People Behind the Walls

Editor’s note: This post is the first from our friend Cameron Turner, an accomplished woodworker based in Englewood, Colorado. We met Cameron at our 2019 summer workshop, after which he wrote an article for us about reproducing Henry David Thoreau’s desk. Mike and I have had many fruitful conversations with him over the past couple years, and we decided that we wanted our readers to benefit from his insights into woodworking, the natural world, and teaching young people. So, we invited Cameron to begin blogging alongside us. You’re in for a treat.

John Cranch, Plasterer (1807)

I’m not one of those perverse souls who actually enjoys hanging drywall, taping, and mudding.

I do, however, deeply respect the people who do. The first time I saw someone break down a four by eight sheet of drywall, it was early in my high school teaching career. I was chaperoning a service trip to New Orleans with a bunch of high school seniors. We were helping install some new interior wall framing in a community center in the Lower Ninth Ward, and a crackerjack framing crew from the St. Bernard Project showed me and a couple of nervous seventeen-year-olds how to run a utility knife along a straightedge to score the surface, then snap it. (One of my students actually shrieked when the drywall broke neatly in half. She immediately apologized, telling us that she thought it was the framer’s knuckles that had made the sound.) After helping him drive some screws and secure the panels, the foreman handed us some mud pans brimming with gelatinous joint compound before providing a tutorial on how to coat and carefully feather seams.

The kids got the hang of it a lot faster than me. (I, in fact, parked my carcass directly into a mud pan perched on top of a sawhorse while eating some nuts on a break.) Within a couple hours, though, all of us were singing along to some of Nashville’s latest pop country blaring out of the jobsite radio while mudding and hanging ceiling tiles. We weren’t pros, but we were getting it done. In fact, for a solid stretch of about four hours, no one glanced at a phone, which for a group of teenagers is about as common as a total solar eclipse.

A couple months later, I was talking with one of those students while waiting in the cafeteria lunch line.

“It’s the weirdest thing, Mr. Turner,” she told me. “But every time I’m a room now, I wonder where the mud lines and seams are. What the wiring looks like behind the walls and how it runs back to a panel, and whether the person who installed the baseboard left gaps. Sometimes I actually squat on my hands and knees to look at walls more closely.”

She hadn’t lost her mind; in fact, she’d probably regained some measure of the intellectual curiosity that formal American education sometimes bludgeons out of students. As Matthew Crawford wryly puts it in his Shop Class as Soulcraft (a book recommended in Mortise & Tenon Issue Nine by Nancy Hiller):

“If you don’t feel that you can have an effect on the world, you’re not likely to feel responsible for it. And at that point maybe it makes sense to retreat into a virtual world where you’re offered a kind of fantasy of agency and competence. Playing video games, you blow stuff up and you get blown up, and you hit reset. So there are no real consequences to your actions. Unlike, say, wiring a house. Where, if you get it wrong enough, the house will burn down.... [D]ealing with material stuff can be an antidote to the narcissism that modern culture relentlessly offers to us.”

Selling young people on mudding Sheetrock instead of beating the latest Call of Duty sounds like a job too tall even for Tom Sawyer. I know. Even the humblest tool, however, transforms its user as much as it does its intended material.  

Cameron Turner


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