Carpenters are involved in many different kinds of construction activity, from the building of highways and bridges, to the installation of kitchen cabinets. Carpenters construct, erect, install, and repair structures and fixtures made from wood and other materials. Depending on the type of work and the employer, carpenters may specialize in one or two activities or may be required to know how to perform many different tasks. Small home builders and remodeling companies may require carpenters to learn about all aspects of building a houseframing walls and partitions, putting in doors and windows, building stairs, installing cabinets and molding, and many other tasks. Large construction contractors or specialty contractors, however, may require their carpenters to perform only a few regular tasks, such as framing walls, constructing wooden forms for pouring concrete, or erecting scaffolding. Carpenters also build tunnel bracing, or brattices, in underground passageways and mines to control the circulation of air through the passageways and to worksites.
Each carpentry task is somewhat different, but most involve the same basic steps. Working from blueprints or instructions from supervisors, carpenters first do the layoutmeasuring, marking, and arranging materialsin accordance with local building codes. They cut and shape wood, plastic, fiberglass, or drywall using hand and power tools, such as chisels, planes, saws, drills, and sanders. They then join the materials with nails, screws, staples, or adhesives. In the final step, carpenters check the accuracy of their work with levels, rules, plumb bobs, framing squares, or electronic versions of these tools, and make any necessary adjustments. When working with prefabricated components, such as stairs or wall panels, the carpenter’s task is somewhat simpler because it does not require as much layout work or the cutting and assembly of as many pieces. Prefabricated components are designed for easy and fast installation and generally can be installed in a single operation.
Carpenters who remodel homes and other structures need a broad range of carpentry skills because they must be able to perform any of the many different tasks these jobs may require. Since they are so well-trained, these carpenters often can switch from residential building to commercial construction or remodeling work, depending on which offers the best work opportunities.
Carpenters employed outside the construction industry perform a variety of installation and maintenance work. They may replace panes of glass, ceiling tiles, and doors, as well as repair desks, cabinets, and other furniture. Depending on the employer, carpenters install partitions, doors, and windows; change locks; and repair broken furniture. In manufacturing firms, carpenters may assist in moving or installing machinery. (For more information on workers who install machinery, see the discussion of millwrights as well as industrial machinery installation, repair, and maintenance workers, except millwrights, elsewhere in the Handbook.)
As is true of other building trades, carpentry work is sometimes strenuous. Prolonged standing, climbing, bending, and kneeling often are necessary. Carpenters risk injury working with sharp or rough materials, using sharp tools and power equipment, and working in situations where they might slip or fall. Although many carpenters work indoors, those that work outdoors are subject to variable weather conditions.
Some carpenters change employers each time they finish a construction job. Others alternate between working for a contractor and working as contractors themselves on small jobs, depending on where the work is available.
Carpenters learn their trade through formal and informal training programs. To become a skilled carpenter usually takes between 3 and 4 years of both classroom and on-the-job training. While there are a number of different ways to obtain this training, in general, the more formalized the process, the more skilled you will become, and the more in demand by employers. For some, this training can begin in a high school, where classes in English, algebra, geometry, physics, mechanical drawing, blueprint reading, and general shop are recommended. After high school, there are a number of different avenues that one can take to obtain the necessary training. One of the ways is to obtain a job with a contractor who will then provide on-the-job training. Entry-level workers generally start as helpers, assisting more experienced workers. During this time, the carpenter’s helper may elect to attend a trade or vocational school, or community college to receive further trade-related training.
Some employers, particularly large nonresidential construction contractors with union membership, offer employees formal apprenticeships. These programs combine on-the-job training with related classroom instruction. Apprenticeship applicants usually must be at least 18 years old and meet local requirements; some union locals, for example, test an applicant’s aptitude for carpentry. Apprenticeship programs are usually 3 to 4 years in length, but vary with the apprentice’s skill. The number of apprenticeship programs is limited, however, so only a small proportion of carpenters learn their trade through these programs, mostly those working for commercial and industrial building contractors.
On the job, apprentices learn elementary structural design and become familiar with common carpentry jobs, such as layout, form building, rough framing, and outside and inside finishing. They also learn to use the tools, machines, equipment, and materials of the trade. Apprentices receive classroom instruction in safety, first aid, blueprint reading, freehand sketching, basic mathematics, and various carpentry techniques. Both in the classroom and on the job, they learn the relationship between carpentry and the other building trades.
Some persons aiming for carpentry careers choose to obtain their classroom training before seeking a job. There are a number of public and private vocational-technical schools and training academies affiliated with the unions and contractors that offer training to become a carpenter. Employers often look favorably upon these students and usually start them at a higher level than those without the training.
Some skills needed to become a carpenter include manual dexterity, eye-hand coordination, physical fitness, and a good sense of balance. The ability to solve arithmetic problems quickly and accurately also is required. In addition, a good work history or military service is viewed favorably by contractors.
