Adventures in Drywall: Over a Barrel
June 26, 2007
Drywall is fast becoming a commodity trade. The days of builders wanting primo-quality work being turned out by loyal drywall contractors that they have used for years and have a history with are all but gone. In its place are huge tract builders who are more interested in having homes completed in hours, not days. When I was still in business I was lucky enough to work for a few of the prior-mentioned builders. Quality was important to these guys and there was usually some special detail in each home. One prided himself on his use of curved archways. Another always had angled tray ceilings in at least one room. These were the areas that I loved to finish.
By always being willing to do work that was specialized and making sure that it was done right, I kept busy. I have suggested this idea in previous articles. And when I hear guys complaining that they can’t compete against the 30-man crews, I wonder if they have considered doing specialized work. I have seen concrete contractors do this by installing stamped and tinted concrete instead of running miles of sidewalks in a development. I know one guy who is turning away work and is never asked what his square-foot price is. There are painting contractors who now specialize in faux finishing and report they can make more by finishing one wall than they can running through one of those boxes in a development with a sprayer. I have a friend who made a business decision to only finish basements. He starts out by distributing fliers in a development that is a few years old. By this time the homeowners are looking to put in a rec room or an extra bedroom. By word of mouth, he usually has a number of the neighbors ask him to come do their basement also. Sometimes he spends months in the same development. Alright, maybe you don’t want to be a drywall contractor who specializes in basements. But I suggest that if you think “outside of the box” you can incorporate something into the scope of your work that will point to the fact that you are a value-added contractor. So you want an example, huh? I just happen to have one.
John Watson is one of these contractors. Since John hails from the state of Texas it is no surprise that his idea was a big one. About eight years ago he was working on a 10,000-square-foot home that was way over budget. The plans called for a groin ceiling and a dome. As often happens in situations like this, these two specialty ceilings were deemed too costly and time-consuming and were about to be axed from the project when John stepped in and suggested that they let him finish these areas. The contractor had figured it would take a month to frame and plaster these two areas. John estimated that by utilizing drywall he would be able to not only finish these ceilings quicker, but also in a more cost-effective manner. What was the end result? In a matter of days these ceilings were framed, hung and finished.
The preceding events were the precursor to John’s present company, Grand Entries. Calls started coming in from other builders who had heard about his prowess in all things curvy. As he developed his technique, he found there was no end to the possible combinations of angles, vaults, groins, domes, barrels and coves he could replicate using his system.
As the shapes became more intense and the radiuses became tighter, John experimented with alternative methods of bending drywall. Through trial and error a new tool was devised that would allow regular 1/2-inch drywall to be bent to a radius as tight as 28 inches without presoaking or scoring the board first. This process does not compromise the integrity of the board, so fasteners are not challenged by trying to hold a spongy sheet onto the framing. As you can tell by the accompanying photographs, the curves and angles that can be achieved using this tool are extreme. The name UltraBend seems fitting for a tool that seems to be able to do it all.
Not wanting to be pigeon-holed into just a single aspect of this process, it was decided early on that by offering many alternatives for customers with this type of ceiling, Grand Entries could be the go-to player when it comes to being the most cost-effective way of installing curved drywall. Today, some builders ask John to design and fabricate an entire area for them. This can be as involved as laying out particular rooms, placing windows and doors in such a way that conveys symmetrical lines throughout the area. These measurements are transferred to material in the shop and the entire shape is framed, rocked, and sometimes finished. Depending on how far these forms are to travel, they may have to be finished on-site. There are some instances where the entire shape is mocked-up in the shop then disassembled and reassembled at the job. Whether the ceiling is a fully assembled finished section ready to install into an existing room, or a pattern that is transferred onto a template that you can field cut on your own job, these guys have it covered. Still think a drywall dog can’t think outside the box? There’s one Texan that sure did.
So, are you interested in becoming the next great drywall bender? Do you see the benefit in being able to offer your customers something that your competitors can’t do? If so, here is the final part of John’s plan: He is willing to share his years of learning with the rest of us. This patent-pending tool can also be part of your repertoire. Along with the purchase of an UltraBend comes the opportunity to learn from the master. John will share what he has learned over the last eight years designing, laying out, fabricating and installing curved ceilings with hands-on instruction.
So, the next time you are upset because customers seem to have you over a barrel, turn the tables on them. Become a specialized contractor who has the ability to create works of drywall art. You know what they say about art: You can’t put a price on it. I have had the privilege of talking to John at length about what he is doing and I would heartily recommend giving him a call if you have any questions. You owe it to yourself to check out his website at www.ultrabend.com to view some examples of the art he has created.
Remember: A customer who will argue over pennies on a drywall bid will not even blink over spending ten thousand for a granite threshold.