In Pursuit of Perfection

I started installing stairs for Windham lumber back in the 80's. One brutally hot day in August I went out with a stair only to find the house locked. I called the homeowner and was told by her secretary? that she had expected a call back to confirm her appointment. I got directions to her office downtown and went to try to pick up a key. Unfortunately, when I got to the office the homeowner wasn’t there. That didn’t cause me to give up however, as I knew that usually with new construction there is a basement or window open so I figured I would still be able to get in to do the job.

This stair was my only scheduled project for the day and I had driven over an hour to get there already so I wanted to get it done. Plus, at the time, I was being paid per job and hoped to finish the project in one day. To avoid delay, I looked around the house again, even tried the second floor windows. Finally, I decided that I could get in the basement hatchway. I took the jack handle from my van, held the door up a little with a stair wedge, and was able to slide the lock back. Once inside, I was happy to see they had already installed an overhead fan. I set my bench up there underneath it and was able to begin installing the stair.

It was only the last tread that gave me some trouble. The last tread always has to be popped in. In this case, it was a tight fit. I think that in between the walls of the stairwell the heat had built up, causing it to swell. By the time I had struggled to get it in place I was drenched with sweat. This was a particular problem because the stair was made with oak, which has tannic acid in it, and the trace of Iron in your sweat makes a black stain.

I had already picked up most of my tools when the homeowner arrived. The first thing she said was not “Hi how are you?" as I expected, but a concerned "How did you get in?" Since we both knew that the house had been well locked up, I explained that I didn’t break anything, but had gotten in through the hatchway. I assured her that there would be a second door with a dead bolt behind it when the house was finished. She looked annoyed but appeased for the moment.

Then, she noticed the staining on the tread. I told her that generally when the floors go in everything gets sanded and finished, which would take care of the problem. She said the floors were going to be all carpet, so I decided to take care of it right then. Rather than unload all of my tools, I tried to sand the stains by hand, with partial success. There was just one big problem: the more I sanded the more I sweated. It was still a brutally hot day and because of the delay getting in, it had been a long one.    

The next day, when I was picking up another stair to install the salesman said I had a complaint. The homeowner of the house I had done the prior day said there were awful stains on the stairs and that it was out of level to the left for two steps and to the right for three. Furthermore, not only had she complained about the stair, but she said she wanted me arrested for unlawful entry. Chagrined, I asked if he wanted me to go back. He said he had a meeting with the homeowners and would see about it, so I went out to install the next stair.

When I arrived I found the house hadn't been sheet rocked yet. There’s an order to building, and walls have to come before stairs. The builder said he didn't want to bother with temporary stairs but that he could hang a couple sheets in the stairwell. I told him where he needed to hang the sheetrock, on the outside of the angle wall and where the rail goes in, and he said he would do it right then so I could get to work.

This day was off to another late start. I never was the sort to wait around and watch other people work, and since I was right in the neighborhood of the previous day’s job, I decided to go back and investigate the homeowners complaints.

Back at the other house I went in through the hatch again. I took out my orbital sander and cleaned off every smudge on the treads. I filled the nail holes and made it look really nice. Then, to investigate if the steps were out of level, I found the cheap 2' level they had used and found that you could get it to read just about anything by moving it around the tread or flipping it over. Satisfied with my work, I closed up the house tight and went off to do the other job.

The next day I asked the salesman how his meeting went. He said they couldn't find the stains, had even made sure they weren't just covered with dust, and so the homeowners had decided they could let the other complaints go as well.

I didn't say anything about my proactive service call. I did not want to tempt fate here and the possibility of being arrested, although I tried to image the call being received at the police station….

“Yes, the man went into my house!”

“No, didn't break anything.”

“Was anything missing? No, he just built a set of stairs.”

And a confused dispatcher asking, “Did you not want the stairs?”

“We paid Woodbine Corporation to build stairs and they sent him.”

Luckily, we can only wonder how that phone call would have ended.

I guess this is sort an ends-justify-the means type story. I may have been precocious in my youth, but I’ve always valued good quality work! Now a business owner for 17 years, my ideas about customer service have evolved. I now know that being patient is a part of being a successful businessman. But, the underlying values I exhibited on the job site that day; a commitment to quality, and desire to resolve any customer complaints rapidly still stand. We can only do our best and for sure, we are not perfect, but we try to make our work come close! And as for this story, what can I say? I was young and innocent.