Soup to Nuts: Master Woodworker, Mike Firstbrook

February 9, 2018

Here at Old Oak, we recognize that every aspect of a home – every cabinet, floorboard, window and tile – were all meticulously crafted through years of experience and lifetimes of passion. In our new series, Soup to Nuts, we’re sharing perspectives and thoughts from the diverse and passionate group of craftspeople that make us who we are.

Today, we took some time during a job to talk shop with master woodworker – and the mastermind behind some of our favorite projects involving reclaimed materials – Mike Firstbrook.

Old Oak: What do you do for Old Oak Construction?

Mike: My duties with Old Oak Construction are pretty much soup to nuts. My main duty is working with the reclaimed wood that we gather from projects when we’re demo-ing, or when we dismantle an old barn. I de-nail and process wood so that it’s available to re-purpose. I use it in new construction, building someone a new door, fireplace mantle, ceiling or backsplash. I have a 20-year background working with wood. Most of that time I dealt with flooring, but it’s not too much of a leap moving into wood furniture. I really enjoy the opportunity to work with the reclaimed wood.

Old Oak: What does your background in woodworking look like?

Mike: My woodworking career began as an installer, sander and finisher of hardwood flooring. Unfinished hardwood flooring is a multi-phase process. There’s the carpentry aspect of flooring – making good cuts and such – then there’s the sanding aspect, which takes time and years of knowledge. It takes time to learn how the floor should look at each stage. If it doesn’t look right at stage two, it’s never going to get any better. I would say the third stage is applying stain and doing the coating – it’s almost like being a painter. Typically, a client is having a sand and finish hardwood floor installed, it’s higher end. So that means more dollars. That typically means higher expectations.

My background is working in San Jose, CA. Silicon Valley. The San Francisco Bay Area. Apple, Google, eBay, you name it. It’s a very stressful and competitive market. Lots of software Engineers. I’ve had Software Engineers tell me, “My work has to be flawless!” They’re coming from a background where they expect what you do to be perfect also.

I always strive to do my best and hold myself to a certain standard. If there’s something I see that I don’t like, I’m going to fix it before someone else sees it. Just approach each project this way, make it right, and above all, be honest.

Old Oak: What brought you into construction in general?

Mike: Years ago, in the mid-80’s, I was working at a grocery store. I was working night crew – midnight to eight in the morning, stocking shelves. And my folks’ home in San Jose, believe it or not, had existing hardwood everywhere except for the kitchen and in the bathrooms, which was very common back then. They decided to put hardwood in the kitchen and then they carpeted the rest of the house.

My dad had a college roommate whose brother-in-law owned a floor covering store, and we always used him for any flooring stuff. Well he lived about 90 miles away and didn’t want to drive to San Jose, so he had me do a little footprint – do a few measurements for him and draw it all up. He liked what I drew up, and said if I ever wanted to learn the trade I could come out to Oakdale, CA and learn the trade. Long story short, we moved the family out to Oakdale in 1992, and that’s where we raised our kids.

Old Oak: What brought you guys out to North Carolina?

Mike: I was brought here by family around 2015. My daughter and son-in-law got married around then, and he had family out here in Zebulon. They kinda looked around and realized that it would be hard to own a house in California, and seeing as he had family already out here, it gave us a bit of a jump-start. They decided to move here, and our other two boys – one already graduated from college and not coming back to Oakdale – and the other one going to college, also not planning on going back to Oakdale. We just thought, “Why spend our whole lives on one coast? Let’s make the move.”

Old Oak: How did you get involved with Old Oak Construction?

Mike: My neighbor, Rick, introduced me to Ben. Rick lives across the street, and his dad was involved in city politics. When I told him what I did he said that I needed to introduce myself to Ben. In fact, one of my first projects for him was a job putting in floors out at Wendell Falls. It just took off from there.

Old Oak: What makes you passionate about what you do?

Mike: Even as a young kid, you’d see me out hammering nails into the fence or trying to make a fort out of scrap plywood from one of the neighborhood construction jobs. I’ve always just enjoyed working with my hands. It’s not like I couldn’t have gone to college – I have two years at San Jose State, and I always got good grades. I really had no vision for a career that needed a degree, and after my first year of college I joined the Marine Corps. I did one more year of college after that, and just decided I was ready to work. Even though that meant stocking shelves in the grocery store, I just enjoy working. I could never see myself sitting in an office or going to the same place every day. One thing about construction is that you’re improving someone else’s life, and you’re giving them a product that has good value. If you build something right, it will last multiple lifetimes. That’s exciting to me.

Every job is different, and you’re always learning. There’s no cookie-cutter project. There’s no cookie-cutter customer. If you’re not enjoying the job you’re currently on, eventually it’ll be over and you’ll move on to something else. On the flooring side, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of really good guys and really talented people. Whenever you go to a seminar, a wood flooring expo, or a conference, it’s always fun to talk to those guys. It’s amazing, you meet some really cool people. I would say that’s what drives me. Honestly, I always knew that I’d never get rich doing this, but they always say “If you enjoy what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” I don’t mind, I enjoy the work.

Old Oak: Is there any advice that you have for people who are looking to hire a contractor, but don’t know where to start?

Mike: To me, the number one thing I would tell someone is that they should just feel comfortable with that person, their personality, and their ability to look you in the eye and tell you what they’re going to do. I was always told that if I don’t know the answer, don’t guess, just be honest. Tell the person that you don’t know, you’ll research the answer, and then get back to them. I would say that, for me, I’m not out there to rake someone over the coals or sell a bunch of jobs, get started, and leave. Trust is paramount. The client is trusting us to provide them with quality work and materials at fair price. We have to trust that our clients are excited about having us work on their project and realize that, unlike Software Engineers, we are not flawless, but will strive to provide them with our best effort each and every day. I will not leave a project until everyone is satisfied. To anyone that’s looking to have work done, I would say just trust your instincts. If that person that’s sitting in front of you, no matter how good their price is or what they’re saying, you can tell if they are being honest with you. Trust your feelings.

It’s not always about price. You can spend a dime and waste a dollar.

From the flooring side, maybe you can’t do the whole house right now with the kind of flooring that’s on your dream list. You can, however, do the areas where you’re going to be living the most – living room, entryway, kitchen. Remember that you can always add on later, and you can still do a smaller, great project on a budget. Don’t settle.