How to become a carpenter
Would you like to work with your hands and create things on a diverse range of projects? Take a look at our guide to starting a business in carpentry...
Carpentry is a skilled trade that can be whittled down to three words: working with wood.
Simple as that sounds, the carpentry profession is a diverse one: projects range from the intricate shaping of skirting boards to the construction of a building’s entire skeleton – and everything in between. Follow this guide to find out about what you need to know about becoming a carpenter in the UK today.
How to become a carpenter:
1. Understand the market
While dating back to biblical times and earlier, a report from market research house IBISWorld suggests there’s as much demand for carpentry and joinery as ever: over the past five years the housing market has rebounded, heightening demand, while non-residential construction has also increased.
Philip Clay is the founder of eponymous bespoke furniture business Philip Clay, started in 2013. He tells Startups: “Carpentry is always going to be a good business to be in as you are a skilled worker. Lots of industries need us.”
Jack Leith, who launched handmade furniture business Leith Furniture with his wife less than a year ago, agrees: “There will always be a need for furniture,” he says simply.
And, despite mounting competition from steel and uPVC-based construction, the carpentry and joinery industry has seen a steady growth of 1.7% per year between 2012 and 2017 according to IBISWorld.
Despite advances in technology, Leith tells us woodwork is still a valuable trade: “The rise of technology has driven low cost mass produced goods but I’ve seen consumers move against this recently with a rise in demand for well-made, quality items.”
Nik James, founder and financial director of design and fabrication specialists Aldworth, James & Bond, suggests that advancing technology is also directly feeding industry growth, with carpentry “constantly evolving and improving, including a whole range of new technologies that now sit comfortably alongside more traditional techniques”.
2. Understand necessary qualities of a carpenter
Carpentry is a fulfilling career for people who love to be hands-on and, importantly, is suited to those who draw satisfaction from creating things.
Those with a technical eye and visual mind are well-suited to the job, which often involves reading drawings and blueprints and envisaging each stage of a project.
Bespoke furniture specialist Clay names dedication as a key trait for becoming a successful carpenter: “An extreme amount of accuracy [is] needed during all stages of making a piece so patience and attention to detail is essential as well as the passion to finish a piece well (even if it involves late nights every now and then!).”
James, who takes on creative build projects, tells us it also helps to be “really good with maths, numbers and measurements”.
“You will need to be able to accurately survey the spaces where your joinery might be installed, or for when you’re cutting materials to length,” he adds.
Confidence in performing physically demanding tasks is also an asset – Clay cites the usefulness of “practical skills such as heavy lifting, climbing ladders and dealing with whatever the weather has to throw at you”.
You must also be a good communicator, comfortable with following instructions and asking questions. This is especially key when working on residential properties, where a client has trusted you with their personal living space. If you recruit employees, you’ll need to give instructions and feedback as well as handle employee paperwork. As James states, “a successful carpenter is also a good member of a team”.
Underlying it all, you will need to possess basic business acumen including the ability to manage cashflow.
One important thing to remember is that, as a tradesperson in carpentry and joinery, your reputation is your greatest asset – as Leith warns, “Don’t underestimate the power of word-of-mouth”.
Avoid being dubbed a ‘cowboy’ or ‘rogue’ by ensuring that you consistently provide good workmanship with a thorough approach. James tells us: “We benefitted from delivering high-quality work but always with a smile on our faces, and not letting our customers down.”
Having qualifications and joining with trade associations will also give your business credibility and indicate that you’re a trustworthy tradesperson.
3. Write a carpentry business plan
Your business plan should detail and analyse your business, the market, costs and sales forecasts. See our detailed template here.
On taking the first steps towards creating a business, luxury furniture maker Philip Clay advises: “I would work out what the running costs are going to be for the first six months. Once you have that figure I would work out who your clients are. Then work out how you're going to target them.”
Leith Furniture founder Jack Leith tells us: “Our first step was to understand the needs and purchasing behaviours of our audience. Once we did this, we were able to shape what we stood for and the work we do.”
4. Define your carpentry services
Carpenters can be all-rounders but, if you’re looking to specialise, one distinction to consider is whether you’re interested in detail or structural carpentry.
Skilled or ‘master’ carpenters or joiners often take on more detailed work, such as creating components including cornicing, shelves, dado rails, staircases, doors, floorboards, furniture and more.
Typically, this involves a considerable amount of training or an apprenticeship and experience of using different techniques.
