With the influx of people moving to the Brainerd lakes area, others staying in their cabins fulltime and those who do not feel like spending thousands of dollars on equipment they’ll use once, home improvement services in the area are in high demand.
Those in the area who have sought out help to make improvements or add to their house have found they are among many in the Brainerd lakes area who are waiting weeks or months for skilled laborers.
Some got into the home improvement trade years ago and others got into the business more recently. Some specialize in installing or working with only specific areas while others will work on just about any room in the home and outside of it.
Ben Schrader started his own business last September and tackles most things in the home his clients ask for. In business for a few years is Zach Gates of Gates Installations and Repairs, specializing in installing quartz countertops. And coming up on two years of owning his own business is Seth Srock, who runs Overhaul Mobile Sand Blasting and has worked with Gates for about four years.
Working on tiling a bathroom, Schrader said he went to college for corporate finance and landed a job as a financial adviser. Schrader said he was in finance for about seven years and would finish work, and go home to work on his own house in the evening and on weekends, slowly learning along the way.
“My wife and I, we refinished the basement,” Schrader said. “So we went down the block with everything. I did all of the framing, electrical and plumbing.”
Working on his basement, Schrader was able to build an assortment of tools and skills he said he needed to change careers. When he found something he did not know how to do, he would research it.
Deciding to switch gears during the pandemic, Schrader said he left the financial industry and started working in the construction field.
Schrader worked with a couple of different people doing construction. He said he helped build a carwash in Garrison.
“I helped re-side a house, we redid a kitchen,” he said. “There was a house in Grand Rapids that had a tornado come through last summer, this beautiful log home, I helped put the roof back on.”
After some time, Schrader said he saw the need in the area for handyman services and decided to take a leap of faith.
1/3: Cleaning up the grout before finishing on July 12, 2023, Ben Schrader works to prepare a bathroom for a customer’s home in Pequot Lakes.
2/3: Cleaning up the grout before finishing, Ben Schrader talks about the work he does to prepare a bathroom for a customer on July 12, 2023, in Pequot Lakes.
3/3: Ben Schrader caulks a tub in a bathroom for a customer on July 12, 2023, in Pequot Lakes.
Starting in September of 2022, Schrader said he was able to fill his schedule relatively quickly thanks to his skills learned as a financial adviser and “the fact that I’ve lived in this area most of my life.”
“As an adviser, your job is really largely to build your network,” Schrader said. “I spent a lot of years getting to know people and forming new relationships, so I think that just kind of helped fuel things.”
Schrader said there has been no shortage of work as he has been fortunate enough to have a few jobs flourish, leaving him progressively busier.
“I think it was probably February when I just got a huge influx of work but I operate a little bit differently than most,” Schrader said.
A lot of handymen charge hourly for a job, Schrader said, where he provides customers with a job estimate in writing instead of telling a potential customer an hourly rate. After a customer accepts the estimate he takes a down payment for the work to put them on the schedule.
“If somebody comes up and says, ‘Hey, this is my hourly rate,’” Schrader said. “Well, what people really care about is, what is that going to translate to in the end. What is that invoice going to look like.”
Taking a down payment on the work also keeps people from canceling on him at the last minute as they, too, have resources on the line.
“I just am providing people what I would want as a customer,” Schrader said.
When asked about the demographic of his customers, Schrader said it’s everyone from people who are older and need help maintaining their homes to younger people who don’t have the time or tools to do the work.
“I think there’s a pretty big need across the board,” Schrader said.
As he was prepping the tiles for finishing, Schrader said he can do almost anything, from smaller projects such as repainting a room or changing a light socket to larger jobs such as installing a tub or remodeling a bathroom.
With his last few jobs dealing with bathrooms, Schrader said he has been getting more calls for bathroom repairs or remodels. He pointed out a few happy customers spread the word better than any advertising he could ask for.
“I have only one guy,” Schrader said. “So if I get a bathroom remodel, it ties me up for, all depending on what I’m doing, 1-2-3 weeks. It doesn’t take a lot of jobs to tie me up.”
Schrader said he has a retired man who helps him a few days a week, so he schedules what he is going to do around the extra help.
“There was a house I was working on this winter and I was redoing the bathroom and then the flooring throughout this cabin,” Schrader said. “It turned out to have a whole lot of structural issues that were not anticipated. We had to lift up walls, lift up the entire corner of a house about one and a quarter inches. I’ve never done it before, but we just used our critical thinking skills and we’re able to get it done.”
