CareerExplorer’s step-by-step guide on how to become a carpenter.
Is becoming a carpenter right for me?
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Carpentry is one of the trades for which it is relatively easily to gain directly relevant experience while completing high school. Courses in the following subject areas will likely lead to a smoother transition into a carpentry apprenticeship or technical school program:
• Mathematics: algebra and geometry
• Carpentry / Woodworking / ‘Shop Class’
• Mechanical Drawing
In addition to taking classes like these, which are pertinent to the everyday work of a carpenter, it is also important to pay attention in English class, as strong communication skills will be helpful in reading blueprints, installation instructions, and safety information. This skill also helps carpenters give clear directions to subordinates and comfortably and effectively interact with both clients and colleagues. Learning a second language, particularly Spanish for aspiring carpenters in the U.S., will also prove to be beneficial in interacting with coworkers for whom English is not their first language.
Outside of the classroom, prospective carpenters can further begin to prepare for an apprenticeship and their future trade by:
• Asking to become a teacher’s assistant (TA) in shop class, after having completed the class themselves
• Getting involved in building sets for school drama productions
• Finding part-time or summer work as a carpenter’s helper
• Inquiring about free or inexpensive basic carpentry or related classes and workshops offered through local community centers
• Volunteering with programs like Habitat for Humanity
An Educational or Apprenticeship Program
Three-to-four-year carpentry apprenticeships are offered by many employers and may be sponsored by unions, contractors, or government employment agencies. Generally, applicants need to be at least 18 years of age and may also need a referral form from a state agency, contractor, or union.
The United States Department of Labor runs an apprenticeship registry. Carpenters are among the top users of the program.
Both apprenticeships and technical school two-year certificate/diploma programs are designed to acquaint students with hand tools and power tools and to develop safety awareness and fundamental skills in handling, measuring, altering, and assembling materials. Programs are often divided into specialties, like general carpentry, cabinetry, or floor covering.
Employment & Experience
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, carpenters most commonly work for general contractors, specialty contractors, or for themselves. They may also find employment with manufacturing firms, retailers, and government agencies. A common strategy is to alternate working for a contractor and working independently, as a freelancer. At any given time, about a third of all carpenters are self-employed.
Union membership will likely be required of carpenters who complete a union-affiliated apprenticeship. In some parts of the United States, membership in a labor union can be an advantage when bidding on jobs. Another benefit is that unions typically provide ongoing training to members.
Career Advancement, Continuing Education, and Certification
Carpenters may choose to accumulate experience in different areas of the construction industry and eventually become a carpentry supervisor or general construction supervisor. They may also pursue an Associate’s or Bachelor’s Degree in construction management to prepare for positions of even greater seniority.
Continuing education and voluntary certification opportunities are available through several industry associations. Two of the most recognized are:
Among the certifications offered by NARI are:
How to become a Carpenter
While there is no formal, standardized training required to enter the carpentry field, a high school diploma or GED equivalent is preferred by the majority of employers. Entry-level job candidates who have taken high school courses in woodworking, mechanical drawing, or drafting generally have the edge when applying for carpentry apprenticeships.
Several trade unions offer apprenticeship training programs for aspiring carpenters. Applicants must be at least 18 years of age (or 17 years of age, with parental consent) and are selected based on their performance in both oral and written tests. Successful candidates will receive at least 2,000 hours of hands-on training and 144 hours of classroom education. During their apprenticeship, they work closely with master carpenters, learning about structural design, architectural drawings, blueprint reading, framing and finishing systems, building codes, and safety practices and compliance. Some apprenticeships may focus on certain types of projects, such as industrial, commercial, or residential; and provide training in specialized areas like concrete, rigging, and scaffold building.
Prospective carpenters may also opt to receive direct, on-the-job training from contractors. However, those who do so often take much longer to acquire the skills needed to progress in the field. Moreover, they will not earn higher union wages or receive some of the benefits that are exclusive to union members.
Many vocational and technical schools offer Associate level carpentry degrees. In some cases, graduates of these two-year programs – some of which are affiliated with unions – succeed at getting higher-paying entry-level positions.
Carpenters may obtain voluntary certification from national organizations to document specific skills and enhance job prospects. The National Association of the Remodeling Industry, for example, offers nine different certifications.