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  This is one of several Fun Pix resulting from my experiences with Habitat For Humanity.
  KANSAS CITY (MO)    HEARTLAND (KS)                  NEW   Construction How-To articles



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Before it got erased you could have gone here to see a video about a volunteer group's experience on a Habitat site in the spring of 2001.  (At the very end you'll see a person wearing overalls walking with a pneumatic nail gun and then turning and stopping.  That's me, and what got cut is that just after I stopped -- showoff that I am -- I managed to fire not one but two nails directly into the side of a Dumpster about 70 feet away.  Please don't tell on me.)


Above is a close-up of the distal phalanx of my right ring finger.  The nail is positioned vertically near the upper left.  The four domes are blood blisters three days post-whomp.

This was almost entirely my fault.  You see, most Saturdays since August of 1997 I've been going to various Habitat For Humanity job sites in the Kansas City area, offering my amateur carpentry skills to the building of houses near the Catfish Pizza Breakfast neighborhood.

And I mean amateur in all three distinct senses of the word.   The word "amateur" derives from the Latin word "amator," which means lover.  Those of you who took Latin or who work crossword puzzles will recognize "Amo, amas, amat" -- which is the conjugation of "amare" -- as "I love, you love, he loves."  On Habitat for Humanity sites I am an amateur in that (1) I do it for the love of it, (2) I do not get paid, and (3) I am not as good at it as a professional. i.e., I am also amateurish.  I like the idea that amateur used to mean number (1).

Anyway, one fine day in October of 1997 I was working on a Habitat site, attaching fascia to the rafter tails of an eave right next to a triple-sistered barge rafter.  (Aren't all these construction terms cool?)

The barge rafter was in the way of where my ladder wanted to be, so after I teetered my way up there I kind of wrapped my right arm around the barge rafter and held both the fascia board and the nail in place with that hand while I prepared to swing my hammer with my left.  For the record, I am right-handed.

Also for the record, I wield a mighty framing hammer.   Or at least I like to think I do.  Framing is, for me, by far the most enjoyable part of building a Habitat For Humanity house.  Framing is the process of laying out the exterior and interior walls, nailing them together out of 2 by 4 or 2 by 6 studs (Why are they exactly 92 5/8ths inches long?), and attaching them to the deck and to one another.   Framing is constructing the joists and rafters of a roof.  Framing is whomping pieces of spruce or pine or fir together with big old 16-penny nails.  And every square inch of that wood eventually gets covered up in one way or another, which means you can swing your hammer hard and it's OK if you hit wood instead of nail head.  It's not cool, but it's OK.  And those big nails rarely bend, unlike those skinny finish nails.

There's a particular type of excellent 16-penny nail called a "sinker."  Sinkers are coated with a substance that lubricates the nail so it goes into the wood easier.  But there's more.  What's especially handy about that substance is that the heat from the friction of driving in the nail chemically changes it from a lubricant into a sort of glue, so the nail holds better.  Clever, eh?

Framing is swinging a big hammer as hard as you can, as often as you can, and aiming it at a target that is easy to miss unless you try hard.  Good framing is sinking a big nail deep into hard wood with the fewest blows and in the shortest time possible

Good framing is pounding the nail head at least slightly into, rather than merely flush with, the wood.  Good framing is never letting your last stroke miss nail.

Good framing obviously means you hit the nail on the head every time.  And it's doing that over and over again without tiring.  Framing is gangs of fun.

I use a 17-inch, 23-ounce-head, wooden-handled framing hammer.  It is the waffle-faced kind, which means the face of the hammer has a rectangular grid of grooves cut into it.  The idea is that the dozens of sharp edges will grab a nail head a little better than a smooth face, which they do.  (You can estimate the size of the grid by referring to the photo above.)

And it was with that very framing hammer that I whomped, left-handed while teetering on a misplaced ladder and hanging onto a barge rafter, at the nail in my right hand.  And it was at that very moment that a cute girl down below me asked me a question.  Which is how the distal phalanx of my right ring finger came to look that way three days post-whomp.

