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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.

Present and Future

Carpentry has been around since human beings built structures, but methodologies and powerful construction tools have developed through the ages. In particular, the development of the flexible nail made construction of objects that could survive shipping, stress, and settling possible. Carpenters will be in strong demand for the next ten years, subject to normal considerations of real estate construction cycles and local economies. In general, the field has a high turnover rate, due to retirement and injury. The potential increased use of prefabricated components in the construction industry means fewer carpenters will be needed to build the same number of structures, but even this will not be enough to dam the growth of job prospects through the end of the century. Carpenters unions have taken creative steps to ensure occupations for many of their members; one New York-based union made a bid to buy a convention center to ensure year-round employment for its members.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

Many carpenters are in training programs or are assistants to established carpenters. Long hours working in the field on construction sites are complemented by extra hours in the classroom learning blueprint reading skills, techniques of construction, and instruction in safety and first-aid. Minor injuries during these first two years are common, mainly from overexertion and lack of experience. Pay is low, but many find these years pass quickly, as each day brings new experiences.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Five-year carpenters have chosen an area of specialty, completed their training programs, joined a union, and established their reputations among regular employers. The hours are long and the work plentiful, and many get involved in their unions, which provide powerful contacts. Satisfaction is high during these years, and many of our respondents went out of their way to say they socialized with their coworkers and felt they were “supportive.”

TEN YEARS OUT

Ten-year carpenters are subject to injury much less than their younger and older counterparts, having found that safe balance between expediency and experience. Those who go into contracting use their union connections to employ efficient, hardworking carpentry crews. Those who remain often head up carpentry teams and work as managers under general contractors. Ten-year detail carpenters have established reputations with retailers, taken work on contract, and even work closely with architects in the design and aesthetic configuration of houses and their furniture. Salaries rise, but beyond this, only true stars earn extraordinary incomes.