What carpentry skills should woodworkers know?
Beyond possessing basic woodworking knowledge, carpenters should know the most common tasks associated with their chosen profession. We’ve created a list of these skills below for you to reference. These skills will not only serve you as you look for a carpentry career but will help you excel in any position you obtain.
This article is geared not only towards prospective woodworkers interested in pursuing a career in carpentry, but also to anyone looking to turn their pastime into a part-time or full-time job. Woodworking skills will survive well into the future and continue to stay relevant.
Carpentry Skills Foundation
Before we delve into the 14 top carpentry skills you should know as a woodworker, let’s consider some of the basic knowledge you’ll need to store away as a foundation for the rest of your career.
First, you’ll need to know the basic tools carpenters use on a daily basis, alongside those specialized gadgets that give woodworking an element of craftsmanship. You should know how to use a hammer, saw, screwdriver, pliers, rasps, chisels, hand drill, miter box, speed square, tape measurer, and many other tools. Walk down the aisles at your local hardware store and you’ll see a wide selection of the type of machines necessary to succeeding as a carpenter today. You don’t necessarily have to be a professional at all of them but working knowledge will at least get you a place on the job site.
Along with knowing how to use a variety of tools, you’ll also want to study up on the terms and processes found in woodworking. We’re going to discuss quite a few of the skills you need below, which will encompass most of the common processes and terms, but there are always new and different ways of accomplishing the same task. Knowing terms and processes pairs well with understanding how to read blueprints and plans and the ability to manipulate numbers as well as you do 2-by-4s. Add a dash of physical strength, dexterity, and a steady hand and you’ve got a solid foundation upon which to build your woodworking career.
As any carpenter knows, framing your project first paves the way for success. Let’s dive into the top 14 carpentry skills you should know if you plan on becoming a woodworker.
The Top 14 Skills Every Carpenter Should Know
Here is a list of the skills you should learn in order to become a successful carpenter. While it’s not extensive, it’s definitely a great starting point. If you’d like to learn more about carpentry and some of the latest tips and tricks, such as schooling and certifications, scroll down past these skills to find a number of helpful links.
Learning how to measure makes you or breaks you as a carpenter. If you can’t measure and cut a project to the required specifications, there’s not much use for you as a carpenter unfortunately. The ability to measure comes into play in almost every aspect of carpentry, from designing and executing a simple work bench or bird house to planning the layout of a house or office building. Measuring accurately is the framework upon which you must structure the entirety of your carpentry knowledge.
Learning how to measure comes first from understanding a measuring tape. Whether you prefer inches or centimeters, you should know both standard and metric measurements. Knowing how to convert one into the other will prove useful but you can estimate too. For example, 5 centimeters is roughly equal to about 2 inches. To practice measuring, simply pull out your tape measurer and start measuring!
Here’s a tip: if you begin to form an idea of what typical measurements look like, you may even be able to “eyeball” them in cases where you don’t have a tape measurer handy. However, we do recommend you aim for preciseness when it counts. There’s another great tip we can offer about measuring tape as well, one you may not already know. The metal tab on the end of the measuring tape, that’s bent 90 degrees to allow it to catch on edges, is actually loose for a reason. According to MotherEarthNews.com, the tab “pushes in when you measure from the inside of a board and pulls out when you measure from the outside.” While some people may prefer to start at the 1 inch mark rather than this tab, you can rest assured that it is self-correcting.
2. Cutting and Sawing
As a carpenter, if you’re not cutting or sawing, you’re probably not doing much. It’s also important to be safe as you cut. Cutting materials allows you to fabricate all kinds of projects. After that comes assembly.
Most of the cutting you’ll be doing as a carpenter will be done with saws. There are many types of saws, including hacksaws, coping saws, table saws, circular saws, miter saws, scroll saws, band saws, chainsaws, and many more. You can also cut wood using chisels and planes. The type of cutting tool you use depends largely on what’s at-hand and what type of project you’re working on. Detail work requires hand tools like chisels and planes, while framing goes a lot faster if you’ve got a table saw to cut those large pieces of wood.
Learning how to cut and saw comes from experience using the various types of cutting tools available. For example, scroll saws allow for more free-hand type work, while chainsaws require a defter hand. At the same time, if all you’ve got is a table saw, you’re going to have to adapt your technique to get the job done. The best way to familiarize yourself with these tools is to use them, frequently.
