Read Between the Lines - Pro Masonry Guide

Read Between the Lines

A mason lends advice on selecting the right job, bidding and obtaining help.

By Michael J. Pallerino

Read between the lines.” Sounds like pretty simple advice, right? Ask Brian Estill, and he’ll tell you it’s the kind of recommendation every mason should take to heart. On a recent job, Estill began hearing those four little words scream from his subconscious at every turn.

The Wolf’s Den project at the Wolf Creek Subdivision in Louisville, Ky., was a 2-foot-high addition to an existing retaining wall. The project laid out like this: There were 3 courses of block with rebar drilled into the existing wall every 4 feet with grout. In addition, it had nine courses of brick on each side of the block, capped by a double rowlock of brick. In total, there were 120 blocks around 2,500 bricks shaped like a U with step walls going up in three different sections.

And, while Estill started the job on July 31 and finished on Aug. 18, the 19 days he labored on the project (from bid to completion) seemed like an eternity. There were myriad issues that threw it into chaos. One of them, Estill admits, was not having the right equipment or manpower from the beginning.

“My eagerness and cockiness got the best of me,” Estill says. “From the start, I underestimated and underbid the job. I told the guy I thought it would take me, another bricklayer, and experienced hod carrier one week to complete. Then, I underbid, thinking $2,500 would be a fair price. After all, until now, that was the biggest job I had ever bid on. Do the math on that price; it comes out to me and another brickie being paid $25 an hour, and the hod carrier being paid $12.50.”

The first tip off, Estill says, was when the client accepted the job on the spot. “He damn near thrust the contract in my face to sign it,” he says. In reality, the job was just too hard for a small contractor.

After subcontracting a couple of masons from Craigslist who never showed up, Estill hired two hod carriers who knew nothing about masonry construction. The move actually slowed him down more, as he had to keep stopping what he was doing to direct them. “Have your people lined up and ready for the job before you begin,” Estill says. “Time is money, and a good hod carrier is worth his weight in gold.”

On the last couple of days on the job, Estill hired his brother to help finish things off. As it played out, he found that he was spending money he had worked into the bid at every turn. He had to rent a mixer for the week for $260. The gas mixer cost $30 for two weeks. He had to pay for 50 sand bags and plastic to be removed from the walls at $600 for three hours’ work. And then, he had to account for extra time, including cleaning the brick, driving to and from another construction site to get rebar, and the list goes on.

“What you forget is that time is money, too,” Estill says. “From now on, when I am confronted with a job that I don’t have a timeframe on, I will charge $200 an hour. That amount pays taxes, helpers and their taxes, marketing, website, etc. I let my client know that he got away with one here, but that it was my fault.”

After discussing it with his client, he offered to rent the mixer for another week and pay for Estill’s helper for a few days. “I did a lot of things for free, and you just can’t do that,” Estill says. “After everything was said and done, I made next to nothing in profit, and it cost more than it was worth.”

The lessons, Estill admits, are many. Start by properly estimating your manpower and manpower hours, and any and all materials needed. When it comes to estimating time, double what you think, and then pad that.

“Read this article again and again, and let it sink in,” he says. “There seem to be hidden costs on every job, so you have to include them into your bid. Take, for example, opportunity cost. This is where you spend your time doing one thing when you could be spending it doing something more profitable.

“Professionalism in this trade is exhibited by the guy who shows up with clean tools and boots,” Estill adds. “He has a smile on his face. He knows what he’s doing, so he works methodically to get the job done. His work stands as a testament to future generations.”

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