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Learn the Basics of Woodworking

Woodworkers are artists who manufacture a wide range of products like furniture, cabinets, cutting boards, and tables and chairs using wood, laminates or veneers. Sometimes they combine other materials into the finished product, like ceramic tiles, glass, metals, and other hard or soft materials.

Despite the popularity of plastics, MDF (medium density fiberboard) and other materials, wood is still the product of choice for most people when it comes to the expectation of quality, value, and utility.  Today, many wood products, such as musical instruments and furniture are mass-produced, but trained woodworkers make custom-made products with their hands and their tools based on drawings and architectural designs.

When many people hear the word woodworker, the image of someone leaning over a workbench sanding a long piece of wood with his or her hands. However, modern woodworking requires training on highly technical machinery, such as CNC (computerized numerical control) machines.  Even woodworkers caught somewhere between modern equipment and a hand planer typically use CNC machines to fabricate large or intricate products.  If working for a large company, a lot of the work will be done on an assembly line or in various areas on the floor designated to complete a particular part of a project.   The tasks will be handled by different workers with very specialized training on each machine. For example, one machine might cut a large piece of wood into three sections, whereas another machine might take one of the sections and round each edge.

As part of the job, woodworkers prepare and operate saws, drill presses, routers, sanders, lathes, shapers, milling machines, and planers.  Often using a template, woodworkers measure and verify dimensions, cut, and shape wooden parts. Woodworkers stain or coat the wood products with sealers and topcoats, such as varnish and lacquer. But, they also often install hardware, fit electrical components and specialty products, such as metal trims and glass.

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Important Qualifications, Skills and Training

In order to be successful in woodworking, there are skills absolutely necessary to know and master.  Many of these skills were once taught in high school’s all across the nation, but today, most woodshop classes have been suspended, and people must learn through college classes, apprenticeships, internships, from professionals, or by trial and error. 

Woodworkers must have good hand-eye coordination to make precise cuts; math aptitude and computer skills (especially if working in manufacturing) to properly fabricate objects and furniture; mechanical skills to adjust and calibrate machinery; physical stamina and strength.  They must also be detail-oriented and have the technical skills necessary to understand and interpret drawings and manuals.  In addition, the following is important knowledge to acquire and cultivate:

  • Knowledge of the various tools for milling, sanding, boring, etc., and how to operate them safely
  • Complete understanding every project’s requirements
  • Ability to safely operate woodworking machines, including milling machines and saws
  • Prepare and set up machines
  • A good understanding of drawings, schematics, shop drawings, blueprints, and architectural drawings
  • Knowledge of various hand tools, drill bits, the drill press, hand drills, band saws
  • Knowledge of various woods; hardness, color, warping, knots, cracks, grain patterns, etc.
  • Knowledge of the different cuts; curved, straight, and how to cut a mortise or tenon and dovetail joints
  • Understanding about the various materials used in finishing; varnishes, stains, lacquers, and glosses.

    A mechanical reasoning or aptitude is also essential, mainly because woodworkers work with such a variety of machines and tools.  A tool in the hands of an untrained or inexperienced woodworker is a recipe for disaster. Woodworkers should understand and be able to apply mechanical principles to solve any problems they may encounter. Critical thinking skills are important too as woodworkers may face unexpected problems that need to be handled quickly. In this way, woodworkers can use reasoning and logic to foresee any potential problems, and develop solutions before mishaps happen.

    Woodworkers use geometry, arithmetic, algebra, calculus, and statistics to measure materials and during the planning stages of projects.  On any given job, they will calculate sizes, dimensions, distances, and quantities of materials.  Computer skills and knowledge of relevant software also benefits woodworkers with job-estimating, project management, and basic spreadsheet or word processing.  Woodworkers should be detail-oriented, have good people skills, have steady hands, and physical strength, especially when lifting 100-pound sheets of plywood.

    And, although a formal education is helpful, it is not necessary, and most woodworkers receive on-the-job training under the supervision of other more experienced workers.  However, because of the ongoing development and modernizing of woodworking machinery, many employers are requiring applicants to have at least a high school diploma, or a few years training in math (specifically geometry) and computer applications.  Many woodworkers will receive training by enrolling in a community or technical college.  Some may attend a university that offers coursework in furniture manufacturing or wood engineering. Individuals who have earned a degree can often move into management or supervisory positions, or go on to open their own woodworking shop.  Becoming a skilled woodworker can often take years, and knowledge of blueprints and work sequences takes training and practice.

