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How To Become A Carpenter

Blog header image for interview with A Lister Carpentry

Like with many careers, there are various ways to become a carpenter, joiner or cabinetmaker. Although most individuals enter the profession following a college course or apprenticeship, it’s also possible to be a self-taught carpenter. Without a doubt, it’s crucial to have a solid knowledge of woodwork. 

In the second edition of our career spotlight series, we spoke with Antonia Lister, a female carpenter from Newcastle Upon Tyne. Antonia tells us about her unique journey into carpentry and discusses her work impacts everyday life.

What education or training have you completed to become a Carpenter?

I came to my current career relatively late, and I don’t have any formal carpentry qualifications. I worked in marketing for nearly 10 years before changing careers, and have learned all my current skills on my own, at first through renovating my own house and then learning on the job, reading books, researching online and practising skills in my own time. There’s a very active community of carpenters, cabinetmakers, woodworkers and other makers online, especially on Youtube and Instagram, who I continue to learn from and can ask for advice from time to time on specific projects.

Is formal training necessary as a Carpenter?

It depends exactly what type of carpentry you want to do – there are probably as many routes in as there are ways to work with wood. College courses and apprenticeships are an option as well as less formal routes. I took a less formal one. Sometimes elements of jobs overlap with different trades and these are best completed by a qualified expert (e.g. some plumbing and electrical work), but there’s plenty you can do without formal qualifications if you have the skills and tools. There’s no qualification required to make a beautiful piece of furniture, put up some sturdy shelves or hang a door. Many people seem to start doing more handyman (handyhuman?) type work, or making furniture as a hobby and progressing towards bespoke carpentry and built-in furniture as their skills improve.

What personal qualities help you be happy and successful in your job?

I’m not afraid of hard work, but I also really value flexibility, so being self-employed suits me. It takes resilience to run your own business as it can be stressful – a positive attitude comes in handy. Good organisation and communication skills help me to plan my diary, keep track of different projects, keep on top of my admin and keep customers in the loop. A reasonable grasp of maths is useful for planning projects, taking measurements, ordering materials and managing finances. Of course in my job you need to be very practical and fairly physically fit too – I’m good at working with my hands and I also have a good imagination to picture how a finished project will transform a space.

How does your job impact your health?

Being active all day definitely feels better than sitting at a desk all day, and I’m sure it helps keep me fit. On the other hand, sometimes being knackered from long, physical days can make it hard to get out to the gym on an evening. Since I have active hobbies too I have to be careful not to overdo it – you can’t go 100mph all the time. You can run yourself into the ground if you don’t have enough time to recover, so I try to strike a healthy balance.

Mentally, being your own boss can be amazing sometimes and awful other times, but for me it works out overall. It can be stressful shouldering all the responsibility yourself, and sometimes it’s hard to shut off and stop thinking about work. On the other hand, I don’t have anyone telling me what to do, I can plan my own days and run my business how I like.

Tell us about an average day at work.

There’s no such thing! I work on such a variety of small projects that it’s really hard to say. I guess I mainly have three types of days:

  • On-site: Leave mine and head to customer around 8am, possibly via my workshop or a supplier to collect materials. Start by setting up tools to cut materials outside (hopefully it isn’t raining!) and cover indoor spaces with dust sheets. Bring tools and materials in and crack on until finished. Hopefully, I won’t have to leave the job to pick up extra materials if I have been organised enough in advance. Some jobs last several days – I will generally leave tools and materials on-site between days. At the end of a job the cleanup always takes longer than you think, gathering tools back together, sweeping and hoovering and loading up the van. The van WILL be a bombsite – remember to sort that out later.
  • Workshop days: these are days spent making things for customers in my workshop (AKA my garage) and might include trips to collect materials, waiting around for deliveries, planning jobs, organising tools, re-stocking consumables like screws and adhesives etc.
  • Admin days: these days are spent visiting customers to quote, planning and designing jobs at the computer, organising receipts, sending invoices, renewing insurance policies, sorting out the van and all the other things that come along with running a small business.

And then there’s evenings and weekends: sometimes these are the only times you can coordinate with a customer for a quote or the only chance you get to do desk-based work, so I give up a fair few of these too!

What advice would you offer someone interested in becoming a Carpenter?

If you’re at a point in your life where a college course or apprenticeship is realistic, definitely consider it, but it’s not the only way. If you already have the skills to get started, you can start by taking on smaller jobs to build your experience and customer base, and grow things from there. Maybe you’ll need another source of income as a backup for a while. It can be tough to get started – there might be times when you don’t have enough work, where a customer lets you down and you can’t book something else in, or you underquote for a job, so you need to be prepared for this. It’s really useful if you can get to know other people who do similar things – it might result in recommendations for work, the opportunity to work together and learn from them or just someone to bounce ideas off or ask for help or ideas on a particular project.

See more of Antonia’s projects on her Instagram account.

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