You too can have the opportunity to whomp your own finger with a big, heavy, waffle-faced hammer in front of several other people by checking whether there's an AFFILIATE near you.  If you're in the Kansas City area go to my page here, which will surely direct you where you want to go next.

If you get a chance to volunteer -- and if you can hammer a nail or help carry a 2-by-4 or paint a wall or sweep a deck with a broom -- you can help build a house that a family and a neighborhood where you live need.

If you show up more than once you might gradually acquire some knowledge and some skills that you can use next time you show up, and you can build from there.  I have, and now I'm half a carpenter.  I even have my own hard hat and everything.


And either way it might be worth your while to detour directly to the Construction Volunteer How-To Articles, where you can prepare yourself.  The thirteen articles so far use up over a hundred PDF pages, and there's almost certainly something in there you didn't know and might want to if you're thinking of volunteering on a job site or fixing up your own house.  You'll learn more than you thought possible about a circular saw and a steel tape measure.  You'll get courses in drywalling and vinyl siding and wielding a reciprocating saw.  And almost nothing funny.  Sorry.


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And you know what else?  If you get as lucky as I have, you'll have the opportunity to operate a Bobcat or a backhoe or an excavator or a front-loader.  If you're a guy, and maybe if you aren't, you know you want to operate earth-moving equipment, but you've probably never had the chance.  In fact, you probably think you never will.

Not necessarily so.


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In the Spring of 1998 I started pestering a Habitat site supervisor about his letting me operate the Bobcat the affiliate owns.  After a while I wore him down, and one Tuesday afternoon while we were waiting around for a cement truck to arrive, he said, "Johnny, wanna' try the Bobcat?"

You bet.

He showed me how to operate the Bobcat, and it turns out it's easy.  There's no gas pedal, no clutch, and no brake.   The throttle is a lever you set and forget, like an airplane's.  There are two hand grips, each of which moves forward or backward, and there are two pedals, each of which independently rocks up or down on a fulcrum like a teeter-totter.

Details.  To move the Bobcat forward you push both handles forward, to move it backward you pull both handles backward.  The more you move them the faster it goes.  To turn left you push the right handle forward more than the left one, and vice versa to turn right.  To turn in your own radius, which you need to do in tight quarters, you pull one handle while pushing the other.  Let go and the machine comes to a stop.  Moving a Bobcat from place to place is almost automatic.  The two handles, all by themselves, are like a steering wheel, a gearshift lever, an accelerator and a brake all in one.

The pedals, which operate whatever attachment is on the front of the Bobcat, are only a little tougher.  The attachment that was on the machine when I used it the first time was a toothed scoop, as you see above.  Press the left pedal backward with your heel and the entire scoop rises in the air; press forward with your toe and it drops.  Press the right pedal backward with your heel and the scoop rotates up; press it forward with your toe and it rotates down to dump its load.   (I've also learned from doing it on purpose that if you raise the scoop as far as it will go and then mash both handles forward the Bobcat will pop a wheelie and stay there while you drive around blithely on just the rear tires.  This impresses the regular volunteers to no end.)

Anyway, to get back to my first Bobcattin' experience, the supervisor said, "See that pile of dirt over there?"


"Move it to there," he said, pointing to a spot twenty yards away.

So I did.  Dear reader (especially if you're a regular guy), you may take my word for it that it is a riot.  Scooping up a half a cubic yard of dirt with a Bobcat and transporting it somewhere else and dumping it is inexplicably fun.  I was smiling, and concentrating, the whole time.

When I got finished half an hour later I reported for my next assignment.  "I've moved that pile for you.  What's next?"  The cement truck still hadn't arrived, so he looked around for a moment and said with a smile, "Move it back."

For a solid week after this first encounter with a Bobcat I exasperated my secretary -- who is also my dear cousin -- with my repeated tales of what I did and how very, very much fun it was.  The following Christmas Janice's present to me was this.

