Smarter Business: Vetting Contractors

In the skilled trades, we often accept work from people we know little to nothing about, often with some form of contract, but especially for small jobs this can be a simple as a verbal agreement. When collecting payment, we’re often taking these people at their word. With communities become more populous and alienated, the social pressures that once existed to enforce these contracts have all but vanished. There are luckily a few things that a tradesman can check before doing business to minimize risk. Granted, this is not a fail-proof approach; I’ve been burned by people I’ve vetted this way. However, you can at least minimize the risks.

Business Filings

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Check that their trade name is registered and in good standing. The state secretary’s office manages this records and most states’ records are online now. Try searching for “your state”, SOS. This will provide several valuable pieces of information.

  • How long they’ve been in business
    • Do you see numerous DBA changes? Has the business owner told you they’ve been in business for decades, but is working under a new trade name?
  • Their business address or registered agent
    • Many legitimate businesses use registered agents for a number of reasons, but it could be an attempt to obscure the primary stakeholder’s identity.
  • Legal name
    • Does their legal name match the name they’ve given you?
    • Are there other businesses filed by the same person?
  • Filing status
    • If they haven’t kept up with their tax filings, they will be in delinquent status. If they don’t pay the state promptly, will they pay you?

If their address listed is a home address, check the property records. Do they own their home? While there’s nothing wrong with renting, it’s not exactly normal for a successful contractor to still be renting, especially when they have the tools and income to buy an affordable home and remodel. Do they have poor credit? Is it their real address? I wouldn’t necessarily rule out doing business someone based on this alone, but it is the beginning of a trend.

Residential Records

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These records are held by the respective county in which the person resides. Many property assessors records are now online and searchable by multiple criteria.

  • Chain of Title
    • Has the home in foreclosure?
    • Is the contractor still the current owner?
    • Is the property owned by a landlord or other party?
  • Spouse
    • Another name to vet for business entities
  • Former HUD
    • There are very specific criteria that must be met to qualify for a HUD home, most of which would disqualify a successful businessman.

Contractors Licensing Office

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Many cities are beginning to make their contractor databases publicly searchable. Is this licensed contractor active for the county and building classification you’re supposed to be working on?


Check permutations of the contractor’s full legal name, nicknames, maiden names, etc. Have they had businesses in other states recently? Are they still active? In good standing? How is their rating with the Better Business Bureau? Are they members? Check contractor review and lead generation sites for their names and trade names. What are customers saying? Are there any reviews from former employees or subcontractors? Tip: Use quotation marks to tell google exactly what you want. 

Cabinet making without a cabinet saw

It’s easy to approach a task, see that you don’t have the proper tool for the job, and write it off as an impossible task. It takes creativity and some persistence, but you can actually build custom cabinets without a cabinet saw.

I was tasked with making a custom cabinet 16 1/2″ deep and 28″ wide at standard base cabinet height. To achieve maximum strength, I needed to cut two dados in two panels: one for the backing, and one for the bottom shelf. I set about accomplishing the task using factory edges on sacrificial plywood pin nailed to the work to create a straight guide for my circular saw. To cut the first shoulder of the dado, measure the distance from your blade to edge of fence over and tack your guide piece in place. Set your depth to 1/4″ or so. Cut your first groove. For the second, use a scrap of the shelf material to sit between your circular saw fence and your guide to manage a perfect spacing for your dado. Once cut, pry the waste out with a wide timber framing chisel.

For your backing, space the dado in enough to allow for a cross piece from the panel material. In my case, 3/4″. With dado cut, pin nail together, patch any imperfections, and the cabinet is finished. Budget 3-4 hours labor and 1 sheet of ply for a single cabinet at $35-45 per sheet.

What kind of tool box could $3,000 buy?

wohngeistWhen I see the lengths to which hipsters will go in search of authenticity, I’m rarely as shocked as when I stumbled upon the Wongheist tool set. At $3,000, it’s easily the most ridiculous extravagance I’ve seen this year. The contents are as follows:


  • screwdrivers
    • small flat
      • shorter
      • longer
    • large flat
      • shorter
      • longer
    • phillips #2
    • driver
      • Bits
        • phillips, torx, allen, etc. about 8-12 bits in all
  • Pliers
    • linemans pliers
    • channel locks
    • dykes
  • hammer
  • half round rasp
  • Measurement and Layout
    • folding rule
    • square
    • marking pencil
  • allen key set
  • 1” chisel
  • awl
  • swiss army knife
  • Wooden case

That’s a total of 18 hand tools and a box for $3k. That’s $166 per tool, unless this is a $200 box. Then, we’re still talking $156 per tool. I truly the pity the fool who buys this thing.

