More Than Just a Trade: Master Craftsmen of the Building Arts


Joseph Breaux (Carpenter)

I learned my trade from my father when I was young back in school, and after we got out of school we remodeled his home. I was born in 1922 and my daddy built a house in 1921. I had three sisters and three brothers. My dad was a carpenter. As a matter of fact the whole family, my uncles and his dad, and all were carpenters. . . . I worked with my dad on jobs that he had, and I learned the trade from him. When I joined the carpenters local I was a journeyman at that time but at that time it was still back when they had apprenticeships. You went to Delgado. Carpenters, there are a lot of tricks in carpentry. If you don't know the tricks you can make a mistake. A mistake in carpentry will cost you a lot. You got to watch your moves. That's what my dad taught me. He was second to none. . . . Wasn't a thing in the world that my dad couldn't do. He was a good carpenter.

When I first came out of the service and went to work they were cutting these little barracks and we were moving them over to Xavier University and the Broad Street Project. Anyway, there when you were putting up the siding you had to put your initial where you started and then when you finished. If the boss see your work and it was bad, you hit the road.

We built three houses like this, and there is two of them over on Bonnabel Blvd. My older brother built first, then next door to him his sister-in-law bought that lot and daddy built her one. Well, we all worked on it. We all worked together. I built this one next door for my daughter. We got one on Bonnabel. All these houses are built the same with this concrete cell, piers, footings, piers, and concrete cell. Monolithic. Never stopped pouring, poured the whole thing at one time. You can see a lot of woodwork outside on the side of the house you don't see much of today. Some of that stuff we call carpenter's paradise, when you got a lot of woodwork and fancy work in it. When you know what you're doing you can get by.

[My favorite jobs are] when you get a carpenter's paradise. Maybe St. Louis Hotel. When you get a big 12 inch mold to put up around and the only way you could fit it is to cope and miter it. Not too many carpenters know how to do that. My daddy taught me that a long time ago. . . . Anytime you cope anything you've got to turn the thing upside down. If you got something like that, you take the first half and you miter it. And then the second half, you cope. You leave that miter joint up there and you cope this bottom in order to get that.

I don't like gables. Gables are not as strong as a hip. You can take gables sometimes and shake them and they will break. I never built a house with gable. Not that I couldn't, 'cause I built my sister a house around the corner, and she had this little house out back that I took down and put back up. It has got a gable on both ends. I added on to it but I hipped it. I hipped what I put on. A hip roof is much stronger than a gable. You can tighten it up by putting the hip on the back, or the gable on the front, or vice-versa.

My dad was a good buddy of Huey Long. Matter of fact my youngest brother was named Huey. Huey Pierce he was supposed to be. But when my momma went to christen him he [the priest] said, "You can't use that. Pierce is not a Saint's name and you have to call him Patrick Huey." So we never did call him Patrick. We always called him Huey.

Joseph Breaux was interviewed as part of the New Orleans Building Arts Project. Laura Westbrook edited More than Just A Trade: Master Craftsmen of the Building Arts in 2004 for publication online.