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Career: Carpenter

A Day in the life of a Carpenter

Carpenters are craftsmen who build things. The occupation rewards those who can combine precise detail work with strenuous manual labor. Carpenters construct two categories of items: those used in the erection, maintenance, and aesthetic mix of structures, and those used as furniture, art, or framing. Similar skills are important in each category: The abilities to turn blueprints and plans into finished objects, to pick good wood, and to use all woodworking tools. But structural carpenters enjoy a larger market for their services and a more consistent demand than piecework carpenters do. The satisfaction levels in both fields are high, but the lifestyle in each is quite different. “The best thing about building things is that you know you can do a good job that will last for years. It’s great to walk by a place ten years after you built it and say Ôyou know, I put up those walls and put in those floors.’” This sense of pride came through in the majority of structural carpenter surveys we received. Structural carpenters work with supervisors and construction managers on the production of multimaterial products. They work with fiberglass, drywall, and plastic as well as wood, and they use saws, tape measures, drills, and sanders in their jobs. They shape and join material to the specifications of blueprints or at the direction of their contractor. This can entail long hours of physical labor, sometimes in unpleasant circumstances. “Putting up a house in November isn’t fun at all,” said one carpenter from the Northeast. Structural carpenters also spend significant time checking their work with plumb bobs, rules, and levels. The injury rate among structural carpenters is above average. Detail carpenters usually work indoors, some involved in maintenance and refinishing, others involved in creation. The majority work as furniture restorers and repairmen. They fix, sand, even, and stain used furniture. Detail work requires a good eye for prior construction methods, an understanding of restoration techniques, and patience. Other detail carpenters fashion and create their own pieces of furniture, choosing the wood, designing the final product, then shaping and assembling the parts. Many then sell these pieces to retail houses and private buyers. Detail carpenters work directly with clients more than structural carpenters, so interpersonal skills are much more significant.

Paying Your Dues

Carpenters learn their trade on the job and through apprenticeships. Many of the apprentice programs are administered by the Associate Builders and Contractors and the Associated General Contractors, Inc., as well as by such unions as the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America and the National Association of Home Builders. You have to be at least seventeen years old and show a capacity to learn, the ability to do sustained, difficult, physical work, manual dexterity, some mathematical aptitude, and a willingness to take direction. Most apprenticeships last three to four years. The market for carpenters is tied to local construction markets, and while the education gained by being a carpenter is invaluable for someone who wants to be involved in the construction industry, the unpredictability of the work is something applicants should be familiar with before entering this profession. Applicants may also need to relocate at times in order to find work.

Associated Careers

Structural carpenters have a large exposure to the different areas of construction, so it is not surprising that many who leave the profession go into plumbing, electrical wiring, or contracting. Detail carpenters go into graphic design, sculpture, and glasswork. Those who leave usually do so because of lack of opportunity rather than dissatisfaction with the profession.

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