Carpenter is one of the world’s oldest professions—it existed before the concept of money! Humanity will always need things built, and so the world will always need carpenters. If you like to work with your hands and enjoy creating things, carpentry might be the right career choice for you.
However, choosing a career path requires considering more than just your interests, and we’re here to help with that. Here’s everything you need to know about how to become a carpenter, from job responsibilities to educational requirements.
What Does A Carpenter Do?
The first carpenters arose out of necessity. Someone needed to carve, shape, and attach wood pieces to make homes, pillars, tables, counters, and chairs. A lot of carpentry today still revolves around wood, especially in residential projects, but it involves other materials as well.
Given the wide job description of a carpenter—essentially a “builder”—many often specialize in specific areas:
- Rough carpentry, which encompasses building structural frames upon which all structures stand. Also known as “formwork,” it involves constructing beams, columns, planks, and shutters out of a combination of plywood, steel, plastic, and concrete. Rough carpenters are also proficient at installing and maintaining roofs.
- Joist work, meaning everything that has to do with floors or any structural layer that will horizontally span a building’s area. Joisters need to be adept at handling composite materials like metal and timber to create holes, braces, notches, and beams to support the weight of the people who will be dwelling inside a finished structure.
- Trim carpentry deals with wall ornaments like skirting boards, moldings, mantels, and trims. Trim carpenters are often responsible for the more aesthetic touches when building a home or business.
- Cabinet carpentry entails the creation of cabinets, wardrobes, dressers, desks, bed frames, benches, and other furniture. Cabinet makers exist so that that the inhabitants of a home or an office building will always have an orderly place to eat, sleep, and store away their belongings.
- Ship carpentry is a part of shipbuilding. Ship carpenters can take on many sub-specializations such as yacht-building, towboat maintenance, and many more.
- Roof carpentry, which is a subtype of rough carpentry with an emphasis on roofs. Roof carpenters construct trusses, beams, and rafters.
How To Become A Carpenter
In many small towns across America, carpenters are born into their jobs. Their parents are carpenters or work in construction, and they learn by observation. Some sign up for summer jobs or handy work here and there, and they gain new experience, money, and know-how.
In other areas, carpentry is a commercialized and competitive trade. Not everyone can replace windows on a 90-story condominium or install a roof on a thousand-acre Walmart. As structures become more efficient and complicated, more training is needed to install, maintain, and repair them.
Anyone can become a carpenter as long as they’re prepared to put in the hard work and take on the high risks that come with the job.
The early days of being a carpenter can be particularly challenging, especially when you’re starting with no prior experience. Be prepared to get a few broken nails, skids, and scratches, especially if you’re the type who likes figuring things out your way instead of reading guides or being taught.
Most carpenters have at least a high school diploma or a GED before they start their apprenticeship. You can also enroll in a trade school or community college, which will add two years and a few thousand dollars to your arrears but will make you more employable when you step out into the world.
You can opt to start with an apprenticeship right out of high school but enrolling in a trade school allows you to benefit from theoretical knowledge while pursuing an apprenticeship on the side.
Internships & Training
Whether you attend college, a trade school, or skip both, an apprenticeship is still highly recommended if you want access to the best employment opportunities. An apprenticeship typically lasts between one and four years—but don’t worry, it’s usually paid work.
Once you’ve completed your apprenticeship, you can become a licensed journeyman or master carpenter. These licenses show employers—or clients if you choose to become an independent contractor—that you have the skill to get the job done right and safely.
By the end of your apprenticeship, you should have all the skills you need to meet licensing requirements and become certified. While these skills will vary based on the type of carpentry you’re training to do, they typically include:
- Reading blueprints
- Advanced geometry
- Selection and maintenance of carpenter hardware and materials
- Reading architectural drawings and using drafting software
- Measuring construction materials
- Identifying the right and wrong construction materials for a job
- Estimating project costs and ordering materials
- Building doors and windows from scratch
- Operating mechanical systems on a construction site
Depending on the specialization you choose, the cost of finishing carpentry school can vary from $1,000 to $7,000 if you’re a do-it-yourselfer and choose to take just enough coursework to get the skills and tools you need to get started.
An associate degree from a trade school will take two and a half years to finish and will cost $5,000 to $18,000. In the associate degree program, you’ll learn about project management, supervision, scheduling, and cost estimation.