Update of May 9, 2009: A few months ago Habitat issued me my very own key to the affiliate's new Bobcat (which, embarrassingly, sports air conditioning).  Today on a job site I worked with a first-time volunteer, a colonel in the Army named Jason, who showed promise as a future frequent volunteer.  Although he brings few carpenterial skills or knowledge, he is a quick learner, which is almost as good.  As a high-ranking military officer he is trained to be both a leader and a teacher, and he also knows when to follow and learn.  These are all desirable characteristics in someone who can be convinced to return to Habitat sites, because there's often a need for such people to lead the infrequent volunteers.

So I decided to try to convince Jason to volunteer again, and one way I did this was to show him the Bobcat key on my keychain and describe how testeronically fun it is to drive a machine as macho as a Bobcat, suggesting that he might be allowed to do such a thing if he put in enough hours.

Shortly thereafter I asked what specifically he did in the Army and he said, without any apparent suggestion of superiority, "I'm in the armored division.  We drive battle tanks and blow stuff up."

I also got to play with not one but two more earth-moving machines.  Bigger, better machines.  More complicated, more dangerous machines.  The kind the drug label warnings are referring to when they discourage operating heavy machinery.

My mentor this time was Steve.  After everyone else had left the regular construction site one Saturday, he asked whether I wanted to play with a backhoe and a front-loader a couple lots over, where he had been digging a foundation for a full basement (called simply "the hole").

You bet.



This is actually a Case 580 M Super, but it's the same size as the 580 L.  The scoop is at the left, and the backhoe is curled up and ready to strike at the right.  In the background is my nine-year-old's school.


In October 2003 this exact backhoe was used to construct a concrete pedestrian island between the eastbound and westbound lanes of the street in front of it, following which, two days later, it was used to remove that same island.  I think some of my tax dollars paid for this.

The particular backhoe I played with, a Case 580 L, was rigged with a smooth scoop on the front and a toothed backhoe bucket on the back.  It's got a steering wheel and gears to move it from place to place.  Again, no brake and no clutch.

In order to even start using the backhoe you have to decide where to set the entire machine, because a backhoe is operated from a stationary position.   You figure out where you need to be, then you face backwards from there and lower the scoop till the front tires are just barely off the ground.  And you have to think about how to position this huge "foot" -- this fulcrum -- with some care, because it's what you're going to be pushing and pulling against when you operate the backhoe bucket.

Then you spin the seat around 180 degrees to face the backhoe controls, and you set the two outriggers, which are those legs that extend down to the ground and also hold the big rear tires off the ground.

As one of the Habitat supervisors whose first name rhymes with (and indeed is) Kip can tell you, it turns out you shouldn't set exactly one of your outriggers in a pile of dirt you've recently made.  Guess why.

Once you're all lined up you start digging and dumping with the backhoe.  There are three main handles, each of which moves forward or backward, and two pedals, which move forward or backward.

Details.  The backhoe attachment consists of three parts and three joints.   The "big arm" is the main boom, the one that extends from the bottom of the body of the machine.  If you push the right handle forward the far end of that arm drops, which also, of course, has the effect of moving it away from you.  Pull back on the right handle and the big arm rises and thus also moves closer to you.

The "little arm" (these are the terms Steve used) is attached to the distal end of the big arm, and if you push the middle handle forward, the far end of that little arm moves up, which also has the effect of moving it away from you.   Pull back on the middle handle and the far end of the little arm drops and moves closer to you.

The last piece is the bucket itself, which is attached to the distal end of the little arm.  The open side of the bucket, with teeth on the end, faces the operator and digs by pulling down and towards the body of the machine.  Push the left handle forward and the toothed end of the bucket swings up and away from you, for dumping.  Pull on the left handle and it drops and moves toward you for digging.

There are also two pedals, which teeter-totter on a fulcrum like the Bobcat's.  But unlike the Bobcat's they're connected, like the rudder pedals of an airplane.  "Toe" the top end of the right one forward and the top of the left one moves backward, and vice versa.  The pedals are used to swing the big arm (and thus the little arm and the bucket, of course) left or right, for dumping.

The toughest trick with a backhoe is to manipulate the little arm and the bucket, and sometimes the big arm, all at the same time, so that the bucket digs down and at the proper angle.  Get an angle or a motion wrong and the bucket refuses to dig the way you want.  Get it right and it's pleasure to see how fast you can scoop up dozens of shovelfuls of dirt in one uninterrupted series of motions.  Move the big arm wrong and the whole machine rises up in the air (oops), move it correctly and it adds a lot of punch to your digging motion.  It's a ballet for delicate fingers, except the fingers are attached to big chunks of steel that can tip over a bus.

