The Eleven Percent: Meet Melinde Madsen, Production Carpenter

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Melinde Madsen talks about learning new skills, matching tools with her body type and what's in her tool bag.

This FH series introduces readers to a few of the women who make up 11 percent of the construction workforce in the U. S., spotlighting stories of their careers in the field. Know someone we should feature? Email us here.

Melinde Madsen loves to make things. In college she studied woodworking, bronze casting and metalwork, creating sculptures aplenty. But while she excelled at those crafts, she didn’t truly consider herself a fine artist.

So when she was offered a job as a production carpenter at Minneapolis-based building and remodeling company Terra Firma, she saw it as the perfect opportunity to keep adding to her skill set.

“Working as a carpenter has been a great way for me to continue my education,” she says. “Even though I have a background in woodworking, carpentry focuses a lot more on the structural side of building. It’s a bit of a challenge, but it’s been really fun.”

Madsen is wrapping up her first year at Terra Firma. So far she’s learned hands-on skills, from demolition to framing. Recently she’s been enjoying a lot of trim work. She also works as a studio technician at St. Olaf College, where she manages student workers, fixes tools and handles administrative and budgeting tasks.

In her free time, she still pursues her love of creating useful things, including carving spoons.

We asked Madsen for her thoughts on the state of the carpentry industry.

Q: What are your favorite types of carpentry projects?

A: One of the first houses I worked on, I was there from start to finish, doing demolition, framing and trim, so that holds a special place in my heart.

I love working on old houses in general because I get to see how carpentry techniques, wood and building materials have changed over the years. Demos are fun that way; taking apart what’s been done in the past and seeing the though processes of the people who worked on them before. I also recently got to learn some timber framing. It’s a whole art in itself.

I’ve been here a year and I’ve learned so much, but I’ve barely scratched the surface. There’s so much to it. With remodeling, every building is different and every project is a new experience. I love working on tiny trim details and figuring out how to make it look the most aesthetically pleasing.

I also like examining the old woodworking and timbers from 100 years ago. You can see the old-growth rings and tell the tree was cut down from a forest, rather than grown on a timber farm. They’re gorgeous and they’ve held up for so long.

I’m making a collection of scraps that were getting trashed, different types of wood that I’ve found on the jobsite, like redwood and tropical hardwoods. It’s fun to have little mementos.

Q: What’s it like being a woman in the carpentry trade?

Melinde madsen using an ax to shape some woodcourtesy Melinde madsen

A: I’m pretty small, so I can fit in small places and do a lot of tight jobs, which is great. My physical strength is sometimes a challenge, but there are so many ways to accommodate that, like using leverage to my advantage.

Finding clothes, boots and tool belts that fit and are of good quality is a challenge, too, because even the smallest sizes of men’s Carhartts are just swimming on me.

My boss at St. Olaf, Christie Hawkins, was telling me how there were only a few women when she started out as a carpenter, so she really had to kick some ass to show she was worthy of being there. I’m very fortunate I have not had to do a ton of that. The people I work with are so great, welcoming and eager to teach. We work as a great team, and if I’m lifting something super heavy, they don’t even ask, they just give me a hand.

And I surprise them sometimes. Like, I’ve been doing metal work and welding for a while, and once while we were cutting this big steel beam they asked if I wanted to try. I was like, “Yeah, sure, let’s go.” They loved that I just wanted to jump in. My team is just wonderful, and Terra Firma is a great place for me to be.

Q: How do you imagine the future of carpentry?

A: I’ve seen a lot more women going into sculpture, and I’m hoping that will lead to more women in the trades as well. Our company is also starting to hire more women and nonbinary people, which is something I really hope continues because it’s fun to see us have more representation, as well as to work for a company that is pushing to be more inclusive.

Q: Any advice for young women looking to get into carpentry?

A: Just do it. If that’s something you’re passionate about, it can’t hurt to give it a shot. Also, one way to find the support you need to get started is through woodworking communities and tool libraries. They can help get you learning and working on a lot of fun stuff.

Q: What are your top pro-specific tools?

A: I test out a lot of other people’s tools to find ones that really work for my body, to keep myself healthy and not overstrain. I mostly use DeWalt, but I’ve started to love Makita because their tools are light and have a lot of power.

For trim tools, I really like these clamps because they’re handy for miter corners. My favorite trim tool is this Lee Valley rasp — the one that’s half-round in shape and pointed. I use it often when I’m trimming. Then I have my Sloyd knife with a sheath, which is good for sharpening pencils and cutting loose things, and I use it for carving spoons, too.

My combination square is super handy. Of course, I always need a tape. Then I have a Japanese pull saw for flesh cutting and details. My pry bar gives me a lot of leverage, and that’s something I really need. I had a smaller one, which I hated and never used. Then I got this one, and it’s now my favorite thing — my big wrecking bar I use all the time because it’s so effortless.

Melinde Madsen Bio

Melinde Madsen is a first-year carpenter apprentice at Terra Firma in Minneapolis and also works as a studio technician at St. Olaf College. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in studio art and art history with a concentration in women and gender studies.

Her area of focus in studio art was sculpture, working in woodworking, bronze casting, and metal work. In her personal time she enjoys making things for everyday use as well as carving cooking utensils.

Writer Karuna Eberl Bio

Karuna Eberl is a regular contributor to FamilyHandyman.com. She’s spent the last 25 years as a freelance journalist and filmmaker, telling stories of people, nature, travel, science and history. Eberl has won numerous awards for her writing, her Florida Keys Travel Guide and her documentary, The Guerrero Project.

Karuna Eberl
Karuna writes about wildlife, nature, history and travel for magazines, newspapers and websites including National Geographic, National Parks, Discovery Channel, Atlas Obscura and the High Country News. She's also produced a number of independent films and directed the documentary The Guerrero Project, about the search for a sunken slave ship. She and her husband, Steve, wrote an award-winning guidebook to the Florida Keys and are currently completely renovating an abandoned house in a ghost town. She holds a B.A. in journalism and geology from the University of Montana. Member of OWAA, SATW.