Education and Training Requirements

High School

A high school education is not mandatory for a good job as a carpenter, but most contractors and developers prefer applicants with a diploma or a GED. A good high school background for prospective carpenters would include carpentry and woodworking courses as well as other shop classes, applied mathematics, mechanical drawing, and blueprint reading.

Postsecondary Training

As an aspiring carpenter, you can acquire the skills of your trade through both formal training programs and through informal on-the-job training. Of the different ways to learn, an apprenticeship is considered the best, as it provides a more thorough and complete foundation for a career as a carpenter than do other kinds of training. The United Brotherhood of Carpenters union has contracted with the U.S. Department of Labor to sponsor a carpenters apprenticeship program through the department's Job Corps program for at-risk men and women ages 16 to 24. The limited number of available apprenticeships for all age groups and at income levels, however, means that not all prospective carpenters can learn the trade this way.

You can pick up skills informally on the job while you work as a carpenter's helper—and many carpenters enter the field this way. You will begin with little or no training and gradually learn as you work under the supervision of experienced carpenters. The skills that you will develop as a helper will depend on the jobs that your employers contract to do. Working for a small contracting company, a beginner may learn about relatively few kinds of carpentry tasks. On the other hand, a large contracting company may offer a wider variety of learning opportunities. Becoming a skilled carpenter by this method can take much longer than an apprenticeship, and the completeness of the training varies. While some individuals are waiting for an apprenticeship to become available they may work as helpers to gain experience in the field.

Some people first learn about carpentry while serving in the military. Others learn skills in vocational educational programs offered in trade schools and through correspondence courses. Vocational programs can be very good, especially as a supplement to other practical training. But without additional hands-on instruction, vocational school graduates may not be adequately prepared to get many jobs in the field because some programs do not provide sufficient opportunity for students to practice and perfect their carpentry skills.

Apprenticeships, which will provide you with the most comprehensive training available, usually last four years. They are administered by employer groups and by local chapters of labor unions that organize carpenters. Applicants must meet the specific requirements of local apprenticeship committees. Typically, you must be at least 17 years old, have a high school diploma, and be able to show that you have some aptitude for carpentry.

Apprenticeships combine on-the-job work experience with classroom instruction in a planned, systematic program. Initially, you will work at such simple tasks as building concrete forms, doing rough framing, and nailing subflooring. Toward the end of your training, you may work on finishing trimwork, fitting hardware, hanging doors, and building stairs. In the course of this experience, you will become familiar with the tools, materials, techniques, and equipment of the trade, and you will learn how to do layout, framing, finishing, and other basic carpentry jobs.

The work experience segment of an apprenticeship is supplemented by about 144 hours of classroom instruction per year. Some of this instruction concerns the correct use and maintenance of tools, safety practices, first aid, building code requirements, and the properties of different construction materials. Other subjects you will study include the principles of layout, blueprint reading, shop mathematics, and sketching. Both on the job and in the classroom, you will learn how to work effectively with members of other skilled building trades.

Certification, Licensing, and Special Requirements

Certification or Licensing

The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (UBC), the national union for the industry, offers training courses that lead to certificates of completion and journeyman's certification in a variety of specialty skills. These courses teach the ins and outs of advanced skills—like scaffold construction—that help to ensure worker safety, while at the same time giving workers ways to enhance their abilities and so qualify for better jobs. Some job sites require all workers to undergo training in safety techniques and guidelines specified by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Workers who have not passed these courses are considered ineligible for jobs at these sites.

Experience, Skills, and Personality Traits

An apprenticeship, if available, is probably the best way to gain experience since it assures that you will be able to practice all the skills necessary for a well-rounded carpenter. For example, making accurate measurements requires you to be detail oriented and good at math. Using hand tools means you must have eye-hand coordination and manual dexterity. Lifting heavy tools and materials requires physical strength.  Making adjustments to assure that a door is hung properly requires problem-solving skills. Lifting tools and wood while standing, climbing, bending or kneeling for long periods requires stamina. Employers want carpenters who are dependable, cooperative, independent, analytical thinkers, who work well both as individuals and as part of a team.