Keep in mind that you’ll want to start straight cuts by setting the blade 1/8 of an inch deeper than the board. This will allow the teeth of the blade to dig in and start without grabbing the fibers of the grain and causing damage. Another way to maximize the success of your cuts is to place the blade past the measuring mark you made just slightly. Cutting directly on the line leaves no room for error. And you can also leave yourself room for sanding or any other finishing work if necessary.
3. Hand Tools
Basic carpentry skills encompass the use of a multitude of hand tools. Though power tools help speed up the process and offer a bit more precision when it comes to large-scale projects or mass-produced fabrication designs, hand tools put those finishing touches on and truly make each product something unique. In fact, that’s why hand tools are used across the board when it comes to the carpentry field.
Practicing your use of hand tools is like any other dexterous skill. You’ve got to constantly be using the tools in order to grasp how they work. Beginning your carpentry career with hand tools will help you build an appreciation for early woodworkers and also understand how wood behaves and responds when manipulated. Adding in power tools should come afterwards.
Hand tools include such items as planes, chisels, sandpaper, files, rasps, clamps, hammers, spokeshaves, gouges, mallets, etc. If it requires a hand to operate, it’s a hand tool. Wood carvers typically have a wide selection of hand tools at their disposal so that they can achieve the right results. Always remember, when using hand tools, you’ll want to remove material gradually. You can take more material off, but it’s very difficult to join material back together.
The biggest tip anyone can give a fellow carpenter seems simple but it can make a world of a difference. Never underestimate the power of sharpening your hand tools. You could dive down an endless rabbit hole of possibilities as to why you aren’t getting results but the answer could be right there in front of you: your hand tools are just dull and need a good sharpening.
Joining wood together is the next skill you’ll want to master. There are a number of ways to join wood but the most important aspect of each method lies in how well the joint holds up over time. It’s important to know how to join wood because there are very few projects you’ll be working on that won’t require this skill. Most structures typically must be pieced together via joined wooden components.
Learning how to join wood simply translates to knowing the various processes and what the strengths and weaknesses of each method are. For example, wood glue typically holds up very well once it’s set but it may not always be the perfect solution for the aesthetically-cognizant eye. Similarly, nails and screws may be unsightly for highly-polished, carved furniture that will be sold for large dollar amounts. Joining wood together is as much about the final product as it is the individual pieces that comprise the completed whole.
Joining wood requires wood glue, nails, screws, and/or wood itself. For example, there are quite a few wooden joints you can create using the pieces you need to join together. Mortise and tenon joints are very common, as are dovetail joints. You may have heard of tongue and groove joints as well. These types of joints show off a bit of the carpenter’s skill. However, sometimes nails or screws are all you need to join together your latest creation.
Building one piece of IKEA furniture might introduce you to some common joining methods but check out this video if you want to begin with the basics. Just like tying knots, knowing the types of carpenter’s joints and how to create them takes a little practice and a dash of trial and error to perfect.
5. Painting and Finishing
Painting and finishing are final steps completed in almost every project. Carpenters must know the different ways to paint and finish their projects because overall look is just as important as the viability of the build. Painting and finishing work can be found nearly everywhere, from furniture items and décor to exterior structures.
Learning how to paint and finish comes with exposure to the various methods involved in each process. There are ways to paint effectively and efficiently. For example, many people cut in corners with a brush and pan of paint and then finish off a room by using a roller. However, when it comes to painting carpentry work, staining is a popular alternative to painting. Learning the art of staining takes practice, like anything else.
Finishing work, on the other hand, concerns itself more with the fine details. For example, “you don’t want to have nailheads or round hammerhead marks (carpenters call them donkey tracks) in the wood.” There are many other tips out there when it comes to finishing your projects with a keen eye for detail, whether your project can be held in your hand or encompasses the larger portion of a corner lot.
You may be familiar with “This Old House,” a show dedicated to restoring life back into houses. The types of tasks shown on that program are probably the best examples of what you’ll be doing on a day-to-day basis as a restoration carpenter. So if you like history and wood, pair them together by becoming a restoration carpenter!
Restoration is important to the communities who cherish those historical structures, but more importantly to those families who live in or own those homes. However, restoration isn’t just limited to historical structures. In fact, restoration carpenters often work on restoring homes damaged by natural disasters, too. Wherever there’s a structure in need of restoration, you’ll find a carpenter close by.