An apprenticeship won’t cost you anything beyond an application fee if you find a trade group or a union that can take you on. Vocational schools also offer apprenticeship programs. All apprenticeship programs eventually lead to the title of a journeyman, which will free you up to pick the jobs and employers you like.
Apprenticeship programs are like paid internships. However, you still have to pay for your room and board, training materials, tools, and uniforms. These miscellaneous fees can add up to more than $5,000 if you include registration and license fees.
If you choose to pursue Lead Carpenter certification from the National Association of Remodeling Industry (NARI), the initial certification will set you back $400 if you’re a NARI member and $600 if you’re not.
Your certification will need to be renewed every year at $49 (members) or $98 (non-members). Renewals also require five continued-education credits to show you’re staying current on industry advancements. The cost of acquiring those credits varies on how you acquire them. There are many online options and seminars, most cost between $50-500.
There is also an online test prep course available. It costs $195 for members and $295 for non-members. The cost to become a NARI member, which comes with a long list of benefits, ranges depending on the chapter nearest to your location. Often the fee for the first year is between $500-600, and it drops slightly after that.Add block
Certifications & Licensing
You aren’t legally required to obtain a certification or a license to practice basic carpentry. According to the Bureau of Statistics, this has been the de facto rule since 2012. However, carpenters can apply for voluntary, state, and agency-specific certifications to broaden their horizons.
Some local or state governments may also require certain types of licenses depending on the scope of the work. These regulations vary widely. Make sure to explore the legal requirements in your state.
To obtain a license or certificate to practice carpentry, you may need to be:
- At least 18 years old
- Able to do physically strenuous work
- An American citizen
- Finished with 144 hours of classroom training
- Finished with 2,000 hours of hands-on work
You can obtain certificates like Lead Carpenter certification from the National Association of Remodeling Industry (NARI) to solidify your position in your niche. To earn a Lead Carpenter certificate, you’ll need to put in five years as a remodeler and two as a lead carpenter and pass a 180-question exam.
Recommended Skills For Carpenters
Being interested in building things is a good start if you want to become a carpenter, but there are many skills and qualities that make the job easier as well.
- Manual dexterity. Carpenters are constantly working with their hands or hand tools, so as you can imagine, good manual dexterity is a must—unless you want to be nursing a lot of smashed fingers.
- Mechanically and technologically inclined. Speaking of tools, you also need to be able to use basic handle tools, understand blueprints, and understand how things go together. Certain technology, such as computer-aided design (CAD) software, is also common in the industry.
- Physical stamina. Construction work, in general, requires a lot of standing, lifting, walking, and holding materials. You need to be in ample physical condition to do all the above. You don’t necessarily need to be a bodybuilder but being capable of repeatedly lifting 50+ pounds is ideal.
- Critical thinking. While many carpenters build things from scratch, that still often requires the ability to adjust plans on the fly and overcome unexpected challenges—even more so if you opt to do repair or restoration work.
- Detail-oriented. You know that saying, “measure twice, cut once”? That saying was likely written by a carpenter because in carpentry, even the smallest details matter. You’ll need to make precise measurements, keep track of materials, and more.
- Math. Being mathematically minded isn’t necessarily a requirement to do carpentry thanks to modern technology, but it certainly helps when making measurements, calculating angles, and creating supply lists or pricing estimates. A focus on geometry and algebra is recommended.
- Interpersonal communication. It is possible to work solo as a carpenter, but even then, you’d need to communicate with clients or customers to draft plans or sell your work. That said, most carpenters work with a team, so either way, you’ll need to be able to work well with others and communicate.
- Business skills. This point is less important if you plan to work for someone else, but if you want to open your own carpentry business or become an independent contractor, understanding business fundamentals, such as invoicing, advertising, and record-keeping, is ideal.
Pros & Cons Of Being A Carpenter
Carpentry is a very diverse, challenging, and fun profession, but it has its downsides like any career. Before you make the decision to begin your journey to become a carpenter, it’s best to explore the pros and cons.
