EARTHSHIP ACADEMY Job Safety and Tools

When you show up on the jobsite, there are several things everyone needs.

  • Water-Bring a refillable water bottle

  • Sunscreen/hat in hot weather Shoes with decent tread

  • Eye Protection. Must have for using power tools, mixing cement, driving nails, etc. Don't bring your expensive shades. They will get scratched.

  • A basic tool belt is composed of the following:


    Utility knife

    Pencil/Sharpie-need both

    Measuring tape-a retracting one. 25' is plenty

    Other options include a chalk line, needle nose and regular pliers, tin snips, screwdrivers, torpedo level, speed square if you're going to be cutting wood

Tire Pounding

The first thing you need to do to pound tires is to pick out a tire. The sizes of the tires are stamped on the rim. We generally use almost all 15" tires. The sizes will look like this:

205 60R 15, 205 75R 15, 215 60R 15, 215 75R 15, 225 60R 15, 225 75R 15, 235 75R 15

Courses are, ideally done all in the same size tire to make the interior of the wall more uniform and easier to finish. For bottom courses and end walls we often use smaller 16" tires, such as the 215 75R 16. For upper courses, depending on how high the tire walls are going, we usually use some 14" tires. We almost never use 13" tires, and 17" tires are too big for most applications. The 235 75R 15 is the gold standard tire. You'll then need to put enough cardboard in the center of the tire to keep the dirt from falling out of the corners when it's placed on the wall.


Shovel-generally a round tipped, long-handled variety. Used for shoveling dirt into tires, etc. When shoveling for long periods of time, remember to use your legs so as not to strain your back. Unless your hands are tough, it's best to wear work gloves to avoid blisters.

Pick/Mattox-A tool that has a pointed end, and a flat blade end. Used for digging ditches, footings, removing rock, etc. The blade can be sharp. Use with care.

Sledgehammer-Used to pound the dirt into the tires. We generally use a 8# version, and there are 6# and 10# types also available. When using a sledge to pound tires, make sure there is at least one tire between you and anyone else working on the wall. Otherwise, you'll be too close, and risk hitting them with the sledge. Also, remember not to swing over your head. A smaller, more economical motion is better, and you'll last longer. With tire pounding, it's technique, not brute strength. If you're pounding tires on a high wall, the general method is to straddle the tire you're working on. You can usually get a small foothold in the corners of the tires below. Be careful not to fall off the wall! We generally backfill the wall as it goes up, giving an easy place for footing, but not always.

Level-You will be using a 4' level when pounding tires to level the courses and plumb them vertically. Keep in mind that if the bottom edge of the level is not clean, it won't read accurately. You'll use a 4' level to plumb can walls as well.

Cement Mixer-Mixing cement is a valuable skill in building. It takes a little experience to get the mix correct. While everyone has their own methods, following is how I mix a load of cement:

American bags of cement generally weigh around 96 pounds. This is too heavy for some people. If you can't lift a bag of cement comfortably, get someone stronger to help you. The usual mix for concrete is 3/1. That is, 3 parts sand to 1 part cement. A full load of concrete is composed of ! bag of cement-or the equivalent of 6 shovelfuls, and 18 similar shovelfuls of sand. 18 shovelfuls of sand comes out to 3 buckets. Sand is heavy, so again, don't strain your back. Do individual shovelfuls, or fill the buckets halfway. Depending on what you're doing, you might want to mix a smaller load of concrete. All you have to remember is the 3/1 ratio. Engineering fibers are also added to the mix to keep the concrete from cracking. A small handful is enough.

The order of mixing is as follows: Fill the mixer while turning with water. Start with a small amount. Adding too much water is a frequent beginner's error, and is a pain to correct. Add fibers. Start adding sand. If doing a 6/18 mix, add about 12 scoops of sand, or 2 buckets. Put in the ! bag of cement. Let it mix for awhile. Add small amounts of water at a time. Be sure to stand to the side of the mixer at all times. Standing in front will inevitably get you a cement facial. When putting in the half bag of cement, be careful not to put your hands or arms into the mixer. Never put anything into the mixer while turning. Some experienced people occasionally put a shovel into the mixer while turning to loosen material stuck on the back wall of the mixer. This is a dangerous move, and can result in broken wrists or arms.

