At the end of the first day Tony Gerde, then 22, worked as a rodbuster—carrying rebar like a pack animal—he went home a wreck—with bruised shoulders, raw skin and his body aching from head to toe.

“I drew myself a bath, poured in Epsom salts, soaked and thought, ‘What the hell have I done?’” says Gerde, looking back 31 years.

But he stuck with the brutal work. In his first 18 months, the 6-ft 2-in. rodman added 20 pounds of pure muscle to his 160-lb frame. His shoulders became so calloused, he didn’t need to wear a shirt to carry the load, which added up to at least 1.5 tons of rebar during each eight-hour shift.

“It got to be fun and I embraced it,” says Gerde, a member of Ironworkers Local 86, in Seattle.

Gerde, the 11th of 12 children, has his father and his first father-in-law to thank for his trade. Soon after his father sold the meat market in Kirkland, Wash., where the young Gerde worked, the son switched gears to learn the rebar trade from his then father-in-law, Tom Sebastian, who had a small rebar placing business.

“He took me under his wing and rode me into the ground, saying "‘Tony, I’m doing this to make you better,’” says Gerde.

Sebastian’s strategy worked. A year later, when he folded his business, Gerde went to work for Central Steel.

In seismic zones, including metropolitan Seattle, rebar is placed and then tied. “The guys who can tie fast are the ones who work the most,” says Gerde.

So, he concentrated on improving speed.

Called “Rodfather” by some, Gerde rountinely won the tying contest at the company picnic. “I was notoriously known as the guy to beat,” he says. “When you’re on top, they want to throw rocks at you.”

“I question myself constantly...and make sure to correct and learn from any mistakes.”

–Tony Gerde (53), Rodbuster
Carnation, Wash.
Ironworkers Local 86-Seattle
Central Steel, a Harris Rebar Co. owned by Nucor

Gerde was so good that in 2001, the two Central owners gave him a piece of the action. “I was a producer and made them a lot of money,” he says.

He eventually owned 6.25%. In 2008, when Harris Rebar Co. bought Central, Gerde sold his stock. A $35,000 investment had turned into $430,000.

At Harris he rose to field superintendent, overseeing all the rodbusters—a number that peaked at 150. His duties also included pre-job setup and pouring over structural documents with an eye on constructibility.

In 2012, feeling restless, he went back to field work. He is currently project superintendent for the 1.5-million-sq-ft Lincoln Square expansion development in Bellevue, Wash.

On the job, Gerde is obsessed with improving the work—keeping safety in mind all the while. “I question myself constantly: ‘Am I making the best decisions?’” he says.

Early on, he put a great deal of effort into improving his people skills. “Dealing with the contractor and getting a positive outcome is huge to me,” he says. “I try to work together. I don’t demand what I need, I ask for it.”

When not working as a rodman, Gerde thinks about using his free time wisely—prioritizing the tasks at hand. For five years, he and his wife of 27 years, Susan, have been remodeling and doubling the size of their Carnation, Wash., home, which is on five acres and includes a large shop and a seven-stall stall horse barn. The Gerdes have three horses.

Next month, his oldest daughter is getting married at the house, so all free time is devoted to getting the place ready.

Gerde’s leisure is spent golfing, fishing and hanging out with with Susan and their four offspring.

In the evenings, he also reflects on his most recent workday. “I think about whether I handled things that came up that day in a positive way and make sure to correct and learn from any mistakes made.”

Learning from mistakes is of utmost importance to Gerde. His list of pet peeves includes “mean and impatient people, people who move their lips before they engage their brains, unorganized tasks and people who don’t learn from their mistakes. “

The Rodfather has done well financially. Last year, he earned $180,000. The five years prior, his annual income averaged $140,000.

Placing has been a really good trade for Gerde, but his body is shot from the years of physical abuse. That’s why he plans to retire in five years.

He may be gone from the field soon, but likely he won’t be forgotten. His rodman legacy is his 23-year-old son, Dillon, who works for him as a column foreman. “He’s really good,” says Gerde.

Back to Craft Workers Open Up About Their Careers