A Carpenter No More

(Photo: Dylan Foley)

A 50-year-old law professor told me yesterday that between college and law school he worked as a carpenter.  I said it was great to hear that, as it must make him more productive at home.  He said no, he never does carpentry work around his house now for two reasons:

  1. Skill depreciation: he isn’t as good at carpentry as he was when he was doing it full time.
  2. His requirement for quality work is such that he wouldn’t use himself as a carpenter—the income elasticity of demand for quality is positive, and his income is much higher now than after college.

He didn’t mention a third reason, which I think is important, namely that the opportunity cost of his time is too high to make carpentry a good way to spend time. (HT: TB)

Seminymous Coward

I think there should be a "teaching examples" tag or similar. I suspect it would be applicable to many of Dr. Hamermesh's posts and perhaps even of use to him.


As in the famous Paul Samuelson example about a lawyer and his secretary

carpenter's wife

Funny you should mention carpenter. My husband's uncle was a carpenter. He lived to a very ripe old age- taking care of his home and hearth. He was a man I admired. In the end, he gave away all of his possessions to his family. Even gave me a few baubles which I treasure. Reminds me of my husband.


How much is the dollar value of time sent on hobbies? And does your friend view carpentry as his hobby?

Dave F.

I believe this ties in well with what Dubner and Levitt have talked about with the hydroponic tomatoes. Financially it doesn't make any sense at all, but to paraphrase terribly, we know we are rich since we spend time and money having 'fun' doing things others are paid to do


Bingo! That's why he most likely didn't list opportunity cost as a reason.

John Pilge

Also, if he falls off a ladder, cuts his hand or dies on the job that would impact his income activities.

Jeff Grigg

All excellent reasons. Unless you happen to LIKE doing carpentry. If you get enjoyment value from doing something, this may overwhelm the other values.

I ride my bicycle to the other side of the hills to eat lunch at the cafe that is over there. That's not the fastest, best, most efficient or most effective way to get there. And honestly, the cafe isn't really all that great. But I really like biking. It's a great place to bike, and it happens that I can get lunch there.


In fact it could be the most efficient overall. Just for an example, say your lunchtime bike ride is 8 miles, and you spend half an hour doing it when you could drive there in 10 minutes. But if you drive, then later in the day spend 20 minutes driving to the gym and half an hour doing aerobic exercise. Seems to me that over the course of a day, you've saved 30 minutes plus some gas money with that supposedly less efficient lunchtime ride.


Over the last two weekends I dug a drainage ditch (in solid clay) and refreshed mulch beds that had suffered too many years of neglect. I could have hired someone for 1/3rd of what I make M-F but on weekends my income potential is negligible. I don't make quite enough to pay for excellence so i do well enough myself. My wife, a nurse, on the other hand, should accept a call-in and make over $60/hr with overtime and then pay others to do work she might feel needs to be done.

Mike D

Are you in Spokane?

Steve S.

Interesting, I would think that he would continue to use his carpentry skills at home due to the "Ikea effect" that it provides. http://hbr.org/web/2009/hbr-list/ikea-effect-when-labor-leads-to-love


I think we've all missed something important here. The guy's a law professor, right? That means he's on salary, so (assuming he shows up for classes, meetings, &c) his income does not depend on how many hours he puts in at the job. Therefore, assuming he doesn't have a side job where he bills by the hour, his opportunity cost for doing his own carpentry is zero.

Then there's the burnout factor. Don't know if this holds true for everyone, but I can do only so much quality work in an average day/week/month. Try to push much beyond that on a sustained basis, and I start producing crap.

Rex McClure

This example reminds me of me. Before entering academia I worked as a carpenter for a couple years--good, honest work. When the opportunity presents itself, I would rather do some light carpentry myself, like trimming windows or building a built-in bookshelf. The main reason? Gratification. Students occasionally offer meaningful gratification, but it is often delayed. The majority of my publications seem to be shot into a black hole. Committee work is usually trivial. Bottom line: my job doesn't offer a sense of accomplishment or gratification. But carpentry give instant gratification. A clean and tight miter joint is not as easy as it looks, and it will last "forever".