Cutting the bags of cement in half is a skill in itself. Again, there are different methods. Usually, the bag is laid down on the ground or on the existing pallet of cement. A cut is made with a utility knife down the middle of the shortest dimension of the bag. Then some type of stick, I prefer a short piece of rebar, be sure if you use rebar to have the lengthwise ridge up to cut the bag. The rebar, shovel or stick is inserted underneath the bag and pulled up and sawed back and forth to cut the bag in half. It takes a little practice. Try to cut right in the middle to get as close to a real half bag as possible. You'll have to lift the bag slightly after cutting it on one side, so you can slide in the rebar. After the halves are separated, you can carefully stand them up straight.

Wear rubber gloves when using cement. If working with cement for an entire day, some people rub some Vaseline or similar waterproof type cream on their hands first. This can make your gloves hard to get on, however. Others like to wear an inner layer of surgical gloves underneath their regular rubber gloves. In any case, even if you have good gloves, your hands will eventually get damp. It helps to have an extra pair of gloves to rotate with. You can turn the wet gloves inside out to dry by turning them partially and sealing the cuff. Then, if the gloves have no holes in them, you can "pop" the glove inside out with the trapped air. This is a good way to determine if you have small leaks in your gloves, also. Gloves with holes are worthless. Toss them.

Note on mixer: At the end of the day, cleaning the mixer is no one's favorite job. If not cleaned, the mixer will be full of hardened cement the next day, so it's very important to clean it carefully, inside and out. Allow enough time near the end of the day to make sure this job is done. Cleaning of tools, mixer, wheelbarrow, buckets and trowels after cement is super important. Tools that aren’t taken care of become worthless quickly, and make the work harder than it should be.

Wheelbarrow-A wheelbarrow is a great tool, and if you've never used one, you will need to learn to "drive" it. There are a few rules to wheel barrowing. First, when loading a wheelbarrow, be sure to put the bulk of the load near the front of the barrow. That is, the part that is farthest from the handles. Don't load the wheelbarrow too full until you know what you're capable of. When walking with a loaded wheelbarrow, keep the handles down more or less level with the ground. If you have to jump a door frame or other obstacle, you will lower them even more. If you have to go down a hill, you can lower the handles to the point that the back supports drag slightly on the ground and act as brakes. When turning around, lift the handles up sharply and you will be able to pivot the entire barrow easily. Dumping the load is done by lifting the handles straight up quickly . If you've used a wheelbarrow for cement, be sure to clean it thoroughly at the end of the day. There will be brushes on site for this. Dump the dirty cement water in a place away from the building, in the road or on the back berm.

To clean yourself up after cement work, use white vinegar and rags. The vinegar will restore the proper PH to your skin after exposure to cement, which is very alkaline. Even if cement doesn't touch your skin, just being around it will deplete your skin and hair of moisture. Pouring some vinegar on your hair when showering after work will take away that dry, straw-like feeling.

The glove line at the top of gloves can be a trouble spot for beginning cement workers. Some people have developed cement sores above their wrists that were serious. Take care in handling cement and keep your gloves dry and reasonably clean.

Sometimes, instead of a cement mixer, concrete or adobe mud will be mixed in a wheelbarrow, especially if only a small amount is needed. Shovels can be used to mix these loads, or even better, a mortar hoe, if available. Be sure to mix all the dry ingredients well first before adding the water slowly so as not to add too much.

