At Transizion, we specialize in helping students enroll in the college of their dreams – but we want to help all young people as they transition to life as an adult, whether or not a four-year university is the right path for them. In this series of articles, we’re exploring a wide range of rewarding professions that don’t require degrees.
Today’s post focuses on how to become a carpenter. We’ll cover education, working conditions, salary, job outlook, and more. Let’s get started.
What Do Carpenters Do?
This age-old tradition has morphed and changed over time along with the tools of the trade, but the fundamentals remain the same: carpenters work with wood (and these days, oftentimes often also with manufactured materials similar to wood). They may specialize in anything from temporary scaffolds to ornamental moldings. Most carpenters work in construction, and nearly one-third of all carpenters are self-employed.
The work of a carpenter often includes:
- Following blueprints and building plans
- Installing windows, cabinets, and more
- Measuring and shaping wood and other materials
- Using power tools to cut wood and other materials
- Constructing building frameworks, such as walls and door frames
- Replacing damaged framework and structures
- Instructing and directing other construction workers
- Building shoring and scaffolding
There are many different specialties in this field. Here are a few examples:
Cabinetmakers do fine and detailed work such as making cabinets, wardrobes, and dressers.
Conservation carpenters, also called preservation or restoration carpenters, specialize in historic preservation. They maintain old structures or restore them to their original condition.
Finish carpenters specialize in installing molding and trim, such as door and window casings, mantels, crown moldings, baseboards, and other types of ornamental work. Finish carpenters also hang doors and install cabinets.
Framers, also called rough carpenters, build permanent and temporary wooden frameworks for structures in progress. They may specialize in buildings or in other structures, such as tunnels or bridges.
Set carpenters build and dismantle temporary sets and scenery for TV, films, and theater.
There are nearly one million carpenters in the United States. Here are the largest employers according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
Self-employed workers 29%
Residential building construction 23%
Building finishing contractors 12%
Nonresidential building construction 12%
Foundation, structure, and building exterior contractors 10%
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Most carpenters travel to construction sites and work there, though some carpenters who specialize in building furniture and other pieces out of wood may work out of their own shops. Most modern-day carpenters use power tools, including saws and drills. Some carpenters still use the original tools of the trade, constructing furniture or historic housing without the use of nails or screws, but they’re a small minority.
Carpentry work is active and often involves kneeling, standing for long periods, and working in tight spaces. When working on construction sites, carpenters often wear equipment such as steel-toed boots, hard hats, and protective eyewear. Carpenters usually work full time and may need to work overtime to meet deadlines.
How to Become a Carpenter
Traditionally, carpenters have learned on the job. If you can find a master carpenter willing to take you on, this is still an option. If you have no contacts and limited experience, then you might choose to start with a more formal educational program that will teach you the basics. Many vocational schools will also set you up with an apprenticeship program.
Another route is to take any construction-site job that you can get, beginning as a general construction laborer and working your way up from there. Construction laborers and helpers make an average of $18 per hour, which is similar to carpenters who are just starting out. From there, you can begin to meet specialists like carpenters and find an apprenticeship opportunity.
In order to become a carpenter, you’ll probably need your high school diploma or GED. It’s also useful to have a driver’s license and your own vehicle, since you’ll need to drive to various job sites. Basic proficiency in math is also necessary.
If you enjoy building things and working with your hands, carpentry might be a rewarding career path for you. You’ll need to be able to work long days, standing for hours at a time. Here are some other important qualities to foster if you’re interested in becoming a carpenter:
- Dexterity: You’ll need good hand-eye coordination to do your work well.
- Math skills: You must be able to calculate the area, size, and amount of material needed for the job and then cut those materials at precise lengths and angles.
- Detail oriented: You must be able to precisely cut, measure, and modify the materials that you work with.
- Physical strength: Carpentry requires heavy tools and materials that weigh up to one hundred pounds.
- Problem-solving skills: Eventually, you will work independently with little guidance. Your work will require you to make adjustments onsite to complete projects.
- Business skills: When you strike out on your own, you’ll need to bid on jobs, design projects, track inventory, and direct workers.
- Interpersonal skills: You’ll be working with a team of construction workers and interfacing with clients.
If you’re still in high school, focus on math classes and on shop or carpentry classes if your school offers them. You could also look into carpentry classes at local community colleges. Make sure to exercise enough to build up the strength and stamina that this job requires. If there are no classes in your area, consider investing in some basic tools of the trade (you may be able to find them used) and taking an online course. We’ve included an example in the Education section below.
You’d also be wise to find a job – any job – that will give you construction experience. This will help you to find an apprenticeship in the future. Even some formal programs require six or more months of construction experience from applicants.
