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Wood is one of the oldest, most basic building materials. Yet, even in our age of sophisticated composites and alloys, the demand for wood products continues unabated. Helping to meet this demand are production and precision woodworkers. Production woodworkers can be found in primary industries, such as sawmills and plywood mills, as well as in secondary industries that manufacture furniture, kitchen cabinets, musical instruments, and other fabricated wood products. Precision woodworkers, on the other hand, usually work in small shops that make architectural woodwork, furniture, and many other specialty items.
Woodworkers are employed at some stage of the process through which logs of wood are transformed into finished products. Some of these workers produce the structural elements of buildings; others mill hardwood and softwood lumber; still others assemble finished wood products. They operate machines that cut, shape, assemble, and finish raw wood to make the doors, windows, cabinets, trusses, plywood, flooring, paneling, molding, and trim that are components of most homes. Others may fashion home accessories such as beds, sofas, tables, dressers, and chairs. In addition to these household goods, they also make sporting goods, including baseball bats, racquets, and oars, as well as musical instruments, toys, caskets, tool handles, and thousands of other wooden items.
Production workers usually set up, operate, and tend woodworking machinessuch as power saws, planers, sanders, lathes, jointers, and routersto cut and shape components from lumber, plywood, and other wood panel products. Working from blueprints, instructions from supervisors, or shop drawings that they produce, woodworkers determine the method of shaping and sequence of assembling parts. Before cutting, they must often measure and mark the materials to be cut. They verify dimensions to adhere to specifications and may trim parts to insure a tight fit, using handtools such as planes, chisels, wood files, or sandpaper.
Most production woodworkers operate a specific woodworking machine, but others are responsible for a variety of machines. Lower skilled operators may merely press a switch on a woodworking machine and monitor the automatic operation, while more highly skilled operators set up their equipment, cut and shape wooden parts, and verify dimensions using a template, caliper, or rule. In sawmills, machine operators cut logs into planks, timbers, or boards. In veneer mills, they cut veneer sheets from logs for making plywood. While in furniture plants, they make furniture components such as table legs, drawers, rails, and spindles.
Many companies have installed computer-controlled machinery, which raises worker productivity and reduces wasted resources. With computerized numerical controls, an operator can program a machine to perform a sequence of operations automatically, resulting in greater precision and reliability. The integration of computers with equipment has improved production speeds and capabilities, simplified setup and maintenance requirements, and increased the demand for workers with some computer skills.
Whether computer-controlled or manual equipment is used to machine the parts, the next step in the manufacturing process is the production of subassemblies using fasteners and adhesives. These pieces are then brought together to form a complete unit. The product is then finish sanded, stained, and if necessary, coated with a sealer such as lacquer or varnish. Woodworkers may perform this work in teams or be assisted by a helper.
Precision or custom woodworkers, such as cabinetmakers, model makers, wood machinists, and furniture and wood finishers, work on a customized basis, often building one-of-a-kind items. For this reason, they normally need substantial training and an ability to work from detailed instructions and specifications. They often are required to exercise independent judgment when undertaking an assignment. Precision woodworkers generally perform a complete cycle of cutting, shaping, surface preparation, and assembling prepared parts of complex wood components into a finished wood product.
Working conditions vary from industry to industry, and job to job. In primary industries, such as logging and sawmilling, working conditions are physically demanding due to the handling of heavy, bulky material. Workers in this area may also encounter excessive noise and dust and other air quality pollutants. However, these factors can be controlled by using earplugs and respirators. Rigid adherence to safety precautions minimizes risk of injury from contact with rough woodstock, sharp tools, and power equipment. The risk of injury is also lowered by the installation of computer-controlled equipment that reduces the physical labor and the hands-on contact with the machine.
In secondary industries, such as furniture and kitchen cabinet manufacturing, working conditions also depend on the industry and the particular job. Those employees who operate machinery must wear ear and eye protection, follow operating safety instructions, and use safety shields or guards when appropriate. Those who work in the finishing area must either be provided with an appropriate dust or vapor mask, a complete protective safety suit, or they must be in a finishing environment that removes all vapors and particle matter from the atmosphere. Prolonged standing, lifting, and fitting heavy objects are also common characteristics of the job.
Workers in woodworking occupations held about 367,000 jobs in 1994. Self-employed woodworkers, mostly cabinetmakers and furniture finishers, accounted for 50,000 of these jobs. Employment was distributed as follows:
Woodworkers, precision 241,000 Woodworking machine setters and operators 126,000 Head sawyers 62,000 Woodworking machine operators 64,000Eighty percent of salaried woodworkers worked in manufacturing industries. Among these woodworkers, 31 percent were employed in establishments fabricating household and office furniture and fixtures; 24 percent were in establishments making millwork, plywood, and structural wood members, used primarily in construction; and 12 percent worked in sawmills and planing mills manufacturing a variety of raw, intermediate, and finished woodstock. Woodworkers also were employed by wholesale and retail lumber dealers, furniture stores, reupholstery and furniture repair shops, and construction firms.
