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Significant Points
  • Most woodworkers are trained on the job; basic machine operations may be learned in a few months, but becoming a skilled woodworker often requires 2 or more years.
  • Overall employment is expected to decline.
  • Job prospects will be best for highly skilled woodworkers who produce customized output, which is less susceptible to automation and import competition, and for those who know how to operate computerized numerical control (CNC) machines.
  • Employment is highly sensitive to economic cycles; during economic downturns, workers are subject to layoffs or reductions in hours.
Nature of the Work

Despite the development of sophisticated plastics and other materials, the demand for wood products continues unabated. Helping to meet this demand are woodworkers. Woodworkers are found in industries that produce wood, such as sawmills and plywood mills; in industries that use wood to produce furniture, kitchen cabinets, musical instruments, and other fabricated wood products; and in small shops that make architectural woodwork, furniture, and many other specialty items.

All woodworkers are employed at some stage of the process through which logs of wood are transformed into finished products. Some of these workers produce the structural elements of buildings; others mill hardwood and softwood lumber; still others assemble finished wood products. They operate machines that cut, shape, assemble, and finish raw wood to make the doors, windows, cabinets, trusses, plywood, flooring, paneling, molding, and trim that are components of most homes. Others may fashion home accessories, such as beds, sofas, tables, dressers, and chairs. In addition to these household goods, woodworkers also make sporting goods, including baseball bats and oars, as well as musical instruments, toys, caskets, tool handles, and thousands of other wooden items.

Production woodworkers set up, operate, and tend woodworking machines such as power saws, planers, sanders, lathes, jointers, and routers that cut and shape components from lumber, plywood, and other wood products. In sawmills, sawing machine operators and tenders set up, operate, or tend wood-sawing machines that cut logs into planks, timbers, or boards. In plants manufacturing wood products, woodworkers first determine the best method of shaping and assembling parts, working from blueprints, supervisors’ instructions, or shop drawings that woodworkers themselves produce. Before cutting, they often must measure and mark the materials. They verify dimensions and may trim parts using handtools such as planes, chisels, wood files, or sanders to ensure a tight fit. Woodworking machine operators and tenders set up, operate, or tend specific woodworking machines, such as drill presses, lathes, shapers, routers, sanders, planers, and wood-nailing machines. Lower skilled operators may merely press a switch on a woodworking machine and monitor the automatic operation, whereas more highly skilled operators set up equipment, cut and shape wooden parts, and verify dimensions using a template, caliper, or rule.

The next step in the manufacturing process is the production of subassemblies using fasteners and adhesives. Next, the pieces are brought together to form a complete unit. The product is then finish-sanded; stained; and, if necessary, coated with a sealer, such as lacquer or varnish. Woodworkers may perform this work in teams or be assisted by a helper.

Woodworkers have been greatly affected by the introduction of computer-controlled machinery. This technology has raised worker productivity by allowing one operator to simultaneously tend a greater number of machines. An operator can program a CNC machine to perform a sequence of operations automatically, resulting in greater precision and reliability. The integration of computers with equipment has improved production speed and capability, simplified setup and maintenance requirements, and increased the demand for workers with computer skills.

While this costly equipment has had a great effect on workers in the largest, most efficient firms, precision or custom woodworkers—who generally work in smaller firms—have continued to employ the same production techniques they have used for many years. Workers such as cabinetmakers and bench carpenters, modelmakers and patternmakers, and furniture finishers work on a customized basis, often building one-of-a-kind items. These highly skilled precision woodworkers usually perform a complete cycle of tasks—cutting, shaping, and preparing surfaces and assembling prepared parts of complex wood components into a finished wood product. For this reason, these workers normally need substantial training and an ability to work from detailed instructions and specifications. In addition, they often are required to exercise independent judgment when undertaking an assignment.

