Carpenters cut, shape, level, and fasten together pieces of wood and other construction materials, such as wallboard, plywood, and insulation. Many carpenters work on constructing, remodeling, or repairing houses and other kinds of buildings. Other carpenters work at construction sites where roads, bridges, docks, boats, mining tunnels, and wooden vats are built. They may specialize in building the rough framing of a structure, and thus be considered rough carpenters, or they may specialize in the finishing details of a structure, such as the trim around doors and windows, and be finish carpenters. Approximately 1.3 million carpenters work in the United States.
Wood has been used as a building material since the dawn of civilization. Tools that resembled modern hand tools first began to be made around 1500 b.c. By the Middle Ages, many of the basic techniques and the essential tools of carpentry were perfected, largely by monks in the early monasteries.
Over time, as local societies advanced, many specialties developed in the field of carpentry. The primary work came from building construction. Buildings were mostly built with braced-frame construction, which made use of large, heavy timbers held together with mortised joints and diagonal bracing. In this kind of construction, carpenters were often the principal workers on a house or other building.
Carpenters also were responsible for many of the necessities that kept their towns running from day to day. Pit sawyers milled lumber from trees. Carts and wagons called for wheelwrights, who fabricated wheels and axles, and then, as transportation became more sophisticated, coach and wagon makers appeared. The increased use of brass and iron led to work for patternmakers, who created the wooden forms that were the first step in casting. On the domestic front, cabinetmakers and joiners were skilled in building furniture or creating interior trim work.
It is no surprise that the role of carpenters has continued to change, largely due to the rise of machine technology. Since the mid-19th century, balloon-frame construction, which makes use of smaller and lighter pieces of wood, has simplified the construction process, and concrete and steel have replaced wood for many purposes, especially in floors and roofs. Power tools have replaced hand tools in many instances. But as some carpentry tasks in building construction have become easier, other new jobs, such as making forms for poured concrete, have added to the importance of carpenters at construction sites. Carpentry continues to be an important and necessary trade.
Special Training Programs
The Craft Skills Department of the Home Builders Institute (HBI) has developed a number of innovative and comprehensive trades training programs designed to help workers interested in a career in carpentry and construction gain entry into the field.
CRAFT: Community, Restitution, Apprenticeship Focused Training is a national training program for high risk and adjudicated youth. Working with state juvenile justice systems, nonprofits, and other youth service agencies, CRAFT can fit prevention, day-treatment, facility-based, community-based, or after-care needs. Participants, age 17 or older, receive 21 weeks of training that includes extensive hands-on work in community service projects. Through HBI’s certificate initiative (PACT: Pre-Apprenticeship Certificate Training), students learn the basics of carpentry, building maintenance, or other trades. Equipped with a certificate and tools, graduates are placed in related employment and/or apprenticeships. HBI project coordinators assist graduates with community transition and other support services for six months.
Other HBI projects include TRADE: Training, Restitution, Apprenticeship, Development and Education, which offers pre-apprenticeship training to adult offenders in state or local correctional institutions; and HEART: Homeless Employment and Related Training, a program working to assist homeless men and women in their efforts to gain reasonable employment and safe housing. For more information on any of these programs, contact the Home Builders Institute (http://www.hbi.org).
Carpenters remain the largest group of workers in the building trades - there are more than 1.3 million carpenters in the United States today. The vast majority of them work for contractors involved in building, repairing, and remodeling buildings and other structures. Manufacturing firms, schools, stores, and government bodies employ most other carpenters.
Carpenters do two basic kinds of work: rough carpentry and finish carpentry. Rough carpenters construct and install temporary structures and supports and wooden structures used in industrial settings, as well as parts of buildings that are usually covered up when the rooms are finished. Among the structures built by such carpenters are scaffolds for other workers to stand on, chutes used as channels for wet concrete, forms for concrete foundations, and timber structures that support machinery. In buildings, they may put up the frame and install rafters, joists, subflooring, wall sheathing, prefabricated wall panels and windows, and many other components.
Finish carpenters install hardwood flooring, staircases, shelves, cabinets, trim on windows and doors, and other woodwork and hardware that make the building look complete, inside and outside. Finish carpentry requires especially careful, precise workmanship, since the result must have a good appearance in addition to being sturdy. Many carpenters who are employed by building contractors do both rough and finish work on buildings.
Although they do many different tasks in different settings, carpenters generally follow the same basic steps. First, they review blueprints or plans (or they obtain instructions from a supervisor) to determine the dimensions of the structure to be built and the types of materials to be used. Sometimes local building codes mandate how a structure should be built, so carpenters need to know about such regulations.
