Dewey Whittaker reflects on a life of carpentry

Mr. Whittaker cuts, hammers and fits a piece of wood into place on a deck railing he is building on a home in North Side.

Northsider Dewey Whittaker grew up in a time when Caymanians built their own homes and passed the skills to do so down to younger generations. His father, uncles and grandfather were all carpenters, and Mr. Whittaker, 65, has followed in their footsteps.

As a solo carpenter-for-hire, he works on remodeling projects, finishing trim work, doors, frames, decks and houses. He loves what he does and gets a lot of satisfaction from creating and building things, despite it being hard and hot work.

“I love carpentry, being able to see something I’ve created or helped build and to look at the finished product. It makes me feel nice, especially when someone comes along and admires the work, then I feel even better,” said Mr. Whittaker.

He left school at age 16 and started working at the Public Works Department as a carpenter. Later, he loaned his services to North Side contractor John Smith for many years before going to work for Paul Ebanks.

Dewey Whittaker built this seaside back deck. – Photos: Jewel Levy
Dewey Whittaker built this seaside back deck. – Photos: Jewel Levy

He has strong opinions about why the younger generation do not seem to be interested in learning the trade these days.

“The young people are lazy; most of them don’t want to learn, or they say working outside is too hot,” he said.

“When my son was younger, he would hang around, hand me the tools and watch me build things, but when he grew up, he said it was too hot.”

Mr. Whittaker said when he was young, his father took them miles inland to cut ironwood trees for fence posts for government at 50 cents apiece.

“We would go inland, cut about 15 to 20 trees all at a certain diameter and size, and then walk out with three to four logs on our shoulders. That’s what you call hot and hard work,” he said.

Mr. Whittaker thinks the carpentry trade has long been overlooked by young people as a career option.

”They don’t want to learn the trade, and there is no vocational trade school,” he said. “Construction companies coming into the islands don’t seem to find time or care to take the young novices under their wing.”

There is also trouble in the field for the older, skilled Caymanian carpenters, he says.

“Most of them have given up their licenses because they can’t compete with bigger companies, and when they work for the bigger companies they are not treated right,” he said.

“Some Caymanians are also ‘grudgeful’ minded … not like long ago, where you help me build my house and I help you build yours.

“Years ago, Caymanian carpenters seldom passed a young man on the street and didn’t ask what was his work for the day,” said Mr. Whittaker.

“If he did not have one, he was told to be ready the next morning to be taken to the work site. At the job site, the older men would find something for the young novice to do, whether it was handing up the nails or holding a piece of lumber, all the while telling them what was taking place and to pay close attention,” Mr. Whittaker said.

There currently are some options for young people interested in learning the carpentry trade. Cayman Islands Further Education Centre Director Delores Thompson said the school has two general construction courses this year, which were based on demand.

She said CIFEC had seen an increase in interest at the school, with students seeking options in the construction field.

“There are 26 students participating in the construction course so far,” Ms. Thompson said.

While the Further Education Centre does not offer training in the skilled trades, Ms. Thompson said the school has started a pilot Public Works Department apprenticeship course. Students who sign up for that will have access to training leading to plumbing, electrical, air-conditioning, building and maintenance careers.

“We are pretty excited about that. It’s a small program, we are looking at eight or 10 students because it’s just started up … but there is no reason to think it will not take off,” she said.

That is good news for Mr. Whittaker, who advises that to become a good carpenter, being good at planning and possessing some tool, electrical and mathematical skills is very important.

“It has its satisfaction but it’s hard work,” he said.