Carpenter Salary: How to Become a Carpenter

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Name: Justin Katz
Job Title: Carpenter
Where: Newport, RI
Employer: David E. Michael, Distinctive Homes
Years of Experience: 3
Education: BA in English, University of Rhode Island
Salary: See the PayScale Research Center for the median carpenter salary.

Carpenter Salary: How to Become a Carpenter

Carpentry is one of those archaic professions that seems to be outsource-proof and recession-proof. Becoming a carpenter can require an investment not only in tools, but also in developing woodworking, mathematical, and organizational skills. In this Salary Story, we spoke to career carpenter Justin Katz who explained the factors that can affect a carpenter salary, different aspects of carpenter jobs, and helpful information on how to become a carpenter.

For readers interested in how to apply for carpenter jobs, the training qualifications of a carpenter, growth potential for carpenter jobs, and how to earn a higher carpenter salary, this interview provides a sturdy foundation. Keep reading to find out how to become a carpenter and why carpentry can be rewarding work.

Carpenter Job Description:

I work as a carpenter (sometimes a lead carpenter/foreman) for a high-end home renovation and construction company, with some additional weekend work on my own. In part because of the market that we serve, more of my experience has been with the finish phase, although I find it more enjoyable and rewarding to do all work from demolition, through framing, to finish.

We do building and remodeling work, and all that's entailed. From a carpentry standpoint, our work mostly encompasses the "wood-related" aspects of the job (including, more and more, materials that are used in place of wood for given applications): framing (from sill plates to rafters), door and window installation, floors, siding, all aspects of finish trim (from baseboard to crown), and anything else that clients wish to have done, whether it's rehabilitation of 100-year-old rotted porch columns or intricate shelving systems blended with masonry in a wine cellar.

I've been fortunate, in my view, that my company is small enough that there aren't distinct crews for each phase of a project, with the framing crew hopping in after demolition and the finish crew hopping in after framing.

Can you describe your path in becoming a career carpenter?

Having been working as an editor and graphic designer for a few years after receiving my bachelor's degree in English, I observed that my brothers-in-law were doing much better, with better prospects for growth, working in construction trades. 

Fortunately (as it turns out), I was unable to catch a quick ride on an apprenticeship program for electrical or plumbing work, but a local friend whom I met through my political writing set me on the path to carpentry.

Can you recall any humorous moments during your carpentry jobs?

As a writer, I find the most humorous, and generally interesting, aspect of my carpentry work to be the characters that I meet. Two notables are the loopy ex-druggie with a habit of declaring at inappropriate times, and to inappropriate people, that nobody was going to catch his hepatitis C and the bombastic foreman who oversold himself and rapidly convinced everybody that he was speaking ironically about himself when he strolled around shouting his tagline: "Nothing but professionals here!"

How do you find carpentry jobs?

There isn't anything unique about finding carpentry work. Word of mouth is often used and is particularly helpful at the very early stages in a carpentry career, perhaps because employers run through a large number of, well, unsatisfactory applicants, at that level. 

Because construction is a location-specific industry, for the most part, local newspaper ads are still an effective means to find work. Carpenters who choose to subcontract themselves tend to find work more via word-of-mouth, as do self-contained contracting carpenters, although they'll often advertise directly for potential clients.

Any advice on how to become a carpenter?

Jump in. No matter what task you are given, it is possible to learn something that will help you later; make a point of always finding that something. Don't be afraid to jump into something new (but also don't be afraid to ask for help). And make as much investment in tools as you're able to afford until you personally own everything (except very expensive specialty items) that a contractor might need through the course of a project.

Finally, as with any job, you should keep an eye on the market rate for the work that you do, and make a point, in a professional manner, of explaining to your employer why you are worth what you think you are worth. In the non-union world, carpentry is an extremely merit-based career.

What is the outlook for carpenter jobs in the United States?

The outlook for carpenters, and construction workers in general, varies by region, but there's always work for those who look, especially in old, densely populated areas of the country, such as Rhode Island. The greatest promise of the trade is the degree to which it is merit based. A good and professional carpenter ought never to be without employment.

What factors can affect a carpenter salary?

In my experience, the greatest variation in salary (for non-union workers, mind you) derives from qualities of the individual carpenter: how much he knows, how well he performs in his work, and how many tools he owns.

It is possible to make more working for one's self than for somebody else, but the job changes significantly from carpentry to management, and I know several carpenters who went back to working for contractors because dealing with clients, employees, and subcontractors made independent work not worth the effort.

But, that speaks to the greatest advantage of the trade for the ambitious carpenter: there are many directions in which to head, depending on personal preferences and needs, from custom cabinet maker to contractor to fine woodworker to project manager for a large construction company, perhaps even to architect or structural engineer. It's a holistic job, carpentry. The trick is to aim for the right blend of labor of the mind and labor of the body and keep an eye on that goal.

How does your salary compare to a carpenter salary? The PayScale Salary Calculator is a quick and easy way to compare positions. But when you want powerful salary data and comparisons customized for your exact position, be sure to build a complete profile by taking PayScale's full salary survey. 

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