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Assembly Techniques And Tools for Residential Steel Construction: The Secret is out!

Western Metal In Architecture - July/August, 1998
By Scott Shaddix

In my series on residential steel framing I have discussed several of the major question marks in the steel framing industry including bidding, cost projections, and developing a network of suppliers. This fourth article takes us to the core of residential steel: assembly techniques, tools and what it takes to actually put up a steel home.

You are hearing it straight from a framing contractor in the field. These issues concerning techniques and tools are my primary focus every day of every week. Technique is all about where to put your screws and how to stand a steel wall. Right?

Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but tools and techniques are not the big story here. The big secret about steel framing is that there is no secret. Technique for light-gauge steel construction is no more of a story than framing with wood.

It's not much of a story for you, but the simple truth is that steel works. Building professionals just need to get over their fears. Forward progress and a new vision about residential construction are coming into their own and we must not hold to tradition simply because progress appears unruly.

Just Another Job Site
The most striking thing that you will notice when you go to a light-gauge steel production framing job site is that the tradesmen are cuttinly, assembling and standing homes without any more difficulty than they have with wood.

If you walk through a steel job site for the first time and see a group of guys working on a simple floor assembly, piecing together a window opening or putting together a complicated turret, you may catch yourself taking a second look. You may not believe that the tradesmen are actually ripping through steel studs with a saw and pushing screws through steel beams with cordless screw guns and collated screws. The fact of the matter is that a saw blade cuts through steel almost identically to the way it cuts wood, only a little louder. A collated screw goes into a steel stud almost as effortlessly as a nail into wood.

Individual Challenges in the Field
Most builders and framers alike think that steel is nothing but problems. You see guys show up for their first day at a steel site, look out their window, see the shiny steel studs, and drive right away without getting out Of their car, says Bill Willis, a field operations manager for Nicholas Lane who has been working on light-gauge steel for more than four years and has directed construction of more than 200 steel homes. A typical site manager for most builders would rather do just about anything on the job site than have to deal with steel.

Yet when you ask Manuel Zamora, a journeyman carpenter who began working with steel three years ago for Nicholas Lane, what people should know about steel framing, all he has to say is, they need to keep sending us more work. In fact, Manuel says he enjoys working with steel more than wood because it has required him to learn new techniques and push his skills as a carpenter to a new level.

Ziggy Ochiones has worked on more than 250 steel homes for Nicholas Lane and states with a tremendous amount of pride that, "the first couple of months with steel is difficult, but after that you build with steel the same way you build with wood.

Ziggy knows that he has separated himself from the thousands of Southern California framers who have never dared to pick up a steel stud.
Willis admits that it took us a long time to put together a workforce that was willing and able to put up steel homes. But now our guys treat steel jobs like any other work put in front of them. They even find an added value in steel because they view it as a challenge they have overcome.

Perception is Everything
The biggest challenge to making steel work is not technique, it is perception.

Once we overcome the fear of working with a new material, benefits seem to outweigh difficulties. In fact, Nicholas Lane tradesmen are much more likely to praise the benefits of steel than concern themselves with the obstacles. Isidro Ramirez has worked on steel for more than two years, but recently began a wood job in San Diego and notes that working with wood is much more difficult than steel because of the added weight. With steel, even the big beams, posts and joist aren't too heavy.

Tooling Up with Efficient Steel Tools
Certainly two or three years ago, without the development of effective tools, steel assembly was tedious. But Willis declares that things have come a long way over the past few years with tools and fasteners, and our guys really believe they can build as fast and efficiently as they can with wood.

There is no doubt that a steel tool bag differs from wood in content and cost. And getting our tradesmen to make their own investment has been a challenge. But most on the Nicholas Lane crew are now tooled up with effective tools, including DeWalt 268 Versa Clutch screw guns, Grabber collated screw gun attachments, Skill Saws with 150 tooth Marathon plywood blades for cutting studs and American Tools vice Grip, which is a new addition to our job site.
Both Compass and Grabber have also provided us with efficient collated and box screws. Many other tool and fastening companies are also pushing through new fastening equipment that propose to make assembly even more efficient: Attexor is introducing a spot clincher, Senco is developing stapling techniques, and Erico Tools is developing tools and hardened nails to fasten wood to steel, all of which will make even more evident that the only barrier to efficient steel construction is attitude. We're even looking to further improve assembly efficiencies with synthetic adhesives that allow us to assemble homes with technologies used for automo-biles.

It's Not Going Anywhere
The greatest similarity between steel and wood is that techniques come from figuring things out. A framer has to be able to think on his feet and analyze assemblies on the move. If you can't do that, you can't work with either steel or wood.
What Nicholas Lane looks for in both a carpenter and a field manager is someone who uses his head, applies his hands and builds from his heart. Our best tradesmen are much like Manuel, Ziggy and Isidro who want to learn and challenge themselves to push their knowledge.

All the tools and techniques for steel construction are ready to go. Efficiencies will be realized when builders accept a new challenge and learn to enjoy that challenge.

Success in steel starts with tradesmen like Manuel who states with a big smile, that the best part of working with steel is that after the home is put up, you walk up to the house, push on a stud and see that the house isn't going anywhere! Yes, a steel home is strong. But the strength Manuel feels is bom out of pride in his work. Pride is both the technique and the tool for success.