- Engaging and exciting: You’ll work in a ton of different environments—even Hollywood movie sets
- Monotony is not an issue: Every day will bring a new challenge
- Not a desk job: Carpenters work outdoors often, and there are plenty of travel opportunities
- No shortage of work: Job opportunities are plentiful—the world will never run out of broken things that need repair
- Opens other career paths: You can venture into furniture making, solar panel installation, and wind farm construction if you’re tired of basic carpentry
- It’s fulfilling work: Many people find creating and building things fulfilling and enjoy the self-expression it allows
- Doesn’t require a college degree: While you can get a degree, you don’t necessarily need a college degree to work as a carpenter—the educational requirements are relatively easy to meet
- High risk: Carpentry involves lots of potentially dangerous tools, chemicals, and work conditions
- Physically demanding: Be prepared to work long hours, even on weekends, and work hard
- Can be seasonal: In some locations, carpentry work waxes and wanes with the seasons. You may find yourself low on work for part of the year
- It’s a competitive industry: Also, depending on your location, your local market may have an excess of carpenters already due to the low educational demands
- Low starting wage: In the early years, many carpenters start off doing grunt work, which rarely pays well
How Much Do Carpenters Make?
An experienced carpenter’s salary can rival that of a white-collar worker’s. When you’re just getting started, you can expect an hourly wage between $12-18. However, you can earn as much as $49,000 a year with a little bit of patience.
The average salary of a carpenter is $23.24 per hour, depending on his or her specialization. A carpenter who installs pool filters, solar panels, and sunroofs will earn more than a day worker who does more handy-man type tasks, such as repairing broken windows or building porches.
Here is a short breakdown of how much carpenters earn working as contractors:
- Nonresidential projects: $53,040 per year
- Detailing on buildings and houses: $49,440 per year
- Residential projects: $46,290 per year
- Basement, foundation, and exterior renovation projects: $46,850 per year
Carpenter Job Outlook
The career outlook for carpenters is always healthy, and unlike other blue-collar jobs that rise and fall with the economy, carpenters are pretty insulated from downturns and market crashes.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for carpenters will hold steady over the next ten years, with about 89,000 jobs annually.
The only challenge that may be on the horizon for carpenters is the rising demand for pre-made components and modular homes, which can put a small dent in their career outlook.
With the integration of the internet in the lives of millennials and Gen Z-ers, more and more people are also learning DIY home construction and repair. However, at the end of the day, most people will need a professional carpenter if they want a job done right.
Pre-made and pre-designed components can also be a carpenter’s best friend, allowing them to save time on welding, sawing, and boring holes in wood and metal. Many carpenters are self-employed, and they can use the time they spare to meet their prospects and discuss construction plans.
Skills learned in the carpentry field lend well to a wide range of other career paths, and since there are no costly degree requirements, making the switch is a bit less painful than with something like dentistry.
Should you decide to try something new, you might consider:
- Brick or block mason
- Fence installer
- Plumber or HVAC tech
- Carpet or flooring installer
- Logger or millworker
- Construction supply or equipment salesperson
- Insulation and weatherization tech
- Construction inspector
- Heavy equipment operator
- Solar or wind power tech
Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming A Carpenter
Below are some of the most commonly asked questions about this career. If you have other questions that are not listed here – please email us or leave a comment below and we will be sure to add it!
Carpentry is a career that is very labor intensive. You may be doing commercial or private construction work on homes and building which may require climbing and working at very high heights. Indoor work like cabinetry and custom home accents can require lifting, bending and contact with hazardous equipment.
A carpenter may work many hours a day and often work weekends. While you may work 40 a hours a week, there may be times more hours are required depending on needs and weather. This can make your schedule a little more irregular than other jobs.
When you are just starting out you should have the drive to want to learn and excel at the path you are about to take. You should have a basic understanding of how to use carpentry tools, math skills to be able to plan out projects and of course physical strength.
Let’s Hit the Nail on The Head: Is Carpentry Right For You?
Carpentry can be a rewarding career option for the right person. If you enjoy traveling, the outdoors, and independence, carpentry might be the career for you. However, if you prefer a little handholding to make sure you do a job right and a steady day-to-day routine, you might need to look elsewhere.
If you’re considering doing just that, we’ve still got your back. At Blue Collar Brain, we aim to be your go-to resource for vocational and trade careers. Check out our other in-depth employment overviews and find the perfect career path for you.
*Data source: Bureau of Labor Statistics