Head, Hands, and Heart

by Toby Hargreaves (adapted from The Wooden Post, vol. 4, September 2016)

My first construction job was with a contractor in the Central Valley. He took me on as an apprentice and I learned how to dig trenches, carry lumber and clean up the jobsite. It was hard work but I enjoyed the physical labor after years of school, where only mental activity was exercised. At one point, my boss, Alan, let me in on the “secret” of carpentry. He said, “Head, hands and heart. That’s what it’s all about.” I didn’t really know what he meant by that, but it sounded good at the time.

Since then, through a year of working for Alan, then a six year apprenticeship with Karl Bareis at Santa Cruz Timberframes, I’ve had the chance to reflect on this seemingly simple statement.


Building trades require constant mental alertness to take in changing circumstances. My boss and teacher, Karl, has coined the phrase “monitor results.” This has become a mantra for his apprentices. Nearly every mistake made can be traced to a moment of not paying full attention to what is going on around you, or the ongoing results of the work you are doing. This is truly the Buddhist practice of mindfulness in carpentry form. The problem is that when the hands are busy, especially with something familiar, awareness tends to take a break and let the hands go on auto-pilot… How many times have I measured something, marked and
cut a board, and it has been too short?

There are many other mental aspects to building like creative problem solving, design, scheduling, logistics, leading a crew, budgeting, and bidding. Each of which require a similar clarity and presence of mind.


Head, Hands & Heart

Without hands, we cannot do the work we do. This seems like a simple and obvious thing to say, but it is easy to take for granted. Safety is one factor that workers tend to become loose with and cut corners. But the fact remains—and should remain in your mind as you secure the ladder, or put down the spinning circular saw—you only have one body in this life and if you get hurt, you can’t work. And if you’re hurt badly, you may be out for good.

The other factor which is rarely talked about on a jobsite is how you care for your body in the long term. Topics like healthy eating, stretching, aerobics, getting enough rest, and living a balanced lifestyle are not always emphasized as important. Construction work environments can be macho and competitive, and being gentle with your body often takes a backseat to getting the job done. I once met a middle aged construction worker at a garage sale who hobbled with a cane. I bought some tools from him and he told me, “Young man, never lift heavy things by yourself. Always get someone to help you lift.” This was obviously coming from personal experience, and I took his words to heart.


Heart is more difficult to see or define, but everyone feels it. A good heart is the foundation of trust, and trust is the glue that keeps a job together. Trust between two coworkers that they will keep each other safe and watch each other’s back. Trust between the contractor and his sub-contractors that he will pay them on time and they will stick to his schedule and do good work. Trust between the builder and the client, that the builder will put his heart into the building; that he will spend the client’s life savings carefully and responsibly. The builder’s trust that the client will be fully engaged and present for all the decisions that come up. A successful building project requires everyone involved to have a willing heart, because in the end, it is a group creation.
When a project goes well, the building takes on a life of its own. This life is the mixture of the energy and thoughts of all who were involved in the construction of the building, and it continues to grow, develop, and age like any other being. The life force of great buildings is truly palpable, as anyone will agree who has stood in Notre Dame, at Todaiji, or in an ancient monastery.

So it seems if one of the three elements is lacking or deficient, you’ll run into trouble in your work. If your head is not there, a mistake is bound to happen. Without hands, you won’t have the ability to do a skillful job in a timely manner. Without heart, you may give up when faced with challenges, and without a good heart, you’ll end up cutting corners in the work or shorting others around you in your quest for personal gain.