A Carpenter's Notes on Life & the Art of Good Work

About the Book

In Building, a visionary carpenter shares indelible stories on building a life worth living, revealing powerful lessons about work, creativity, and design through his experience constructing some of New York’s most iconic spaces.

“This book is for people who are interested in doing anything well.”―Sam Sifton, The New York Times

Winner of the Inc. Non-Obvious Book Award

For forty years, Mark Ellison has worked in the most beautiful homes you’ve never seen, specializing in rarefied, lavish, and challenging projects for the most demanding of clients. He built a staircase that the architect Santiago Calatrava called a masterpiece. He constructed the sculpted core of Sky House, which Interior Design named “Apartment of the Decade.” His building projects have included the homes of David Bowie, Robin Williams, and others whose names he cannot reveal. He is regarded by many as the best carpenter in New York.

Building: A Carpenter’s Notes on Life & the Art of Good Work tells the story of an unconventional education and how fulfillment can be found in doing something well for decades. Ellison takes us on a tour of the lofts, penthouses, and townhomes of New York’s elite, before they’re camera-ready. In a singular voice, he offers a window into learning to live meaningfully along the way. From staircases that would be deadly if built as designed and algae-eating snails boiled to escargot in a penthouse pond, to the deceptive complexity of minimalist design, Building exposes the tangled wiring, scrapped blueprints, and outlandish demands that characterize life in the high-stakes world of luxury construction.

Blending Ellison’s musings on work and creativity with immersive storytelling and original sketches, photos, and illustrations, Building is a meditation on crafting a robust life, and a delightful philosophical inquiry beyond the facades that we all live behind.
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Praise for Building

“Mark Ellison is known for building beautiful rooms, but here he has crafted a gorgeous book. This cross between Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Kitchen Confidential contains fascinating insights about working with your hands, the nature of talent, and how to create a meaningful life, whatever your craft is. Oh, and lots of juicy stories of pain-in-the-ass clients. Even if you aren’t handy—I can barely hang a picture frame—you’ll find this book a wonderful read.”—A. J. Jacobs, bestselling author of The Puzzler

“Who knew Mark Ellison’s handiwork would include a book this exquisite, purposeful, absorbing? Building merits reading and rereading—it’s a book with much to teach us all.”—Ayad Akhtar, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Homeland Elegies

“Reading this amazing book is like listening to a very wise and funny man share the best stories in the world, wound up with wisdom, craft, and hard-won philosophy, and told with such eloquence. Clearly, Ellison had this book waiting inside him for years. I’m so glad that it’s out in the world, where it will find its readers for years.”—Burkhard Bilger, author of Fatherland

“On a job site, Ellison will make irreverent banter while scribbling measurements on the back of a pizza box, as work of astonishing complexity and precision materializes under his direction. Now he has applied the same offhand but exacting craft to unspooling his ascent to the summit of one of the most demanding construction habitats on earth. Building is absolutely fantastic.”—David Hotson, architect, Skyhouse

“Mark Ellison is an amazing polymath and an Olympic-level aesthete. Unlike many polymaths and aesthetes, when he gets up in the morning, it’s to make real, physical things. Some lucky people get to live in them. Now the whole world gets to share in his wisdom.”—Craig Nevill-Manning, engineering director, Google
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Chapter 1


I believe I am things that I am not, and have disbelieved I could be things that I assuredly am.

Like all serial dropouts, I spent the first few years of my career flailing about. I lived in a string of cockroachy apartments, took work where I found it, and slept on enough couches to develop a liking for it. An artistic bent mesmerized me into thinking that was the way I was ultimately headed. My guitar accompanied me everywhere; I painted pictures, carved stones, and even scribbled down a few listenable songs.

A neighbor on the Lower East Side belonged to an itinerant theatrical troupe. They could be found every weekend in Washington Square Park, encircled by gawkers, tossing around old vaudeville jokes and juggling clubs. He would spend evenings teaching me circus skills, encouraging what he took to be my “naturally performant” side.

Despite my misgivings, my neighbor decided I needed to get out there and take my place on life’s stage. My only experience in front of audiences until then had been in sweaty-­palmed trepidation of my turn at the piano recital bench. I had no memory of having basked euphorically in any audience’s adulation. A knotted stomach and wish to disappear was all I could recall. But my neighbor maintained that nothing matched the energy exchanged between audience and performer; in his estimation, it verged on the sacred, or at least the narcotic. He had a practiced exuberance and an endearing tenacity. After several evenings of caviling, I was convinced enough to play along.

December of that year came with its damp New York cold. My neighbor knocked on my door and announced that he had a gig for me. An upscale Fifth Avenue department store was running a promotion for a denim-­centric clothing line with a western theme and they needed a banjo player to set a suitably oaty mood. Nothing about this announced itself as my big break. I had hiked Fifth Avenue’s canyon and felt out of place amid the Saks and Pecks and Taylors. Moreover, I was really more of a banjo owner than a banjo player. My entire oeuvre consisted of a decelerated version of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and the opening theme from The Beverly Hillbillies. Fashion had eluded me all my life, and even more markedly in my seventies adolescence, when the only flair I exhibited was for owning the wrong brand of everything.

My neighbor lured that they were paying $250 for two hours’ work. I took the bait.

