5 Things I Wish I Would Have Known as a Rookie Carpenter

We spoke to a former lead carpenter to find out the five things he wishes he had known before his first day on the job.

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carpenter lining up a long piece of exterior trimConstruction Pro Tips

Starting a new job in any trade can be a nerve-wracking experience. There is a lot to know, and unless you went to trade school or technical college, most of what you need to know will be learned on the job.

To help out, we talked to a former lead carpenter and current Family Handyman set-builder Josh Risberg to find out what five things he wished he had known when starting out as a rookie carpenter.

Get a Tool Belt and Load It Up

Fill your belt with the little tools — things like a scribing tool, torpedo level, speed square and a small pry bar. Having all these on hand right away will save you a lot of time.

“Learn how to use them, too,” Risberg says. “Get familiar with them before you start, especially with the scribing tool. You’ll be using that one a lot.” Plus, the other guys on a crew will take you more seriously if you come prepared and do not have to borrow small tools all the time.

Learn the Lingo

Learn the difference between terms like plumb, level and square. As a rookie, you’ll probably hear these terms thrown around so much your head will spin if you don’t have their definitions straight. “Someone will say something like ‘plumb up the wall’ and you’ll be like, `What?’ ” Risberg says.

Here are the definitions of those terms, in case you were wondering:

Plumb: Straight up and down.

Level: Straight side to side.

Square: Two things coming together at a 90-degree angle.

Be a Team Player

Lay out everything and think about the big picture. Houses are full of interconnecting pieces, so communicating and dealing with the people working on other parts of the project can prevent headaches down the road. Thinking, “I’m a trim guy, I do the trim,” is the wrong mentality to have, Risberg says.

Everyone working on a house is in charge of their piece of the puzzle, and if those pieces don’t ultimately fit together, someone will have to answer for it. Make sure that someone is not you.

Understand That Houses Are Just Weird Sometimes

Don’t assume things are plumb and level, especially in older houses. Wood warps over time and things are not always built exactly as they are supposed to be. “The ceiling might be one height on one end of the room and a whole inch higher on the other,” Risberg says. Basing measurements and lengths on the way things should be instead of the way they actually are could mean a lot of wasted materials and time.

Study the Materials

Learn the properties of specific materials, their strengths and weaknesses, as well as what material works best in which situations. “There are some things you’ll only know if you go out of your way to learn them,” Risberg says. “Like, don’t put standard MDF [medium density fiberboard] in a bathroom because the moisture could make it expand.” Also, pay attention to details. If you need help remembering everything, take notes and review them at the end of the day.

These five things should help a first-time carpenter get into the swing of things on the jobsite a little easier. There are other things that will help out, too. Show up on time, work hard, pay attention… these are standard qualities for anyone who wants to learn and eventually master a job. Combine those with the five “trade secrets” above and you will be working like a veteran trim carpenter in no time.

Harrison Kral
After spending his college summers pouring concrete and building decks, Harrison Kral decided to find a way to put his insider knowledge of construction to use…. just in an air-conditioned setting. He’s an established writer and editor in the DIY space who has written extensively on the home building industry, the housing market, and general DIY trends.