To learn more about restoration, tune in to “This Old House.” It’s, as we said, a good example of a day in the life of a restoration carpenter. You’ll learn how to use the many tools restoration requires, which honestly varies from project to project. But one thing to remember about old houses is that they don’t always line up as they should. For that reason, you’ll want to become familiar with shims. Tiny wooden cutouts, they’re often used in doorways and other areas to make up that extra half-inch or two.
Restoration and remodeling go hand-in-hand, though there is a slight difference between the two. When completing restoration work, carpenters typically have to remove some components because of age or disrepair. Remodeling, on the other hand, consists of improving upon the existing conditions, whether or not there’s damage involved.
Remodeling is important because it helps support a variety of industries. For example, houses are remodeled before they are put up for sale. This supports not only the real estate industry, but all those contractors who are paid to improve the house in question. Interior designers and appraisers are involved in the process as well.
Learning how to remodel, like most of the carpentry skills we’ve mentioned, requires lots and lots of practice. Rather than approaching a job with an all-out attitude, the remodeling contractor must work with what’s already in place. That also means knowing building codes and permit procedures. Like in restoration carpentry, remodeling carpenters must know how to use a variety of tools, with each job being different from the last.
Framing a house—or any building—requires a lot of skill. The public may only ever see what’s on the outside but within those walls is a very important structure. Framing is the same thing as a skeleton. It’s the structure upon which the entire building depends to stay upright and solid. Knowing how to frame a building properly is the difference between watching your structure fail before it’s finished and creating a livable space.
Framing is used on small and large structures alike. The frame of a house or building can be simple or intricate, depending on what’s inside. Most framing designs include rectangular shapes that accommodate for doors and windows. Learning how to frame means accounting for these openings and working to create the strongest frame possible. Creating your own frame and testing the strength of that structure is a great way to begin your framing education.
If you want to be a framer, there are a few tools you should invest in. They include a speed square, a framing square, a framing hammer, and a nail puller (also called a cat’s paw), to name a few. As you work more in the field, you’ll get a feel for what other tools you’ll need to pack in your belt.
There’s a lot to be learned about framing online. For example, ConstructionProTips.com offers a handy list detailing many things you’ll want to know. There’s advice on creating a slope sill to help divert water away from windows. You’ll also find tips on how to straighten walls, keep your job site cleaner, and many more.
Those living in hotter climates know the benefits of hardwood flooring. But did you know that there’s a lot of skill required to lay down hardwood floor properly? Many carpenters specialize in flooring, probably because flooring a house is a bit like completing a large jigsaw puzzle. You just have to create the puzzle piece first!
Flooring is important not only within your home but in office buildings and public structures alike. Just like the walls and interior decorations, floors round out the overall look of a space. And because we’re always contacting the floor with our feet, any errors will make their presence well known.
Learning how to floor an area is simple in theory but can be complicated in practice. Most homes these days aren’t typically square in every direction, so you’ll inevitably have to cut sections of flooring into custom sizes and shapes. What’s more, you’ll have to consider the aesthetics of the design before you even lay the first board. The wood color, grain direction, and surfacing will play a large role in the entire process as well.
Most flooring can be done with a chop saw, measuring tape, a pencil, a rubber mallet, and a little creative ability. Floors can be laid down and secured with nails or glue, while some floors may be linked together to float above the sub-flooring. Make sure you know what the sub-floor material is before you plan out what flooring and joining method to use so you can achieve better results and make your clients happier.
You’ll only ever notice the trimming around your house when you move in or out. That is, unless you’re an interior designer. Trimming is important to the interior of a house because it shows a sense of completion and styling and protects the wall and floor joints. The trim is where you’ll see small touches of design and whether or not the carpenter is any good at mitering. Consider the trim around the room you’re currently in. Would it look the same if the trim wasn’t there?
Beyond knowing why houses are trimmed, carpenters should also know how they are trimmed. The first step in learning how to trim is to be able to measure because that’s what’s going to determine whether or not trimming is right for you. We’re going to discuss mitering as the next skill but it’s key to knowing how to trim. The rest is just good old trial and error.
To trim out a door, room, or the entire house, you’ll need a few tools at your disposal. The first is a miter saw. It will help you create the angles you need to create aesthetically-pleasing trim. You’ll also need a pencil, measuring tape, a combination square, and a small file. Making the correct measurements will get you close but sometimes you just need to shave off a hair or two of the grain to get it to match up right.
