Handyman Heroes

...and what you can learn from them

Learn about top “handymen” across the country who ply their trade under unusual circumstances or show an inspiring commitment to their craft, and have special insights and advice to inspire the rest of us.

Photo courtesy of Golden Gate Bridge

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

Herb Gabriel: High-altitude painter

The Golden Gate Bridge, one of the world’s toughest painting projects, will celebrate its 75th birthday next year. A rugged group of ironworkers and painters repairs and paints the bridge’s steel while suspended high above the Golden Gate Strait, battling high winds, salty air and dense fog. Herb Gabriel has been part of this elite group for 30 years. He started as a lane worker setting up cones down on the highway, and now he’s a chief bridge painter running a crew of seven men.

Best part of his job: There’s no contest: “The view. It’s just spectacular. Not a lot of people get to climb up on the bridge, and for me it’s always felt like a privilege.”

On working up high: “If you’re afraid of heights, you shouldn’t be working up here. But once you’re up here, all the fear leaves your body and you feel lucky to be one of the chosen few who get to work up on the bridge.”

Toughest part of the job: “The weather is the big unknown. From one hour to the next, the weather really changes. Sometimes it’s so windy you can’t even walk across the bridge. On those days, we paint inside the honeycomb-shaped shell.”

Herb's Painting Pointers

Prep work: “It’s the hardest part of any paint job. Without good prep, your paint job will look good for all of six months. No one likes to do the scraping, sandblasting or caulking, but it’s the most important part of painting.”

Painting metal: “Match your metal to the primer. Every metal requires a different kind of primer and final coat. You need to etch aluminum and seal bare steel before painting. If you use the wrong primer or don’t prep it properly, it’ll look good for six months and then it will fail.”

DIY tip: Herb uses chemical etchers to prep the metal for painting the Golden Gate Bridge. You can achieve similar results on your metal at home by wiping it down with distilled white vinegar (and rinsing it well) before priming.

Paintbrushes: “We use some special gooseneck angle brushes to reach behind rivets and bolts. But we also use high-quality regular brushes like you can get at any home center. Cheap brushes won’t hold up, on the bridge or your house. Take your painting seriously so you don’t have to redo it anytime soon.”

Painting process: “There are permanent air lines, water lines and electrical lines set up on the bridge, and much of the work up high is done using pneumatic paint sprayers. If we’re working down closer to the road, we use brushes and rollers so we don’t get paint on the cars.”

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Eric Mortenson: The Da Vinci of decks

For the third year in a row, Eric Mortenson has been named a Twin Cities Best Contractor by Angie’s List, the largest home improvement review service in the United States (angieslist.com). Winners are in the top 1 percent of U.S. contractors of the 18,000 eligible for the award. Mortenson specializes in high-end decks and three-season porches, and his clients call him meticulous, driven and hard-working. According to one satisfied client, “The building inspector said he seldom sees such craftsmanship and quality anymore.”

Construction philosophy: “I build everything as if I were building it for myself. When your work becomes art, and you’re really focusing on quality and beauty, the rest of it takes care of itself.”

On materials: “It used to be I built 20 percent composite and 80 percent wood. In the last three years, it’s changed completely and 80 percent are going with composite. I like to use composites on the horizontal surfaces and cedar for the railing. Cedar is beautiful, it’s stronger than a composite rail, and having a little bit of wood in there gives the overall deck a less sterile feeling.”

Determining a successful project: “I always try to do something on every job that the client didn’t expect. It really doesn’t take that much longer to do something that’s got well-thought-out, elegant details in it.”

What experience has taught him: “You need to have a complete vision and see the finished product before you start. The magic is in the details. You need to know how you’re going to finish off that corner, how that border is going to work, and how you’re going to tie it to the house before you even buy the materials. When I was younger, I thought I could figure it out as I went, but that doesn’t work well.”

Eric's Deck Building Secrets

  • “Sikkens Log & Siding is my favorite stain for any exterior wood vertical surface like garage doors, deck rails, etc. It’s a two-coat system that costs about $80 a gallon. It’s expensive, but well worth it. It’s stunning and looks like an interior surface, and it’ll hold up for five or more years in between coats.”
  • How to dig footings fast: “Rent a Toro Dingo auger for a half day. They rent them all over the U.S., they work in all sorts of rough soils, and they make an awful job a lot easier.”
  • “For putting in joist hanger nails, a palm nailer is a huge time-saver. My first choice is a pneumatic air nailer because it makes the process fast and it’s very powerful. But my Milwaukee battery-powered palm nailer can also come in really handy, especially in tight spots and awkward positions where dragging around an air hose is inconvenient.”

Sikkens Log and Siding

Photo courtesy of Toro

Dingo auger
Battery-powered palm nailer
Pneumatic palm nailer
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Chedric B. Jordan: Presidential plumber

Chedric B. Jordan spent eight years as a Navy Seabee (the construction force of the Navy and the Marines). He worked as the President’s plumber at Camp David from 2000 to 2003 and served in Okinawa and Iraq. During his second deployment in Iraq, he was shot while on duty with the Marines. He is currently working as a civilian plumber and HVAC technician at Fort Greeley, Alaska.