Schrader said he sees the need for handymen in the area as people work to turn their cabins into their homes.
“I do continue to fill my schedule with bathrooms, which is just kind of what’s coming my way,” Schrader said. “But I see such a need for others in the handyman space, just being able to replace doorknobs and adjust doors and paint this, paint that, and whatever little maintenance items. Yeah, at some point, I’ve been kicking around a couple of ideas to try to service that need. But I’m not quite to that point.”
Gaetz Installations and Repairs
Being the jack-of-all-trades is not for everyone, however. Zach Gaetz specializes in installing quartz countertops and cabinets.
“I’ve been doing this work for about four years and specifically dealing with quartz for three years now,” said Gaetz, owner of Gaetz Installations and Repairs.
Gaetz is not new to the construction industry as he had worked in the field for about 18 years. And installations were not his first attempt at starting his own business.
“I had to have a job when I was younger,” Gaetz said. “One of my first jobs was washing dishes and I knew early on that that wasn’t for me. So through my dad and some people he knew, at kind of a young age I jumped on a roofing crew as a laborer and just kind of went from there.”
1/8: Zach Gaetz, left, and Seth Srock work together on July 21, 2023, as they set in a new quartz countertop in Pequot Lakes.
2/8: Seth Srock, left, and Zach Gaetz prepare a kitchen for new quartz countertops on July 21, 2023, in Pequot Lakes.
3/8: Zach Gaetz grabs some tools out of his trailer as he works on installing some countertops for a customer on July 21, 2023, in Pequot Lakes.
4/8: Seth Srock, left, and Zach Gaetz prepare a kitchen on July 21, 2023, for new quartz countertops in Pequot Lakes.
5/8: Zach Gaetz grabs tools out of his trailer on July 21, 2023, as he works on installing some countertops for a customer in Pequot Lakes.
6/8: Zach Gaetz prepares the quartz countertop for installation on July 21, 2023, in Pequot Lakes.
7/8: Zach Gaetz, left, and Seth Srock prepare the quartz countertop for installation on July 21, 2023, in Pequot Lakes.
8/8: Zach Gaetz, left, and Seth Srock prepare the quartz countertop for lifting on July 21, 2023, in Pequot Lakes.
Before installations, Gaetz operated a power washing business for a while. Though he tried, the business never took off and he ended up selling it.
“So when I started doing this I was kind of nervous about it, that investment I mean,” Gaetz said. “I had to invest for my very first job. I wasn’t just going to wing it. So I guess that part was a little nerve-wracking, taking that leap.”
Gaetz works a bit differently in that he gets most of his referrals from Menards as he is on their contractor list.
“So I mean, this type of stuff I just kind of fell into it,” Gaetz said. “I was doing some remodels for a property management company pre-COVID and they could not get any contractors for any of the water damage work. So I took on all four of those water damages and through all my trips and Menards, picking up cabinets and countertops, they just continued to ask me if I was interested in being on the list.”
Though Menards gives his information out to potential customers, Gaetz said he is not associated with the company.
“I don’t work for them,” Gaetz said. “I don’t get anything from them. They don’t get anything from me. It’s just, it gives them the opportunity to sell their product and say, ‘Hey, here’s some contractors that will help you install this product if you need.’ Most time they won’t even offer it unless a customer asks. Not many people are set up to handle stone and countertops like this.”
And finding work is no problem, Gaetz said as he picked up a call from a new customer looking to get his install on the books.
“I get calls every day taking jobs and I’d say two to four installs a week is a full week, depending on what that install entails,” Gaetz said. “Cabinets, booked out at least a month for cabinet installs. Countertops, I’m only booked out for maybe one to two weeks because, just the way they come in.”
From the time an order is placed, there are about two weeks spent in design and templating. And about three to four weeks to receive the product.
“If somebody wants a countertop, the first thing they can do is go shop for their product, you know, pick what they want,” Gaetz said. “And then it’s always recommended to have a contractor do their measuring. I’d say having us measure at least a month before they actually want it installed.”
Explaining why he would recommend being called prior to someone ordering, Gaetz said it’s easy to miss things. For instance, sometimes people want seams in a specific spot, depending on how their cabinets are built.
After measurements are taken and sent to the manufacturer, they will send a template to the customer to lay out and verify the measurements. If there is a problem or something needs to be changed, Gaetz said oftentimes he is able to relay changes directly to the manufacturer, cutting out the middleman and saving the customer about a week of time.