Depending on what type of trim you choose, you may need to stain or somehow finish it before you install it. The Family Handyman recommends doing this first. You’ll have to be careful during the installation process so you don’t nick or scratch your newly-finished trim.
Take a look at the molding surrounding your doors and flooring around your house. Do you see the corners that match up at a 90-degree angle? Those are created by mitering the 2 boards and joining them together at a diagonal seam. When done right, mitering can increase the sophistication and finish of any room.
Mitering is used in nearly any and every building with a trimmed interior. Structures that have crown molding also use mitering to create seamless transitions from one wall to the adjacent wall. Typically found along the baseboards, mitered trim pieces both protect the foundation and finish off the entire look of the room.
Learning how to miter takes a bit of patience and some critical thinking. You’ll also need a pencil, measuring tape, a miter box, and some trim pieces. Mitering is all about angles, so try out your calculations on a few test blocks before you even pick up the pieces you’ll use for final installation. Stay close to the spot you’re trimming so that you can fit the mitered pieces and adjust measurements accordingly. Some doorways may not be completely square due to settling. So while exact measurements may seem like the right approach, it’s all about final fit and finish.
12. Cabinet Creation
Cabinetry can be found in almost every home. Quality cabinets, however, aren’t as common as you might think. Creating cabinets is a staple carpentry skill not only because the cabinets are made from wood but also because it takes a lot more than just 4 sides and a door to create custom cabinetry.
Knowing how to create cabinets is a skill you’ll use in a number of carpentry jobs. If you’re remodeling a home and need to repair the cabinets already located within, knowing the entire process from start to finish will allow you to repair any existing damage without destroying the history found within the home itself. As you frame a house, you’ll also be able to consult with the construction team to know how and where to place cabinets most effectively.
Learning how to create custom cabinetry begins with understanding how to create a single working cabinet. From there, it’s a bit like stacking bricks of different shapes and sizes. If the home you’re working on has corner cabinets, you’ll also want to learn how to create a Lazy Susan within that corner. Beyond being able to create space within an area, cabinet making is simply about creativity and individualization.
Creating cabinets requires a few simple materials and handy tools. First, you’ll need the wood to create the cabinets themselves. That’s pretty self-explanatory. You’ll also want to invest in nails, a screwdriver, a level, a tape measurer, wood glue, and a saw. Power drills make building cabinets go faster. As you assemble your cabinets, make sure you’re working on a level and smooth surface. You wouldn’t want to mis-measure or scuff up the wood’s veneer.
13. Furniture Fabrication
When people think of a carpenter, wooden tables and chairs are typically the first objects to come to mind. Most carpenters have tried fabricating one or more pieces of furniture. With large retail stores mass producing pre-made, assembly-only furniture pieces, the niche market for furniture carpenters is both lucrative and highly-competitive.
Furniture creation supports the woodworking industry as a whole due to the techniques and skills required to produce a piece of furniture, no matter how big or small it might be. Assembling a table is much more than slapping 4 pieces of wood beneath a flat slab and calling it finished. Furniture requires putting the entirety of your carpentry knowledge into play to create something memorable and useful. Craftsman worldwide still create individualized pieces of furniture from wood.
Learning how to create furniture can be tough for some. The best way to begin is to pick a small project you can tackle fairly easily. After you’ve completed assembly of the piece, take some time to carve it or somehow customize it to your liking. Furniture is as much about how it looks as it is how functional the piece is.
There are a number of tools you’ll need to create furniture. Each project has its own list of necessary hand tools, power tools, and/or other various implements. For example, you may need a hammer, nails, chisels, a hacksaw and/or a power saw, and/or spoke shaves. Finishing your project is key, especially when it comes to furniture. Stains can be used to bring out the wood grain and accentuate unique characteristics. Don’t forget to leave your personalized mark on each piece you create.
There are quite a few ways you can succeed as a carpenter via specialized work. For example, a select number of carvers have made their mark shaping pencil lead into the tiniest of sculptures. Specialized carpentry work can be hard to succeed in at first but it can be lucrative.
Specialized carpentry skills are still important today because of the element of craftsmanship they require. Though these skills are not widespread, they do bring prestige and respect to an age-old custom. There are plenty of woodworkers out there who shape wood in ways only they know how.
