arrive on site. We also buy them some framing books and send them to trade shows, where they can learn more about building.
You can't be productive unless materials and supplies arrive when you need them. We let the lumberyard do takeoff for the floors and walls. But if the roof is stick-framed, I do that part of the takeoff myself; when the lumberyard folks do it they provide various-length pieces for the jack rafters, and it can take a lot of head-scratching to figure out which rafter comes from which piece of stock. In short, it's just easier if we make the list.
I want the stock to be long enough to get two jacks — a long and a short — out of each piece; that way, there will be fewer sizes to keep track of and fewer pieces to handle. Since we don't want all the lumber to be delivered at once, we order it by task: first-floor framing, first-floor walls, second-floor framing, second-floor walls, and — finally — the roof. This saves us from having to sort through large piles of lumber and leaves more room to move around on site.
Scheduling. In most cases we have the first-floor framing delivered before we get to the job site. We tell the lumberyard which material should be on top. I like to schedule delivery of the first-floor-walls framing package for midmorning on our first day, so if we finish framing the floor we can start cutting door and window packages.
We schedule deliveries two to five days in advance. If we are going to need I-joists, we order them a couple of weeks ahead of time because our lumberyard doesn't have many in stock. After receiving the materials, the lumberyard puts the order together, bands it, and leaves it sitting there until the day of delivery.
Setting Up on Site
About four years ago, we bought a forklift. A good used one might cost $30,000 to $40,000 — but it saves an incredible amount of labor.
Ours changed the way I look at framing. Before, I'd have the lumberyard drop the load close to the house, and we'd work our way down through the pile. But now, with the forklift, we can spread material around in such a way that groups of carpenters can work on various tasks or in different areas without having to go far for stock.
For example, when we're framing walls, we use the forklift to put the stud material in the middle of the floor, within easy reach of all the framers. Since there isn't always room to put 20-foot plate stock on the deck, we place it where the framer who's plating can reach it without leaving the floor. As soon as the first wall is up, we can put material where the wall was when it was lying down.
Plate stock is stacked on sawhorses at a cut station on the garage slab, from where the material can easily be moved to the deck.
When there's no room for cutting on the deck, the forklift comes in handy.
Carpenters use a cart to move precut studs to where the walls are being framed.
A forklift places joists right where they're needed.
It akes the strain out of lifting a long ridge beam.
We also use the forklift to stand walls and lift beams too heavy to lift with the available manpower.
The machine saves us from a lot of other lifting, too — not just the heavy stuff, but any material higher than the first-floor top plates. This reduces our fatigue level so we make fewer mistakes and have fewer aches and pains at the end of the day.
Cut station. We usually set up a cut station in the garage, with a sliding-compound miter saw opposite sawhorses stacked with stock for sills and cripples. The horses are at the same height as the cut station; to get material, all the framer has to do is turn around and grab it.
If there's enough space, we put the wall sheathing on the floor next to the stack of wall studs. Otherwise, we leave it on the forklift just off the edge of the deck, at a height where it's easy to reach. If we need the forklift for something else, we simply put the load down and then pick it up again later.
No matter what kind of work you do, breaking the job into small, simple tasks will increase production. Doing a whole lot of the same thing all at once is always faster than switching back and forth between different tools and materials. If one carpenter is cutting door and window packages, I don't want him to stop until all of them are cut for that floor of the building. Or if a couple of guys are assembling walls, I want the two of them to do all the walls at once.
I try to divide the work into tasks that take about the same amount of time to complete; that way, we all finish at once and can team up differently on the next set of tasks.
Breaking the job down this way is also a good way to train new carpenters, because they can learn the process one simple step at a time. Once the crew has been through our framing process a couple of times, everyone knows how to perform every task — which means that if one person finishes his task early, he can go on to the next one, or help someone else finish what he's working on. In anticipation of this possibility, I always try to let people know what to work on next.
We don't have the same carpenters perform the same tasks every day or on every project. Instead, we switch around, so everyone stays fresh and no one gets bored.
Making parts. The framing goes faster if you precut and preassemble as many parts as possible. For example, when we're framing walls, one framer uses the miter saw to cut all the door and window cripples and window sills.
A carpenter precuts the cripples, rough sills, and headers for the first floor of the building and stacks them out of the way.
A framer assembles king stud-trimmer combinations from precut parts. Cripples, headers, and rough sills await assembly below.
and another cuts all the headers, labels them by size, and stacks them nearby. There's no need to nail headers together because we cut them from solid stock.
Parts like corner studs and king stud-trimmer combinations do have to be nailed together, which we like to do in advance. We use a circular saw to cut trimmers at the lumber pile; then we assemble the pieces nearby. Once the parts are nailed together, we stack them on the deck next to the stud pile, or put them on a cart so we can move them out of the way or bring them close to where we're framing.
Less cutting time. One way to reduce cutting time is to order precut studs. Another way is to gang-cut rafters, joists, stair stringers, garage-wall studs, and the like. Gang-cutting is not only faster, it's more precise, because all the parts are the same.
Using the right tools for gang-cutting saves time. A chain saw works well for joists.