The quest for the perfect chalk line

There are dozens of chalk boxes on the market, but all have their shortcomings. Cases crack when dropped off a ladder, cotton string lines fray and break. The old standby, the Irwin Strait-Line has a thick, fuzzy cotton line that is great at holding chalk, but definitely wears out quickly with daily use. The customer service at Irwin Tool is pretty impressive though. They sent me replacement chalk line ends when I asked at no charge and threw in a sticker! Irwin’s models are a great budget choice, but what if you’re a pro user looking for an upgrade? Here are a few good alternatives I’ve found:


  • This may be the Cadillac of all chalk lines. The line is a higher quality composition than your average variety, making for a longer-lasting product with less down-time. The retraction time is much faster than most others on the market. It’s actually a solid metal product with overmolded grips. Perhaps the best part of this chalk line is its low-profile design that makes it easy to get in and out of a tool belt. The fill mouth is wider than most, so it’s faster to add chalk. Still, it’s pretty expensive for a chalk line at $26.99 +S&H.


CH Hanson 12710 PRO 150 

  • 41K6384CNSL._SY355_The loop end on this chalk like makes it easier to snap on a 90 degree angle, and it’s easier to replace with standard hardware. Rather than wrangling with a hook end that constantly snags on everything in sight, the loop end on this model stores flat and will hook on a nail for great precision. At $20, it’s still a bit spendy, and it’s the largest of these options. I wouldn’t want to carry this in a tool belt all day. Still the handle would be handy for constant use.

MD Contractor Reel

  • 612jhkpdc-L._SL1200_At half the price of other competitors here, this is for the minimalist that wants a box full of chalked string. At $12, if you drop it off a roof, it’s not worth being too upset over. It’s a solid device that does its jobs without the bells and whistles of the other two options.

    The Hidden Plumb Bob

    Still, the best thing about the classic strait-line style chalk boxes is their ability to double as a plumb bob in a pinch. While no substitute for a proper plumb bob, hang your chalk line from any point, give it a spin and let it stabilize. You’ll have a decent starting point for your measurements. The M-D model would work, the Tajima could work, but the Hanson just isn’t designed for this.

Why you shouldn’t start a cell phone repair business!

For much of last year, I was running a cell phone repair business at (site down). My business plan was based around purchasing used cell phones, repairing them, and reselling them locally at online through eBay and similar sites. For a number of reasons which I’ll outline here, it’s simply not as great a market as it seems to those on the outside looking in.

1. Every time you buy a used cell phone, it’s a bit of a gamble!

Buying a used smartphone - New Page

See how most arrows point to “don’t buy it?” That pretty much sums it up.

The current cell phone pricing structure that most people use to purchase their devices relies on a discount for maintaining a contract for a certain period of time. The agreement states essentially that you’re given a discount on the device in exchange for maintaining service for a specified period of time. If you stop paying on your contract, the phone is “bricked” making is useless for anything other than parts. Furthermore, it could even really be called a stolen phone, because the consumer violated the terms of the agreement. If I bought one of these phones which seemed legitimate at the time of purchase, then it became bricked, I couldn’t even pay the balance to the carrier if I wanted to. They will not allow anyone other than the customer to pay.

2. Or do you want to service a client’s own device while they wait? 

If you make an error, you’re in big trouble. Lost data, a damaged device, irreparable parts? These costs add up quickly, and the good-will runs out as well. If you make an error in the repair, the client is without a cell phone when they were only dealing with a cracked glass display before. How often would you like to deal with this unpleasant quandary? How much capital can you invest in practicing repairs? I opted to purchase the devices outright and fix them on my own time.

3. Parts are of unreliable quality and samples always cost money!

If you have the investment capital to buy from a dozen suppliers and try out their products, then you’re fine, but if you’re relying on suppliers to send you quality you’re either paying a premium or gambling on online reviews. Once the parts have been installed, they’re not returnable or they may charge a restocking fee. To really know if the part works or not, you either need a tester (make your own) or you reassemble and test the phone and hope you get lucky. Either way, you’re now out parts cost, time, and potentially you have an angry impatient customer waiting to get their phone back. I ordered iPhone 5 screens from half a dozen suppliers and notice variation even from one lot to another. There were often noticeable differences in image quality and durability. The best parts with the largest margins come from China, but the shipping is unreliable and you’re either sending a lot of money to a stranger thousands of miles away with no safeguards or buying slowly and cautiously and spending too much time and cash on shipping fees.

4. The S-Curve: cell phone repair’s ship has already sailed

The people with the most profit potential were in the game in the infancy of the trade. Without the ability to capture market growth during the expansion phase, there’s little to sustain a venture during the mature phase. How does one capture market share in a fast-paced mature market with a myriad of trade secrets? Well, answer this question and you’ll do better in cell repair than I ever did!

The bottom line: 

If you got in on the ground floor of the industry, operate a mobile operation and either provide perfect repairs with a stockpile of expensive parts bought up-front or can purchase devices efficiently with large enough volume to make it worth your time, then you’re in a great position. If not, keep looking for the right business opportunity.