Carpenters usually have greater opportunities than most other construction workers to become general construction supervisors because carpenters are exposed to the entire construction process. For those who would like to advance, it is increasingly important to be able to communicate in both English and Spanish in order to relay instructions and safety precautions to workers with limited understanding of English; Spanish-speaking workers make up a large part of the construction workforce in many areas. Carpenters may advance to carpentry supervisor or general construction supervisor positions. Others may become independent contractors. Supervisors and contractors need good communication skills to deal with clients and subcontractors, should be able to identify and estimate the quantity of materials needed to complete a job, and accurately estimate how long a job will take to complete and at what cost.
Carpenters are employed throughout the country in almost every community and make up the largest building trades occupation. They held about 1.3 million jobs in 2004. About one-third worked in building construction and about one-fifth worked for special trade contractors. Most of the rest of the wage and salary workers worked for manufacturing firms, government agencies, retail establishments and a wide variety of other industries. About one-third of all carpenters were self-employed.
Job opportunities for carpenters are expected to be excellent over the 2004-14 period, particularly for those with the most skills. Employment of carpenters is expected to increase about as fast as average for all occupations through 2014, and turnover also creates a large number of openings each year. Contractors report having trouble finding skilled carpenters to fill many of their openings, due in part to the fact that many jobseekers are not inclined to go into construction, preferring work that is less strenuous with more comfortable working conditions. Also, many people with limited skills take jobs as carpenters but eventually leave the occupation because they dislike the work or cannot find steady employment.
The need for carpenters is expected to grow as construction activity increases in response to demand for new housing, office and retail space, and for modernizing and expanding schools and industrial plants. A strong home remodeling market also will create a large demand for carpenters.
Some of the demand for carpenters, however, will be offset by expected productivity gains resulting from the increasing use of prefabricated components and improved fasteners and tools. Prefabricated wall panels, roof assemblies and stairs and prehung doors and windows can be installed very quickly. Instead of having to be built on the worksite, prefabricated walls, partitions, and stairs can be lifted into place in one operation; beamsand, in some cases, entire roof assembliesare lifted into place using a crane. As prefabricated components become more standardized, builders will use them more often. In addition, improved adhesives are reducing the time needed to join materials, and lightweight, cordless, and pneumatic toolssuch as nailers and drillswill all continue to make carpenters more efficient. New and improved tools, equipment, techniques, and materials also have vastly increased carpenter versatility.
Carpenters with all-round skills will have better opportunities for steady work than carpenters who can perform only a few relatively simple, routine tasks. Carpenters can experience periods of unemployment because of the short-term nature of many construction projects, winter slowdowns in construction activity in northern areas, and the cyclical nature of the construction industry. During economic downturns, the number of job openings for carpenters declines. Building activity depends on many factors that vary with the state of the economyinterest rates, availability of mortgage funds, government spending, and business investment.
Job opportunities for carpenters also vary by geographic area. Construction activity parallels the movement of people and businesses and reflects differences in local economic conditions. The areas with the largest population increases will also provide the best job opportunities for carpenters and apprenticeship opportunities for persons seeking to enter carpentry.
In May 2004, median hourly earnings of carpenters were $16.78. The middle 50 percent earned between $12.91 and $22.62. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $10.36, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $28.65. Median hourly earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of carpenters in May 2004 were as follows:
Nonresidential building construction
Building finishing contractors
Residential building construction
Foundation, structure, and building exterior contractors
Earnings can be reduced on occasion, because carpenters lose worktime in bad weather and during recessions when jobs are unavailable.
Some carpenters are members of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.
For information about carpentry apprenticeships or other work opportunities in this trade, contact local carpentry contractors, locals of the union mentioned above, local joint union-contractor apprenticeship committees, or the nearest office of the State employment service or apprenticeship agency. You can also find information on the registered apprenticeship system with links to State apprenticeship programs on the U.S. Department of Labor’s website: http://www.doleta.gov/atels_bat
For information on training opportunities and carpentry in general, contact:
Associated Builders and Contractors, 4250 North Fairfax Dr., 9th Floor, Arlington, VA 22203. Internet: http://www.trytools.org
Associated General Contractors of America, Inc., 2300 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 400, Arlington, VA 22201. Internet: http://www.agc.org
National Center for Construction Education and Research, P.O. Box 141104, Gainesville, FL 32614-1104. Internet: http://www.nccer.org
National Association of Home Builders, Home Builders Institute, 1201 15th St. NW., Washington, DC 20005. Internet: http://www.hbi.org
United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, Carpenters Training Fund, 6801 Placid Street Las Vegas, NV 89119. Internet: http://www.carpenters.org
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition,
Carpenters, on the Internet at
(visited June 21, 2006).