There are lots of areas in which carpenters and joiners can specialise, such as furniture making, shop fitting, loft conversions, or building maintenance. Structural carpentry entails the construction of a building’s framework and roofing.
Aldworth, James & Bond founder Nik James suggests working to your own strengths: “If you have a keen eye for detail and enjoy finer work you would be more suited to working as a cabinet maker, or workshop joiner. If you’re more adept at heavy work and less focused on the details then being a first fix carpenter working on-site would be more suitable: pitching roofs and fixing stud walls for example.”
You might also consider whether you’d rather work on residential or commercial projects. “A residential carpenter will enjoy some very high quality and traditional joinery jobs‚” says James, “but often this is on a smaller scale to a commercial carpenter who may work on a flagship retail project or a multi-storey office space in the heart of the City.”
It’s worth researching which specialism is more stable and will create better growth opportunities for you in your local area. Or, as long as you have the skillsets, you can take on both while you build your reputation.
With experience, you could begin to focus your carpentry business on a number of areas, including restoring heritage sites, building stages and film sets, or designing and making artisan pieces – to name just a few ideas.
Leith adds that, no matter what you specialise in, “you will encounter a wide range of clients with varying requirements […]. It’s important to be flexible in your approach, being able to adapt to different needs”.
5. Build a marketing plan
On attracting business as a tradesperson, James says word-of-mouth is crucial: “Word-of-mouth is essential for our business, and we are regularly recommended by our clients for new projects.”
He suggests starting with people you know: “At the beginning we worked a lot with previous colleagues and friends on projects, some of whom are still with us today.” Similarly, Clay sought out industry contacts. “I also made a list of people I wanted to get work from and called it my hit list.” A Startups member suggests approaching kitchen companies or construction companies, or working in partnership with a joinery business.
To drive local awareness, you could invest in flyers and business cards and ask DIY Shops, supermarkets, village grocers, post offices, and estate agents to display them. You should also look to take out an advert in a local paper or magazine – this needn't cost the earth; ask the paper for special trial rates or for unsold advertising space that's going cheap – and create your own van signage with your business details and points of difference (a business van for a carpenter is essential).
You should also consider contacting local estate agents and introducing yourself to the lettings manager. Whenever rental properties need maintenance it's their job to find the tradespeople to do it, so it's worth being on their radar.
Equally important is having a professional website – see our guides to creating a website – and listing your company on Google My Business, which displays your details including location, contact information and working hours on Google Search and Google Maps. You should also consider listing your business on online directories and search facilities such as Free Index, Rated People, MyBuilder, Which? Trusted Traders, MyHammer, Checkatrade, Gumtree and those that come with trade association membership.
For online marketing, James says: “Social media is a massively important tool for us as well — it helps us effectively communicate what we’re doing”. He also recommends SEO (search engine optimisation) and PPC (pay-per-click) campaigns, which have “definitely helped” growth.
Online or in print, show evidence of your workmanship. James says “a picture tells a thousand words! Our work is beautiful and creative and impressive, and it’s great to get that imagery out there”. A simple and free way to get your work into the public eye is by setting up a company Facebook page and sharing photographs and updates regularly.
You could also consider – if you can comfortably afford it – doing something charitable for free to generate PR attention and raise your profile in the local area. For example, building an access ramp for a building that needs one.
Find free advice on marketing your business here.
On growth strategies, James – whose business has expanded to encompass designers, architectural services and more since launching in 2008 – says “having clear targets is really important”.
He tells us: “We have never borrowed any money to grow Aldworth James & Bond, and instead work to reinvest our profits in our workshops and growing the team.”
With your business plan in place, it’s time to ensure you adhere to those all-important industry rules and regulations…
6. Consider qualifications
One great thing about becoming a carpenter and joiner is that you don’t have to embark on a carpentry career fresh from school; older workers looking to transition into the career are equally welcome.
Either way, if you’re qualified you’re likely to appear more reputable and attract more business than an unqualified counterpart. There are a number of routes to go down to gain this advantage.
Firstly, you could pursue a college course. NVQs are widely recognised among carpenters, with Aldworth, James & Bond’s Nik James stating: “Once you have your NVQ level two, you will be fully qualified, but can also go on to levels three up to seven.”
James adds: “You will learn the technical knowledge and details there that you wouldn’t necessarily learn solo on the job.”
