How to Become a Trade-Qualified Carpenter

  • magda

by Daniel Green

Aside from stone working and perhaps blacksmithing – knocking bits of wood together is one of humankind’s oldest trades. And if the ancient practice of passing trades down from fathers to sons is anything to go by, there’s a strong likelihood that even Jesus Christ was a chippy. Maybe that’s where they get their self-confidence.

Chippies come in all shapes and sizes and we’re not just talking about the tradesfolk themselves. In the timber-working world, there are several sub-areas that you can specialise in. But instead of rabbiting on longer than a Sunday sermon, let’s get stuck into the ways that you can become a trade-qualified woodworking specialist in the land down under.

Carpenter vs. Cabinet Maker?

When I was in high school in the 1990’s there were pretty much two career choices in the woodworking trades. These days, however, there are far more options. Check out the official list from

  • Carpenter.
  • Formwork Carpenter.
  • Joiner.
  • Shopfitter.
  • Cabinet Maker.
  • Furniture Maker.
  • Furniture Finisher.
  • Picture Framer.
  • Timber and Composite Machinist.
  • Wood Machinist.
  • The scenery and Set Construction.

Not all pertain to the construction industry, so we’re going to focus on those. Each trade has differences. Some work indoors and require much more planning. Others demand OCD-like attention to detail. There are extremely creative trades and others that all nail-gun-and-send. In order to know which trade best suits you, there are a few questions you should ask yourself:

  1. Do you like to work with lots of people or just a few?
  2. Would you prefer to stay in one place or do you like to travel around every few weeks to different locations?
  3. Do you want to have the possibility of adventurous job opportunities like working in mining and/or other industrial sectors?
  4. What are your pay expectations and what’s more important – money or job satisfaction?
  5. Do you exclusively want to work with wood or are you interested in crossing into metal and composite work?
  6. Are you comfortable doing repetitive work or do you need new challenges all the time?
  7. Are you okay to buy and use your own tools?
  8. Do you have business ownership aspirations or are you happy to work for someone else?
  9. Are you good at communicating with customers or would you prefer to only speak with co-workers?

Trades like formwork carpenters and formwork carpenters have far more job opportunities because those trades span almost every industry from residential building, through commercial to industrial and defence. You can work 24/7 in all weather in any part of the nation. Unless residential, their work is less detail-oriented than the other woodworking trades so if you really enjoy nailing a join [pun-intended], this might not be for you.

Joiners, shopfitters and cabinet makers are usually consigned to the factory, large residential or commercial jobs. These are often indoors and during the day unless during a shutdown. Lots of detail work.

Furniture makers & finishers and picture framers are often process-based in factories, meaning repetitive work. The upside is that the work is out of the weather and full-time employment. Machinists fall into this work style as well.

The scenery and set construction are at the whim of filmmakers. If you’ve ever worked in showbiz then the hours are long, the work can be seven days a week for months on end the work can be. different. A friend worked on Thor: Ragnarok. She spent three months making a round timber deck with a hand-carved throne. The art director took one look at it and change her mind. So they scrapped it and started again. She’s never bored though!

These are just some of the answers you should have before you begin a woodworking career path.

Old School or New?

Now that you have more of an idea of where you’d like to park your chisels, there are two primary paths to getting trade qualified in Australia:

The Olde School

Originally there was no trade, certainly no trade papers. So one option is to go old school: through the ranks. This means starting as a timber-working labourer and learning skills and secrets as you go. There are advantages to doing it this way. Firstly, you’re on full pay from the get-go, unlike carpentry apprentices who can really struggle in their first 2-3 years. Labourers make north of $30/h, so you can still have a bit of life [or at least pay your bills] while picking up these vital skills. Another advantage is that you get to try it before you buy. This is a great benefit for those who are unsure about what career path floats their boat. If you’ve signed up for a four-year trade without knowing what the day-to-day grind is really like then you may just end up quitting anyway.

Eventually, with enough skills and knowledge to frame a house, you can get your skills certified at a Registered Training Organisation [RTO] that has your carpentry trade on the scope. This means that a carpenter-turned-assessor will assess the skills you’ve learnt over all those years of labouring, and if they meet the criteria for the carpentry trade then they’ll sign you off and Bob’s your uncle. The disadvantage to this path is that it often takes far longer to become qualified and labourers rarely follow through to become tradespeople.

The New School

Ironically, this path is far older. In the later Middle Ages in Europe [1250 – 1500 AD], the system of apprenticeships was first developed. Overseen by guilds [independent governing bodies much like clubs] and governments, a master craftsman was entitled to empty young people as a form of inexpensive labour in exchange for food, lodging and formal training in the craft. Originally running for seven years [!!], a fully trained apprentice became a journeyman and eventually, a master craftsman. In some societies, they were even entitled to become freemen of their city.

Fast forward five hundred years to the 1970’s in little old Australia. The federal government saw a need to fill skills shortages with methods other than immigration, so a heavier focus on training the national workforce began. The modern Australian apprenticeship [or trade] was born. Since then it has developed into what we see today.

These days the apprentice program has a heavily structured curriculum that runs for four years. To help maintain industry standards, apprentices are expected to go to class at TAFE or a similar RTO. One full day once a month and/or half a day per week. There are lots to like about this path.

  1. There are training milestones to ensure nothing missed. In non-trade training key skills and knowledge can be inadvertently missed.
  2. It teaches you commitment and discipline. You can’t just bail because you don’t want to do it anymore.
  3. Being four years long there’s light at the end of the tunnel!

There are also a few things to unlike.

  1. The first few years are tough. The pay can be as low as $18.30/h. From this, There is an expectation to buy your own tools, feed yourself and pay rent. In Sydney, unless you have a second job then you almost need to be still living at home.
  2. You can’t dip your toe in the water. You’ve just signed up for four years of training, there’s no pulling out now!
  3. It can be a bit of a baptism of fire. Welcome to the bottom rung of the ladder!

The Last Nail in the Coffin

So there you have it. With luck, you’ll have more of an idea of how/what/when/who and why you’re about to pull the trigger on a woodworking career path.

Good luck and remember

Go Get It Done!