If you don’t have the connections or experience to find an apprenticeship yet, a formal program may be the best way to get started. You can take local carpentry classes, enroll in an online course, or find a vocational school. Many colleges and universities offer associate’s degrees in carpentry.
Ashworth College offers an online carpentry program. The curriculum includes standard safety practices in the carpentry field, common types of building materials, the purpose and applications of building codes, and the process of obtaining building permits. Students also learn how to interpret building plans, how to lay out the foundation of a structure, and how to install standard windows and doors. The program costs $899 upfront or $1,089 in monthly payments of $59.
Seattle Central College offers a five-quarter Carpentry Associate of Applied Science degree program that’s designed to be completed in fifteen months. If completed within that time frame, the total program cost is $12,151 (including in-state tuition, fees, books, and supplies) or $13,774 for non-residents. Courses include:
- Introduction to Professional Woodworking
- Residential Remodel and Preservation Carpentry
- Introduction to Carpentry and Blueprint Reading
- Building Site System Site Selection to Layout
- Foundation System Forms to Concrete Finishes
- Framing Systems Floor to Ceiling
- Roof System Framing to Roofing Installation
- Stair System Rough Framing to Finished Stairwell
- Exterior Finishes Building Enclosure Finish Trim
- Interior Finishes Door Installation to Trim
Search for carpentry programs in your area to learn what’s available.
The Carpenters Training Institute offers an apprenticeship program that includes both classroom hours and on-the-job training. Over the course of four years, students complete seven thousand hours of on-the-job training over six hundred hours of classroom learning. Coursework includes blueprint reading, the mathematics of carpentry, advanced wood framing, and construction fall protection.
Instead of spending hundreds of dollars on an online program or going thousands of dollars into debt for a degree, you could earn a good wage while learning how to become a carpenter. First-year students earn between $33,000 and $47,000 and receive benefits. The average earnings for fourth-year students are $57,748 to $80,077 – that’s significantly higher than the national average for all carpenters. Journeymen who finish this program usually earn between sixty and eighty thousand dollars a year. Foremen and superintendents earn even more.
The Carpenters Training Institute has twenty locations throughout Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, and Wisconsin. They also offer a millwright training program.
You can also apprentice directly with a local carpenter.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Carpenter?
You can become an apprentice carpenter immediately, but becoming a journeyman carpenter will take longer. This varies from state to state, but commonly a minimum of three to four years of experience is required to apply for a carpentry license and work independently.
Many states do not require licenses, in which case you can begin work as a carpenter as soon as you acquire the relevant skill set and find people willing to hire you. In these states, you could take on simple jobs and scale up as you learn more, perhaps working on a crew and taking on carpentry jobs on the side. Research carpentry regulations in your area to learn more.
Career Outlook for Carpenters
The world will always need carpenters. It’s a steady trade with a decent career outlook. Growth is somewhat slow; the number of carpentry jobs is expected to increase by two percent over the next decade compared to the total projected job growth of five percent. Even so, the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects to see about 91,200 openings for carpenters each year, on average, over the next decade.
How Much Do Carpenters Make?
Carpenters earned an average of $48,260 in 2021, which was higher than the national average of $45,760. The lowest-earning ten percent of carpenters earned less than $31,880, and the highest ten percent earned over $80,940. Carpenters who complete a well-reputed training program or otherwise acquire a wealth of experience can earn considerably more.
Working on nonresidential buildings often pays more than building houses. Here are the average yearly wages for the top four industries:
Nonresidential building construction $59,020
Building finishing contractors $48,800
Foundation, structure, and building exterior contractors $48,080
Residential building construction $47,820
The top-paying state for carpenters is Hawaii, with an average income of $79,200 in 2021. Other states with higher-than-average wages for carpenters include New Jersey, Alaska, Illinois, New York, and Washington.
Carpenters looking to advance in their field can take a course like this one from Northeast Technical College. This Construction Management – Carpentry associate’s degree program can be completed in two years for $12,427. In it, carpenters learn about carpentry estimating, construction project management, cost management, and more.
Working as a Carpenter: An Overview
Carpentry is an excellent profession for people who love to build things and work with their hands. It’s an active, dynamic, challenging job. With lots of different specialties and room to advance within the construction field, it’s not likely to lose its luster over the years. And as we said, the world will always need carpenters. This job isn’t going anywhere.
Here are some pros and cons to consider:
- Higher than average salary
- Apprenticeship allows you to earn money while training
- Potentially rewarding, creative work
- Dynamic, enjoyable work environment
- Some specialties can feel repetitive and unfulfilling
- Physically demanding work
If you’re interested in this profession, consider contacting local carpenters to ask about the possibility of interviewing or shadowing them to learn more about this line of work.
Stay tuned for upcoming articles on how to become a truck driver or a landscape architect.
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