Learning specialized woodworking skills isn’t necessarily easy, considering most of the techniques involved are highly personalized. You may be able to mimic some of the works created by others but really specialized woodworking skills are those you develop as an individual craftsman. At the same time, you can practice these skills you develop to perfect them for your audience and potential customers. Cultivating your woodworking skills across the board draws you closer to your specialty.
In order to find your specialized carpenter’s skills, try out the various types of carpentry out there and weed out the areas you don’t like. Find where your strengths lie and what tasks excite you. There will always be better carpenters than you in a number of areas but if you can find the one in which you excel, you may become the leading expert and inspire generations after you to pursue their woodworking interests as well.
Carpentry Schooling and Certifications
Though carpentry is still very much alive and thriving, there aren’t many schools that offer a true carpentry program and/or certification. If you’re looking for a list of carpentry schools, check out OnlineSchoolsCenter.com. You’ll find similar results on Trade-Schools.net. There are programs geared specifically towards women that teach basic carpentry skills as well. You may have to travel a bit from where you’re located but there are programs and degrees out there for carpenters.
Then again there are quite a few resources available online as well. For example, Alison.com offers online carpentry classes, most of which are free and only require a Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, Microsoft, or Yahoo account to log in. Alternatively, you can also sign up directly on Alison to begin studying.
Now that you know a bit more about what skills carpenters should have, are you interested in a possible career in carpentry? There are a variety of online quizzes you can take to see if carpentry would be a good career fit for you. There are even some that test your knowledge of terms and skills, along with a few math problems thrown in. Think you’ve got a pretty solid foundation already? Test it with these 50 questions that may stump even the savviest of woodworkers.
Another great way to investigate carpentry as a career is to read about a day in the life of a real-world carpenter—or better yet, meet one! We suggest offering to help out around the wood shop before you start peppering them with questions. If you’re lucky enough, they may even offer to share their knowledge.
Non-Technical Skills Carpenters Should Possess
Having the technical knowledge and skills to succeed at a job doesn’t translate directly into success. There are a variety of interpersonal skills necessary to succeeding as a carpenter.
Below you’ll find a list of some of the soft skills you may want to develop during your apprenticeship and into your career. You may find the need to draw upon them at crucial moments. Where do your strengths and weaknesses lie?
- Conflict Resolution
- Personal Safety
- Time Management
- Project Management
- Quality Control
- Knowledge of building codes and permit processes
- Certification procedures
Carpentry isn’t just about locking yourself in a wood shop all day and covering everything around you in sawdust. You will encounter some stressful situations. However, you’ll treasure those moments in which you learn something new.
Extra: Carpentry Tips From the Pros
We’ve gathered a few tips you may want to store away for later use:
- The Family Handy Man recommends sticking a few pieces of masking tape to the side of your tape measurer. That way you won’t have to worry about forgetting the numbers—or having them rub off your hand in the process.
- While we stressed the importance of measuring twice and then cutting once, sometimes it’s a better idea to use the piece you’re working with as a measuring tool than your tape measurer. For instance, if you can mark where you need to cut just by lining the piece up, it makes it a lot easier than finding the halfway spot between hash marks on your measuring tape.
- It’s obvious that a carpenter should have a deep understanding of wood, no matter what their trade is in the industry. Beyond being able to identify different types of wood, carpenters should also know how various woods react to different situations. This knowledge will come in especially handy when fabricating buildings and larger wooden structures.
- Nothing beats hands-on experience when it comes to carpentry. However, you should spend as much time watching others do carpentry work as you do in your own workshop. Read books and publications on carpentry to gain knowledge from experts in the field. Watch shows to see how other carpenters tackle a job and who knows? You may end up learning a new technique that could make you a better carpenter.
There’s still a lot you can learn about becoming a carpenter, even in an age of 3D printing. The element of customization and craftsmanship involved in carpentry cannot be so easily reproduced by artificial intelligence.
Carpentry, like most hands-on careers, requires as sharp a mind as the blade of any saw. Book smarts structure a solid foundation but there’s no replacement for facing a real-world task. If you want to become a carpenter, strap on that tool belt and get out there! Soak up as much knowledge as you can, practice personal safety at all times, but most of all, enjoy yourself. That’s what will drive you further and push you to not only succeed as a carpenter but become a better craftsman in the process.
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