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King Of The Carpenters

Gilbert Gambalan, Denis Valente and Joel Alverio competing in ‘Hammer Da Nail'. Photo by Lawrence Tabudlo

Gilbert Gambalan, Denis Valente and Joel Alverio competing in ‘Hammer Da Nail’. Photo by Lawrence Tabudlo

Joel Alveiro once again walks away with the Slim’s Power Tools HeMan competition in the annual Olympics of sawing, hammering and screwdrivering

They were participants in an aptly named contest. Working-man strong, deeply tanned and focused, they wore brightly colored T-shirts, dusty jeans and safety boots with the steel toes exposed. On the raised platform, they stood in stark contrast to sales reps in their presence.

To steal a line from a nearby retailer, this is a metrosexual-free zone.

The Slim’s Power Tools HeMan competition is a test of skill, concentration and the manly arts of cutting, drilling and extracting metal objects from thick pieces of wood.

HeMen all? You bet.

For the past 22 years, Slim’s has invited 33 tradesmen and carpenters to its Honolulu and Maui locations to compete for gift cards and bragging rights.

The $2,000 top prize is a worthy one, but it’s the ability to hold victory over crewmembers and colleagues that really matters. Watching the intense Joel Alverio in action confirms the prize hierarchy.

Gilbert Gambalan, Denis Valente and Joel Alverio get right to it in the ‘Drill Da Bit' category

Gilbert Gambalan, Denis Valente and Joel Alverio get right to it in the ‘Drill Da Bit’ category

Alverio, owner of Tropical Builders, began competing 17 years ago as an apprentice contractor looking to prove his worth to his older co-workers. After consistently finishing in second and third place, he finally broke through in 2004 to claim his first HeMan title. It wouldn’t be his last. Alverio is the HeManiest competitor of all time, taking home six victories, including both Maui and Honolulu titles this year.

“I came out one day right after church,” says Alverio. “I entered in my church clothes and made the finals and got fourth place. From there, it was my mission to win this.”

More than a competition, the HeMan is a tool lover’s shopping paradise. The closed-off section of Republican Street overflowed with manly names like Skillsaw, Milwaukee, Bosch, Dewalt and Makita. There were grinders, cutters, tool belts large enough to hold a six-pack of Heineken and enough sledgehammers to keep Robert Irvine giggling for days.

Rand Okemura, president of Slim’s Power Tools, created the contest in 1993 as a way to market the business founded by his father, Iwao “Slim” Okemura, in 1972. The elder Okemura, now age 87, still comes to work every day, driving in from his Mililani home at 6:30 a.m., the same time he started work when the store opened. His role today is more ceremonial, but he remains a key part of the company’s culture.

“We don’t want him ever to retire,” says his son.

He who is crowned HeMan champion must master not only the tools but the materials being used. Nothing is left to chance. Each saw, hammer and drill is carefully checked. Wood is inspected for grain and moisture content. Nails are paired and tapped into the stage to be within quick reach, and screwdrivers are placed close enough to be rocked quickly into place.

Little time is wasted. Shaving seconds is crucial.

After combining the times for all four events, Alverio won by just .74 seconds over Gilbert Gambalan from Honolulu.

Since times are so tight, each contestant is tracked with two stopwatches.

“With dry lumber, you have to look for cracks,” says Alverio, an Ewa Beach resident. “You have to compensate, because the lumber we had today was soaking wet — all of us died on that thing. On Maui, the lumber was dry and it was like splitting the Red Sea, but the ones today were different. Our times were about four seconds slower.”

Contestants begin practicing about a month before the competition.

“I have the whole setup at home,” says Alverio. “The guys I am going up against are doing the same thing. They are hungry and up-and-coming.”

The contest requires participants to nail 10 3-inch nails into the 4-by-4 piece of wood, saw through that wood, drill through a hole using a 5/8-inch brace drill and unscrew two 2-inch drywall screws that have been securely anchored in the 4-by-4. And they must use only hand tools.

“That’s so they appreciate the power tools when they get back to the job site,” laughs Okemura.

Not that they appear to need electric saws and pneumatic nail guns. The 3-inch nails take only 15 seconds to drive home. Hand sawing comes in at 7 seconds, while drilling and unscrewing take about 14 seconds each.

Removing the drywall screws used to take longer until Kaleo Ahsam of Honolulu discovered a smarter way to work. In 2010, Ahsam figured out that twisting the wrist is a poor way to remove a screw at speed. He figured out that, if he held the screwdriver between both hands and then rolled it down his forearms, he could cut valuable seconds off the time.

It worked, and Ahsam walked away with his first of five HeMan championships.

“Kaleo came up with that and he blew us all out of the water,” said Alverio. “That set the bar high, taking about 7 to 10 seconds off our times.”

Ahsam, like the others, shared his technique to further improve the competition.

After all, HeMen have no fear.