There's a determined simplicity to the arrangement of the controls of earth-moving equipment.  (In fact, there are pictographs next to the various control groups that essentially explain everything you need to know about what they do.)   As Steve said, no doubt in an attempt to flatter me, "Any idiot can operate these things."

In the summer of 2000 I stopped what I was doing for a few minutes to watch a backhoe operator cut in a sewer line to a new Habitat house on Wayne Street in Kansas City.  I was chatting with his supervisor, who at one point referred to the operator, who was still a trainee, as "a natural."

As all three of us watched, a car misdrove down the street and knocked over an orange traffic cone.  I went to go re-erect it, but before I got two steps the backhoe operator raised his right hand with his palm facing me and then immediately made a fist.

Making a fist in this way has a universal meaning on construction sites.  It means "stop."

More on hand signals.  Hand signals on construction sites are a separate and necessary language, consisting mostly of verbs.  You need them whenever the equipment operator can't see what he's doing or whenever he can't hear the people giving him directions.  Some of the hand signals are obvious, such as pointing in the direction you want an entire backhoe to travel.

For a scoop on a Bobcat or a front loader, pointing up or down with the index finger indicates the direction the entire scoop should move.  To indicate a dumping motion of the scoop, here's what you do: Extend your right hand, palm down and fingers pointing parallel to the front of the scoop (we'll assume you're standing to the left of the machine).  Separate your thumb and pinkie finger from the other three and keep the other three together.  Then rotate your hand about the wrist so that your thumb drops 45 degrees or so (and of course, your pinkie finger rises 45 degrees).  If I've described this correctly, you'll see that your thumb represents the front of the scoop and your pinkie represents the back of the scoop, and what you want the operator to do is follow what your hand does.  To indicate a scooping motion you do the opposite, i.e., you raise your thumb and lower your pinkie 45 degrees.  In either case, when the scoop is where you want it to stop, you change to the standard fist sign.

For directing a vehicle to a precise spot, such as getting as close as possible to a cliff edge or attaching a trailer ball to its hitch, you start the process by pointing an index finger in the direction you want the vehicle to travel.  If it needs to move right or left you point in that direction with that selfsame forefinger.  If you've done this part correctly, at some point the vehicle will be moving in a straight line at the proper angle, so the only part left is to get the distance right.  As the vehicle gets within a yard or so, you hold your hands apart, palms facing each other, as though you're showing how big a fish you caught.  The distance between your hands represents the distance the vehicle is from the exact spot.  When the operator sees that signal he knows he's going in the correct direction and that he shouldn't steer any more.  He also knows to slow down to a creep.  And then he knows from seeing your hands get closer and closer together exactly how much farther he has to go, so when your hands high-five each other he'll stop.

One of my favorites among the dozens of construction site hand signals, because it's cute, is the "just a little bit" motion, for example, if you want the concrete truck to poop out just a small loaf of concrete down the chute.  "Just a little bit" (in non-construction settings this same signal means "money," if that helps you picture it any better) is indicated by holding the hand out palm up, then rubbing the thumb back and forth continuously across the distal pads of the other four fingers.

Anyway, back to the trainee backhoe operator.  When I saw him point his open palm at me and make a fist, I did indeed stop.  Then he pointed at the both of us, his supervisor and me, with a forefinger.  When he saw that we saw that, he pointed at his own eyes for a moment with his forefinger and middle finger, la a masochistic Moe.  Then he made another fist at us and repeated the Moe maneuver.   Translation: "Stop.  I want your attention.  Look at me, I'm giving the directions now.  Stop.  Look at me."

Then, just because he could, in one continuous motion he swung his toothed bucket up and out of the trench, dumped his load on the run, and then reached down with one "tooth" and uprighted the cone, all without hesitation and all at great speed.  When I looked at him with naked admiration on my face, he stood up slightly and bowed.

