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
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
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
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
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
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
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.