Using rulers, framing squares, chalk lines, and other measuring and marking equipment, carpenters lay out how the work will be done. Using hand and power tools, they cut and shape the wood, plywood, fiberglass, plastic, or other materials. Then they nail, screw, glue, or staple the pieces together. Finally, they use levels, plumb bobs, rulers, and squares to check their work, and they make any necessary adjustments. Sometimes carpenters work with prefabricated units for components such as wall panels or stairs. Installing these is, in many ways, a much less complicated task, because much less layout, cutting, and assembly work is needed.
Carpenters who work outside of the building construction field may do a variety of installation and maintenance jobs, such as repairing furniture and installing ceiling tiles or exterior siding on buildings. Other carpenters specialize in building, repairing, or modifying ships, wooden boats, wooden railroad trestles, timber framing in mine shafts, woodwork inside railcars, storage tanks and vats, or stage sets in theaters.
A high school education is not mandatory for a good job as a carpenter, but most contractors and developers prefer applicants with a diploma or a GED. A good high school background for prospective carpenters would include carpentry and woodworking courses as well as other shop classes; applied mathematics; mechanical drawing; and blueprint reading.
As an aspiring carpenter, you can acquire the skills of your trade in various ways, through formal training programs and through informal on-the-job training. Of the different ways to learn, an apprenticeship is considered the best, as it provides a more thorough and complete foundation for a career as a carpenter than do other kinds of training. However, the limited number of available apprenticeships means that not all carpenters can learn the trade this way.
You can pick up skills informally on the job while you work as a carpenter’s helper - and many carpenters enter the field this way. You will begin with little or no training and gradually learn as you work under the supervision of experienced carpenters. The skills that you will develop as a helper will depend on the jobs that your employers contract to do. Working for a small contracting company, a beginner may learn about relatively few kinds of carpentry tasks. On the other hand, a large contracting company may offer a wider variety of learning opportunities. Becoming a skilled carpenter by this method can take much longer than an apprenticeship, and the completeness of the training varies. While some individuals are waiting for an apprenticeship to become available they may work as helpers to gain experience in the field.
Some people first learn about carpentry while serving in the military. Others learn skills in vocational educational programs offered in trade schools and through correspondence courses. Vocational programs can be very good, especially as a supplement to other practical training. But without additional hands-on instruction, vocational school graduates may not be adequately prepared to get many jobs in the field because some programs do not provide sufficient opportunity for students to practice and perfect their carpentry skills.
Apprenticeships, which will provide you with the most comprehensive training available, usually last four years. They are administered by employer groups and by local chapters of labor unions that organize carpenters. Applicants must meet the specific requirements of local apprenticeship committees. Typically, you must be at least 17 years old, have a high school diploma, and be able to show that you have some aptitude for carpentry.
Apprenticeships combine on-the-job work experience with classroom instruction in a planned, systematic program. Initially, you will work at such simple tasks as building concrete forms, doing rough framing, and nailing subflooring. Toward the end of your training, you may work on finishing trim work, fitting hardware, hanging doors, and building stairs. In the course of this experience, you will become familiar with the tools, materials, techniques, and equipment of the trade, and you will learn how to do layout, framing, finishing, and other basic carpentry jobs.
The work experience segment of an apprenticeship is supplemented by about 144 hours of classroom instruction per year. Some of this instruction concerns the correct use and maintenance of tools, safety practices, first aid, building code requirements, and the properties of different construction materials. Other subjects you will study include the principles of layout, blueprint reading, shop mathematics, and sketching. Both on the job and in the classroom, you will learn how to work effectively with members of other skilled building trades.
Certification or Licensing
The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (UBCJA), the national union for the industry, offers certification courses in a variety of specialty skills. These courses teach the ins and outs of advanced skills - like scaffold construction - that help to ensure worker safety, while at the same time giving workers ways to enhance their abilities and so qualify for better jobs. Some job sites require all workers to undergo training in safety techniques and guidelines specified by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Workers who have not passed these courses are considered ineligible for jobs at these sites.
In general, as a carpenter, you will need to have manual dexterity, good hand-eye coordination, and a good sense of balance. You will need to be in good physical condition, as the work involves a great deal of physical activity. Stamina is much more important than physical strength. On the job, you may have to climb, stoop, kneel, crouch, and reach as well as deal with the challenges of weather.
Beyond classes such as woodshop or mechanical drawing, there are a number of real-world ways to begin exploring a career in carpentry and the construction trades. Contact trade organizations like the National Association of Home Builders or the Associated General Contractors of America; both sponsor student chapters around the country. Consider volunteering for an organization like Habitat for Humanity; their Youth Programs accept volunteers between the ages of five and 25, and their group building projects provide hands-on experience. If your school has a drama department, look into it - building sets can be a fun way to learn simple carpentry skills. In addition, your local home improvement store is likely to sponsor classes that teach a variety of skills useful around the house; some of these will focus on carpentry.
A less direct method to find out about carpentry is via television. PBS and some cable stations show how-to programs - such as This Old House and New Yankee Workshop - that feature the work of carpenters.