“We’ve had homeowners approve their templates before their cabinets are installed, or approve them without even checking them and then they get their countertop and it’s wrong,” Gaetz said.
When it comes to installations, Gaetz has had Seth Srock helping him since he started working with quartz countertops. Having the extra help speeds up the installation process of cabinets, but is essential when installing a couple hundred-pound quartz countertop.
“Working together is key,” Gaetz said. “I mean, just communication and making sure we lift things together. If we don’t, one of us is going to get hurt or we’re going to break or damage something.”
Gaetz said he is more passionate about installations than he was about his power washing business. And another positive, he said, is he gets to buy tools without his wife getting upset with him.
“I say it’s an investment,” Gaetz said. “I want to keep doing this. I’m not just trying to do one here and there and I’m not trying to focus on handyman services right now. If this slows down, then it’s something where I’ll take on handyman repair jobs, that type of stuff.”
Overhaul Mobile Sandblasting
Along with helping Gaetz install cabinets and countertops, Seth Srock owns and operates a mobile sandblasting business.
“I used to be a welder fabricator for six years, and I was in close contact with Gull Lake Sandblasting and Powdercoating over there,” Srock said. “He offered to sell me the mobile part of his business. I took a leap of faith and took them up on that.”
1/6: Seth Srock checks his hood before cleaning graffiti off the wall at Brainerd Public Library on July 25, 2023.
2/6: Seth Srock cleans the graffiti off the wall behind the Brainerd Public Library on July 25, 2023.
3/6: Seth Srock cleans the graffiti off the wall behind the Brainerd Public Library on July 25, 2023.
4/6: Seth Srock prepares to clean graffiti off the wall at Brainerd Public Library on July 25, 2023.
5/6: Seth Srock’s mobile sandblasting trailer on July 25, 2023.
6/6: Seth Srock fires up the air compressor as he prepares to clean graffiti off the wall behind the Brainerd Public Library on July 25, 2023.
Srock said sandblasting has been his full-time job for about two years and he helps Gaetz when he is not out sandblasting.
“I’m getting good at countertops but this is what my specialty is,” Srock said. “I like sandblasting more and It’s just my zone of focus.”
Right out of high school Srock started working as a welder/fabricator and during that time he would find himself at Gull Lake Sandblasting and Powdercoating. He always found the process interesting.
“I can sandblast dang near anything except rubber,” Srock said.
Sandblasting can be used to remove old or unwanted paint or stain from a surface. It can be used for surface preparation before painting or staining anything as it gets down to the bare surface and digs out any impurities. Sandblasting also creates a slightly rough surface for adhesion of the new paint or stain.
“I don’t want to give pressure washing a bad name,” Srock said. “But I want to stray away from making it sound like it’s pressure washing at all because pressure washing can’t put a dent, compared to what sandblasting can do.
“I can’t tell you how many jobs I’ve been to now where they tried to pressure wash it at first and ended up calling me.”
1/4: Before and after photos from Seth Srock of Overhaul Mobile Sandblasting.
2/4: Before and after photos from Seth Srock of Overhaul Mobile Sandblasting.
3/4: Before and after photos from Seth Srock of Overhaul Mobile Sandblasting.
4/4: Before and after photos from Seth Srock of Overhaul Mobile Sandblasting.
When looking to repaint a deck Srock said he can sandblast one in about a day, depending on the size, where it would take someone a week to sand it by hand, he said as he started up his air compressor.
Housed on the trailer, Srock said he has a 375 cubic feet per minute air compressor that supplies the airflow to the blasting pot, which is where the air mixes with the abrasive material and is carried down the line.
“The thing that sets me apart from a lot of other guys and a lot of smaller blasters is they aren’t running nearly as big as a compressor and they can’t keep up,” Srock said. “A smaller compressor allows them to only push so much sand or push so much pressure. I can push as much sand with as much pressure as I want without having to stop.”
Srock said for wood or similar softer materials, where a finer finish is wanted, he turns the pressure down and uses a very fine grit material. For anything heavier, like steel, he uses a heavier coarse grit material, with higher pressures.
With a few pictures, measurements and a phone call, he can generally give someone an estimate of how long it would take to finish and what it would cost. But he still prefers to see the job before accepting it.
Though not booked solid, Srock said the work is steady throughout the summer and he hopes to transition into working more with his sandblasting business as his business continues to grow.
TIM SPEIER, staff writer, can be reached on Twitter
, call 218-855-5859 or email