Carpentry Work

SIC 1751

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This category includes special trade contractors primarily engaged in carpentry work. Establishments primarily engaged in building and installing cabinets at the job site are classified in this industry. Establishments primarily engaged in building custom cabinets for individuals in a shop are classified in SIC 5712: Furniture Stores. Carpentry work performed by general contractors engaged in building construction is classified in SIC 1500: General Building Contractors.

Industry Snapshot

Carpentry is the work of cutting and joining timber to create frames for housing and items such as doors, windows, cabinets, and staircases. Work in this industry includes cabinet work performed at the construction site, carpentry work, folding door installation, framing, garage door installation, ship joinery, store fixture installation, trim and finish, and prefabricated window and door installation. It is a very strenuous occupation due to long periods of standing, climbing, bending, and kneeling.

Carpenters rely heavily on the health of the economy and especially the success of the housing industry, because their work consists mainly of building or renovating residential structures. The housing industry can be positively or negatively affected by factors such as interest rate fluctuations and availability of mortgage funds.

Carpenters made up one of the largest building trade groups in the United States and held approximately 1.3 million jobs in the late 2000s. Of the total number of carpenters, 32 percent were self-employed and 22 percent were employed by specialty trade contractors. Others worked in such sectors as manufacturing, government, and retail. In 2009, about 19 percent of U.S. carpenters belonged to a union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Organization and Structure

In 2010, more than 520,000 carpenters belonged to the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners (UBC), a labor organization located in Washington, D.C., that is actively involved in the construction industry. The union supports building contractors who work with union carpenters. The union also studies health and safety aspects of carpentry work, which has the highest serious injuries rate in the United States. The union studies the ergonomics of carpentry in hopes of reducing workplace accidents by developing preventive on-the-job techniques.

The union, in conjunction with contractor trade associations, also provides training and apprenticeship programs. As carpentry work becomes more specialized and involves potentially dangerous materials such as asbestos removal, formal training becomes increasingly necessary.

Other groups primarily interested in carpentry are the Associated Builders and Contractors, of Arlington, Virginia; the Associated General Contractors of America, Inc., also in Arlington, Virginia; and the National Association of Home Builders, headquartered in Washington, D.C.

The construction industry can be divided into three major contract divisions: general building contractors, heavy construction contractors, and special trade contractors (including carpenters). General building contractors build residential, industrial, and commercial buildings, while heavy construction contractors build structures such as roads, highways, and bridges. Special trade contractors usually focus on one trade and work under the direction of general contractors, architects, or property owners. Beyond completing their work to specification, special trade contractors have no responsibility for building the structure in its entirety.

Background and Development

When both commercial and residential buildings were made primarily from timber, the carpenter was the critical element needed for construction. Over time, the scope of the carpenter's work changed. As the materials for commercial buildings switched to primarily concrete and steel, the demand for carpenters shifted to the framework for houses and commercial structures and to residential remodeling. A carpenter's work also extended to interior jobs, requiring some of the skills of a joiner. These skills included making door frames, cabinets, countertops, and assorted molding and trim.

The standard tools used by a carpenter have been hammers, pliers, screwdrivers, awls, planes (handheld blades), crosscut saws, rip saws, dovetail saws, and levels, in addition to an assortment of power tools. Lightweight cordless pneumatic and combustion tools, such as nailers and drills, and sanders with electric speed controls are being used increasingly. These help carpenters to work more efficiently and quickly; they also reduce fatigue. Carpenters have used wood as a building material for centuries; however, as the world's supply of wood continued to shrink, alternative building materials, such as partial-wood products, were developed and used in residential construction.

For carpenters who work predominately in residential construction, the state of the housing industry is critical. The recession of the early 1990s hit the housing market particularly hard. With weak employment trends, potential buyers postponed purchasing new homes. The housing market's recovery was stalled by a lingering and severe credit crunch, an unanticipated rise in lumber costs, and low consumer confidence levels. Fueled by lower interest rates, the housing industry began a slow but steady rebound in 1994. Although the pace of economic growth stalled during the first quarter of 1994, a surge in housing sales at the end of 1993 forecasted a strong performance for 1994. In 1993, the construction of 100,000 new single-family homes generated more than 200,000 construction jobs and $4.4 billion in wages, according to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB).

Carpenters work closely with, and are greatly affected by, the remodeling industry. Once thought to be recession-proof, the residential repair and remodeling (R&R) market declined by 8.7 percent during 1991. Spending for additions and alterations dropped the most, by 17 percent. Despite this fall, the remodeling sector continued to provide carpenters with steady work. Remodeling totaled approximately $113.5 billion in 1993.

