How to become a carpenter

Everything you should know if you’re interested in a career in carpentry. 

So you’ve never been able to ignore that door that’s not closing the way you want. Or maybe you’ve always preferred the blueprint in your head to the coffee tables you find at IKEA. If you’ve labeled these tendencies as mere hobbies, you have reason to think again. Carpentry training bypasses the 4-year degree (and in turn, student debt) and involves technical school, community college, a registered apprenticeship program, or an industry training program.

 

The expected rate of growth for demand in carpentry is 8.2% between 2016 and 2026, and they earn anywhere from $31,200 to $87,410 according to 2020 information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Interested in making a lucrative career out of a lifelong love of home improvement projects? Read on for what your timeline could look like.

Carpenter sawing wood with power tool
Apprentice
0-3 Years experience
Base: $37,500; Additional: $17,600
Journeyman
3-6 Years Experience
Base: $54,100; Additional: $18,150
Foreman
5-6+ Years Experience
$75K+ start with pay increasing steadily with management experience
Master Carpenter or Carpenter V
10-15+ Years Experience
Starting pay close to 6 figures!

Day 0: Discovery Checklist

As you’re thinking about a career in carpentry, consider the following personality traits and skills. Do these sound like you?

Personality Traits: 

☑You don’t like sitting for too long

☑You’re attentive to details (you’re known to make lists and double-check your work) 

☑Your favorite school subject is/was math

☑You love that feeling of cracking problems creatively

Carpentry skills:

☑Using tools and machines to repair, create, and build

☑Calculating costs for materials and projects

☑Measuring and calculating to complete projects professionally

☑Designing and planning

☑Managing time for projects and planning

☑Reading blueprints

☑Producing projects that abide by building codes

☑Solving problems as they arise

Year 1-3: Carpentry Apprenticeship

As an apprentice, you are still a novice. While you might have some experience and understanding of the projects at hand, you are in need of guidance and supervision. Your job is to learn in real time while supporting the journeyman. At this stage, your pay is around $26.41 an hour in Grand Rapids, Michigan. According to Terpstra, the time you spend at this stage depends on personal motivation and determination to move up the ladder.

Year 3: Journeyman Carpenter

By year 3, you’ve moved up to journeyman. “A journeyman is somebody who has been doing the trade long enough to have…a full understanding of what [they] need to do…when they’re assigned a task,” says Terpstra. At this stage, you require less direction to get the project done. During this stage, Terpstra emphasizes the importance of being open to learning opportunities. “I was always trying to find something to do that I didn’t know…to try to learn because one, it helps me outside of work [and] two…it also makes me more valuable,” he says. As a journeyman, you earn around $34.73 an hour in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

After a few successful years as a  journeyman you could have not one, but two career paths open for growth! 

For those that are interested in becoming an expert in managing people: Foreman. 

For those that are interested in developing the highest level of expertise in their craft: Master Carpenter

Year 5+ Foreman

By year 5, you have moved into a position with managerial responsibilities. Terpstra states that both the apprentice and the journeyman will “show up in the morning and wait for their instructions” from the foreman. The foreman takes on the role of the leader on site who coordinates carpentry projects, gathers, construction materials, and procures equipment for projects,” as well as supervising the training of other carpenters. 

 

When it comes to compensation, new Foremen often have very similar salaries to journeymen carpenters with the same amount of work experience. You won’t experience the type of jump in pay you see after graduating from an apprenticeship. However, becoming a foreman is typically a needed step in the career pathway to upper construction leadership such as superintendent or even being a member of the C-suite!

Year 10-15: Master Carpenter or Carpenter V

According to Indeed, you might call yourself a master carpenter after 10-15 years of experience in the industry. At this stage, it is assumed that you have received plenty of carpentry training and show competency in tackling any carpentry tasks thrown your way. It might be that by this stage, you have an area of specialty or a set of skills that you’ve worked hard to develop within the profession. At the top of your craft, you could be earning close to 6 figures!

Award Winning Commercial Carpentry

One of the best ways to learn about the ins-and-outs of commercial carpentry is by seeing the finished product. The following projects were Excellence in Construction Award nominees or winners from top West Michigan Construction Companies: Rockford Construction, Ritsema Associates and Phoenix Interiors. Tap each image to learn more!

Michigan State Police Headquarters - Ritsema Associates

Harbor Grand Hotel - Rockford Construction

Mars Hill Church - Phoenix Interiors

In summary, now is one of the best times to explore a carpentry career.

  • It’s a job that is in high demand with hundreds of thousands of employers looking for top talent across the country (32K just in Michigan!)
  • The work is never the same. You’ll find new experiences working on a wide variety of projects. 
  • Your work skills carry over into your personal life. You’re able to fix things around the house, build new furniture, or even start a side hustle.
  • The more you grow, the more freedom you’ll earn to choose your path. Will you be a leader of people as strong foreman managing job sites or will you be a renowned craftsperson as a master of your trade?

 

If your skills align with that of a carpenter’s, you’ve got an exciting road ahead of you.  Make no mistake, carpentry is hard work. But as Terpstra notes, any physical tiredness is nothing compared to the sense of pride you get when you look back and see the amazing, city-defining structures you’ve created with your own hands.  

 

If you’re interested in finding out more about becoming a carpenter in Michigan, you can check out local carpentry training options or connect with trade schools like WMCI to ask any specific questions. 

After college, Shawn built homes in Chicago, became a superintendent in Michigan, worked for the third largest home builder in the United States (Pulte Homes), moved into construct