    If a woodworker wishes to advance in the field or to demonstrate competence in the industry, they may also choose to become licensed. The Woodwork Career Alliance of North America offers a national certificate program. The AWI, or Architectural Woodwork Institute sets standards for the industry and offers training programs for management and mid-management positions.

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    Types of Woodworkers & Typical Work Environments

    Although the field of woodworking is growing as new technologies are introduced, there are basically four main types of woodworkers:

    Furniture finishers may work with antiques or other wood pieces, and shape, finish, stain, seal, and apply top coatings to preserve, repair, and refinish wood furnishings.

    Cabinetmakers typically make parts for cabinets or other wood products. They cut, shape and assemble parts, and also often design custom pieces. They may even install cabinetry.

    Wood machine operators specialize in running machinery used in woodworking.

    Woodworking tenders also operate machinery used in woodworking, including drill presses, routers, planers, and sanders.

    Woodworker’s work environments vary depending on job duties.  If a woodworker is employed to handle and cut large heavy materials, he or she may work in a factory setting. Cabinet and countertop woodworkers typically work in large or small manufacturing plants. Some woodworkers work in sawmills, while other’s work out of home shops.  In 2014, there were just over 237,000 jobs for all woodworkers, with other wood product manufacturing employing 23 percent; wood kitchen cabinets and countertop manufacturing employing 21 percent.  Most woodworkers work a regular, full-time workweek.

    Employment growth is also expected to be good for woodworkers who specialize in items used in renovation, such as moldings, cabinets, stairs, and windows. Firms that focus on custom woodwork should be able to compete against imports without the need to outsource jobs to other countries.

    Get to Know Our Experts

    David Nauman

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    D. C. Nauman
  • Where:
    East Stroudsburg, PA
  • Experience:
    25 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I studied forestry at Penn State University and then spent ten years working in the utility line clearance industry with the Asplundh Tree Expert Co. While building my house, I began to get into carpentry and woodworking, and later went to work as a finish carpenter. Eventually, I started taking on some minor woodworking jobs. I realized I needed some real shop experience, so I took a job in a stair shop building custom staircases for about five years. While there, I began to set up a shop of my own with the intention of going into business for myself, which I did in 1998. I’ve been on my own since.My typical day is usually pretty simple. I’ll spend an hour in the morning on the computer promoting my shop and looking for leads. Around 8:00 A.M. I open up the shop and work on whatever I’m doing until 4:00 or 5:00 P.M.

    What I like most about my work is the satisfaction of building something useful and attractive, or even beautiful, out of a pile of raw materials. There is nothing more satisfying than when a complex piece, composed of dozens of parts, each one individually handmade, comes together. The thing I like the least is the business side, such as bookkeeping, promoting my business, etc. If you have a mind for business and the talent to create, this would be the perfect combination.

    Advice

    Learn all the skills you can

    I suggest that the aspiring woodworker learn all the skills he or she can acquire, from traditional skills such as carving, wood turning, and traditional joinery, to modern skills such as CAD and CNC. The more versatile you are, the more valuable you can be to more people. Never stop trying to learn new things, and always keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth closed. Never oversell your skills to a prospective employer. If you don’t know how to do something, admit it, and get to work learning how to do it. Don’t be afraid to take on something you’ve never done. A skilled custom woodworker draws on experience and skill to accomplish things he’s never done before. Custom work often requires you to reinvent the wheel on a daily basis. Always remember that no matter how much experience you have, you never know everything, and there’s always something else to learn. Along with the actual skills involved with the trade, you also need to educate yourself about wood. You need to be able to recognize a myriad of wood species and be familiar with their individual characteristics and uses.

    On education

    As far as schools, there are lots of fine schools that teach woodworking, and I think that they are a good way to get started. However, the best way to learn the trade, in my opinion, is by working alongside an experienced woodworker in a working shop. You’ll learn a lot of valuable skills in a school, but in a shop you’ll learn those skills in more of a practical and real-world surrounding. You have to not only do good work, but do it efficiently, and schools can be a little less demanding than a working shop.

    Just do it

    Ultimately, to be a woodworker, just start doing it. Read about it, watch it on television, accumulate tools, look for openings of any kind in a shop, a sawmill, a lumberyard, any place related to the woodworking business. Start making things. Learn carpentry. A good cabinetmaker should also be an excellent carpenter. Build up a portfolio of work, and acquire skills and knowledge any way you can.

    Mark Weber

  • Title:
    CEO
  • Company:
    Weber Company
  • Where:
    Lodi, CA
  • Experience:
    25 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I learned about the trade from my father starting when I was 6 years old. I took woodshop courses in high school, and was granted the Industrial Arts Award my senior year. I also took some college courses in woodshop before I started my own business when I turned 19.My average work day is laying out jobs, cutting parts, designing the different jobs, and assembling the cabinets. I also am teaching my daughter how to build woodworking projects and cabinet parts, as well as helping with our cutting boards.

