Are Cabinet Makers Carpenters?

Mulling over the dividing line between skilled tradesmen who all build things out of wood ó but in different ways. July 20, 2011

I was just denied a professional level job at a government agency because the employer stated that my "12 years of experience in cabinetry and finish carpentry do not qualify as basic carpentry skills." Does this bother anyone besides me? Or have I completely misunderstood the definition of a carpenter?

Forum Responses
(Cabinet and Millwork Installation Forum)
From contributor S:
Who builds or remodels the house, the cabinet man or the carpenter? Who fixes the leaky roof, cabinet man or carpenter? Something in your interview must have made them think you weren't right for their position. I don't know you, but maybe it's their loss.

From contributor H:
A carpenter can be a cabinetmaker. But few cabinetmakers can be carpenters. You shot yourself in the foot somewhere in the interview.

From contributor D:
A cabinetmaker builds cabinets, millwork and furniture and works primarily in a shop. A carpenter works on jobsites building structures out of wood and wood substitutes. Finishing carpenters sometimes install the cabinets and millwork the cabinetmaker builds.

From the original questioner:
Sounds like I misunderstand the term "carpenter." I am from Norway, and to me it appears that in America the common term "carpenter" really means "framer." Based on this idea, am I correct that a finish carpenter isn't actually a carpenter? I don't mean to argue, and I do know the difference between finish carpentry and framing carpentry, but isn't anyone who works with wood a carpenter? I am just a little confused.

From contributor R:
No, I am way more than a carpenter, I am a cabinetmaker. I hate it when people call me a carpenter. And I disagree with the following: "A carpenter can be a cabinetmaker, but few cabinetmakers can be carpenters." I think this is backwards. I really don't think a carpenter can build cabinets. I have never met one that could. The carpenters I know have trouble operating a table saw. But give one a skill saw and look out.

From contributor O:
A lot of us were carpenters before we became woodworkers. I was trained as a carpenter, then concentrated on trim carpentry, which led me to become a cabinetmaker. Me and my guys are woodworkers because we do much more than build cabinets. But if that was me, with my background, I'd be pissed.

From contributor D:
I am a carpenter. I did a four year apprenticeship in Canada, I wrote an exam and my certificate is recognized across the country. Carpenters do framing, finish carpentry and concrete formwork. We are broadly trained but most of us specialize. I specialized in finish carpentry, but I am able to do all aspects of the trade.

Cabinetmakers or industrial woodworkers are an entirely different trade in Canada. Another trade that is related to carpentry is interior systems mechanics, who do drywall and interior wall and ceiling finishes.

I install a lot of work done by cabinetmakers and I have a shop where I build cabinets and other millwork, but I was never trained to do this work professionally.

From contributor I:
There are framers, finish carpenters and trim installers. The difference between the finish carpenter and the trim installer is that the finish carpenter can do far more and be skilled in not only carpentry, but joinery as well, whereas the trim installer basically gets trim packs from the lumberyard and nails them up.

With regard to being a cabinetmaker, one can go directly into cabinetmaking/woodworking without ever working in the building industry. That is very different from going to a jobsite and framing the structure or installing windows and doors, properly flashing the exterior, sidewalling, building stairways, etc. Whereas the next logical step for a finish carpenter would be cabinetmaking and usually is part of his/her skill set.

I think that is what the job posting was looking for. Someone skilled in framing/trim work. Anyway, why would you want to leave the warm comfort of a nice shop to be standing in the mud on a drizzly day in the low 40s trying to frame a deck or install trim in a home with only portable kerosene heaters for warmth?

From contributor T:
During the heyday, if you had a pickup, a hammer and a dog, you were a carpenter

From contributor K:
I used to get mad when they call me a carpenter too, but now as long as they spell my name correctly on the check, they can call me whatever they want.

From contributor H:
If you're a cabinetmaker, and you have the skills to frame a house or building from plans, build a deck, add a legal room on a house, I would call you a carpenter, besides being a cabinetmaker. On the list of skills, add carpenter.

Then there's being a builder, for which all you need is a big truck, a dog, and a cell phone - no tape measure, as you borrow one from the cabinetmaker and then you keep it. Deposits and final payments - you get to keep those also. Carpenters that work as contractors are much more honest than builders - they're the good guys in this depression.

