What is the best way to become a carpenter?
There are carpenters of legends and myths such as the one that came out of nowhere and built the stairway without any visible supports at the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fee, NM.
Carpenters were the builders that did it all, from laying the foundation, to erecting the structure, building and installing the doors, windows, trim and other features of a home. They did it all. Over the years some carpenters specialized; lathers, dry-wallers, trimmers, siders, roofers, window installers and many more.
This is a tough subject. Anyone can swing a hammer or cut a board. There are a lot of people in specialty trades that call themselves carpenters (that aren’t). A carpenter needs to learn all trades and know how they affect each other. A carpenter needs to have pride in their work and not just hack something together to get it done. They must understand blueprints, engineering, aesthetics, detail, hard work, common sense, pre-planning, scheduling, material take-offs, efficiency, willing to learn tricks of the trades, etc. Find a mentor that knows all of this and listen and learn what they tell you. This a rare breed that you won’t find in a classroom. It has to be hands on and field taught. It takes many years to gain this kind of experience. The best way to start is to start as a laborer and observe all the different trades and ask many questions. Be willing to dive in and try something new and learn by your mistakes. Never stop learning.
A question I receive quite often is “how do I become a carpenter and tiny house builder?” I can answer this because I’ve done it, and I know a lot of people that have become carpenters and fewer still that have become builders and far fewer still that have become tiny house builders.. And this is a great time to become a carpenter and not so great a time of time to be a builder or tiny house builder. The economy seems to be rebounding, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicting a 24% increase in the demand for carpenters between now and 2022, and the contractors I know moaning that they can’t find good help.
Unlike many careers, there is no one, obvious path for someone starting from scratch. The more knowledge you can bring to the table, the better. Having gone to trade school can be a big leg up, but most residential carpenters learn the job by starting out as a laborer or carpenter’s helper for a small builder. Knowledge aside, in my own experience and through conversations I’ve had with contractors, the single most important attribute for an entry-level carpenter is attitude. Skills can be learned. A bad attitude is a permanent flaw. Attitude can overcome inexperience. Attitude can overcome prejudices.
Here’s advice I wish I’d gotten 40 years ago when I was first looking to become a carpenter. While want ads in the newspaper and on Craigslist can lead to work, the kind of employer they help you find is random. Hire on with the wrong company, and you can waste a lot of time learning little, or worse, learning bad methods that you don’t have the experience to vet. Or you can find yourself working for a company that has poor track record for paying their people if at all. You may also find yourself working as a subcontractor without insurance and not getting paid either. I have been there and it is not a fun way to earn a living. I remember working for months and always gettinga dribble or a promise and never to see all of it. Finally, I learned to that it is better to walk that wait for a promise that means nothing to some. I am not saying all companies are like this, but there are enough to be forewarned about them. Check their track record and talk to former employees and do not be afraid to ask for references.
Be selective. Many of the better construction companies don’t advertise for help, doing their hiring through word of mouth. If you have any contacts in the trades, use them if only to inquire about who might be good to work for. Look at the construction companies in your area and figure out which ones do work that interests you, and where you think you might fit in. A company’s website may provide insight.
Call the companies that seem likely, speak to the boss, and try to set up an appointment to meet him or her in person. It can take hutzpah to get your foot in the door, but showing drive and initiative also makes a good first impression. Show up on time, dressed neatly but appropriately for the job, with a fresh haircut and your phone turned off. Let me repeat that – with your phone turned off. Offer your hand, and be polite. Be honest about your skills. Say that you are willing to work in the heat and the cold, in the rain and the snow, that you don’t mind sweeping up or schlepping lumber, and that you sincerely want an opportunity to learn the trade. At the end of the interview, say thank you and shake hands again. If you felt good about the company, even if they aren’t hiring right now, follow up with a phone call or email (properly punctuated and capitalized) in a couple of days. People with polite, professional, attitudes stand out, as much as I hate to say this, especially in construction.
When you get that job, show up on time, neatly dressed, with your tools, and with your lunch so you don’t have to leave the site midday. Turn your phone off, bust your keester, don’t whine, and soak up every bit of knowledge you can. And, as I have for 40 years, always keep learning and reading about codes and improvements in construction. When you’ve learned all you can from that job, don’t hesitate to move on to a more challenging employer, but without burning bridges if that’s possible. That’s most of what it takes to be a carpenter.
To be a tiny house builder requires more than a book, a power impact drill, and a tape measure. It requires a working knowledge of how all of the facets of a tiny house that make a tiny house. You need to know that a carpenter can make it easy on the trimmer, drywall installer, plumber, electrician, and all the other trades. If you decide to do all of the trades yourself, a trade school should be a requirement so you can do it all. Otherwise, hire the pros that took the time to learn their trade and the codes they have to meet.
I asked Jay Shafer what he considered to be the best piece of advice he could offer for a tiny house builder. He replied, “Keep it simple” I thought about that and decided I wanted to think outside the box and use my knowledge of 40+ years of building custom homes for tiny houses. One could say, that I am the old guy, or the gray beard of tiny houses, or the old school carpenter that is a tiny house builder.