Everywhere you look, a carpenter has been there working his or her magic. Read on to learn about carpentry and what it takes to become a carpenter.
What Carpenters Do
Carpenters create things out of a variety of materials, depending on their area of expertise. They may make beautiful cabinetry or intricate doors. Or, they could construct the entire framework of a building or a bridge. Carpenters are skilled craftsmen and women who work in the construction industry on a variety of levels. A carpenter may install pre-fabricated products, or they could prepare objects from ‘scratch’. Wood isn’t the only material a carpenter works with; they work with steel, fiberglass, plastic, and other building materials.
There are a few different types of carpenters: rough, finish, residential, commercial, and industrial. Each type of carpenter has been formally trained and has the appropriate skill set for the part of the industry they work in.
- Residential Carpenter: When it comes to homes, residential carpenters are the professionals who will install floors, cabinetry, framing, siding, and pretty much everything else that makes a house functional.
- Commercial Carpenter: A commercial carpenter has to take specialized courses because they are working on larger scale buildings than homes, which means the materials they are using may be entirely different. Commercial carpenters work on structures such as schools, houses of worship, bridges,and tunnels.
- Industrial Carpenter: Industrial carpenters work in industrial settings. They will build scaffolding, and they will set the forms for where the concrete will be poured. Industrial carpenters set forms for structures other than buildings, such as tunnels, bridges, sewer construction, and power plants.
- Rough Carpenter: Rough carpenters are skilled in following blueprints or oral instructions to create rough structures such as scaffoldings, supports for tunnels and bridges, temporary frame shelters, and billboard structures.
- Finish Carpenter: Finish carpenters are brought in on the final phase of a variety of projects. The finish carpenter installs the trim work and frames around features such as windows, walls, and staircases. The finish carpenter completes projects that need that last touch to look good and finished.
Step-by-Step Carpenter Career Guide
There are a few things that need to be done before you can start a career in carpentry. There are a few necessary personal skills you should have, as well. For example, you should have excellent manual dexterity. In other words, you need to be able to work well with your hands. You should be exceptionally detail-oriented and have impressive problem-solving skills. Things happen, and you need to be able to think quick on your feet to fix them. Your focus and physical strength don’t necessarily need to be your superpowers, but they should be pretty fine-tuned. And, you’ll need to know how to use all those tools that people of the carpentry trade use.
Here is a quick overview of what it takes to become a carpenter:
- Graduate High School or get your GED
- Get some hands-on experience by working under a carpenter
- Start your training through an apprenticeship, a trade school, or a community college
- Complete an apprenticeship
- Become a journeyman carpenter
Becoming a carpenter sounds fast and easy, doesn’t it? Nope, it’s not. It takes the proper training and lots of hands-on practice. We’ll go into more detail about what you need to do to become a carpenter in the following sections.
Becoming a Carpenter
If you’re still in high school and considering a career in carpentry, enroll in shop class if your school offers it. Also, make sure to take plenty of math classes, including a business math. Drafting and business design are also courses to consider while still in high school.
To start your training as a carpenter, you need to be 18 years old and have a high school diploma or GED. You must have proof of US citizenship, be in good physical condition to be able to do the strenuous type work, and you need to be able to pass a substance abuse screening. Once you have those requirements, there are a couple of different options to look at on your road to becoming a carpenter.
- Apprenticeship Programs: The most typical way carpenters learn the trade is through apprenticeships. Carpenter apprenticeships last 3-4 years and include 144 hours of coursework and 2,000 paid, on-the-job training hours per year. Generally, apprenticeship programs are found through unions and the U.S Department of Labor. Apprenticeships may also be offered through trade schools, as well. And, many carpentry contractors offer apprenticeship positions. Some apprenticeship programs may pay for post-secondary education so that an associate’s or bachelor’s degree can be earned.
- Post-Secondary Education: Choosing to get a diploma or associate’s degree is not required for carpentry careers, but many do decide to take this route. Expect 1-2 years of school before receiving a diploma or certificate. Most will still have to complete an apprenticeship before becoming a journeyman carpenter. Some apprentices decide to head to school for a degree, and in most instances, much of the apprenticeship education is transferable toward that degree or certificate/diploma. Having an associate’s degree is a great option for those who may want to head off to a four-year college because some college credits have already been earned.
Choosing a Carpentry Program
You know you want to become a carpenter, but you have no idea which educational path works best for you. There are some questions to think about to help you come to a decision on the best fit for your carpentry school needs. Keep in mind; most post-secondary training will still require you to complete an apprenticeship before you’re eligible to take the exam to become a journeyman carpenter.
- Do I want a degree or certificate?
- Does the school offer job placement?
- Does the school help obtain apprenticeship positions or does the school offer its own apprenticeship program?
- Will I have to provide my own tools and supplies?
- How connected is the school to unions and contractors?
- Do the credit hours go toward the apprenticeship or will it be separate?
- Will you be working on a construction site or have other real-world carpentry opportunities?
- Does the coursework include a variety of training in different areas of carpentry?
- What type of reputation does the school have?
- Is the school accredited?
- What is the student to teacher ratio?
- What is the success rate of past graduates?
- If you’re going straight into an apprenticeship, decide which part of carpentry you want to focus on
Cost of Carpentry Training Programs
Type of Program
Time to complete
1 year + apprenticeship
2 years + apprenticeship
The education portion is covered by the costs listed. But, as with most programs, expect additional costs when estimating your out-of-pocket school expense for carpentry programs. If you are attending out-of-state carpentry training, then you’ll need to add the cost of room and board to your list. Plus, you will need to purchase the course materials such as books, tools, and uniforms. All these factors can add anywhere between $500-$20,000 to the cost of carpentry training.