From contributor S:
Some of the finest cabinets I have ever seen were made by a carpenter! Not trying to tick anyone off here, but carpenters are all around more skilled that cabinetmakers. How good can you build cabinets outside, in the mud or rain working on uneven ground? Both groups are skilled in what they do, but to say a carpenter can't build cabinets is wrong.

From contributor C:
Besides building cabinets I do custom molding and trim work, built-ins and more. I proudly call myself a carpenter because there are a lot of skills involved and besides, the average person couldnít tell the difference between one trade and the other.

A lot of those government types have to watch their back sides. Thatís what they get paid to do, right? If they hire someone who could show them up or do a better job, they couldnít justify their position any longer, so why should they put their job in jeopardy?

From contributor N:
A skilled worker who makes, finishes, and repairs wooden objects and structures, per the definition of the word. Me, I like being called a fabricator over anything else. I rarely build cabinets by the definition of the word.

From contributor Q:
It would appear that depending where you are, you could be called any number of things. There is nothing wrong with being called a carpenter, whether you are doing framing, finishing or cabinets. Sometimes if you call yourself a cabinetmaker, customers equate that to more money. If someone asks me what I am, I say I build furniture. I don't call myself one thing or another, but I have done all of the above. Unfortunately there are a lot of people who think carpenter is the same as a handy man. After talking to carpenters from overseas, it would appear that in North America we don't get the respect for a trade that we would elsewhere.

From contributor A:
I refer to myself as an old school finish carpenter when people really ask about my background. I primarily work in the shop and do install work when it is necessary or interesting. However, I was trained as an architectural woodworker for 3 years and a finish carpenter for 2 years. Been on my own for 10 years doing the small shop/finish carpenter thing for a couple of years and then full time shop dude. When we set up shop in an 8000 sqft house for 4 months, we were certainly doing more than trim work, but less than high end libraries. This year I remodeled my carriage house and house. All new plumbing, electrical, cabinets, framing, some sheet rock, etc.

From contributor X:
The term "carpenter" as defined by a dictionary means one who builds or repairs wooden structures. There are more specialized aspects to the title carpenter. A framer is a carpenter who specializes in rough framing new houses or bigger remodels. A finish carpenter is someone who installs base, crown, trim, perhaps cabinets. The ones I mentioned are residential. You also have commercial, which has a niche of its own. These are just my understanding.

If you ask me, it matters little what you started as or end up as - carpenter, cabinetmaker, woodworker, etc. They all require skill and have value, and at the end of the day if you enjoy what you do and can make a living from it, count your blessings.

From contributor Y:
I was a PM in the trade show industry, located in the Southern US. All of our shop hands were union carpenters. I think union only to get into those places that require union workers. Very talented folks they are - some of them work with wood, build cabinets, weld, HPL, electrical wiring.

A carpenter in Atlanta both builds and wires an exhibit and the customer is required to hire an electrician to plug it in, in Chicago.

We all have a range of skills, some of which we learn by exposure and some that are natural to us. Does not mean you cannot learn the others. Also your location may use a term such as "carpenter" to define a slightly different aspect of the wood industry.

But when asked, I claim to be a cabinetmaker, not a carpenter. I am certified CAD as well and a CNC operator and, as I'm self-employed, the chief cook and bottle washer.

From the original questioner:
I am glad that so many of you have responded. When I wrote the first post I was very upset because I truly felt that I am a carpenter, but after reading many of your responses, it seems that I probably should identify myself as a cabinetmaker or a woodworker.

It is hard for me to have my skills questioned by someone who sits at a desk all day and has no idea what a carpenter or cabinetmaker really does. I think we all are carpenters in one way or another. We all have a deep love and respect for wood, and we take a lot of pride in what we can do with it. Whether that is framing houses or building the pretty little boxes that go inside the houses!

I have learned a lot from this thread. I guess I will just try to keep my head up and continue looking for work in other places. And maybe I will lie on my next resume! Just kidding. Thank you all very much.

From contributor D:
What really bothers me is, after enduring a 4 year apprenticeship and 30 years in the trade, having a laid off factory worker that goes out and buys some tools at Home Depot and a pickup truck then hang out a shingle saying he's a carpenter, and there's not a damn thing I can do about it.

From contributor C:
As a former chef who trained in a professional restaurant and management school, I learned a particularly harsh lesson early. The school's management decided to open up the curriculum and split the school into components, each class specialising in a subject. At the end of the course, each participant got a diploma from the school similar to mine. I felt gypped! This left me wondering what the heck happened to all the money I spent on a degree. There were a lot of gripes and veiled threats by my classmates who didnít like the idea that their prestige was going to be hurt.

