Carpenters and joiners work with wood on building projects or in workshops. Most learn their trade through on the job training, gaining skills by working alongside and under the supervision of more experienced practitioners. Others learn through formal training programmes, vocational education or employer training and apprenticeships.
Most carpentry work is connected with the construction industry in some respect. Carpenters cut, fit, and assemble wood and other materials for the construction of buildings, roads, bridges, docks, industrial plants, boats, and many other structures.
Carpenters usually work in the workshop, creating parts such as staircases, doors, roof trusses, etc, and on site, fitting such parts into the building projects. These are known respectively as bench joiners and fixers. In addition, there are various areas of specialism, such as shopfitters, who specialise in producing and fitting shop fronts and interiors, and formwork joiners, who produce moulds for concrete structures, such as pillars for concrete buildings, suspended floors and staircases.
Many carpenters are self-employed and work as sub-contractors. This means some can specialise in areas such restoring old buildings, furniture making or restoration.
Day-to-day activities for a career as a carpenter
Carpenters' duties vary according to the type of contractor employing them. Construction companies hire specialist trade contractors who hire carpenters who specialise in one or two activities. These activities may be:
- Setting forms for concrete construction.
- Doing finishing work, such as installing interior and exterior trim.
A carpenter directly employed by a general building contractor on smaller projects will perform a wider variety of tasks. These may include:
- Framing walls and partitions.
- Putting in doors and windows.
- Building stairs.
- Laying hardwood floors.
- Hanging kitchen cabinets.
- Adding fittings and extensions in existing houses.
- General building maintenance and repair, etc.
Workshop-based carpenters, who are frequently self-employed, may be involved in tasks such as:
- Making prefabricated parts such as doors, staircases, roof timbers and skirting boards.
- Preparing timber using specialist equipment.
Working on-site, self-employed carpenters (fixers) may complete tasks such as:
- Fitting floorboards, staircases and window frames.
- Installing skirting boards, door surrounds, doors and shelving.
- Fitting door handles and locks.
- Repairing broken furniture, etc.
Shopfitters may complete bench joinery in the workshop before installing the pieces in hotels, restaurants, banks, offices and public buildings.
Formwork joiners create the temporary shuttering to make the concrete formwork on the construction site.
Would a carpenter career suit you?
Carpenters and joiners need to be skilled with manual tasks, have a high degree of accuracy, plus a conscientious approach to their work, and the ability to follow tight specifications.
Carpenters working for sub-contractors must be flexible and skilled enough to complete all aspects of a job. The willingness to spend months or years training is therefore an advantage, as it means work will never be short. Yet work can be seasonal and unpredictable, particularly in winter.
On construction sites, the number of daylight hours affects the length of the working day. Early starts are common, as are essential evening and weekend working. Travel to different sites is an unavoidable aspect of the work.
There are clearly physical demands. Inhalation of wood dust is a side-effect of working in enclosed spaces with machinery. The work is strenuous and a lot of time is spent standing, kneeling, bending or crouching. On site, carpenters may need to climb ladders, work in confined spaces, or work on scaffolding. There is quite a high risk of injury from machinery or on-site hazards.
Salary and prospects for a career as a carpenter
Standard salaries are not high. However, the wider your range of skills and the more flexibility you can offer, the better your chances are of maximising earning potential. By forming strong relations with sub-contractors and utilising sound business and marketing skills, the self-employed carpenter with their own workshop can raise remuneration levels by taking on employees.
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