On working at Camp David: “Camp David is basically the president’s resort, and you end up rubbing elbows with the President and dignitaries from all over the world. You have to do your job, but you also have to provide polished service and be very well mannered. No rough and tumble stuff allowed.”

The worst moment on the job: “In Iraq, I had to crawl underneath a chow hall and into a grease trap. It was pretty nasty. I smelled bad for three weeks no matter how many showers I took.”

Advice for DIYers during a plumbing emergency: “A leak often causes people to hit panic mode and they don’t stop to think about why something is happening. It might be as simple as shutting off a valve right in front of you. Examine the simplest fixes first and work your way up to the most difficult.”

DIY smarts: “Take a moment to get to know your plumbing and heating systems. Almost like a fire drill. Find valves and shut them off and see what it affects. When a problem happens, you’ll have a better idea of what to do. It doesn’t hurt to label things either.”

Chedric's Secret Weapons

  • “PEX is great for homeowners because it’s widely available, easy to use and you can fix it yourself. Not every system for connecting PEX to fittings is available everywhere. But if you have a choice between the cinch system (with stainless steel cinch rings) and the crimp system (with copper crimp rings) I’d go with the cinch system. The tool is smaller and the same tool can handle four different ring sizes (3/8 to 1 inch).”
  • “This pipe cutter is a lot quicker than the standard ‘C-clamp’ style. You just snap it on the pipe and twist. It also fits into tight spots where a standard cutter won’t.”
  • “The Ridgid Faucet and Sink Installer is one of my favorite tools. It’s got all the tools you need in one package to completely install a new sink and faucet unit.”

PEX cinch clamp fastening tool and cinch rings
General
Wire ATC12
AutoCut
Pipe cutter
Ridgid sink installer
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Gabriele Rausse: Thomas Jefferson's garden guru

Legendary Monticello, featured on every nickel minted since 1938, was Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia home and 5,000-acre plantation that evolved over 40 years. Its gardens were and still are a botanic showpiece, a source of food, and an experimental laboratory of plants from around the world. Since 1995, Gabriele Rausse has overseen the propagation of hundreds of fruits, vegetables and herbs at Monticello that Jefferson and his contemporaries grew during the 1800s. One of Rausse’s primary tasks is to collect, preserve and distribute historic plant varieties that remain largely unknown to modern gardeners.

Jefferson’s gardening legacy: “Jefferson was one of the first ‘organic’ gardeners and one of the first to make the connection between healthy soil and healthy plants. He raised and ate things back then that people didn’t even consider edible during his time. He was an incredibly adventurous eater and he left detailed notes about everything he ate and planted.”

Monticello’s purpose: “Sharing seeds and plants was part of Jefferson’s mission. We want to re-create and save those species that he experimented with and that have withstood the test of time so people can grow a wider variety of things in their own gardens.”

Gabriele's Food For Thought

  • “Grow heirloom tomato varieties like Purple Calabash, Mortgage Lifter and German Johnson. They’re tough, disease resistant and delicious.”
  • “Fertile soil is the key to helping your plants survive a drought, too much rain and bad storms.”
  • “Every year we learn something from our mistakes that helps us to be better gardeners the following year.”
  • The connection between happiness and growing good food: “I’m Italian, so food is important to me. A good meal makes my day. As I said to my wife (an American), I can survive with a sandwich, but a sandwich doesn’t make me happy. I think Jefferson felt like that.”

Photo courtesy of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation

Heirloom tomatoes
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Craig Minasian: Disney's plant (and animal) wrangler

Whether you’re 6 or 60, you can’t help but be tickled by an arborvitae elephant or a rhododendron rabbit. In the 1960s, Walt Disney turned the centuries-old art of topiary into an enormously popular part of Disneyland’s big “show.” There are now more than 100 whimsical characters and animals sculpted out of live plants at the Disney Resorts. The pros who create these character topiaries need to have extensive landscaping knowledge as well as artistic souls. Craig Minasian has both. With 30 years in the landscape industry, he’s spent the last four of them as a Master Senior Topiary Engineer at the Disneyland Resorts. He learned his craft through Disneyland’s formal Character Topiary Maintenance Training and apprentice program.

A typical day starts in the dark: “We do most of our work when guests are not around. So we set up lights at 2 a.m. and work under the lights until dawn. My workday is finished by 10 a.m.”

Secrets to successful topiary: “You need patience and the ability to focus on the whole project and not just the details in front of you. With character topiary, you’re trying to fill the base frame. So we’re always looking at the holes in the figures and trying to redirect new growth to fill the holes. The challenge is to manage the health and look of each plant to keep it within the the frame.”

Craig's Tips for the Novice "Topiary Engineer"

  • Start small. Buy a prebent wire frame at a garden center or make your own.
  • Start with a vine topiary, rather than a shrub topiary. Vines are easier to work with and let you practice pruning and managing the different kinds of plants.
  • Choose plants that grow quickly and are tolerant of many growing conditions. Good vine topiary plants include English and Boston ivy.
  • In cold climates, plant the topiary in a pot that can be moved into the garage during the winter.

Topiary
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