- Note that apprenticeships allow you to earn a wage that is between 30%-50% of what experienced carpenters make. The more you learn during your apprenticeship, they more you will earn.
Financial Aid for Carpentry School
Many trade schools offer scholarships to put toward education. There are scholarships out there for specific trades, as well as ones for trade school in general. To even be considered for financial aid, it’s important to take the first step and fill out the FAFSA which is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Once your FAFSA is completed, and the list of schools you’re interested in have been sent your information, they will help you locate money in the form of grants, scholarships, and loans that you can put toward your carpentry training. Most forms of financial aid can only be received if the school is an accredited program. Please read our article on getting financial aid for more information.
Carpentry may be a hands-on type of career, but there is also the business side to it, as well. During carpentry training, the aspiring carpenter will learn the nuts and bolts of carpentry. Included in both the apprenticeship and post-secondary training will be on-the-job training where you’ll be working as a carpenter’s helper. Each school and apprenticeship may offer a variation on the coursework so, depending on where you go for your carpentry training, the basics will vary.
- The formal training segment of carpentry will include courses such as tool usage and best practices, cabinet-making, installation of drywall, remodeling, roofing, reading blueprints, and residential planning. You will learn building codes, basic math, and safety requirements, as well. Classes will introduce carpentry for residential and industrial buildings in courses such as framing for residential structures and finishing for residential structures, where both steel and wood framing and finishing is taught. You’ll also learn project management and computer technology.
- The hands-on portion is where you’ll learn how to apply the coursework in a real-life setting. Framing and finishing are large training components that will be worked on. You will use the instruments and tools associated with carpentry, and you’ll learn to work with lumber, drywall, steel, and other construction materials. Some schools will offer onsite hands-on practice where you will actually be part of a building project that the school partnered with.
Apprenticeships not only teach you everything about being a carpenter, but you’ll also learn how carpentry relates to other trades in the construction industry which will create a more well-rounded learning experience.
Certification within an industry proves to potential employers, as well as clients that you have what it takes (and then some) to get the job done. Carpentry certification gives a sort of insurance that your expertise is up to the industry’s standards for licensed professionals. Carpentry does not have industry-specific requirements when it comes to certifications. There are, however, voluntary ones available.
- National Association of the Remodeling Industry: The NARI offers a few different certifications for remodelers. There is the Certified Lead Carpenter credential for carpenters who want to head up a project. This requires five years of experience in remodeling, with two of those years being a lead carpenter to be eligible.
- With many industries heading toward green and sustainable living practices, a good certification to sit for would be the U.S Green Building Council’s LEED Green Associate Exam. The exam fee is $200 and will test you on the current green building practices.
Other certifications to consider are CPR and Automated External Defibrillator certifications, training courses to become certified in mold, lead, and other such hazards. Also, a fire and site protection and inspection certification is a good one to have. These additional certifications just add a level of authority to your resume and can give you a leg up on competition.
"The median annual wage for carpenters was $48,330 in May 2019. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $30,170, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $84,690." [BLS]
Highest Paying States for Carpenters
Many contractors, including carpenters, choose to join their local related unions. There are quite a few checks in the ‘pros’ column when it comes to joining a union. For example, union workers can only be terminated for a ‘just cause’. This means that there needs to be a REALLY outstanding reason for being fired. Union dues can vary, but the cost of joining a union is offset by the job protection and other positive factors it brings.
Union workers earn better wages, have access to better benefits, and better job security. Not to mention, joining a union gives you strength in numbers, and being a union member comes complete with a large number of ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ who have your back. The average salary for a union carpenter is over $70,000 which is much higher than the national average.
The are a couple of negatives that come with union membership. Say, for instance, you don’t agree with all the rules. You still have to abide by them because you’re sort of bound to the ideals and ideas that come with the union. The union fees, which can range from $200 to a few hundred may offset the higher salary that unionized workers earn. And, in a poll that was taken around 2010, many union workers felt that they weren’t treated as fairly by their employer as a non-unionized worker, nor were they as trusted. So, joining a union definitely has trade-offs, and you need to decide what is important to you. The biggest carpentry union is the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America:
- United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America: United Brotherhood of Carpenters is the largest union for those in carpentry, with more than a half million members. They have their own state-of-the-art training facility for members where they not only educate new carpenters, but they have conferences and leadership programs, as well. They have contacts and unions in almost every region. Find yours here.
In every region, there are different unions to look into.
- The Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters is part of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters.
- The Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters is for carpenters in southern California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado and is ‘home’ to over 44,000 carpenters.
- Here is a resource to find a union near you: Union Facts for Carpenters.
Remember, joining a union is entirely voluntary. You are not required to be a union member to work as a carpenter
Carpenter License and Certification
License specifications for carpenters vary by state. Most states DO require some form of license for a carpenter to provide service. Depending on the state, the carpenter may have to pass one of more tests, as well as have a certain amount of documented hours of work experience. Contractor’s License Reference site lists each state and their licensing requirements. If a carpenter is found to be working without a license, they can be penalized with a fine.
Typically, the steps to take to becoming a licensed carpenter are relatively simple:
- Complete your schooling and apprenticeship
- Go through the proper training period
- Get a contractor license bond (not required by all states and those that do may have different bond amount requirements)
- Get insurance (either liability or industrial)
- Submit a license application along with the fee
Some states only have one license for carpenters, while others may have a few that are separated into the type of carpentry instead of the career as a whole.