Against the Grain is a series spotlighting people who are underrepresented in the woodworking, carpentry, and construction space. We’ll speak with people working on projects from whole-home renos to intricate wood sculptures to learn what inspires them, how they’ve carved their own space (pun intended), and what they’re working on next.
Minutes into a conversation with Kayleen McCabe, and it’s easy to picture someone telling her, “You should have your own TV show!” And, as McCabe tells us, that’s exactly what happened: McCabe has been on Trading Spaces and DIY Network's Rescue Renovation, where she saved projects-gone-wrong for five seasons. But her foray into woodworking was never just for show—it’s been a part of her life since she was a little kid.
“I was four. My grandfather let me use a bandsaw for the first time to make little tiny wooden hearts for my parents,” McCabe laughs from the kitchen of her Denver home before waving her hands in front of the camera. “I still have all my fingers!”
But while her grandfather was the first to introduce her to power tools, McCabe’s parents were no strangers to the DIY scene, either.
“I tell a joke that we used to do a lot of work around the house, like put up fences and stuff,” she says. “And I, honest to goodness, thought the way to check a proper depth for a post was to put a tiny child into it. Then I got a tape measure when I was in my teens.”
After a string of school projects and assisting with her high school's musical sets, McCabe knew she loved building—she just never imagined it would become her whole life. “It wasn't until I became a production assistant on Trading Spaces back in the 2000s that I actually got to work with a master carpenter,” she says. “And that is when I fell in love. I was like, why have I been missing out this whole time?”
Some days, even if I'm having a bad day, I go out and just make sawdust.
Now, McCabe works as a general contractor, trades advocate, and instructor for her foundation, the McCabe Foundation, and building is as much a form of therapy as it is her career.
“Some days, even if I'm having a bad day, I go out and just make sawdust,” she says.
We spoke with McCabe (virtually, of course) to learn more about her experiences on the small screen, her favorite and upcoming projects, and the lessons she'd most like to share—read on for all the grainy details.
How did your career in building begin? Were you actively looking for a job as a production assistant when you started with Trading Spaces?
Kayleen McCabe: Every time I've done television, I’ve fallen into it backward. [After high school], I ended up becoming a 911 dispatcher. I did that for a long time and loved it, absolutely loved it. There was something about helping people. I liked the high pace, the energy to it, but nobody ever calls to say like, “Hey, it's nice out!” [So, after] a streak of really bad calls, my cousin was a producer on Trading Spaces, and they were shooting a few episodes in Colorado. She said, look, take your vacation days. We're gonna pay you like a hundred bucks a day to be a production assistant. In my head. I was like, oh, I'll just learn people's coffee orders ... [But] I ended up being put with Franco Castro, who was the master carpenter on the show.
As a PA, I worked with Frank and we refinished a table. And at the end of that, I was actually asked if I wanted to travel with the crew. And so I did that for six years and worked on all the [Trading Spaces] iterations ... Boys vs Girls, Family. It was so much fun, but we did terrible things to homes.
Did Trading Spaces lead directly into your next television job, [DIY Network’s Rescue Renovation]?
KM: I actually left television because I was getting promoted [into office] jobs, and I wasn't on-site anymore. And I hated it. I don’t function sitting, so I left television and moved back to Colorado and started my own construction company, picking up small jobs … and then eventually, I grew my business. I was taking on really big projects, I loved it—kitchen remodels, removing walls, flooring …
But then I fell into getting my own show, which I was not seeking out. I had friends in the industry, and they were like, you have to apply for this show [called Stud Finder]. I was taking a bunch of really old two-by-fours out of this old house; they were like a hundred years old. So, my friends just showed up with the camera crew, shot me working, and then sent in the application.
Home Depot was giving [the winner] a $2,500 gift certificate … I was most excited about [that], because I needed new tools. But the other prize was five episodes of a TV show.
What lessons from Trading Spaces did you take with you into Rescue Renovation?