Impact of the High Cost of Lumber.
Despite the increased number of jobs available for carpenters in the mid-1990s, the construction and housing industry continued to be burdened by the high cost of lumber. When logging stopped in the national forests of the Pacific Northwest, a lumber shortage ensued. Homebuilders and remodelers have been the primary users of lumber, accounting for nearly 65 percent of all framing timber. After hovering at just over $200 per 1,000-board-feet throughout the 1980s, the price of framing lumber rose and dropped sporadically during the early 1990s, according to NAHB. The price increase was blamed on the cessation of virtually all logging in the national forests of the Pacific Northwest. Logging was halted by court order, as environmental organizations fought to protect the habitat of the northern spotted owl, a threatened species in Washington, Oregon, and northern California. A near-instantaneous shortage of lumber from national forestland, one of three major sources of timber, caused a 74 percent price increase between October 1992 and 1994. This price increase added between $4,000 and $5,000 to the cost of building a typical 2,000-square-foot home, according to NAHB.

Impact of Labor Union Activity.
In an effort to get contractors to use union workers, labor groups subsidized organized labor by using a tactic called "job targeting." Although some contractors aggressively opposed job targeting, smaller operators welcomed the arrangement because it allowed them to gain market share by underbidding their nonunion contractor. By 1992, more than 500 local unions nationwide had begun to implement this practice. Basically, when a construction job came up for bid, a local union would "target" a contractor and offer to make a payment. This allowed the union contractor to come in with a lower bid than a nonunion competitor. Targeting was originally intended to stem the flow of jobs to nonunion workers.

Health and Safety Issues.
Health and safety concerns continued to be a major issue both to carpenters and the contractors who employ them. Because more than half of all worker's compensation dollars had been used for the treatment of musculoskeletal injuries, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters launched a pilot program to address the ergonomics of carpentry by exploring how job-related tasks impact the worker and provide preventive training at the apprenticeship level. In this program, an ergonomist and a health and safety team studied carpenters at job sites to better understand the contributing factors to the most prevalent injuries. The team also compared worker's compensation data from state and area health and welfare funds.

The union also began to study carpentry in relation to health implications for its workers. Carpenters die an average of six years sooner than other Americans, and also have a 150 times greater chance of dying from mesothelioma, an asbestos-related disease. Cancer deaths for carpenters have been 50 percent higher than the general population, while deaths from emphysema, bronchitis, and asthma have been three times higher. Based on its findings, the union worked to educate its members at both the apprentice and journeymen (trained union workers) level. Special attention was given to work involving asbestos, lead, and hazardous wastes.

Effects of the Housing Industry.
In the early 2000s, the carpentry industry was sustained by strong growth in new housing starts, spurred on by extremely low interest rates despite an overall weak economy. The boom in the housing industry pushed new housing starts up to 1.6 million in 2003, 1.9 million in 2004, and over 2 million in 2005. Home maintenance and repair were also in high demand. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, home maintenance and repair expenditures were estimated at $198.6 billion in 2004. Home improvements represented 74 percent of that total. A 2004 National Association of Home Builders survey of 500 remodeling contractors showed that major additions and home alterations were so much in demand that some could hardly keep up. In fact, some survey participants were as much as three months behind.

High figures for housing starts continued into 2006, dropping only slightly to 1.8 million. However, in 2007, the housing market started on a downward spiral in reaction to the subprime mortgage crisis. According to the National Association of Home Builders, there were more foreclosures in 2007 than housing starts--foreclosure filings jumped 75 percent to 2.2. million, and housing starts dropped a half million to 1.3 million. By 2008, housing starts had dipped below 1 million for the first time in decades.

Other Trends.
While consumers traditionally turned to telephone books to locate business services for their various needs, the Internet had become a primary tool by the early 2000s. For carpenters, the Internet became a necessary tool for increasing their market share through advertising.

From 2000 to 2005, the idea of "aging-in-place home modifications" brought about a new niche market for carpenters. In a national survey of 500 remodelers by the National Association of Builders, 71 percent of the participants reported having completed these types of related projects for persons ranging from 55 to 64 years old, while 62 percent completed projects for persons over 65 years of age. These specialized alterations included installation of grab bars, widening of doorways, and the construction of ramps. More than 60 percent of those queried saw an increase in these types of home alterations.

