Despite the abundance of plastics, metals, and other materials, wood products continue to be an important part of our daily lives. Many of these products are mass produced, including most furniture, kitchen cabinets, and musical instruments. Other products are custom-crafted in shops using specialized tools. The people who design, produce, and test these products are called woodworkers.
Although the term woodworker may evoke the image of a craftsman who builds ornate furniture using hand tools, the modern woodworking trade is highly technical and relies on advanced equipment and highly-skilled operators. Workers use automated machinery, such as computerized numerical control (CNC) machines to do much of the work. Even specialized artisans generally use a variety of power tools in their work. Much of the work is often done in a high production assembly line facility, but there is also some work that is customized and does not lend itself to assembly line fabrication. Woodworkers are employed in every part of the secondary wood products industry—from sawmill to finished product—and their activities vary greatly.
Woodworkers set up, operate and tend all types of machines, such as drill presses, lathes, shapers, routers, sanders, planers, and wood-nailing machines. Operators set up the equipment, cut and shape wooden parts, and verify dimensions using a template, caliper, or rule. After wood parts are made, woodworkers add fasteners and adhesives and connect the pieces to form a complete unit. Products are then sanded, stained, and, if necessary, coated with a sealer, such as a lacquer or varnish.
In some cases, these tasks are managed by different workers with specialized training. For instance, woodworking machine setters, operators, and tenders may specialize in operating specific pieces of woodworking machinery. Furniture finishers stain and seal wood products; they often work with antiques and must make judgments about how to best preserve and repair them.
On the other hand, some woodworkers are less specialized, and must know how to complete many stages of the process. Cabinetmakers and bench carpenters often design and create sets of cabinets that are customized for particular spaces. In some cases, their duties could begin with designing a set of cabinets to particular specifications and end with installing them. Architectural woodworkers design and create customized wooden furniture and accents that are part of a building. This might include a desk that is built into a hotel lobby, a bar in a pub, or booths in a restaurant. Other woodworkers, such as model makers, create scale models of products or buildings that are used in construction; patternmakers construct dies that are used for castings.
Woodworkers held about 247,100 jobs in 2020. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up woodworkers was distributed as follows:
- Cabinetmakers and bench carpenters - 103,900
- Woodworking machine setters, operators, and tenders, except sawing - 74,600
- Sawing machine setters, operators, and tenders, wood - 50,500
- Furniture finishers - 18,100
'The largest employers of woodworkers were as follows:
- Wood product manufacturing - 39%
- Furniture and related product manufacturing - 37%
- Self-employed workers - 7%
- Specialty trade contractors - 3%
Working conditions vary. At times, woodworkers handle heavy, bulky materials and may encounter noise and dust. As a result, they regularly wear hearing protection, safety glasses, and respirators or masks.
Injuries and Illnesses
Wood sawing machine setters, operators, and tenders have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations. These workers use saws and other tools and equipment that may be dangerous and can cause cuts or lacerations. Workers must wear safety equipment and be mindful of their surroundings to avoid injury.
Woodworkers are exposed to hazards such as harmful dust, chemicals, or fumes, and often wear a respirator or mask. Others may be exposed to excessive noise and wear hearing protection.
Most injuries involve sprains, back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and hernias. These injuries come from awkward bending, reaching, or twisting and overexertion or repetition.
Most woodworkers work full time during regular business hours. Work schedules vary for some woodworkers.
Education & Training Required
Many employers seek applicants with a high school diploma or the equivalent because of the growing sophistication of machinery and the constant need for retraining. People seeking woodworking jobs can enhance their employment and advancement prospects by completing high school and receiving training in mathematics and computer applications.
Some woodworkers acquire skills through technical schools or community college courses. Others may attend universities that offer training in wood technology, furniture manufacturing, wood engineering, and production management. These programs prepare students for positions in production, supervision, engineering, and management and are increasingly important as woodworking technology advances.
While education is helpful, woodworkers are primarily trained on the job, where they learn skills from experienced workers. Beginning workers are assigned basic tasks, such as putting a piece of wood through a machine or catching the wood at the end of the process. As they gain experience, they perform more complex jobs with less supervision. They can learn basic machine operations and job tasks in about a year. Skilled workers learn to read blueprints, set up machines, and plan work sequences. Becoming a skilled woodworker often requires 3 or more years.
Other Skills Required
In addition to training, woodworkers need mechanical ability, manual dexterity, and the ability to pay attention to detail and safety. They should be comfortable working with geometric concepts; for example, they must be able to visualize how shapes will fit together in three dimensions. Skill with computers and computer-controlled machinery is increasingly important in this high-tech occupation.
How to Advance
Advancement opportunities depend on education and training, seniority, and a worker's skills and initiative. Experienced woodworkers often become supervisors responsible for the work of a group of woodworkers. Others may become full-time CNC operators, designing woodwork using computer aided design software. Still others become inspectors, making sure that products are built to proper specifications. Production workers can advance into these positions by assuming additional responsibilities and attending workshops, seminars, or college programs. Those who are highly skilled may set up their own woodworking shops.
Overall employment of woodworkers is projected to grow 8 percent from 2020 to 2030, about as fast as the average for all occupations.
About 28,400 openings for woodworkers are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.
Much of the projected employment growth in these occupations is due to recovery from the COVID-19 recession that began in 2020 and is likely to occur early in the decade.
High demand for wood products for home renovation projects and constructing outdoor structures for restaurants and other businesses will support growth early in the decade for woodworkers. Some demand for woodworkers is expected in residential and commercial property repairs and renovations. However, automation, especially the use of computer numerical control (CNC) machines in wood product manufacturing, should limit the overall need for these workers over the decade.
The median annual wage for woodworkers was $36,710 in May 2021. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $24,610, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $48,920.
Median annual wages for woodworkers in May 2021 were as follows:
- Cabinetmakers and bench carpenters - $37,540
- Furniture finishers - $36,580
- Woodworking machine setters, operators, and tenders, except sawing - $36,090
- Sawing machine setters, operators, and tenders, wood - $35,340
In May 2021, the median annual wages for woodworkers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:
- Specialty trade contractors - $37,760
- Furniture and related product manufacturing - $37,270
- Wood product manufacturing - $35,620
Most woodworkers work full time during regular business hours.