Help this good is hard to beat

A  trio of barn builders whose average age is over 50 goes home at night “not even tired,” according to the oldest. That’s because “we work smart, not hard.”

That’s the claim of Phil Wheaton, 61, owner of Wheaton Barns in Frederick, Mich., who has been building pole barns since the late ‘70s. These days, he’s keeping himself and a crew of two, ages 46 and 57, busy and making the job as easy as possible because of their fourth “unpaid” crew member. The heavy lifting is done by The Framer, a multi-purpose lift and construction site vehicle.

Patented in 1996 by Hugh Markin, The Framer was conceived as a vehicle that would make life easier for post-frame contractors. After a few false starts and set-backs, a major redesign of the machine seems to have gotten it right .

The current iteration of The Framer is billed as a whiz-kid machine that can set 60-foot trusses on 18-foot walls, operates from a platform, has a zero-degree turning radius, safely puts crews at 24-foot working height, digs a 36-inch hole through frost, moves dirt, handles materials and a lot more.

Wheaton says it’s a good employee that doesn’t take vacations, never asks for a pay raise and never calls in sick.

Two-sided loyalty  
Wheaton is proud to own one of the first Framers ever built. And even though Markin recently unveiled the newly-redesigned and improved Framer, Wheaton says he wouldn’t part with his 25-year-old model.

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” he says, “well…maybe a new one.” He adds that he’s hoping to retire in a couple of years and already has an offer from a guy who wants to buy the vintage Framer.

Wheaton’s first peek at The Framer was a sketch on the back of a placemat over lunch with Markin. Wheaton, who migrated to the post-frame construction business from a career in law enforcement, used to buy materials from a lumber company where Markin worked.

“We hit it off,” says Wheaton, “He liked my jokes.”

When Markin shared his brainstorm about designing The Framer, Wheaton recognized it as a good idea. “He gave me some input” on the design, says Wheaton. He says he suggested adding an on-board tool box and a built-in vice.

When the first few Framers finally got rolling, Wheaton bought one. It immediately changed his business.

“We use it to dig holes, set poles, set trusses, put plywood on the roof,” Wheaton said, rattling off jobs in rapid-fire succession. He’s built over 3,000 barns and set 70,000 poles with it in 25 years. “I wish I’d put aside a dollar for every pole I set with it,“ Wheaton adds.

Unless the battery dies while the crew is on the roof, says Wheaton, there’s no need for ladders on the job. “Good thing, because I hate heights,” he says and adds, a bit sheepishly, “and I’m a pilot.”

A practical businessman, Wheaton likens The Framer to a valuable employee. The Framer, he says, “shows up every day on time, sober and doesn’t have a wife or girlfriend who objects if he has to work on Saturday.”

And because the machine cuts down on the number of persons needed on a job, it saves money. Wheaton figures it’s worth two guys making $30,000 each in salary and benefits annually.

That means, he says, that although he needs fewer workers, he can afford to pay them better because The Framer takes the place of two or three pair of hands.

In fact, Wheaton says, it’s possible for one person to erect a 30-foot pole barn — and he’s done it himself. On the other hand, when Wheaton Barns has put up big equine complexes, “an extra Framer would have been handy, but not necessary.”

“So,” it is suggested, “if The Framer had a brain, it wouldn’t need you?”

“No,” Wheaton shoots back, “It’s not as good a salesman.”

The ‘lazy’ man’s way

Markin, who started in post-frame construction in 1965, confesses “laziness” prompted him to develop The Framer.  In 1980, he decided lifting and carrying big posts, lugging materials up ladders and handling larger trusses were all just too physically taxing.

“I didn’t want to climb ladders,” he says. “I thought about another career.”

Inspired by a three-wheeled machine used in the orchard business, Markin sketched his idea with soapstone on a shop floor. He built the first machine, used it to erect a couple of buildings,  studied ways to improve the design, then sold his first effort and built a better model.

Markin’s next variations, including the one Wheaton still uses, followed. After making other improvements to the design, Markin was awarded a United States patent in 1996.

While the development stage is done,  Markin says The Framer is still in the debugging phase, “but I’ll tell you, it works sweet.” It helps him avoid climbing ladders and, he says, OSHA agrees The Framer is safer than scaffolding.

“It took a lot of spiritual fortitude, a lot of prayer” to stick with the project all this time. “It’s been a journey,” he adds, “and I don’t know where it’s going.”  His goal, though, is to build 400 Framers in the next five years.

The Framer is scheduled to be the subject of a work efficiency study by Purdue University in 2010. RB

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