Cement will stay "green" for a few hours, so it generally isn't necessary to clean tools until the day's work is done. If you are working with cement, and have a load delivered to you to lay cans, for example, it's appreciated if you cut a piece of plastic and have the cement dumped onto it so others can have cement delivered to them. If there isn't a shortage of wheelbarrows, you may able to work directly out of the wheelbarrow, which is an advantage for your back. If you're working in the sun, you can keep the cement from hardening too quickly in the wheelbarrow, by covering it with something. A scrap of plywood, a piece of cardboard, etc. If you are working with cement, and it's getting close to a break, lunch or whatever, make sure you don't have too much cement on hand. Letting it sit through lunch will usually make it too stiff to work with. If your mix does become stiff, you can add small amounts of water to loosen it. Especially in can laying, this is important. Too stiff of a mix while trying to lay cans will make the job more difficult than it has to be. Mixing cement is a lot like cooking. Getting the recipe right will give you the best results.

Tin snips-These are used for cutting wire, sheet metal and mostly for cutting metal lath. Metal lath comes in 2'x8' sheets. There is a diamond pattern in lath. Cuts should always be made with the diamonds running vertically. The lath is weak otherwise and can stretch. When cutting lath, ALWAYS wear work gloves. Lath has two factory edges on the long sides before it's cut, but the ends are sharp. Lath can and will deliver nasty cuts to your hands, your legs, etc. Wear gloves. You will be using lath in the tire pounding phase to form cement spacers, or half tires in the places that naturally arise out of the tire layout. Sometimes, we use a small flexible tire to "squeeze" into these spaces, or sometimes we fashion a cement block, forming it either with lath, or lately cardboard, to save on lath.

Lath is also used later in the build wherever lumber is attached to masonry. A technique called bullnosing uses lath to form a crack free attachment to a door frame, for example. We also use lath "tabs", which are small strips of lath inserted into a can wall while it's being built or nailed or screwed onto a lumber frame to receive a can wall, for example. Cutting lath can be made easier if you remember to hold down the part of the sheet that is being cut. If you're cutting a long strip from a full sheet, for example, it helps to step on the sheet and move your foot up as the cut progresses. Pulling up on the cut piece will make the blades go through more easily and quickly also.

When attaching lath to tires, you will use screws or nails. Nailing into a tire is not easy for the uninitiated. Plus, all tires are different. Some are harder than others. When attempting to nail a 16d (3") nail into a tire to attach lath, it's a very good idea to use a pair of pliers (needle nose are best) to hold the nail. Otherwise, your fingers are in extreme jeopardy of getting smashed. The tendency is for the nail to bounce off the tire, rather than go in. It takes a little practice, like everything, but don't sacrifice your hands while learning. Use pliers. Attaching lathe to tires with screws is much easier, but drills aren’t always available, so it's good to know how to do both. Also, when using screws to attach lath, the diamond holes in the lath are larger than the screw heads, so in most cases you will have to use at least 2 screws to "lock" the connection. If you do make lath baskets for tire blocks, the larger ones will need to be wired somewhat to prevent them from getting totally out of shape when the concrete is poured in. Usually, depending on the size, one E/W wire and one N/S are plenty. Drill a screw in to the tire to attach the wire to. The N/S attachment can be made by wiring one side of the lath to the other. Use baling wire for this. Nails and screws are also used to "Porcupine," on tires and on lumber. Porcupining is a way to attach masonry to another non-masonry surface, similar to lath tabs. Place the nails, or screws about 6-8" apart as a general rule of thumb when using this technique.

Power Tools

There are several saws and other power tools on site that you may be using. These are typically, the table saw, the chop saw, the circular saw. You will also see corded and cordless drills, impact drivers, grinders, sanders, planers, nail guns, electric metal shears, etc. If you are asked to use a power tool that you are unfamiliar with, ask for a run through from someone before using, rather than risk injury to yourself or the tool.

Cordless drills are used in many jobs on site. To use one effectively, be sure to go slowly, line the angle of the bit up with the screw, and use your whole body, not just your hand to drive the screw.