While a worm drive in a swing table speeds the cutting of birdsmouths.
The 10-inch Big Foot can cut three 1 1/8-inch LVL stair stringers at a time.
If we have a lot of small pieces of the same size to cut, we set a stop and cut them on our miter saw. This is how we cut window sills, cripple studs for doors and windows, and many other elements.
Having the right tools at the right time can really boost production. Although a forklift is a big-ticket item, there are plenty of less expensive tools that can also make a difference.
Layout tools. If you're not using a construction calculator, you're wasting a lot of time. We use a Construction Master to lay out diagonals, figure out rafter cuts, calculate gable studs, estimate materials (it's easiest to work in feet/inches), and perform countless other tasks.
For long measurements, we use a 100-foot steel open-reel tape. The smaller, cheaper, pouch-size reels aren't as good; they wind slowly and get lost easily. Steel tapes last longer and are more accurate because they stretch less than fiberglass.
Stud layout sticks really speed up layout, too. I've been using them for about four years; currently we have a fixed-arm model from Big Foot (702/565-9954, www.bigfoottools.com), which can do 16-inch and 24-inch on-center layout.
Good layout tools make a difference. A carpenter measures wall diagonals with a 100-foot steel tape, which is more accurate than fiberglass tape because it doesn't stretch.
An aluminum layout stick is well worth the $30 investment.
At $30, it's paid for itself many times over.
Some carpenters think layout sticks cause cumulative error because they're short (4 feet long) and must be "walked" down the stock. When walls are long enough for this to be an issue, I make a mark every 20 feet (an even multiple of 16 inches) along the plate and restart layout from there.
We rarely use spirit levels for layout; lasers are faster and more accurate. To plumb walls, create square layout for mudsills, and project layout up to joists and rafters, we use a PLS5 (Pacific Laser Systems, 800/601-4500, www.plslaser.com). And to create level reference lines for tasks that require level layout — such as installing windows and building soffits — we use a rotary laser.
Cutting tools. We keep a chain saw in the truck for cutting beams and headers and for gang-cutting joists. It's a good tool for demolition, which is sometimes necessary even on new construction.
We like to gang-cut our roofs; to do so we use a chain saw with a custom-made guide — similar to the Headcutter — and a Big Foot circular saw with a swing table. With its 10-inch blade, this saw can cut 33/4 inches deep. We use it to gang-cut plates, stair stringers, and anything else too thick to cut with a 71/4-inch saw.
To cut out window openings, we use a plunge router with a flush trimming bit. This method eliminates the need to measure and mark, and it's faster than using a recip saw and cleaner than using a chain saw.
The author's crew uses a router and flush trimming bit to cut out window openings because it's faster and neater than using a recip saw.
Whenever possible, they install hardware with a dedicated metal-connector nailer or, in tight quarters, a palm nailer.
Finally, cleaning with a backpack blower takes less time than sweeping with a broom.
Fastening tools. In our area, it's necessary to install a lot of framing hardware — joist hangers, straps, hold-downs, and so forth. To avoid nailing everything on by hand, we use a metal-connector nailer and, when space is tight, a palm nailer. I can't imagine installing hardware without these tools.
Some hardware must be fastened with Simpson's SDS screws. Since the holes aren't piloted, and driving them takes a lot of torque, we put them in with a big right-angle drill — the kind a plumber might use.
A few years back, we switched to coil framing nailers because they hold about five times as many fasteners as stick guns. The nailers are heavier, but they reduce the amount of downtime needed to reload. To me, the tradeoff is a no-brainer.
Other equipment. Although the subs who form and pour our foundations do a pretty good job, they occasionally make errors. For example, they'll put a hold-down strap in front of a door opening, or place a J-bolt where a post needs to be. Then we have to cut the piece of hardware off and replace it with a bolt epoxied into the foundation. This happens often enough that we keep a rotary hammer around so we can drill holes in concrete as needed.
In addition to sawhorses, we have a wheeled metal cart that we stack material on. With the cart, we can move items like studs, corners, and king stud-trimmer combinations around the floor without using the forklift.
About a year ago, we bought a backpack leaf-blower for cleaning off the deck. This machine gets the job done faster than a broom and makes it easier to keep a clean, safe work area.
Maintaining a Production Mindset
It's important for the entire crew to approach the work with a production-oriented attitude. This doesn't mean "just slap it together" — it means being open-minded enough to ask on a regular basis, "How can we do this more efficiently?" We encourage everyone — not just the lead carpenter — to be imaginative about everything we do. Some of our least experienced framers have come up with some very good ideas — maybe because they look at things with fresh eyes.
Thanks to the Internet, I've been able to communicate with framers around the country, and I've learned a lot from them. But I've noticed that not everyone is capable of listening to others and learning something new. I've run into framers who are so invested in how they learned to frame that they're unwilling to try anything different. In the past, that approach may not have been a problem. But today, with tools, materials, and code requirements changing so quickly, framers who don't adapt will be left behind.
Tim Uhler is a lead framer for Pioneer Builders in Port Orchard, Wash., and a JLC contributing editor.