From Building Handmade Homes to Fine Finish Carpenter

From Building Handmade Homes to Fine Finish Carpenter 5.00/5 (100.00%) 1 vote
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Building In His Blood

Dean Gray was initiated into the mysteries of construction by his maternal grandfather, Marian “Mac” Houser, son of David Houser, owner and operator of the hardware store in Napoleon, North Dakota.

Grandpa’s Tools

Dean was an irrepressible kid always making things with grandpa’s tools.  At age six he built a little house by stacking brick. When the little building reached three foot high it quickly fell down around him. Since then all his masonry work has been reinforced.

As a kid armed with a hammer he built many things with scrap lumber and nails pried loose and straighten out.  His arts and craft work was recognized early on in elementary school years when his constructions and drawings were confiscated and put on display at the school district administration offices in Long Beach.

The Pits

By age ten Dean began digging several pits by shovel and excavation pick – broader and deeper than a bathtub – in the vacant lot next door. Over the next five years these pits and the associated piles from excavations became an important part of his early earth explorations and terra forming.

As well during this time Dean designed and built several large playhouses and elaborate forts out of scrap lumber and recycled material scavenged from discarded construction sites and collected from the alleys with his crew of Charlie Bettis, Greg Ross and assorted neighborhood pals.

His art continued to be recognized as he was one of only two students handpicked from his high school to attend the school district’s select summer art program taught by gifted teachers from the Disney corporation. His senior year election to student government to the office of Secretary of Fine Arts gave him control of the communication medium of school bulletin boards which he used to enhance his independent publication of four issues of his “underground newspaper.”

His uncle, Ed Niles the architect, provided some early inspiration for his sustaining pursuit of architecture, design and building. Certainly by the end high school Dean was aiming for larger construction opportunities and yearning for some grand adventure akin to going “on the road” as the book was spinning in his head.

So, just one week after graduating from high school Dean hopped in a jet, flying away to work on a survey team in the Alaskan wilderness. This opportunity to work was forged by his uncle Lewis Dickinson, the principal in the firm of Dickinson, Oswald and Associates, Engineers and Surveyors for duration of summer 1970.  Precipitously this survey work provided a fine foundation in essential elemental skills needed for his later construction career.

Out of the Wilderness, Some Travel, Then a Student of the Arts and Academically Craftsman Trained

After Dean returned to Long Beach he then traveled to Phoenix, Chicago and Nashville performing odd jobs and seeing various parts of the nation before attending college to study environmental art, sculpture and graphics at the College of the Arts  where he studied from 1972-74 along with work study in the Library, the Alumni Association and as a teaching assistant.

In college Dean design for a school playground apparatus won a student competition and was constructed according to his plans. The following semester Dean participated in building second playground – built with recycled materials – that was commissioned at another local elementary school.

College taught use of a variety of tools and techniques as well as design. Dean participated in a unique summer building program – often using recycled materials – with only hand tolls and without electricity. One of his teachers was Rick Hall, a craftsman and contemporary of Art Boericke, author of Handmade Houses: A Guide to The Woodbutcher’s Art.

The Nature Conservancy McCloud Preserve cabin

The Nature Conservancy McCloud Preserve cabin

That college summer program worked in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy as their building team in remote nature preserves in Sonoma, Mendecino, Marin, and Shasta counties in Northern California. This unusual work involved living and working in difficult to access remote locations exclusively requiring use of hand tools, native materials, and recycled materials in constructing buildings – sometimes in locations without electricity.

Construction Work on the Russian River

Antique Store/Beauty Salon, Guerneville, CA

Antique Store/Beauty Salon, Guerneville, CA

After college Dean found plenty of work in the Russian River region of Sonoma County expressing his skills as a carpenter and tile setter specializing in custom wood and stone work.

A wide variety of projects were competed including building many redwood decks, fireplace hearths and leveling of flood damaged homes as well as many unique residential and commercial projects of new constructions, additions and remodeling – using recycled materials as often as possible.

Soon he purchased his first home, a large knotty pine cabin surrounded by Redwood trees and located with frontage on the Russian River in Guerneville, California which he completely remodeled.

The year 1979 found Dean living in a tepee on top of a mountain on a 500 acre ranch surrounded by the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve where he worked with a friend building a unique octagon home on the open hillside. Dean moved to Santa Barbara in 1980.

He began working in southern California doing repair work in the student community of Isla Vista.  It did not take Dean long to rise to the top of his profession in the Santa Barbara area working alongside architects when not drafting his own designs.

Fine Finish Carpentry

His work is on exhibit on gated estate homes in and around the communities of Hope Ranch, Montecito and The Rivera as well as near the mission and on commercial buildings in downtown Santa Barbara done in impressive Spanish, modern and contemporary styles. During this period Dean was fortunate to work on several historic homes – including parts of Arcady, the Knapp Estate – as well as many unique projects requiring the precision focus of highly-developed professional skills.

Dean was top carpenter overseeing 40 carpenters who built an elementary school in Los Olivos, near Solvang. On this project the assembly of exposed structural timber framing became Dean’s primary responsibility with work so exact that massive 10 x 10 inch post and beams were joined so tightly that a business card could not slip into the joinery.

Dean’s abilities eventually came to encompass all elements of custom construction and he acquired his California Contractors License. Although he most enjoyed the specialty of fine finish carpentry involving complex radius work and mitering of corners. This included a special emphasis on crown and base moldings as well as providing fabrication, installation and hardware for high-end custom doors and gateways of all sizes and weights as well as unusual shapes.

Dean also worked as construction manager for People’s Self-Help Housing Corporation in building 10 low income homes in Nipomo, California by instructing 10 families in performing team construction as their sweat equity.

His craftsmanship can also be seen in a broad range of homes and commercial buildings in Malibu, North Hollywood, Los Angeles, Long Beach and Orange County. In 1993 Dean traded in his tool belt to obtain computer training and pursue a new career in the Internet that lasted nearly a decade.

Strapping On His Toolbelt Again

In 2002 Dean once more strapped on his tool belt to work construction in the Coachella Valley on some of the finest homes in nearly all the gated communities including The Vintage Club, Bighorn Golf Club, Morningside Country Club and Smoke Tree Ranch, to name only a few.

He remodeled many kitchens and baths, preforming many remodels as well as new construction. His work can be found in the raised panel moldings, crown and base for the ballroom of The Parker as well as the homes of the Modern Living Spaces development and the moldings and doors for Biltmore Colony Estates in Palm Springs.

Cabots Museum Trading Post - tool window interior

Tool window interior

Another highlight came about when Dean was asked to design and install security features for the Trading Post of Cabots Museum. Michael O’Keefe, the president of Cabots Museum Board of Directors hired Dean to design and fabricate security bars to blend in with the hand made structure. Dean selected iron work from the junkyard on site, designing, welding and installing the security features in a manner replicating features authenticly handmade.

Dean once more hung up his tool belt in 2007 when the real estate market crashed and construction ended.


A Family of Teachers
Dean As Teacher
Teaching New Technology
Public Speaker
Born and Educated Artist

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