You will often be working off the ground, either on scaffolding, ladders or stepstools. Care should always be taken when working at height. When setting up ladders, make sure you have a flat space to place them securely. The angle of the ladder should be steep enough not to flatten out, but not so steep that you can't climb it. Use your hammer or a shovel to clear any rocks, and level an area for your ladder. If you are doing a job on the front face, you will have to duct tape a scrap of 2" insulation to the top of the ladder to prevent the ladder from scratching the glass. Never leave or place a tool, such as a hammer or a drill on the top of a ladder when working. Always secure tools from falling. People have injured their teeth from hammers falling off the tops of ladders. When working on scaffolding or the roof, pay extra attention to tools that might fall through holes in the roof, etc., and injure people working below. It's common sense, but worth noting that you should move slowly and methodically while on roofs, etc., where accidentally stepping backward off a roof could prove very harmful.

Most jobs will require quite a bit of prep work. Before you mix any cement to lay cans for example, you should first assemble all of the tools you'll be needing to do the job. Buckets of water are always needed for cement work to clean both tools and hands.

There will always be power cords and hoses, etc., running on the ground at the job site. Water and AC electricity are not a good combination. Take care when plugging in tools, etc.

Wear dust masks when mixing cement, and when sanding wood for long periods of time. Earplugs when doing long sanding jobs are also recommended. Any noisy, smelly job will be safer and easier with the addition of dust masks, respirators, and ear protection. When cutting wood with any kind of saw, put your eye protection on. A single splinter can lodge in the eye and is very uncomfortable. If you do get something in your eye, the first aid kit always has q-tips, which are handy for removing small particles, etc. from eyes. Cutting plywood is especially likely to throw splinters. Eye protection!

There are large rolls of plastic that are used on the job frequently. You may be asked to cut a piece of a certain size. For this job, you'll need your measuring tape and your utility knife. To cut plastic quickly and neatly, the best method is to find a piece of wood (2x4 is perfect) that is as long as the roll is wide. Place this wood scrap underneath the plastic where you need to cut. This will give you a solid foundation to run your knife, instead of trying to cut in the dirt.

Job Etiquette

A construction site becomes like a family. It can be enjoyable to share this creative building experience with others. Like all relationships, there are rules. Here are some that come to mind.

If you borrow a tool, return it in a timely fashion and return it clean. If you damage a tool, tell the owner.

If you need a ladder, a power cord, a shovel, a drill, or any tool, be sure to ask before removing it from a working area. Running off with someone's ladder while they're in the outhouse is not PC.

Write your name on your gloves, your water bottle, any tools that are yours. Tools and gloves all look alike. This minimizes confusion and waste. Wash your rubber gloves so they can be reused. At the end of a job, there is often a mountain of once used gloves covered in cement and now worthless and destined for the landfill. Also clean any tools or buckets you use. Leaving trowels, shovels, and wheelbarrows coated in cement is not how a professional builder treats tools. Don’t leave tools and especially sponges floating in buckets of dirty water. If the bucket has been used for cement cleanup, there will be a thick layer of cement residue at the bottom of the bucket, even if the water looks pretty clear. Getting that cement out of the bucket the next day is a lot harder than doing it right away. You can bang old cement out of buckets, the mixer, wheelbarrows, shovels etc., once it becomes hardened, but it damages the tools somewhat, and usually destroys the buckets. Sponges left in cement contaminated water buckets overnight will lose their structure and become pretty worthless.

If you are in doubt about anything, about how to use a tool, do a job, when lunch is, etc., ask a crew member.

At the beginning of the day, be sure to put your personal stuff, backpack, water bottle, etc., in a place that is out of the general work space. Leave your jacket in the building and it may be covered in cement or sawdust at the end of the day. Along these same lines, it is nice if you pick up and move clothing, etc., from an area where you know these things might get damaged. This is an inconvenience to the worker though, since the work itself is enough without having to baby sit someone else`s things.

Building construction can be a creative, rewarding process. Be safe, work smarter, not harder.