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Carpenter Mark Ellison's new book 'Building' offers lessons on life and good work


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: The author of the new book titled "Building" is, as you might suspect, a carpenter who knows his way around tools.

But rather than a how-to book, this one is about developing any kind of craft and skill, along with a few hard-earned lessons for living a good life.

Jeffrey Brown has that story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: An 1840s house now being restored and renewed.

Mark Ellison, Author, "Building: A Carpenter's Notes on Life & the Art of Good Work": Everything you see on the outside of the house is brand-new.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Mark Ellison: Every board, every stick, every brick, but made to look like that photograph.

Jeffrey Brown: A 1840s photo used to guide the work on the exterior, mandated by New York City's landmarks preservation rules.

Mark Ellison: Whole portions of that were certainly added later than 1840.

Jeffrey Brown: Mark Ellison is doing the best he can. But who knows if this is really how it originally looked?

Mark Ellison: So, is this preservation? I'm not sure.

Jeffrey Brown: What do you call it? What is it?

Mark Ellison: In my book, I call this a paleo facsimile, because…


Mark Ellison: Because it's got the bones.

Jeffrey Brown: You have to laugh in the world of Mark Ellison.

Mark Ellison: We will do the same spacing, exact same thing.

Jeffrey Brown: Where the design demands can border on the impossible, and the client expectations are off the charts.

Mark Ellison: It's a bit annoying, because if it's really, really, really good, everybody looks and goes like, yes, of course, it should be that way.

I am like, you have no idea what it took to make it look like that. Like, you have no idea what we went through to make it so the staircase just looks like — yes, tra-la-la, it's beautiful.

Jeffrey Brown: Staircases are indeed a signature. Ellison has gained a reputation as the master builder behind some of the most beautiful and expensive homes in New York and beyond, often for celebrities and wealthy owners who don't want their names known.

He's the go-to guy who can take the grand designs of architects and figure out how to actually make them. Now 61 and 40 years into his career, he's written "Building: A Carpenter's Notes on Life & the Art of Good Work."

And he means any work, not just the kind he does. One word he has no patience for, talent.

Mark Ellison: If you believe talent is the main thing, you're already on the wrong track.

Jeffrey Brown: What's the main thing?

Mark Ellison: Work. Effort. Practice. Daily — like, not every day. You can take a day off once in a while, but studied, ritual practice, having a good teacher, having good guides, having people that can teach you how to do things without error, and staying at it.

I wasn't a good carpenter for 15 years. It took me at least 15 years before I decided I was a good carpenter. I was competent by 20, and then it took another 20 to learn how to do the rest of what I do now.

Jeffrey Brown: Ellison took us on a tour of what, by his standards, is a rather modest project, but still an eight-figure proposition overall, side-by-side townhouses in Clinton Hill, a Brooklyn neighborhood home to mansions in the 1800s, then middle and working-class homes, and now again undergoing vast change amid gentrification.

Mark Ellison: This is what is called the primary bedroom suite.

Jeffrey Brown: One rather quirky touch, a sinking of the Titanic scene for the primary bathroom, executed by a long list of artists and craftspeople overseen by Ellison. The idea came from the owner.

Mark Ellison: When somebody really loves an idea and gets really excited about it, I will go all in to render it as incredibly as it possibly can.

Jeffrey Brown: You like that?

Mark Ellison: I like it.

Jeffrey Brown: The home will also feature a spiral staircase. Ellison started with a model.

Mark Ellison: I have to figure out how to do it, and I have to figure out how to detail it and make sure everything's smooth and the curves and it makes sense and that it looks right from the underside and the curves are good.

It's going to have this sort of tornado quality to it and be kind of like a vortex stair simply because of the way the geometry on this — on this side works. Like, usually, what I find is, whoever designed this side didn't think about this side. And…



Jeffrey Brown: That's…


Mark Ellison: Yes. And that's what I have to do.

Jeffrey Brown: He builds his models and does his own work in his studio about an hour north of the city in a 1905 firehouse he converted.

It's also where he pursues his other passion, music, the one that doesn't pay the bills. Still, he insists, developing any skill is about having the will to overcome inevitable obstacles along the way.

Mark Ellison: Anybody who has really developed a real skill, if you talk to them, 75 percent of what they will tell you about is the stumbling blocks they met on the way, and what they had to overcome on the way to doing those things.

And over time, will becomes the confidence in oneself of knowing, if I set my mind to something, I can do it. I can do it. Even if I have never done it before, I have — will gives me the feeling that I can do this thing and I will do this thing.

Jeffrey Brown: The creativity comes in how you build it.

Mark Ellison: The creativity comes from how you realize it and how well you realize it and how you balance everything. And it's part of making it more complete and more beautiful. It's like excellent tailoring.

Jeffrey Brown: There was a clear expectation Ellison would go to college. Both parents were professionals with multiple degrees. Instead, he chose a very different path.

And he writes of the social realities of the workplace itself and who builds in America today.

Mark Ellison: It's dirty. It's — you get hurt. I have been hurt many times. Carrying buckets of mortar, carrying block and concrete is done mostly by people who don't get paid a lot of money. They haven't been here very long. And most people who live in this country won't take that kind of work.

If you want to know what parts of the world have the most trouble right now, those people will be on my job site in a couple of months.

Jeffrey Brown: You can see the American class structure at work.

Mark Ellison: It's right here. And, I mean, I have taken a lot of people from carrying brooms to actually running jobs in my career. But it's a harder thing to do for somebody who didn't have the opportunities that I did.

Jeffrey Brown: Do you have a sense that a lot of this craft, this ability has been lost?

Mark Ellison: I think it's less than people imagine. You have to know where to look. There are still people that take a keen interest in this in many different fields. I mean, I know weavers. I know people who weave on handlooms.

I know people who make musical instruments that rival the great musical instruments of the past. There are people that do these things, and you will find most of them sort of between the cracks.

Jeffrey Brown: Now I'm thinking about the debates in this country about education. Do you wish or do you ever advise young people to go into the kind of work you are doing, rather than go get their four-year degrees?

Mark Ellison: First off, you have to like it. This is demanding, unforgiving, sometimes painful, sometimes dangerous work.

And if one does not have a taste for it, don't do this job. You won't like it. But for anyone who has a taste for it, there's an incredible need for people now who would take that route. And I hate to tell doctors and lawyers, but those of us who get really good at this make better money than they do.


Mark Ellison: I love it. I still love coming to work every day.

OK, let's look at the steps.

Jeffrey Brown: And then it was time to get back to work.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Brooklyn, New York.

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