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


Gary Bennett (Roofer/Sheet Metal Mechanic)

As a child I was helping my father and my uncle. Actually my father got into [roofing] through my uncle, 'cause my uncle is the one who really started it off. My father was actually his helper and then, as time went on and my father learned the trade, he was able to do it on his own. Then as I was coming up, at the age of ten I was actually helping him. Not as far as getting on the roof, but handing him different tools and all. When I got to be the age of 14 and 15, then I was working on the roof and I was working with them. Some days it was sun up to sun down on the weekends.

I followed in my father's footsteps and I have two boys now. My oldest one is 13, and I have taken him with me on a side job before and he can tell you the difference between the nails and the hammers, and which shingles are what. He knows that. As far as answering down the road if he's going to be interested? It's hard to say.

Basically you have your different types of roof. You have your shingle roof and you have your flat roofs. Most of your flat roofs are your tar roofs. That would be your steel tabs or your asbestos shingles which is Dutch lap and hex shingles. Dutch lap and hex shingles look similar to slate but [are] made out of lightweight concrete and it's a lot longer than the slate. They break a lot quicker. . . . I'm telling you, you could imagine all of the bullets that we pull out of a roof, especially during the holidays like New Year's or Fourth of July.

A lot of these old homes, like up in the St. Charles Avenue area, when they built these homes, most of these roofs are slate roofs. A true slate roof does not have roofing paper underneath it and there is no ply-boards there. You have your rafters that separate it. So the shingles go on top of the rafters. Believe it or not, it doesn't leak. Now, you put the roofing paper for security, but on those roofs you don't need the paper because it breathes. You need the air for the roof to breathe. I do it. I put paper underneath it for security purposes. It's not going to hurt either way you look at it.

You're never going to learn [roofing] by the books. You have to get out of there, someone has to show you, and really it's the old tricks. You have to learn it from an older roofer, because these new guys coming out now, they don't know all the tricks to the trade. . . . You need the book knowledge to find out the different terms of it. But I would say mainly apprenticeship [is the best way to learn], because you just have to have that. If you go to school you're never really going to get it unless you get out there in the field. They are not putting you in the field when you are in school; you are just into the books.

The hardest thing that a roofer has to do is climb a ladder and get on a roof! . . . You have your ups and downs in that type of work too, because the weather is never right, for starters. The winter is too cold, and the summer is too hot. In the winter, the best time to get up there is in the noon hour. . . . In the summer, it's early in the morning. If you can get up there shortly after daybreak, that's even better, but then if the roof is damp then you can't get up there, so you have to wait until it gets a little drier. In New Orleans, the weather is never right! That's just one thing you have to get used to.

Gary Bennett 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.