They say good backhoe operators can peel the skin off an onion.   They say really good ones can put it back.


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This photo shows, in the background at left, a Habitat house going up.  Right of that is the Bobcat the affiliate owns.  And in front of that is the toothed bucket of the earth-moving equipment that dominates the foreground, a Komatsu 120 excavator.  It's like the backhoe portion of a backhoe, except giantgantic.


After pestering the guy who owns this excavator exactly twice over a period of a week (and both times I was kidding), he let me operate it!  If you do not want to get me a Bobcat for my birthday, please get together with nine other people and get me a Komatsu 120 excavator.  Excavators are also called track hoes because, as you might be able to tell from the picture, they move on two tracks, like tanks.

Also, this brute is so heavy that it cannot travel on asphalt streets without mangling them, so normally it is transported from site to site on a flat-bed truck.  But one morning it was needed in a hurry on a different Habitat site, and no flat-bed was available.

Here is Kip's solution.  He laid a 16-foot-long two-by-four in front of the Komatsu's left track, and I did the same for the right track.  The Komatsu drove up onto them, which kept the tracks off the street.  By the time the Komatsu got to the end of that pair of two-by-fours, Kip and I each grabbed a second pair of two-by-fours and placed them in front of the ones we had just laid.  The Komatsu drove another 16 feet.  We went back and retrieved the original pair of two-by-fours and placed them in front of the second pair, and the Komatsu drove another 16 feet.  And we repeated the process.

For an hour.

To go three blocks.

And towards the end there the two by fours were more like one by sixes.

But it worked.  Can you think of a better solution?

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But the most fun machine I've played with so far is a front-loader.  The backhoe was a lot bigger than the Bobcat, but the front-loader I played with yesterday was truly huge, at least by my standards.


The Bobcat is small and agile, and it's so easy to operate that it doesn't seem like you have to think much, which is why you can rent one with minimal to no training.  The backhoe is way more complicated, and it requires fine motor control to operate all the handles and pedals at the same time, but at least it's operated from a stationary position, as is a track hoe.

The Caterpillar 939 front-loader I played with yesterday is just a big, dangerous, ponderous brute of a machine that, in the right hands, moves a lot of friable material fast using a big scoop on the front.  You drive it into place, scoop up as much dirt or gravel or whatever it is (the hard part), then drive it elsewhere and dump the load.

And unlike the Bobcat and the backhoe, this monster doesn't have four tires, it has two tracks, like a tank.  What that means is that it has a whole lot more square feet of friction with the ground, plus a whole lot more weight.  It can really dig in.

There are only two controls, a left and right joystick.

Details.  The left joystick moves the machine from place to place.  Push it forward and the whole behemoth goes straight ahead.  Pull it back and it backs straight up (and a backup beeper sounds, which all by itself is pretty much fun if you're a regular guy).  Push the left joystick straight left and the machine rotates left on its vertical axis, and vice versa for rotating it right.  Push it forward and left and the machine moves forward and left at a 45-degree angle, etc.  The joystick is continuously variable, so wherever you move it with your left hand is where the entire machine tries to go.  Move it farther in that direction and it moves faster.  And it can move surprisingly fast, so fast that it kicks up dirt behind itself.

What a great machine.  If you've been wondering what to get me for my birthday (May 28th), I'd like a Cat 939C front-loader, please.  It's huge, it bounces around so much you need a seatbelt when the load shifts or when you crest a hill you've created, and it's just basically extremely macho the way it digs out and hauls such a massive load so well.

After my fun with the Caterpillar I re- and re- and re-enthused to poor Janice about how much fun it is to operate such a machine, to wield such power, and the following Christmas she gave me this.