Carpenters account for a large group of workers in the building trades, holding approximately 1.3 million jobs. About one third of carpenters work for general-building contractors, and one fifth work for specialty contractors. About 30 percent are self-employed.
Some carpenters work for manufacturing firms, government agencies, retail and wholesale establishments, or schools. Others work in the shipbuilding, aircraft, or railroad industries. Still others work in the arts, for theaters and movie and television production companies as set builders, or for museums or art galleries, building exhibits.
Information about available apprenticeships can be obtained by contacting the local office of the state employment service, area contractors that hire carpenters, or the local offices of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, which cooperates in sponsoring apprenticeship programs. Helper jobs that can be filled by beginners without special training in carpentry may be advertised in newspaper classified ads or with the state employment service. You also might consider contacting potential employers directly.
Once an applicant has completed and met all the requirements of apprenticeship training, he or she will be considered a journeyman carpenter. With sufficient experience, journeymen may be promoted to positions responsible for supervising the work of other carpenters. If a carpenter’s background includes exposure to a broad range of construction activities, he or she may eventually advance to a position as a general construction supervisor. A carpenter who is skillful at mathematical computations and has a good knowledge of the construction business, may become an estimator. An experienced carpenter might one day go into business for himself or herself, doing repair or construction work as an independent contractor.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, carpenters had median hourly earnings of $17.11 in 2005. Someone making this wage and working full time for the year would have an income of approximately $35,580. The lowest paid 10 percent of carpenters earned less than $10.55 per hour (or approximately $21,940 per year), and the highest-paid 10 percent made more than $29.28 hourly (approximately $60,910 annually). It is important to note, however, that these annual salaries are for fulltime work. Many carpenters, like others in the building trades, have periods of unemployment during the year, and their incomes may not match these.
Starting pay for apprentices can range from $5 per hour to $17 per hour. The wage is increased periodically so that by the fourth year of training apprentice pay is 80 percent of the journeyman carpenter’s rate.
Fringe benefits, such as health insurance, pension funds, and paid vacations, are available to most workers in this field and vary with local union contracts. In general, benefits are more likely to be offered on jobs staffed by union workers.
Carpenters may work either indoors or outdoors. If they do rough carpentry, they will probably do most of their work outdoors. Carpenters may have to work on high scaffolding, or in a basement making cement forms. A construction site can be noisy, dusty, hot, cold, or muddy. Carpenters can expect to be physically active throughout the day, constantly standing, stooping, climbing, and reaching. Some of the possible hazards of the job include being hit by falling objects, falling off scaffolding or a ladder, straining muscles, and getting cuts and scrapes on fingers and hands. Carpenters who follow recommended safety practices and procedures minimize these hazards.
Work in the construction industry involves changing from one job location to another, and from time to time being laid off because of poor weather, shortages of materials, or simply lack of jobs. Carpenters must be able to arrange their finances so that they can make it through sometimes long periods of unemployment.
Though it is not required, many carpenters are members of a union such as the UBCJA. Among many other services, such as the certification courses mentioned previously, the union works with employers, seeking to ensure that members receive equitable pay and work in safe conditions.
Although the U.S. Department of Labor predicts employment growth for carpenters to increase about as fast as the average through 2014, job opportunities for carpenters are expected to be very strong. This is because replacement carpenters are needed for the large number of experienced carpenters who leave the field every year for work that is less strenuous. Replacement workers are also needed for the fair amount of workers just starting out in the field who decide to move on to more comfortable occupations. And, of course, replacements are needed for those who retire. Increased home-building, home modifications for the growing elderly population, two-income couples’ desire for larger homes, and the growing population of all ages should contribute to the demand for carpenters.
Factors that will hold down employment growth in the field include the use of more prefabricated building parts and improved tools that make construction easier and faster. In addition, a weak economy has a major impact on the building industry, causing companies and individuals to put off expensive building projects until better times. Carpenters with good all-around skills, such as those who have completed apprenticeships, will have the best job opportunities even in difficult times.
For more information
For information on activities and student chapters, contact
Associated General Contractors of America
2300 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 400
Arlington, VA 22201-5424
Email: [email protected]
Habitat for Humanity is an internationally recognized nonprofit organization dedicated to the elimination of poverty housing. For information on programs and local chapters found all over the United States, contact
Habitat for Humanity International
121 Habitat Street
Americus, GA 31709-3498
Tel: 229-924-6935, ext. 2551
Email: [email protected]
For information on apprenticeships, training programs, and general information about trends in the industry, contact
Home Builders Institute
1201 15th Street, NW, Sixth Floor
Washington, DC 20005-2842
Email: [email protected]
For information about careers in the construction trades and student chapters, contact
National Association of Home Builders
1201 15th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20005-2842
Email: [email protected]