What Does a Carpenter Do?

If you like working with your hands and making things, carpentry could be the career for you.

Carpenters cut, measure and shape lumber in useful ways. Working from a master plan, they create wooden structures, piece by piece. Their work involves mastering a wide variety of hand and power tools. They cut wood using chisels, planes, saws and sanders. They check their work with levels, rules, framing squares and — for bigger structures — surveying equipment. 

They also work in many settings, from massive construction sites to private residences for home improvement projects.

It takes time for carpenters to hone their skills, but for those who put in the effort, it's a worthwhile journey and a rewarding career.

Most carpenters take great pride in their work, and good carpenters are always in demand.

Keep reading to learn how to become one. 

$ 32,000 - $ 81,000
$ 48,000
A female carpenter uses a miter saw to cut a piece of wood in the shop
Carpenters have been shaping wood for centuries, but the tools of the trade have improved. (Credit: antoniodiaz/Shutterstock)

Job Responsibilities

  • Estimate job requirements and order materials
  • Follow blueprints, drawings or sketches
  • Measure, cut and prepare the lumber 
  • Rough work or framing (Putting together the outer frameworks of buildings)
  • Finish work or finishing (Working on interior elements like stairs, doors and windows)
  • Specialty work (Making cabinets and furniture)
  • Inspect work and do necessary repairs
  • Document work and maintain records

How To Become a Carpenter: FAQs 

What steps do I take to become a carpenter?

First, you’ll need to earn a high school diploma or equivalent. During high school, you can also get familiar with construction by working as a laborer on a job site. Laborers prepare, clean and maintain a safe job site. They also assist workers from various trades with their work.

Next, you’ll want to find an apprenticeship. They are typically sponsored by businesses, unions and contractor associations. 

Apprenticeships last three or four years and include supervised, hands-on training to learn skills such as rough framing.

The apprenticeship may include formal classes. If not, consider enrolling in a program at a technical school or community college to earn a certificate or associate degree. Those qualifications may not be required by some employers, but additional training and learning will only improve your future prospects. 

Program coursework will include blueprint reading, building codes, safety, math and techniques for hand tools and power tools. 

All carpenters must pass the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) 10-hour safety course. 

After your apprenticeship is complete, you’ll be considered a journeyman, meaning you are able to work without supervision.

Your formal education could stop there, but your best bet is to keep on growing as a carpenter by learning new skills. There will be many opportunities for continuing education through certifications, which tend to focus on areas of specialization. That could include flooring, cabinetry or general carpentry.

Many organizations offer certifications, including the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI), the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), the Construction Management Association of America (CMAA) and the National Wood Flooring Association. Union membership can be another avenue for getting this type of training. 

The more you learn, the greater the possibility for advancement and supervisory roles.

Becoming a carpenter requires specialized training, but it's worth it. This trade job offers a strong return on your time investment. You’ll be making a solid paycheck far more quickly than you realize.

Are there any other qualifications to consider?

Most states don't require carpenters to be licensed. However, several states require carpenters to register and many put limits on scope of work you can do before you need to get a general contractor license. (The dividing line is typically minor construction vs. major construction.) The rules vary, so check your state and city regulations to be sure.

You’ll need a valid driver’s license to get to job sites. For some apprenticeships you must be 18 years old.

Learning a second language isn’t required, but it can be valuable because a growing number of construction workers in the U.S. are Spanish-language speakers.

How long does it take to become a carpenter?

As mentioned, the most common path to becoming a journeyman carpenter is an apprenticeship, which takes four years of earning while you learn. The timeframe will be similar if you combine hands-on training with a formal program.

What if I want to work for myself?

Many journeymen carpenters start out as contractors and then decide to open their own businesses. (About 29% of carpenters were self-employed in 2021.) Some carpenters alternate between the two options, depending on job availability.

If you decide to run your own business, be sure to take business courses or earn certifications. Insider tip: Listen to popular construction podcasts to stay up-to-date on the latest trends. 

What does a scaffold builder or scaffold carpenter do?

A scaffold builder constructs, assembles, maintains and disassembles scaffolding, the temporary platforms used to safely elevate people or materials at a construction site. The platforms may also support the structure under repair. 

Since ancient times, scaffolds have allowed humans to reach and work in inaccessible places, though the materials used for scaffold or staging have evolved. Scaffold was once made of wood and rope, but now is more likely to be made of steel, aluminum or a composite material paired with wooden platforms. The newer materials provide a more stable, uniform and safe structure. 

A scaffold builder works with tubes (the upright standards and horizontal ledgers), couplers or ties (where the pieces attach to one another) and boards. They use tubes and couplers to create the familiar safety lattice you see on buildings, and they add boards to create a work or storage platform. All scaffold frameworks must be grounded by a stable foundation. 

The scaffold builder follows various techniques to create these solid but temporary structures, which are built to specification.

A scaffold builder must learn and adhere to comprehensive safety guidelines, including American National Standards Institute or ANSI, federal, state and local rules. This obsessive focus on safety is necessary to ensure the health of employees and customers. 

Are carpenters in demand?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts about 91,200 openings for carpenters each year from 2021 to 2031, driven by the need for new homes, nonresidential buildings and general infrastructure improvements

What skills and qualities would make someone a good fit for this job?

Successful carpenters tend to share these traits: 

  • Good communication and listening skills
  • Excellent hand-eye coordination
  • Able to handle heavy materials and tools
  • Solid math skills
  • Safety-conscious
  • Attention to detail
  • Reliable 
  • Good problem-solving skills
  • Able to work independently
  • Business skills, for those who want to open their own business. 
The bottom line:

This is a rewarding career for anyone who likes working with their hands and gains satisfaction from making something useful from raw materials. This job can take you in many directions, including becoming a specialist who works with a bigger team or owning your own business. In fact, one of the features of this line of work is a comfortable balance between independence and teamwork. If this sounds like a good fit for you, check out SkillPointe’s training partners and discover programs offered near you.  

Why Becoming a Carpenter Is Worthwhile

Why Becoming a Carpenter Is Worthwhile

Matthew McVay became a carpenter 17 years ago and hasn’t looked back. “The most surprising thing about the trades is how easy it becomes after you learn the basic concepts,” he said. “One task builds on the concept of the prior task you learn. Everything is comprehensive knowledge.” 

Watch the video or read the article to learn why he thinks becoming a carpenter is so worthwhile.

Ask the Expert

kitchen remodel with white cabinets and kitchen island

Ask the Expert

John and Richard Wood: Owners, American Contracting Services

The brothers' company in Chesapeake, VA, has seen strong growth over the years, so they like to help others make their way up the ladder.

Read more about John and Richard's keys to success.

Carpenter Training in Your Area

School logo for Butler Community College in El Dorado KS

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Construction Technology Certificate C

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Construction Technology, A.A.S.

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Mineral Area College logo

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Mineral Area College
Park Hills (291.6 Miles)
Mineral Area College logo

Construction/Building Technology Certificate

Mineral Area College
Park Hills (291.6 Miles)
Des Moines Area Community College logo

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Des Moines Area Community College
Ankeny (341.0 Miles)
Northeast Community College logo

Building Construction, A.A.S.

Northeast Community College
Norfolk (354.2 Miles)
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