How to Become a Carpenter in 5 Steps

Research what it takes to become a carpenter. Learn about training requirements, salary and employment outlook to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Carpentry degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does a Carpenter Do?

Carpenters build in accordance with plans and blueprints. They measure, cut and prepare building materials. In addition, they build and repair framework, buildings, building components and fixtures, and structures such as bridge supports. Inside a building, they may install kitchen cabinetry, partitions and drywall. On the exterior of a structure, they may contract to install siding. Carpenters can learn the field through on-the-job training, a postsecondary program or an apprenticeship.

A summary of important career details is listed in the table below.

Training Required Diploma or certificate program; apprenticeships are also available
Education Field of Study Carpentry
Key Skills Physical strength, math, attention to detail, problem-solving
Certification Certification is voluntary
Job Growth (2014-2024) 6%*
Median Salary (2015) $42,090*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Is a Carpenter?

A carpenter is a skilled tradesperson who erects new residential and commercial buildings, rehabs existing buildings or constructs bridges, roads and other infrastructure. As a carpenter, you may use a broad range of skills, like framing walls, building stairs, installing doors, or specialize in a limited set, such as finish carpentry or cabinet-making. Your duties include studying blueprints or other specifications, choosing materials and measuring and marking cut lines. You also cut and shape wood or other materials and fasten them together with wood, nails and glue. Carpenters working on rehab projects may first inspect ceilings, walls and doors for damage and then remove the damaged area.

Step 1: Earn a High School Diploma

If you want to enroll in carpentry courses or an apprenticeship program you will need a high school diploma or GED. The high school courses you take can also lay a foundation for a carpentry career. Woodworking, drafting and blueprint reading are directly relevant. Schools may offer them separately or as part of a shop course. Courses in physics, algebra, geometry and English can be helpful as well.

Step 2: Become a Carpenter's Helper

In addition to taking shop or woodworking classes in high school, you might consider finding work as a carpenter's helper. Working with an older, experienced carpenter allows you to learn the carpenter's profession on-the-job, while you obtain and improve your skills with the tools of your trade. This experience may also help you gain admissions to an educational program or apprenticeship.

Step 3: Enroll in an Educational or Apprenticeship Program

Diploma and certificate programs are designed to acquaint you with hand tools and power tools and develop fundamental skills in handling, measuring, altering and assembling construction materials. Courses may cover such topics as framing, foundations, drywalling, siding, trim, roofing and safety. Programs last 1-2 years.

Apprenticeships emphasize on-the job training supplemented with occasional classroom study. Most require you to be at least 18, although some may admit you at 17 if you've earned a high school diploma or GED. You may also need a referral from a state agency, contractor or union local. Programs are often divided into specialties, like general carpentry, cabinetry or floor covering. An apprenticeship program typically lasts four years.

Step 4: Obtain Employment

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), you could work for general contractors, specialty contractors or yourself in the building industry. You might also find employment with manufacturing firms, retailers and government agencies. A common strategy is to alternate working for a contractor and working for yourself, depending on job availability. About 33% of carpenters were self-employed in 2014, per the BLS. Employment of carpenters was projected to rise by 6% from 2014 to 2024. The median salary as of May 2015 was $42,090, the BLS reported.

Union membership may be required if you attend a union-affiliated apprenticeship program. Or, you may choose to join a carpenter's union for better employment prospects. For example, in some parts of the country, labor union membership can be an advantage when you bid on jobs. And, union membership may help you improve your skills, since unions often provide ongoing training to members.

Step 5: Advance Your Career

Carpenters have many avenues for advancement. You could obtain certification in pump work or scaffold building. This training may be the result of a formal journeyman-training program with your union, or you may take a workforce skills program at a technical school or community college. Some unions and regional workforce agencies may offer certification examinations, which test your skills and certify you as a journeyman carpenter.

You could also accumulate experience in different areas of construction, learn the entire process and become a carpentry supervisor or general construction supervisor. Finally, you could earn an associate's degree or bachelor's degree in construction management to prepare for supervisory positions. Because a growing share of construction workers speak Spanish, acquiring knowledge of the language is helpful.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

There are a couple of closely related alternative careers to carpenters. Masonry workers construct the foundation of a building using concrete blocks and mortar. Using stones, bricks and other materials, they may also construct interior or exterior walls, walkways, fences or other structures such as fireplaces. They are responsible for laying out plans, following blueprints and sizing the materials used.

Drywall and ceiling installers are responsible for measuring, cutting and shaping drywall and ceiling materials. Once installed by way of glue, nails, drywall screws or clips, the seams of the drywall panels must be taped, spread with a sealing compound and sanded to a smooth finish in order to prepare the surface for painting.

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