KM: [On Trading Spaces], if women were in the show or hosting, it would be like, “Hi, I designed this!” [followed by] an up-close shot of man hands [doing the work]. So, I said, I am going to be the general contractor and do construction work on my show. I'm not just going to talk. That, to me, was super important because I wanted young ladies or just, anybody, [to see], “Oh, she can do it. I can do it.”
So, we came up with Rescue Renovation, because I was rescuing renovations, basically getting people out of the dumb things that they would do to their own house. I'll tell you what, though, Home Depot and Lowe's needs to sell sledgehammers with a contract saying Do you know what you're doing?
After season five, I didn't want to do it anymore. I loved it. I was having a good time. But I didn't want my legacy to be, “Hey, I got your pantry space!” I wanted to really help people and really get people employed and talk about all these things.
I wanted to really help people and really get people employed and talk about all these things.
What project are you most proud of now?
KM: I started a nonprofit with my dad in 2009 called the McCabe Foundation to support veterans and students getting into the trades. And so now I do a lot of work through that. On Tuesdays, I teach little kids … [my show] was an opportunity to show some simple skills. [Now], when I teach the little kids, we talk about the four parts to a hammer. We talk about crown molding.
I [wish], in high school, I could have taken some classes to give me basic skills. They are learning hand-eye coordination, swinging a hammer. Then, I teach the itty bitty kids how to build and I ask, “Do you guys have any questions for me? About what I do?” And they ask “Do you own a dog? Do you like pizza?” I love it.
But really, the reason I started [the foundation] is because ... sometimes it's as simple as a good pair of boots. That will make you successful on a job site, especially young students. You might have a student who went through a great trade program, and then they come out to a job site for the first time in the winter, and their feet are cold all day long. They're not going to come back, right? Like it's just miserable, who would? I probably average 50,000+ students a year. So being able to travel all over the world supporting students, [doing] a lot of work with SkillsUSA and WorldSkills, I feel very lucky.
Name a major fail that became a valuable lesson.
KM: I had a friend who had an A-frame … and she wanted to insulate it because her son slept upstairs in the attic. They went out of town for a few weeks, [and] I'm like, perfect, I'll do it then. I got my Carhartt overalls on, I got a bundle of insulation. And I started to crawl over all these joists ... and at some point, there's a nail sticking out. My overalls get snagged, and then stuck. Super stuck. For 10 minutes, it was funny … and then three and a half hours later, I was able to get down, grab my knife, and cut my overalls off of me. And then I was like, well, I'm just gonna kick my way out. I kicked my way out of the drywall.
But that, to me, was my biggest lesson. Homes have a soul. And I have built up so much bad karma working on TV shows. This was the universe being like, no, no. I’m gonna leave you in the attic in the winter. And so that was the biggest one that it was like, OK, I need to remember that these are homes. It is the most valuable and expensive investment that most people will ever make.
What is one thing that you wish people understood about woodworking?
KM: Oh, I wish people understood how hard it is, and that it's very artistic. Sometimes people don't really value the things built around them. They're just cabinets, right? No, it actually took a lot of skill and talent. And there's a lot of education that goes into making stuff look easy and good. I wish everyone knew how hard we work at it. I'm an artist. I am legit an artist. I get to build things that people live in and I don't have an oil and canvas. I have a two-by-four and a bunch of tools. And that makes me so insanely happy.
Favorite tool or piece of equipment? My pencil and my pencil sharpener.
Favorite piece that you've made? My Oliver table.
Biggest goal? To be the voice of education in the trades globally.
Favorite accessory when you're in the workshop? My banded earplugs.
Favorite step of the process? Doing my cut sheets and the math behind it. Why didn't I know I loved math so much as a kid?
Music on or off while working? It depends, actually. I'm gonna say music, usually in the mornings, and then quiet afternoons.
When it's on, what do you listen to? Art Blakey.
On headphones or speaker? I try to avoid headphones. It's so dangerous to have a very loud job site.
Any final words of wisdom?
Everybody should try welding. And sawdust is pretty dirt. Pretty, clean dirt.