The appointed day arrived; mushy, gray, and dank, it was well matched to my expectations. From the meager offerings of my closet, I cobbled together a poor man’s cowpoke ensemble: boots, bandana, jeans, and a piped shirt. My banjo, freshly strung and inadequately practiced, was secured in its case and tucked under my arm for the trek uptown, the handle lost long ago.

I had been directed to appear at the store’s service entrance, my first in an entire career spent going in the back way. I was bounced from Security, to Personnel, to Sportswear, and finally found a familiar face: a clown I knew from the theater troupe who doubled as their booking agent. She took my arm and led me to the “artistic coordinator” who was to instruct me in my duties. My clown friend wished me luck and passed me the cowboy hat she was wearing, saying, “Looks like you need one of these.” Clowns are often awkwardly kind. I tried to twist it down around my brow; it was ludicrously small. I perched it on the back of my head in the manner of unthreatening buckaroos and felt the gnawing creep of coming discomfort.

The artistic coordinator led us to a dressing area. A piano player of considerable skill was wending his way through a catalog of singing cowboy classics. “You know this one?” he’d ask, before launching into a swinging-­doors version of some lost ode to manliness and verve. “Mmm,” I’d answer, “that’s a good one.” Nearby, three models were busily assessing their self-­worth in banks of mirrors set up for the purpose; the first wore a tailored tennis dress, the second a feminized sweat suit, and the third an ensemble of skin-­tight, eighties-­embarrassing workout togs. Something was amiss.

The artistic coordinator gathered us up and announced that the theme of the promotion had changed: “Jesse’s is super excited to introduce their new sportswear line, just in time for Christmas! Ted, you play your piano here by the sales desk; Christie and Melanie will stay by you. Jill, you walk the floor; Mark will trail you with his banjo attracting everyone’s attention!”

What a plan.

To her credit, a shapely eighteen-­year-­old in neon spandex trailed by a red-­faced cowboy with a two-­song repertoire and muddy boots did elicit quite a few stares. But I doubt that all of our agonizing efforts, stretched through two interminable hours, produced a single sale. By the time it was over, no one craved an early retirement like I did. I hustled back to the dressing room, packed my banjo, found my clown, collected my check, and turned in my cowboy hat.

It is a peculiarity of my psyche that discouragement found on a given path rarely leads me to abandon it entirely. My history has been one of probing about for possibilities. Perhaps if per­forming wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, something more suitable could be found. Thus began a lengthy list of investigative career choices, some taken on out of interest, all driven by the incessant need to eat. Many ended with a dramatic flourish:

• Ice Cream Server and Cake Decorator. Madison Avenue and Seventy-­second Street. All went well for a year. I had the distinction of decorating several cakes that were picked up by Patricia Nixon as special treats for her husband, who was in regular need of sugary cheer. When the store’s lease was up, the rent was raised to untenable. Ice cream was out; Ralph Lauren was in.

• Bindery Worker. Cedar Street. This firm printed analog stock reports for Wall Street and knew better than any I’ve encountered that a deadline unmet was a reputation lost. All-­night mailings were a weekly ritual. I lasted as long as I could, but after the alcoholic breakdown of a machine operator that involved a crescent wrench and an automatic envelope stuffer, the cleanup of two severed arms when a sleepy laborer was sweeping the table of a hydraulic paper cutter whose safety switches had been taped down to speed work, and a hallucinogenic all-­night letter-­stuffing session fueled by sugar-­cube-­sized blocks of hashish distributed by the boss’s son, I was through.

• Animal Food Delivery Driver. Twenty-­sixth Street and Second Avenue. I was at the age when the weekly appearance of Irene Cara in the store’s aisles was an unparalleled thrill. I can’t remember seeing anyone like her hanging around the steel mills back in Pittsburgh. Things fell apart when one of the managers started a cocaine delivery service that ran in parallel with the animal food offerings. After two police stops for my driving irregularities, I lost my nerve.

Finally, I found work as the assistant to a nomadic Armenian American carpenter who spent his evenings as an unapologetic sexual sadist. Why anyone would find carrying 170-­pound sheets of drywall up several flights of stairs on a New York summer’s day appealing is anyone’s guess, but I had found my place. Work that most people would call brutal I call satisfying. I still enjoy the fatigue and deep well-­earned sleep that only a difficult day’s labor brings.

So I kept at it, from company to company, and project to project. Every job has something to teach, even if it’s “I never want to do that again.” But most of them have added a useful arrow to experience’s quiver; I still find the occasion to use a cake-­decorating technique when applying caulk in oddly shaped spots, and I still stuff envelopes in the peculiar way we did it at the bindery. I’ve even been known to grace a stage from time to time when a country-­style musical performance is required of me, although I still don’t get the audience energy thing, and I refuse to wear a cowboy hat.

“Belief” and “sacred” are two words that appear together a lot. One would think that people spend long hours pondering life’s puzzles, carefully weighing arguments and rebuttals, measuring each against their experience, then rigorously holding both to the clear light of reason. This presumption differs markedly from the unfocused capers of my internal mullings. My pronouncements on life are often haphazard, drawn from sources ranging from kindergarten companions to country music legends. I can say with confidence that most of them have benefited from less pondering than tonight’s choice of dinner.

About the Author

Mark Ellison
Mark Ellison is a carpenter—the best carpenter in New York, by some accounts. He is also a welder, sculptor, contractor, cabinetmaker, inventor, industrial designer, and musician. He lives in Newburgh, New York. More by Mark Ellison
Decorative Carat