University has emerged as a popular route among those specialising in high-end furniture, with Philip Clay founder Philip Clay building his business after studying “furniture design and fine craft”.
However, many tradespeople would recommend getting the best of both worlds with a learn-as-you-work approach, including apprenticeships and on-the-job NVQs. Leith Furniture’s Jack Leith studied at Chippendales School of Furniture, but says “it wasn’t until I moved back to London and worked as an apprentice that I got to grips with carpentry as a career”.
According to Clay, apprenticeships “generally take three to four years to complete, offer on-the-job training along with classroom instruction.
“You get a whole overview of what “carpentry” is about whilst having to do it in the real world,” he adds. “The most important thing you will learn […] is how to work with high accuracy within the given time to perform the task.”
7. Get the right insurance
Understanding your necessary insurance cover will ensure that you avoid costly future legal trouble. As Clay adamantly puts it:“Get yourself covered!”
New carpenters and carpentry businesses should begin with:
- Public liability insurance, which covers you in an incident of injury or property damage caused by your business. Clay asserts: “You 100% must get this no matter what you think.”
- Employers’ liability insurance, a legal requirement if you hire staff, will cover claims from employees who’ve experienced problems like injury or illness as a result of working for you.
- Professional indemnity insurance, which can cover claims made by clients if they suffer financial loss, professional loss or damage due to your company.
- Health insurance, which – if you are a sole trader – will prove helpful if you become unable to work due to illness or injury.
- Equipment cover. Clay also recommends taking out “cover for all your tools”.
Finally, Clay advises prospective carpenters and joiners to “look into getting a comprehensive business cover that wraps all of this into one”.
8. Get equipped for health and safety
As James states, carpentry can be dangerous “due to the tools and machinery used. You may also work for long periods of time at height”.
Because of this, health and safety policies are a must. Outline best practice processes for operating equipment and tools and, if you have employees overseeing health and safety, ensure they’re qualified. James recommends “a NEBOSH national certificate in health & safety, specialising in construction”.
To work on construction sites, by law you’ll need to pass a CITB health, safety and environment test, and then apply for a CSCS card.
Jack Leith says some regulations can depend on what you’re creating: “for example there are rules regarding minimum distances when installing something around a hot chimney flue”. The key is to be aware of the regulations that affect your work.
Now that you're aware of the rules and regulations, it's time to measure out how much becoming a carpenter could cost…
How much does it cost to become a carpenter?
The costs associated with becoming a carpenter or starting a carpentry business can be attributed to six necessities: gaining a qualification, tools and equipment; workshop space; a van; insurance; and accounting fees. You will also need to set aside some of your budget for marketing costs.
When it comes to tools, the amount you spend can vary wildly depending on the type of projects you want to take on from the start.
According to Aldworth, James & Bond founder Nik James a good workman can always thank his (or her) tools. “You will need to have a basic level of equipment and tools in your personal tool box. This is your arsenal and the better your tool box, the better you will be as a carpenter.”
However, “that’s not to say you need to splash the cash right away! If you have a budget of £250 to £500 you could buy your drill drivers and a decent set of hand tools and get started”.
Philip Clay founder Philip Clay recommends buying tools as you go along: “Expect to spend £3,000 £5,000 when you kit yourself / [your] van out with tools. You can spend a huge amount of money on tools but if you're in it for the long-run then they are very much worth every penny.
“My advice is buy them as you’re learning and keep them in good condition.”
If you want to have your own workshop space, Jack Leith of Leith Furniture recommends starting out in a cheaper, shared space before investing in your own workshop: “There are lots of available workshop shares out there which most carpenters start off in before moving into their own space.”
James adds that the size of your workshop should grow in tandem with your company’s operations, so starting off small and cheap is sensible.
Like most carpentry businesses, his launched in a small space, but as profits increased the company was able to invest in a large space that has, in turn, fed growth: “Moving to Greenwich allowed us to expand our workshop capabilities and we started with tools such as a planer/thicknesser, spindle-moulder, table saw and band saw.
“We now have machines ranging from [a] CNC machine, laser cutter, drum sander, sheet press, oxygen-fed spray booth, edge-bander as well as metalwork machinery. This level of equipment and machinery is definitely something to aim for when you’re starting out.”
If you’re looking to provide a mobile service, you will need to obtain a van that can transport your tools and materials to each project’s site. Clay says: “You can get good deals on vans these days if you lease them, anywhere from £300-£500 per month cost. Or you can buy outright – these costs vary.”