Working Conditions

Working conditions vary by industry and specific job duties. In logging and sawmills, for example, working conditions are physically demanding because of the handling of heavy, bulky material. Workers in these industries also may encounter excessive noise, dust, and other air pollutants. However, the use of earplugs and respirators may partially alleviate these problems. Also, rigid adherence to safety precautions minimizes risk of injury from contact with rough wood stock, sharp tools, and power equipment. The risk of injury also is lowered by the installation of computer-controlled equipment, which reduces the physical labor and hands-on contact with machinery.

In furniture and kitchen cabinet manufacturing, employees who operate machinery often must wear ear and eye protection. They also must follow operating safety instructions and use safety shields or guards to prevent accidents. Those who work in the finishing area must be provided with an appropriate dust or vapor mask or a complete protective safety suit, or must work in a finishing environment that removes all vapors and dust particles from the atmosphere. Prolonged standing, lifting, and fitting of heavy objects are common characteristics of the job.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Most woodworkers are trained on the job, picking up skills informally from experienced workers. Most woodworkers learn basic machine operations and job tasks in a few months, but becoming a skilled woodworker often requires 2 or more years.

Woodworkers increasingly acquire skills through vocational education. Some may learn by working as carpenters on construction jobs. Others may attend colleges or universities that offer training in areas including 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 becomes more advanced.

Beginners usually observe and help experienced machine operators. They may supply material to, or remove fabricated products from, machines. Trainees also do simple machine operating jobs while closely supervised by experienced workers, but as beginners gain experience, they perform more complex jobs with less supervision. Some may learn to read blueprints, set up machines, and plan the sequence of the work. 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, science, and computer applications. Other important qualities for entrants in this occupation include mechanical ability, manual dexterity, and the ability to pay attention to detail.

Advancement opportunities often are limited and depend on education and training, seniority, and a worker’s skills and initiative. Sometimes experienced woodworkers become inspectors or supervisors responsible for the work of a group of woodworkers. Production workers often can advance into these positions by assuming additional responsibilities and by attending workshops, seminars, or college programs. Those who are highly skilled may set up their own woodworking shops.


Woodworkers held about 364,000 jobs in 2004. Self-employed woodworkers, mostly cabinetmakers and furniture finishers, accounted for 14 percent of these jobs. Employment among detailed woodworking occupations was distributed as follows:

Cabinetmakers and bench carpenters 148,000
Woodworking machine setters, operators, and tenders, except sawing 92,000
Sawing machine setters, operators, and tenders, wood 58,000
Furniture finishers 34,000
Model makers, wood 3,200
Patternmakers, wood 2,500
All other woodworkers 26,000

Almost 3 out of 4 woodworkers were employed in manufacturing industries. One-third of woodworkers were found in establishments fabricating household and office furniture and fixtures, and 30 percent worked in wood product manufacturing, producing a variety of raw, intermediate, and finished woodstock. Wholesale and retail lumber dealers, furniture stores, reupholstery and furniture repair shops, and construction firms also employ woodworkers.

Woodworking jobs are found throughout the country. However, lumber and wood products-related production jobs are concentrated in the South and Northwest, close to the supply of wood, whereas furnituremakers are more prevalent in the Southeast. Custom shops can be found everywhere, but generally are concentrated in or near highly populated areas.

Job Outlook

Overall employment of woodworkers is expected to decline through 2014, although job growth and opportunities will vary by specialty. In general, opportunities for more highly skilled woodworkers will be better than for woodworkers in specialties susceptible to productivity improvements and competition from imported wood products. Despite the expected overall decline in employment of woodworkers, many job opportunities still will arise each year because of the need to replace experienced woodworkers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force. Firms will need woodworkers with technical skills to operate their increasingly advanced computerized machinery. The number of new workers entering these occupations is expected to be low because, as school systems face tighter budgets, the first programs to be cut often are vocational-technical programs, including those that train woodworkers. Also, interest in pursuing these jobs will continue to decline as workers question the stability of manufacturing occupations. For these reasons, competition should be mild, and opportunities should be best for woodworkers who, through vocational education or experience, develop highly specialized woodworking skills or knowledge of CNC machine tool operation.