Current Conditions

According to Dun & Bradstreet's 2010 Industry Reports, 45,600 establishments employed 182,500 carpenters. Total annual sales for the industry were $18.9 billion. A large majority of businesses (97 percent) employed fewer than 25 people, but establishments with more than 25 employees accounted for 32 percent of total industry sales. Carpentry work represented $5.9 billion in sales, or 31 percent of total revenues. Framing construction accounted for 20 percent of sales; window and door installation, 12 percent; cabinet and finish carpentry, 11 percent; finish and trim carpentry, 10 percent; and cabinet building and installation, 8 percent.

The mortgage crisis as well as the slowing of the U.S. economy affected the construction industry as housing starts dropped to 553,900 in 2009. Industry experts were cautiously optimistic in 2010, however, and predicted a recovery--albeit a slow one--in the housing construction industry during the 2010s.

One area of growth for the carpentry industry in the early 2010s was in home improvement and repair. According to the National Association of Home Builders, the aging baby boom population was shifting from a do-it-yourself to do-it-for-me frame of mind, providing a growing market for skilled carpenters. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that home maintenance and repair expenditures reached $226.7 billion in 2007. According to Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies, key sources of future growth in the remodeling and repair sector included the increased demand for environmentally friendly home improvements, the growing number of immigrant home owners, and the demand for upgrades to older rental houses as well as houses that had been foreclosed on. Government stimulus funds, including $4 billion for the redevelopment of abandoned and foreclosed properties allocated by the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, were expected to have an impact on the industry.

Industry Leaders

It is difficult to determine exactly how many carpentry contractors exist in the United States because carpentry contractors generally are small establishments, and many self-employed carpenters serve as their own contractors. Plus, the housing industry is highly fragmented, lacking national general contractors or specialty trade contractors. A typical American homebuilder is a local contractor who constructs fewer than 25 houses each year and works with local subcontractors, labor, and suppliers. The largest companies involved in carpentry in the mid-2000s were BT Mancini Company Inc., Center Brothers Inc., Door Systems Inc., and J Mar and Sons Inc.


According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 1.3 million people were employed in the carpentry industry in 2008. Most worked for contractors in building remodeling and repair. Others worked for manufacturing firms, government agencies, wholesale and retail establishments, and schools. About 32 percent were self-employed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), $20.98 per hour was the mean 2009 pay for carpenters who were not self-employed. The BLS predicted that employment in the carpentry work industry would grow 13 percent--about as fast as average when compared to other occupations--from 2008 to 2018. Opportunities for carpentry jobs will open up as older workers retire and will be most available in areas with high population concentrations. In 2009, states with the highest concentration of carpenters relative to population were Montana, Hawaii, Wyoming, Idaho, and Nevada. The highest-paying states in the industry were Hawaii, Alaska, Illinois, Nevada, and New York.

Carpenters learn their trade through both on-the-job training and formal education. Most employers recommend an apprenticeship, but the number of available programs, usually administered by local chapters of Associated Builders and Contractors, Associated General Contractors, or the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, has been limited.

As skilled workers become scarce and jobs become more demanding, the need for more training programs will increase. Computer and math skills in addition to special new skills, such as hazardous waste cleanup, will be in demand.

Some organizations provide additional training programs that start in high school and offer apprenticeships upon graduation. Associated Builders and Contractors, for example, offers four-year training courses in five construction specialties. The group works with both employers and high school students and in 2010 had 77 chapters at colleges and universities with construction management programs.

Research and Technology

With rising timber costs, the construction industry continued to look for alternative building materials to use instead of lumber and plywood in residential construction. Some viable options have been engineered wood products, concrete, structural foam sandwich panels, and laminated fiberboard structural sheathing. Engineered wood products (EWPs) have been on the market for years. These products are a combination of wood fibers with adhesives and have been used to form beams, headers, joints, and other structural framing products. EWPs do not use raw materials from the U.S. timber supply but materials that are made from smaller trees and inferior species once thought to be unsuitable for building materials.

Laminated fiberboard and foam core structural sandwich panels are two other alternative building products. Fiberglass sheathing is a lightweight panel made from wood and agricultural by-products. The panel consists of fibrous plies laminated under pressure and covered with aluminum foil or polyethylene. Foam sandwich panels are made of two strong, stiff skins, usually strand board or plywood, and separated by a thick, lightweight core of polystyrene. The fiberboard can be used in place of plywood sheathing on exterior walls, and the foam core panels can be used instead of wooden wall and roof systems.

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