Education and Training: Apprenticeship
Salary: Average—$16.90 per hour
Employment Outlook: Good
Definition and Nature of the Work
Carpenters work throughout the construction industry. They are the largest group of the building trades workers. They saw, shape, and fasten wood to build houses and other buildings. They also build cabinets, doors, and other objects made of wood. They work on construction sites, inside buildings, in factories, and in small woodworking shops. Carpenters use both power and hand tools, such as hammers, saws, drills, and chisels. They fasten wood with nails, screws, bolts, and glue.
Carpentry work can be divided into two categories—rough carpentry and finish carpentry. Rough carpenters often work outdoors where they begin projects using unfinished wood and other building materials. They frame houses, build scaffolding, and make forms to be filled with concrete. Forms are used to mold concrete for bridges, highways, and house foundations. Finish carpenters include those who cut and fit doors, windows, and interior molding. They also build and install cabinets, lay hardwood floors, and panel rooms.
Some carpenters build sets for theaters and television studios. Others build wharves and docks. Millworkers, or carpenters who work in factories, make prefabricated, or ready-made, parts for buildings, such as window frames, cabinets, and partitions. These parts are shipped already assembled to the construction site. Other millworkers are employed by lumberyards, cutting lumber and building prefabricated structures such as walls, floors, and ceilings. Some carpenters specialize in cabinetmaking. Cabinetmakers custom design cabinets, counters, shelves, and other fixtures for homes, stores, and restaurants. A few cabinetmakers specialize in building fine furniture by hand. Some carpenters work with other materials in addition to wood. They apply drywall or pre-finished coverings such as vinyl to ceilings, walls, and partitions. Carpenters can also specialize in installing acoustical panels to soundproof rooms.
Most carpenters are employed by contractors and builders. Those who work in cities often specialize in one kind of carpentry, while carpenters working in rural areas may do many kinds of rough and finish work.
Education and Training Requirements
A high school diploma is preferred but not required. While in school, you should take courses in woodworking, mechanical drawing, and mathematics. The best way to become a carpenter is to complete a union-contractor apprenticeship program. Applicants should be at least seventeen years of age. Apprentices are chosen on the basis of written tests and interviews. You should have manual dexterity and the ability to imagine how things will look when assembled. You must be able to do simple arithmetic. You should also be strong and in good health. The formal apprenticeship program takes three to four years to complete. It consists of about eight thousand hours of on-the-job training and at least 144 hours of classroom instruction each year. In the classes, apprentices learn structural design, common framing systems, how to read blueprints, and simple layouts. On the job, apprentices learn the techniques and operations of carpentry from experienced carpenters on a less formal basis. A formal apprenticeship is a good way to find out whether carpentry is the trade you really want.
Getting the Job
Those who can obtain an all-around knowledge of construction through high school courses will have a better chance of joining an apprenticeship program. Applicants who have experience in semiskilled work related to carpentry also have a good chance to become apprentices. Carpenters may also learn the trade by working as helpers for contractors. However, this kind of training takes longer and is not as thorough as the four-year apprenticeship program. Furthermore, carpenters who have taken part in the formal program earn union wages, which are generally higher than the wages earned by nonunion carpenters.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
Experienced carpenters can become supervisors of crews of carpenters. Eventually, they can become general superintendents of construction sites. Some carpenters become estimators and analyze the duration and costs of materials and labor for a job. Often carpenters become contractors. Almost one-third of all carpenters own their own businesses. This percentage is higher than the average for all construction trades. Self-employed carpenters make cabinets and furniture, do repair work, and remodel houses.
About 1.2 million people are employed as carpenters in the United States. While the occupation is large and turnover is high, employment is expected to increase the same as the average through the year 2012. The introduction of prefabricated structures has reduced job opportunities for carpenters, especially for those doing rough carpentry. Employment opportunities in the construction industry vary with the state of the economy.
Rough carpenters work outdoors most of the time. They can expect to lose work time in winter and when the weather is bad. While most people work 2,000 hours a year, carpenters can count on working only 1,400 hours a year. Both finish carpenters and rough carpenters can expect to lose time because of layoffs and material shortages.
Carpenters take pride in their workmanship. They must be precise and pay attention to detail. They must be willing to follow set standards and rules in their work. Carpenters must have a good deal of stamina, because their work is active and somewhat strenuous. It requires standing, squatting, stooping, bending, and climbing. They must have a good sense of balance; there is often the risk of falling. Carpenters use rough materials, sharp tools, and powerful equipment and must be aware of the hazards.
Most carpenters work forty-hour weeks. Higher wages are paid for overtime work. Overtime is generally available depending on the job and its deadline for completion. Many carpenters belong to labor unions.
Where to Go for More Information
United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America
101 Constitution Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20001
Associated General Contractors of America
2300 Wilson Blvd., Ste. 400
Arlington, VA 22201
United States Department of Labor
Office of Apprenticeship Training, Employer and Labor Services
200 Constitution Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20210
National Association of State and Territorial Apprenticeship Directors
Earnings and Benefits
The median wage for carpenters in 2004 was $16.90 per hour. Union pay is usually higher than wages for nonunion labor. Apprentices begin by earning fifty percent of the qualified craft worker's wage. Every six months their pay is increased by five percent until, in their fourth year, they earn eighty-five to ninety percent of the experienced worker's salary. Union benefits include paid holidays, vacations determined by the number of days worked, and hospitalization and pension plans. Other benefits are negotiated separately for each union contract.
Whether constructing houses or building furniture or cabinets, carpenters spend a good portion of their time as mathematicians, particularly geometers . Before starting work on a project, they have to be able to calculate the correct amount of materials they need. Once work begins, they have to measure materials accurately, and calculate lengths, areas, angles, etc., to create a finished product.
Sometimes the mathematics that carpenters use is relatively easy. Using simple arithmetic, a carpenter can, for example, calculate the number of twoby-four studs needed in a wall of a given length when the studs are 16 inches apart, being sure to include the extra two-by-fours needed around doors and windows and at the top and bottom of the wall.
Sometimes, though, the mathematics of carpentry is more complicated. A carpenter building a staircase, for example, is faced with the difficult problem of making sure that each step is the same width, that the rise of each step is the same, and that the stairway fits into the space available without being too steep or too shallow. Similarly, in building a roof, a carpenter has to calculate the slope of the roof accurately, and then cut materials to make sure they conform to the slope and fit precisely.
Fortunately, carpenters have tools to help with these types of mathematical problems. One is a carpenter's square, which is a right-angle ruler with calibrations that measures angles. The other is a construction calculator, which is programmed to solve construction problems and gives measurements in eighths and sixteenths of inches rather than in decimals.
see also Geometry, Tools of.
Michael J. O'Neal
Huth, Harry C., and Mark W. Huth. Practical Problems in Mathematics for Carpenters, 7th ed. Albany: Delmar/Thomson Learning, 2001.
Webster, Alfred P., and Kathryn Bright Judy. Mathematics for Carpentry and the Construction Trades, 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002.
car·pen·ter / ˈkärpəntər/ • n. a person who makes and repairs wooden objects and structures. • v. [tr.] (usu. be carpentered) make by shaping wood: the rails were carpentered very skillfully. ∎ [intr.] do the work of a carpenter. ORIGIN: Middle English: from Anglo-Norman French, from Old French carpentier, charpentier, from late Latin carpentarius (artifex) ‘carriage (maker),’ from carpentum ‘wagon,’ of Gaulish origin; related to car.