The right joystick of the Caterpillar 939 controls the scoop and the arm it's on.  Push it forward and the arm moves down, which also has the effect of lowering the scoop.  Pull back on the right joystick and the arm (and the scoop) rises.  Move the joystick right and the scoop's teeth rise up, for digging.  Move it left and the scoop drops, for dumping.  Compared to the Bobcat's steep learning curve, working a front-loader well is tough.  You have to wham the whole machine into the dirt pretty hard -- which all by itself is fun considering how big this thing is -- and you have to set the height of the scoop and its angle with respect to the dirt just right or it won't dig more than half a load.  When you've whammed into the dirt just right, then you mash the left joystick forward at the same time you raise the scoop on its arm and rotate it so the teeth lift up.  If you can manage to coordinate these three motions properly, you end up with a full scoopload all in one shot, which is a good feeling.  If you see an earth-moving machine with less than a full load in its bucket or scoop, you may silently sneer at the operator, as Steve so blatantly sneered at me.

When I finally managed to acquire a full load of dirt, I tilted the scoop up so I wouldn't lose any, then I lowered the boom so the whole thing wouldn't tip over forwards (yep, that can happen) and started to back out of the trench by pulling back on the left joystick.  Steve had told me that was the most dangerous part in this particular situation, and he was right.  The ramp he had created rose up at maybe a 30-degree angle, and because I was hesitant at the top, I found myself tipping forth and back on the centers of the two tracks.  It's a heck of a ride (and for a rental fee of $1100 a month, or if you have a buddy at a Habitat affiliate, you too can enjoy it).  In fact, it turns out there's a bar above the dashboard where you're expected to put your feet so you don't end up pitching forward out of the seat.

After riding out that big change of angle twice in reverse, once at the bottom of the ramp and again, more perilously, at the top, I moved the machine (left joystick) to the dirt pile, where I raised the arm (right joystick back) and dumped the load (right joystick left).  There's something distinctly satisfying about moving that joystick left and seeing so much dirt fall out of the scoop.

I rode this rascal up and down the ramp three times, and it's one of the most rambunctious things I've done.  I wish it on you.

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And it's not like I've led an otherwise particularly safety-conscious life.  I have also done, which I will tell you about later, the following:

  • riding some 50,000 miles so far on motorcycles, most of them without a helmet
  • rappelling down a 70-foot cliff (and later a 30-footer twice)
  • canoeing and rafting a couple dozen class-3 rapids
  • bungee jumping
  • snorkeling in a shark-infested reef in the Philippines
  • scuba diving with minimal training for the first time in the excellent Hanauma Bay in Hawaii
  • body-surfing in a place where the waves at the shore raise you up and then disappear, dropping you ten feet onto the sand (oof)
  • riding in a sailplane
  • driving ten laps on a deeply banked half-mile oval track in a Winston Cup-class car
  • riding in a hot-air balloon
  • falling off a 60-foot cliff
  • "walking the plates" on a Habitat house, which means walking on a grid of two-by-fours that are 97.125 inches in the air
  • walking along the top of the entire length of the wall north of the Liberty Memorial tower in Kansas City, which along much of that length is maybe 30 feet above a concrete sidewalk, at night, under the influence of a condition that makes you want to do that
  • climbing from the 95th floor of the Sears Tower to the top, with a buddy (Hi, Dave M.) through the maintenance shaft ladders, while wearing a suit and tie, in the dark
  • teasing my girlfriend, who tickles
  • riding in the Lake Placid (Olympics site) bobsled
  • riding (read operating) a one-man luge sled at Lake Placid
  • parachuting, rather poorly, from 2,500 feet over Greenfield, Kansas
  • pretend-piloting not one but four civilian small aircraft, one a twin-enginer
  • piloting a SIAI Marchetti two-seat fighter plane trainer in six laser dogfights, one that for a moment reached six Gs, against a fellow amateur.  At one point I was so engrossed in tracking down my opponent to blast him out of the sky that I lost track of something more important, which is that there's a limit to how well even a fighter plane can fly.  I have a videotape of the entire flight, and there's a point at which I was flying straight up for too long, which is when the real pilot next to me said, in a voice as calm as you please, "Johnny, you have zero air speed."
  • climbing a 150-foot antenna tower, at night, while under the influence of a condition that makes you want to do that
  • walking into and doing business at two of the most dangerous housing projects in Chicago, all alone, while wearing a suit and tie, against the insistent advice of two co-workers who used to live in them (the projects, not my suit and tie)
  • climbing up and down a 100-foot long firetruck ladder.


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