Employment of sawing and woodworking machine setters, operators, and tenders is expected to decline through 2014. Jobs in the United States will continue to be lost as imports grow. To remain competitive with these imports, some domestic firms are expected to continue to move their production processes to foreign countries, further reducing employment. Others are using advanced technology, such as robots and CNC machinery, to reduce the number of workers needed in production. These forces will prevent employment from rising with the demand for wood products, particularly in the mills and manufacturing plants where many processes can be automated. Among woodworking machine operators, job prospects will be best for those skilled in CNC machine tool operation.

Employment of furniture finishers is expected to decline. Since furniture is largely mass-produced, it is highly susceptible to import competition; the percentage of furniture sold in the United States that is produced abroad has steadily increased over the past 10 years, a trend that is expected to continue.

Employment of bench carpenters, cabinetmakers, modelmakers, patternmakers, and other specialized woodworking occupations will grow more slowly than the average. Demand for these workers will stem from increases in population, personal income, and business expenditures, in addition to the continuing need for repair and renovation of residential and commercial properties. Therefore, opportunities should be available for those who specialize in items such as moldings, cabinets, stairs, and windows. Firms that focus on custom woodwork will be best able to compete against imports without transferring jobs offshore, so opportunities should be very good in specialized woodworking sectors, such as architectural woodworking. Modelmakers and patternmakers who know how to create and execute designs on a computer may have the best opportunities.

Employment in all woodworking specialties is highly sensitive to economic cycles. During economic downturns, workers are subject to layoffs or reductions in hours.


Median hourly earnings of cabinetmakers and bench carpenters were $12.16 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $9.69 and $15.51. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $8.00, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $19.28. Median hourly earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of cabinetmakers and bench carpenters in May 2004 are shown below:

Office furniture (including fixtures) manufacturing $13.42
Household and institutional furniture and kitchen cabinet manufacturing 11.83
Other wood product manufacturing 11.82

Median hourly earnings of sawing machine setters, operators, and tenders, wood, were $10.91 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $8.95 and $13.34. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $7.46, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $16.20. Median hourly earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of sawing machine setters, operators, and tenders, wood, in May 2004, are shown below:

Sawmills and wood preservation $11.82
Veneer, plywood, and engineered wood product manufacturing 11.49
Household and institutional furniture and kitchen cabinet manufacturing 10.65
Other wood product manufacturing 10.49

Median hourly earnings of woodworking machine setters, operators, and tenders, except sawing, were $10.93 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $8.93 and $13.40. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $7.55, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $16.33. Median hourly earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of woodworking machine setters, operators, and tenders, except sawing, in May 2004, are shown below:

Office furniture (including fixtures) manufacturing $11.66
Veneer, plywood, and engineered wood product manufacturing 11.19
Household and institutional furniture and kitchen cabinet manufacturing 11.00
Sawmills and wood preservation 10.83
Other wood product manufacturing 10.47

In May 2004, median hourly earnings were $11.35 for furniture finishers and $10.16 for all other woodworkers.

Some woodworkers, such as those in logging or sawmills who are engaged in processing primary wood and building materials, are members of the International Association of Machinists. Others belong to the United Brotherhood of carpenters and Joiners of America.

Related Occupations

Carpenters also work with wood. In addition, many woodworkers follow blueprints and drawings and use machines to shape and form raw wood into a final product. Workers who perform similar functions working with other materials include sheet metal workers, structural and reinforcing iron and metal workers, computer-control programmers and operators, Machinists, and tool and die makers.

Sources of Additional Information

For information about woodworking occupations, contact local furniture manufacturers, sawmills and planing mills, cabinetmaking or millwork firms, lumber dealers, a local of one of the unions mentioned above, or the nearest office of the State employment service.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition

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