As already highlighted, insurance is crucial for anyone becoming a carpenter or joiner. Clay says: “A self-employed carpenter would expect to pay around £500 per year [in insurance] depending on the works being carried out. If you’re setting up a company then these costs will shoot up.”
Accounting fees, too, are something to be factored in. Of these fees, Clay says: “These will vary in size dependent on the company size. If you have a company then you will need to do annual returns and pay corporation tax. Also if your company turns over £83,000 per 365 days then you will have to pay VAT.” Get to grips with business accounting.
So you’ve worked out what your expenses will be, but how much money are you likely to make as a carpenter? Read on to find out…
How much can you earn as a carpenter?
As Leith Furniture’s Jack Leith says: “With experience, credibility and a good reputation, you can earn a competitive salary as a skilled craftsman.”
An unqualified carpenter can expect to start at around £13,000 per annum, while those who are qualified can progress from £17,000 to around £25,000 as they build experience, skills and a good reputation. Experienced carpenters and joiners can look forward to earnings of up to £35,000. (NB: these figures are only a guide.)
On the salary Aldworth, James & Bond’s carpenters earn, founder Nik James says: “We pay our carpenters the London Living Wage [currently £9.75 per hour], which is a decent and fair salary for a qualified carpenter.”
Of course, running a carpentry business is a different ballgame. Philip Clay founder Philip Clay says, “There is definitely more potential to grow your income if you set up your own carpentry or joinery business. This will depend on how much you want out [of] the business and how hard you're willing try”.
As a self-employed business-owner you can set your own rates and decide what you would like to charge for your work (keep your pricing fair and attractive, but make sure it's profitable!). We can’t accurately predict the turnover you might generate, but when you’re running your own business the sky’s the limit. For example James tells us: “In our first year of operation our turnover was £204,000. That was for the two business owners operating with one van, employing other carpenters or makers as and when we needed.”
In order to take payment, you'll need to be able to send professional, timely, accurate invoices to your clients. This can often be a time-consuming process, so to free up time otherwise spent fiddling with paperwork, look to sign up with invoicing software. Powered Now, for example, specialises in invoicing and cashflow for tradespeople such as carpenters and joiners, providing templates and a mobile app so that you can quote and invoice on the go.
Tips and useful contacts
- Your reputation is your greatest asset – ensure you consistently provide a high-quality service to attract business through word-of-mouth
- Though not compulsory, it’s a good idea to qualify whilst working in the trade by pursuing an on-the-job NVQ or apprenticeship
- Look into getting public liability insurance, employers’ liability insurance, professional indemnity insurance, health insurance (if you’re a sole trader) and equipment cover.
- Always adhere to health and safety regulations, and set up best practice policies for operating your equipment and tools
- To work on construction sites, take a CITB health, safety and environment test, and then apply for a CSCS card
- Ensure you have enough cashflow to cover tools, workshop space, your van, marketing costs, insurance and accounting fees
- Join one or more of the below trade associations to indicate that your business is responsible and reliable
British Standards Institution (BSI) – The UK’s national standards body, producing technical standards for products and services and providing organisations with certification.
FairTrades Association – Lists its members as trustworthy, vetted tradesmen for homeowners to browse. It also has deals with major suppliers, providing discounts on equipment, vans and more.
Guild of Master Craftsmen – Allows members to advertise their business with the Guild emblem, provides a listing on findacraftsman.com, and gives access to discounts, special rates, business advice and support through disputes.
The British Woodworking Federation (BWF) – Provides woodworking and joinery professionals with a ‘Find a Supplier’ listing, informative newsletters, access to third party accreditation schemes and an immediate support helpline. Members must undergo a Code of Conduct assessment, with those who pass being listed as Code of Conduct compliant.
The Institute of Carpenters – Provides carpentry businesses with a directory listing, meetings and networking opportunities, insurance packages, and multiple discounts on accountancy, health insurance, website production and more.
Federation of Master Builders (FMB) – Offers a ‘Find a Builder’ listing, press opportunities, awards, helplines and advice, insurance discounts, contracts designed to protect you and your clients, discounted courses and other special offers.
Other useful contacts
CSCS UK – for information about obtaining a CSCS card
CITB health, safety and environment test – for information about booking and sitting the test
The government’s apprenticeships guide – for information about finding an apprenticeship
Go Construct – for information about training and building a career in construction