Dateline: 14 December 2016
38 years ago I was in the building trades program at Alfred State College here in New York. It was a two-year program but I only had enough money to go for one year.
So, I never got a degree, but getting official degrees in higher education was never important to me. I just wanted to learn about things that interested me. And, after working the summer of '77 helping to restore an old Inn in Vermont, I was interested in carpentry.
My objective back in those days was to learn a manual skill (at least one) that I could use to make a living. And that's what I did. In retrospect, the one year of building trades education was time and money well spent.
The first project we undertook as a class was to make a sawhorse. Each student made a single sawhorse by following a sawhorse blueprint our teacher (Mr. Burdick) gave us. I saved that blueprint for many years (I wish I still had it).
Making a sawhorse, according to the supplied blueprint was an excellent project. We were graded on it and Mr. Burdick told us that he was going to be looking closely at how tightly the legs were mortised into the top. We used a handsaw and chisels to make the pocket for each of the legs.
What I remember of this project is that my fellow classmate, Jim Schillinger, had the tightest mortised fit in the class. It turned out that he had prior carpentry experience. But, as I learned later, he also soaked the end grain of his sawhorse legs with water so they swelled up tight. Mr. Burdick never knew.
A good sawhorse should be light in weight, yet strong and stable. The sawhorses we made way back then were just that. Once they were made, our class went on to use them for the rest of the year as we built a house.
When I got out of school and got a job working in my community for a local contractor, I made myself a pair of sawhorses based on the blueprint from school. I put a lot of time into the project. My thinking was that my sawhorses should be an example of my skill and attention to detail. Once they were made, I carefully painted my name, H. C. Kimball, on the horizontal crosspiece under the top.
My sawhorses got a lot of comments and were incredibly useful. I even made a pair for my boss as a Christmas gift one year. On the night before Christmas, I snuck them into his yard, put them on the lawn in front of his front door, and covered them with a tarp. He was surprised and appreciative. That's a good memory.
After five years working for that contractor (and learning a LOT), I went to work for another local contractor. My sawhorses served me well, and were recognized as a remarkably useful tool.
Before long, I organized an off-hours (on a Saturday) sawhorse-making party. Several of my fellow employees each made ourselves a pair of new sawhorses, according to my design. Our boss supplied the wood. We were a dedicated crew.
My sawhorse design followed me into 10+ years of self employment as a remodeling contractor. I painted Bestbuilt Construction on the horizontal wood piece for part of those years (the partnership years). Then, H.C. Kimball & Co. for the rest of my self-employment years.
In all my years as a carpenter and remodeler, I never saw another tradesman with saw horses like mine (except, of course, the guys I worked with). But a lot of other tradesmen noticed my horses and commented on how nice they were. And they didn't just look nice—they were versatile and useful.
I'm pretty sure that the basic design of my horses is somewhat traditional, meaning that it was in common use by many carpenters in the first half of the 20th century. But, for unknown reasons, carpenters stopped making such horses, opting instead to make some sort of heavier, bulkier sawhorse, using 2x4s and plywood.
When I left self-employment to become a state prison employee, my sawhorses were in rough shape (they don't last a lifetime when really put to use). Lacking a place to store them, I left them outdoors behind my workshop. Eventually, they disintegrated to the point of uselessness. That's when I took the broken one you see in the picture at the top of this page and stashed it under one of my storage sheds. I saved it to use as a pattern to make another pair of sawhorses..... someday.
That someday came a couple months ago when I got involved in a community project, making a shed for an old classmate of mine. I couldn't imagine taking on that job without a good pair of sawhorses!
So, the day before the project, I made the two sawhorses in this next picture...
Mr. Burdick would surely not give me a good grade for those horses, but I made them in just over an hour, and my objective was pure utility—not to showcase my skills.
The wood to make the tops was from old 2x6 boards I had on hand. The rest of the wood came from a packing crate that once held chicken plucker bearings (an item I sell in my Planet Whizbang mail-order business). So those horses cost me nothing.
Here you can see them being used on the shed-building project...