They work under trying conditions. Chilly winds can blow over 30 miles per hour, the temperature hovers at above or below freezing and the precision of their work is expected to measure within fractions of an inch. Winter storms come and go, while the seas offshore boil with huge waves and send spray into the air
Still, they show up on the job with a smile.
They aren’t sailors. They are the Island’s carpenters.
At a job site on East Chop, carpenter Stephen Dunham is atop a three-story, rain-soaked plywood palace.
The view from here can be spectacular. In the summer, many Island visitors would gladly pay plenty for such a vista.
On this day, however, the Vineyard is between storms, Cape Cod is obscured from view by fog, and it is drizzling and chilly. And Mr. Dunham has plenty to do.
How does he beat the cold?
“Never stop,” he replies. “Just keep moving,”
Three pairs of dry gloves are in his pickup truck. When the pair he wears gets too wet and cold, he goes to get another.
The Vineyard may have a reputation for offering spectacular scenic views of the ocean, but a lot of people working outdoors don’t pay much attention in the winter.
“Katama is purgatory in the winter,” said Walter D. Morrison, an Edgartown carpenter. Mr. Morrison built a house last winter, and this winter he is doing repair jobs, big and small.
This week, he was shingling the side of an old house, part of the time in the rain. A lot of the projects take him outdoors.
“Katama has its own weather. You can have pea soup fog in Katama and it will be sunny and warm in downtown Edgartown,” Mr. Morrison said.
Wind is the biggest hindrance to working outside, he said. Even warmly dressed carpenters are vulnerable to wind.
Many Island carpenters also are at odds with their odd-job customers. In summer no homeowner wants to hear a power saw roaring, an air hammer banging or an air compressor singing.
So the work gets put off until fall, winter or spring, often the worst working conditions of the year.
Back at East Chop, custom builder Bruce Stewart is not only at the job site, he is hovering precariously on a ladder near the top of that East Chop house. For Mr. Stewart, the work is always year-round. Spring, summer and fall may be the ideal season for him to build a house, but everyone works in the winter.
“We lost a few days with the snow,” he said, but the crew has managed to keep going. Carpenters would prefer to do finishing work in a new house in the winter, but that rarely happens.
“It used to be you could build a house in nine to 10 months,” Mr. Stewart said. “You’d start in the fall and finish in the spring. But houses have gotten more complicated,” Mr. Stewart said.
The bad days are when it is pouring rain and the roof isn’t done.
“Sometimes you can shovel the snow, but then it can get slippery,” Mr. Stewart said. Fortunately, the weather so far this winter hasn’t been too bad.
“The gloves are so much better than they used to be,” Mr. Dunham said. “You can even pick up a nail with these.”
Still, he observes, “They haven’t yet made a pair of pants that will last through a season.”
Miles away, at a job site near the Vineyard’s southern shore, a crew is working despite the rain.
“If you only worked outdoors one day, I am sure it would be excruciating. But we are outside every day. You get acclimated to winter,” said Glenn Andrews, 57, of West Tisbury, a job supervisor.
Mr. Andrews has made a career of building homes for John G. Early Contractor & Builder. He is working on a house overlooking Edgartown Great Pond that will take a year and a half to complete.
“You can talk about clothes all you want but I think it has to do with the spirit,” Mr. Andrews said. A lot of what goes into being a good carpenter is attitude.
Building a house on the Vineyard may mean facing bitter cold, but there also are rewards, such as experiencing the amazing beauty of a winter morning.
“You know the owner will have to spend 10 summers in their home and they still won’t have spent as much time as we’ve spent,” Mr. Andrews said.
From the rooftop and from many spots in an unfinished house, the views aren’t interrupted by panes of glass. Mr. Andrews said he still finds even the coldest of days of winter colored by the beauty of the workplace.
“In the spring, anyone can rationalize that we have the best job in the world,” Mr. Andrews said. But few can imagine the experience of winter construction.
“It is like magic,” said Craig (Spa) Tharpe, 49, of Aquinnah, who spent a good part of his day on top of the house where there will soon be rafters. “It is like being at sea. Sometimes there is a gale, sometimes it is calm. The only thing that doesn’t happen is the rock ’n’ roll.”
In addition to the usual skills that go with builders, Mr. Tharpe carries a rich sense of humor.
Another carpenter, Lewis Waring, said: “The wind is the worst. We can work outside when the temperature is 20 degrees and calm, that is okay. But when it is 35 degrees out and the wind is blowing 25 mph, that is harder.”
No matter how bad winter gets, Mr. Waring said, he still recalls the winter that began in December of 1989. “We built a house on East Chop. That was the coldest winter. We kept working. That is our reference point. We compare every winter to that winter,” he said.
For Mr. Early, there is no down time when it comes to his profession. “The only thing that really stops you in the winter is [pouring] concrete. You can do just about anything else.”
A key ingredient to tolerating a tough winter and building a great house can’t be found in stock at any Island lumberyard or in a book of Massachusetts building codes. It is called “crew chemistry.”
Mr. Waring said: “I love what I do and work with a great bunch of guys.”
For Mr. Andrews, “One thing that makes it warmer is that Spa gets us to laugh. And I think the best cure for cold weather is laughter.”