Dimensioning with SketchUp: Deck Project

In deck construction, we often are removing an old structure and replacing it with a comparable structure made from new material. Older outdoor woods are pretty much shot after 20-30 years. We usually start with an as-built drawing and estimate our materials and labor from there. Here’s a case study in deck as-built drawings using SketchUp.


This is the top view after some edits. The best way I’ve found so far to make a proper blueprint from a sketchup drawing is to export a 2d graphic and pull it into GIMP. Use the color selection tool with a low threshold value to select the background color and delete it. You can add architectural textures in SketchUp to identify different components. Here, for example, there’s a concrete pad under the deck that I differentiate in the print with diagonal hatching.

There are also options for correcting your dimensioning; you’re not stuck with the tiny font that’s the default. Open Entity Info, go to dimensioning, then there are a lot of nice options you can play with. Here’s the edited image:

Partial view at 100%:

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zupan dimensions pdf

You’ll notice the finished drawing is much easier to read!

Deck dimensioning zupan iso5 bump out R zupan iso 3 -- framing zupan iso2 zupan isometric zupan right

SketchUp will generate 2d exports from standard camera views that are essentially like CAD patterns on steroids. From this point, I can add photo textures of the client’s material choice, model their house and lot and drop it into place, have a very accurate material list, and dimension anything I’m missing by inferring it from its relationship to the other components. I can troubleshoot problem areas, estimate cost, and send this to everyone working on the job so they have it on their tablets to reference as work proceeds. It’s a great way to build rapport with local building inspectors too!

Hico miter saw stand end caps

I bought the HICO UWC4000 miter saw stand thinking it would be a great, cheap stand to use my Hitachi C10FS dual bevel sliding compound miter saw (oldie but goodie!) on the jobsite. It worked reasonably well, and at $70, who can complain? The nearest comparable stands are $150+.


The weak link in this stand is the way the attach the material supports–the foundation of any decent miter stand. The chose to make a load-bearing piece out of cheap nylon plastic. Mine broke within a week! Now the supports won’t sit flat. Luckily, this is an easy fix. I drafted the part in SketchUp and produced a flat pattern. I ordered some flat aluminum bar stock. I chose 6061 due to its excellent machinability, light weight, and affordable price tag. Here are specs on 6061 aluminum:

Ultimate Tensile Strength, psi 45,000
Yield Strength, psi 40,000
Brinell Hardness 95
Rockwell Hardness B60
Chemistry Aluminum (Al) 95.8 – 98.6%
Chromium (Cr) 0.04 – 0.35%
Copper (Cu) 0.15 – 0.40%
Iron (Fe) 0.70%
Magnesium (Mg) 0.8 – 1.2%
Manganese (Mn) 0.15% max
Silicon (Si) 0.4 – 0.8%
Zinc (Zn) 0.25% 

As soon as it comes in, I’ll mill the piece and post pics. If you’re having the same issue with your UWC4000, here are plans to make your own or have someone make them for you!  The part is a mirror image of itself on both sides, so the pattern works for right or left brackets.

Hico endcap pattern

Oilcloth tote bag




Oilcloth has a long and fascinating history that is beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say that it makes good canvas into great canvas, and makes a water resistant product from what is essentially a sponge. I bought this tote bag from for $41.

41xBvz078hLI then warmed 3 parts beeswax, one part boiled linseed oil, one part pine tar, and one part turpentine in a double boiler and brushed it in with a disposable brush. I used a heat gun to make sure it penetrated it the cloth thoroughly, let it dry, and scraped the excess with a razor blade. Now, it’s super durable and waterproof! The closest commercially-available product is about $120…



Curved ramp design

Framing square can be complicated enough. In this case, a client asked me to build a ramp with a modest radius to make it easier to access in their golden years. I laid it out like a parabola, first on draft paper, then creating a grid on a 2×12″ board and transferring the proportions. A thin strip of decking pin-nailed onto the face helped create a smooth, even line.

Pin nail a scrap 1" piece of decking to the board to create a smooth arc

Pin nail a scrap 1″ piece of decking to the board to create a smooth arc

Next, I cut this piece with a jigsaw and used it as a template to make a total of 6 joists. These were then clamped up with pipe clamps and planed/sanded flat and perfect. The back (deck edge) was cut flush using a circular saw after being marked up while clamped, and the blocking was added, nailed through the sides when possible and toenailed otherwise.

Block the joists and touch up the radius with a block plane

Block the joists and touch up the radius with a block plane

The final piece was mounted into place with ledger locks, stair strapping, and corner brackets for a hold that will last a lifetime!

Attached and waiting for decking!

Attached and waiting for decking!

Now if that extra decking will finally be delivered, I’ll finish up!