    I really like building difficult cabinets, laying them out, and assembling them. It really gives me a challenge to build something better each time, but the sanding and clean up are not my favorite aspects of this work; you better get used to it. And I wish I would have taken some business classes because the part of running a business is another element added to cabinet making.

    Advice

    Get computer training

    Someone interested in woodworking now needs to get computer training to be able to lay out jobs on a CAD program. CNC machines are also used in shops where they lay out the cabinetry for you and cut the parts. Working with these machines takes skill in knowing how to build the cabinet and knowing how to use the computer programs. Also, math is used all day, every day in woodworking, and the better you are at math the better you can build things.

    Visit your nearest cabinet shop

    If you are interested in woodworking, visit your nearest cabinet shop and ask about the jobs there and what it entails. Look into all aspects of the job. There are many different avenues to cabinet making.

    Jacob Aune

  • Title:
    Co-owner
  • Company:
    Altare Design, LLC
  • Where:
    Kankakee, IL
  • Experience:
    25 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    Upon graduating from high school, I wasn’t sure exactly what career to pursue, but I knew it had to be something that involved creating things with my hands. I’d always had natural talent working with tools, and despite having been an A-average student, I was never fond of conventional academics. Not having better plans at the time, I took one calculus course, got an “A”, then promptly decided two things: I didn’t enjoy college and taking on any debt would force me into a dull, conventional 9-5 job until the debt could be paid off. I didn’t know this back then, but I was pretty much a textbook case of the restless student with the entrepreneurial spirit. Just a few months later, I got the opportunity to accept an apprenticeship at Remmert Studios which was an incredible break. It was a result of reading a local newspaper article about the business, then going to meet the owner. Not many are able to break into woodworking that easily, especially in the high-end market. That company did a lot of contemporary furniture for churches, and being short-staffed, it wasn’t long before I was given a full-time position.While working that job, I was also taking week-long classes at Marc Adams School of Woodworking as time and money permitted. The combination of hands-on work and classroom study allowed me to acquire new skills very quickly. Being at the school also netted an internship opportunity with one of North America’s most prestigious furniture-makers, Michael Fortune.

    Though I’d not planned to strike out on my own, in 2012, it occurred to me I had gained the experience and skills needed to do so and financially, it appeared to be a good time to make it happen. Since I had experience in the field, I chose to remain in the church furniture market but focus more on traditional styles. I’d always admired the old, high altars in European churches and hoped to build some myself. Large scale work does require more than one person, and fortunately, I was able to recruit Austin Glidewell to help establish Altare Design, LLC. By this time I’d mastered conventional woodworking techniques and possessed a working knowledge of marketing, website-building, photography, 3D modeling and business tax laws.

    In being self-employed, one day will greatly vary from the next, but generally, I start in the morning by dealing with in-town errands or head right to the shop if there are none. Once at the shop, there’s an e-mail check, then a brief glance at various websites to look for new developments related to our market and clientele. Then the real workday starts. I’ve got a bunch of notes regarding current projects taped next to my computer and will make a list for the day’s tasks by picking the highest priority items from the notes. The goal is to get that stuff accomplished by the end of the day. There are two of us in the shop, but we usually work on separate projects, so that’s why I have my own to-do list. Some days are spent on the computer designing or creating programs for the laser or CNC. Other times we’re doing runs of sunglasses or guitar parts which we sell wholesale to other businesses. In which case, I may be operating the laser or CNC. Despite the high-tech tooling, there’s still a lot of bench work to do, and that can involve cutting and fitting joints with chisels and hand planes. Besides that, there’s always plenty of rough lumber to mill since no project can begin until boards are flattened, surfaced and cut to dimension.

    Of course, there’s the occasional install, client meeting or photo-shoot, but those don’t happen often enough to be considered a typical day. I should mention that every day brings its share of phone conversations with clients and suppliers. That happens at all hours. Most work days end by 7:30pm, and once I’m home and have eaten supper, I’ll usually put another hour into handling whatever financial, legal or internet tasks are most pressing at the time. Altogether, a typical work day is about 12 hours, and this is 6 days a week. At 2 1/2 years old, the business is still a start-up which is the reason such long hours are necessary.

    My hands-down favorite thing to do is develop the process for manufacturing a new product. This involves figuring out how to design a product so that it’s not only durable and functional, but also economical to build. Then all the jigs, fixtures and CNC programs have to be created and tested until the whole process is running smoothly. Up to now, the most challenging project has been our line of wooden sunglasses which were developed for a specific client. We spent hundreds of hours just figuring out how to build the first pair then hundreds more hours refining the process until they became profitable.