Woodworking jobs are found throughout the country. However, production jobs are concentrated in the South and Northwest, close to the supply of wood, while furniture makers are more prevalent in the East. Custom shops can be found everywhere, but are generally concentrated in or near highly populated areas.
Most woodworkers are trained on the job, picking up skills informally from experienced workers. Some acquire skills through vocational education or by working as carpenters on construction jobs. Others may attend colleges or universities that offer training in many areas including wood technology, furniture manufacturing, wood engineering, and production management. These programs prepare students for positions in production, supervision, engineering, or management.
Beginners usually observe and help experienced machine operators. They may supply material or remove fabricated products from the machine. Trainees do simple machine operating jobs and are at first closely supervised by experienced workers. As they gain experience, they perform more complex jobs with less supervision. Some may learn to read blueprints, set up machines, and plan the sequence of their work. Most woodworkers learn the basic machine operations or job tasks in a few months, but becoming a skilled woodworker often requires 2 years or more.
In the past, a high school education was seldom required. However, persons seeking woodworking jobs can enhance their employment and advancement prospects by completing high school. Training in mathematics, science, and computer applications will be beneficial in the future as woodworking technology becomes more sophisticated, and as more companies install computerized equipment. Employers often look for individuals with mechanical ability, manual dexterity, and the ability to pay attention to detail.
Advancement opportunities are often limited and depend upon availability, seniority, and a worker's skills and initiative. Experienced woodworkers may become inspectors or supervisors responsible for the work of a group of woodworkers. Production workers can advance into these positions by assuming additional responsibilities and by attending workshops, seminars, or college programs. Those who are highly skilled may set up their own woodworking shops.
Little change is expected in the employment of woodworkers through the year 2005, as growth among precision woodworkers will be offset by the declining employment of woodworking machine operators. As the Nation's population, personal income, and business expenditures grow, the demand for wood products will increase. In addition, the continuing need for repair and renovation of residential and commercial properties is expected to stimulate demand. Opportunities for woodworkers who specialize in such items as moldings, cabinets, stairs, and windows should, therefore, be particularly good.
Several factors may limit the growth of woodworking occupations in coming years. Environmental measures designed to control various pollutants used in or generated by woodworking processes are likely to have a significant impact on employment, especially in secondary industries. Primary industries will be more affected by a shortage of timber as the harvesting of old growth forests on Federal lands becomes more restricted. Technological advances like computerized numerical control machinery and robots will prevent employment from rising as fast as the demand for wood products, particularly in the mills and manufacturing plants where many of the processes can be automated. In addition, some jobs will be lost in the United States as imports continue to grow and as U.S. firms move production to other countries. Finally, materials such as metal, plastic, and fiberglass will continue to be used as alternatives to wood in many products, primarily because they are cheaper, stronger, or easier to shape.
As a result of these trends, employment opportunities in the primary wood industries may be more limited than those in the secondary industries. Also, as firms automate production, the demand for highly skilled workers will increase. Employment in all of the woodworking occupations is highly sensitive to economic cycles, so the growth in these occupations will be primarily affected by the overall state of the economy. Although this growth will be modest, thousands of openings will arise each year because of the need to replace experienced workers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force.
Median weekly earnings for salaried full-time precision woodworkers were about $390 in 1994. The middle 50 percent earned between $280 and $510. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $230, while the highest 10 percent earned over $650. Median weekly earnings for full-time woodworking machine operators were around $310 in 1994. The middle 50 percent earned between $250 and $420. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $200, while the highest 10 percent earned over $525. Earnings vary by industry, geographic region, skill, educational level, and complexity of the machinery operated. Woodworkers usually receive a basic benefit package including medical and dental benefits and a pension plan.
Some woodworkers, such as those in logging or sawmills, who are engaged in processing primary wood and building materials, are members of the International Association of Machinists. Others may belong to the United Furniture Workers of America or the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.
Many woodworkers follow blueprints and drawings and use machines to shape and form raw wood into a final product. Workers who perform similar functions working with other materials include precision metalworkers, metalworking and plastics-working machine operators, metal fabricators, molders and shapers, and leather workers.
For information about woodworking occupations, contact local furniture manufacturers, sawmills and planing mills, cabinetmaking or millwork firms, lumber dealers, a local of one of the unions mentioned above, or the nearest office of the State employment service.
For general information about furniture woodworking occupations, contact:
American Furniture Manufacturers Association, Manufacturing Services Division, P.O. Box HP-7, High Point, NC 27261.
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