Several weeks ago, during a much-needed stroll after a hectic morning, I came upon a bunch of "three-piece suiters" lined up along the chain link fence that surrounds the construction site for the new American Stores building; they were watching a pile driver. I stopped and joined them at the fence, immediately becoming absorbed by the sight and sound of steel whacking against steel.
Shortly thereafter, a female voice broke the spell. "What in the world are you guys looking at?"She had nice hair and a nice dress and was shod in the now ubiquitous designer running shoes.
"The pile driver," I responded, pointing to the massive crane and driver unit. "They're driving piles down to the bedrock."
She looked from me to the pile driver to the "three-piecers" and back to me. "So, what's the big deal? I don't get it."
I could tell by her face that she didn't. "It's a guy thing," I said.
She "speed-walked" off, shaking her head, mumbling something about male idiocy, and I returned to watching the driver.
Contrary to what women might think, it's not construction that fascinates a guy, it's the power of the tools being used; it's the high-energy sound of the equipment.
Just go into any Home Base, Home Depot or Sutherlands and stand around the customer service saw. The moment that saw buzzes to life, guys come out of nowhere to watch. Afterward you can see themsniffing the air, catching the aroma of the cut wood. You can see them stroking two-by-fours and rubbing walnut paneling and sighting one-by-twos for straightness. And most guys, if their wives aren't listening, will own up to the fact that, one day, they're going to have a shop and all the tools that go with it.
Bill Cortez is one of these guys.
But he actually did it; he built a shop in his back yard.
Born in Biloxi, Miss., in 1962, Cortez grew up moving from place to place with his parents: Florida, California, Washington and Oregon. When he was old enough to go to college, he decided on BYU and has made Utah his home ever since.
Cortez has always liked working with his hands, but until seven years ago his only association with woodworking was in junior high school. "I mostly made cutting boards and stuff like that," says Cortez. "We weren't allowed to use the big stationary power tools - the teacher wanted to send us home with all 10 of our fingers."
After college, Cortez started working for KSL as a news photographer. A year later he went to work for KUTV. It was at this time that he and his wife purchased a home in the Rose Park area. One day the idea of completing his unfinished basement took hold of him, and he hasn't stopped working with wood since.
"I purchased a radial arm saw because I didn't have a lot of room to work or a lot of money to spend," Cortez says. "I also had an old drill I'd gotten from my father-in-law, a tape measure and `Handy Man Special' circular saw."
It took three years to complete, but the basement turned out nice, and Cortez was able to purchase more tools.
"One day I was watching TV," he says, "flipping through the channels one Saturday morning, and there was Norm Abrams on `The New Yankee Workshop.' He was making a medicine cabinet, and he had tools I'd never seen before. This was before we had Home Base, Home Depot and Eagle. And I thought, `Hey. So that's how you do it.' I recorded all 56 episodes of the New Yankee Workshop and keep them downstairs. I thought, `One day, I want a shop like Norm's.' "
Cortez began building furniture for his home. His first piece was a hutch for the kitchen. When friends visited they were amazed at the craftsmanship of his work. His reputation for building quality furniture spread.
"I've sort of gotten this reputation that, `Hey, Bill can build it.' So people tell me what they're interested in and I draw up the plans and build it."
A few years ago an associate at work asked Cortez to build him a couple of Adirondack chairs. He wound up making six and making money, which he put into the purchase of more tools. This was the process Cortez followed to get all the tools he needed for his shop.
"I'd save my money from freelance jobs to buy tools," he says. "I've never bought a single tool from money earned at my regular job at Channel 2. My wife would have killed me if I did."
Cortez learned how to draw his own plans by studying other people's plans during building projects. The New Yankee Workshop also helped him develop the skill, as did reading woodworking magazines.
"I was on this business trip to Jackson, Wyo.," he says, "and I wanted something to read. I found this Wood magazine that I hadn't heard of, so I picked it up and started reading through it. Ever since then I've been reading Wood and other magazines. I taught myself to draw plans by following what other guys in the magazines were drawing, the way they drew the lines and the measurements."
Occasionally someone will order a piece of furniture that requires Cortez to first visit a furniture establishment to get ideas. "Sometimes I just sneak in and start taking measurements. When a salesperson approaches I say, `I'm just measuring this to make sure it'll fit where I want it in my house.' Cortez buys his wood rough sawn, planing it down to the exact width he wants. He finds this is more cost effective than purchasing pre-planed wood at stores. "I can save up to $90 doing this," he says.
Doing things as inexpensively as possible doesn't mean Cortez's work is cheap. In fact, he's so good he doesn't have to haggle prices with customers any longer. If someone ever does question the price, Cortez says, "Well, if you like what you see at such and such a place, if you're happy with that, I recommend buying it. If you want something that will last, something you can pass on to your kids, you're going to pay more."
Now that he has his shop - and it's a beauty, something ol' Norm would truly drool over - Cortez can build larger, more intricate furniture. It took nine months and a lot of his time: He did just about everything from pouring the foundation to framing to electrical and plumbing. He decided not to tape the sheet rock, but he did shoot the insulation into the attic.
Recently he's been designing and constructing boxes for safely carrying Channel 2's camera equipment in company vehicles. They're practical, but they're also lovely to look at.
"I didn't choose woodworking as a hobby," says Cortez, "it just sort of evolved. I love the tangible results. I have a whole house full of furniture that I've built, and it'll be around long after I'm gone - if the house doesn't burn down first."
If the young lady who talked to me at the chain link fence could look into Cortez's face as he runs a rough sawn piece of oak through the planer, if she could hear the roar of the wood being cut and smoothed, if she could see the smile on his face she might say, "I don't get it."
And I'd tell her, "It's a guy thing."