    The worst part of the job for me is dealing with legal matters and paperwork. There may not be a lot, and hiring an accountant and lawyer removes much of the burden, but it still seems like I’m filling out a form or making a phone call at least once a week to deal with red-tape. Even something as simple as setting up to buy from a new supplier can require filling out and submitting a tax document. We did have to spend a half hour unloading a wood delivery in freezing rain once, which was a terrible experience, but still not as bad as the constant need to fill IRS forms.

    Advice

    Develop lots of connections

    My basic advice is to develop lots of connections with people. Most branches of woodworking are hard to sell without knowing the right people – especially when targeting the luxury furnishings or corporate markets. I started down this path with the idea that I might own my own shop but forgot about that once I’d accepted employment in the field. Since I was satisfied working for others, I didn’t bother making the connections, and now I’m so busy it’s hard to get away from the shop long enough to do so. That’s not the end of the world, as we’re still pulling in plenty of work. It just took longer to get there than it should have. For those considering a self-employed woodworking career, it’s a good idea to meet individuals who associate with the types of people that are likely to become future clients. Word-of-mouth is still a powerful form of marketing even in this age of internet.

    Three other tidbits

    I’ve got a three other bits of advice: First of all, get really, really good at woodworking. There are lots of people who enjoy it as a hobby. To sell your services, you’ve got to be able to do far superior work or do it much faster than everyone else (preferably both). Failure to do so means competing against hundreds of amateurs who make things for the pleasure of it, then sell their work at cost to fund the hobby. Second, develop great people skills. Most professionals do custom work and few focus on selling a product. Most of them sell a service, and a big part of that is getting customers to enjoy the experience of collaborating with a woodworker to create their dream products. If your customers don’t like you, they can usually save time and money by getting something from an online catalog. People who buy handcrafted items from woodworkers are often attracted to the idea of supporting artisans. The face behind the work is important to them. Last, develop an iron-clad work ethic. In this field you’re directly trading time for money, and that time is very limited. It’s important to be productive, so try to get 40 hours of actual productivity (as in making things) every week. Accounting, phone conversations and social media marketing may be important, but none of them provide an actual paycheck, so they don’t count as productive work.

    On education…

    As for schooling, many local school districts, community colleges and woodworking stores offer woodworking classes, but those are a mixed bag. A handful is really good and many are terrible. There’s also a big difference between woodworking for fun and doing it for a living, and most classes are geared towards hobbyists. Out of all the proper woodworking schools with good reputations, I’ve only had personal experience with Marc Adams School of Woodworking. That place I recommend 100%, as the instructors are generally active professionals in their specialized niches, so one can always pick their brains for extra information related to earning a living. The director of the school also does a good job of screening instructors to eliminate the ones that don’t interact well in a classroom setting.

    Apprenticeships or internships are definitely a viable path. They can be the fastest way to learn due to all the hands-on experience, and some will even provide a small income. Those opportunities can be hard to find for those not already familiar with the woodworking scene. Supporting skills such as accounting, business, marketing, photography and website administration can be learned formally via conventional education such as college, but it’s tough to dedicate time and money in that route while also trying to master woodworking. Books and the internet are handy in this regard, and I did learn to setup WordPress websites by utilizing a basic Lynda.com subscription.

    Getting your foot in the door

    One simple method of getting your foot in the door is to check out Craigslist help-wanted ads. It’s about the only place I’ve seen a decent selection of job postings for woodworking, and some are entry-level positions. Once a little experience with basic tools is acquired, more options open up. However, a lot of the most interesting positions can’t be found by searching jobs postings. Many high-end furniture shops recruit via networking instead of advertising for help. To break into the custom furnishings market, do research to find out who is doing the sort of work you’d like to get into, then figure out what circles they participate in. If they belong to a particular artist association, try to attend their shows or get an introduction to one of the members. If they teach classes, attend their classes. The goal is to get their attention, and let it be known you wish to pursue a woodworking career. Demonstrate good work ethic, reliability and a willingness to learn, and someone might take notice. Talk to people and continue to introduce yourself to others.

    Get an internship

    Don’t be afraid to ask if there are internship or apprenticeship opportunities. Even if you’re declined, people will know you’re looking, and if you continue to hang out in their circles and demonstrate that you’d be a model employee, someone will take notice. There’s no shortage of woodworkers, but there is a severe shortage of enthusiastic and phenomenal woodworkers.

    woodworker infographic