I was a chef for almost 20 years and I did not like people calling me a cook! Iíve seen a lot of good chefs and many bad ones. Some of the better ones were self taught who took night classes; some of the worst I have worked for learned for 6 years and had tons of experience!

I am a self taught carpenter, woodworker, cabinetmaker? Where does that leave me? I now do this exclusively for a living; does this make me a professional? Does this take away from anyone elseís accomplishments? The question could be asked what makes a carpenter, woodworker, cabinetmaker a carpenter, woodworker, cabinetmaker? Iím not sure if there is one right answer.

From contributor B:
A quote from my website: "...In the traditional sense, after the carpenters framed the home, the joiners would arrive to do the finish work, splitting their duties between the shop and the structure being built. The joiners would mill and install the floors, wall panels, doors, windows, trim, staircases, carvings, built-ins and cabinets. Molding details would vary from structure to structure, based on the tools that particular joiner had in his collection and, when necessary, would make the tooling for the profiles required..."

From contributor W:
It's my understanding that government jobs are often union jobs, which means defining yourself as a carpenter according to the United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC) or other appropriate trade union. According to the UBC, Construction Carpenters, Cabinet Makers, Millworkers, Millwrights, Drywall and Plasterers, Bridge Builders and Concrete Workers (to name but a few) are all considered carpenters.

The acquisition of basic carpentry skills as defined by the UBC means the successful completion of their general apprenticeship program or the procurement of a Journeyman's Certificate through qualifying application. Specialized accredited job training programs are also available under the auspices of your local trade union and through community colleges and elsewhere. A CDM Certificate, for example, is the Cabinet Display Millworkers Union and (I believe) a division within the UBC.

And no, I am not making a pitch for the union here, but sometimes it helps to have a little card in your wallet that says you are a carpenter! Of course cabinetmakers are carpenters. What else would you be? (I am still not sure about those concrete guys though.)

From contributor Z:
In my humble opinion, a master carpenter can build a house, cabinets or furniture, and do as good a job as most cabinetmakers or furniture makers, whereas a lot of cabinetmakers or furniture makers couldn't frame a house or scribe a log. Of course, there are fewer and fewer master craftsmen around for all of the reasons stated previously. There are a lot more specialists out there than all-around carpenters, and the lack of respect and money doesn't make it any easier.

From contributor P:
What would you call the guy who forms the concrete? Especially on tilts. As I recall, guys that worked underwater on oil rigs were part of the carpenters union.

From contributor W:
I was kidding about concrete workers. Of course these form setter guys are all carpenters. Here are some new ones...

The floor covering guy, including carpet, tile, stone and vinyl.
Installers of office and ceiling fixtures and furniture, including interiors for ships and planes.
Movie and stage set builders.
Building demolition.
Erectors of steel stud framing for walls and partitions.
Pile drivers for roads, bridges, piers and building foundations.

I think I am getting well off the point here, but cabinetmakers and millworkers are definitely a big part of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.

From contributor V:
The difference between a carpenter and a cabinetmaker, here where I am, is about a quarter of an inch. Boom! Thank you very much.

From contributor M:
We are a carpentry company. Most of our guys are carpenters, but we started to do a lot finish/millwork, so we hired cabinetmakers to work in the shop. Our apprentice carpenters have to work in our shop for six months. They also have to work with our own drywall crew doing metal framing, sheeting and finishing for a couple of months. When they are done, they are carpenters, but will have a lot more skills than most carpenters.

From contributor F:
I think it is safe to say that in America the trades have been branched out into specialties for a long time. The truth is that a site carpenter and a shop carpenter have very different duties and very different skill sets.

If I were to take a job as a site carpenter, it would be quickly apparent to a seasoned site carpenter that I was green. I have a bit of experience at rough carpentry due to working on my own homes, but it wouldn't make much difference when comparing me with a site carpenter who equaled my years of experience.

Same would be true of a guy who has worked onsite exclusively coming into a cabinet shop... His inexperience would be obvious.

To say that a carpenter can build as fine a grade of cabinets as a seasoned cabinetmaker is absurd. There are always exceptions, such as a site carpenter that has his own cabinet shop, but in general a site carpenter does not have the tools it takes to make high grade cabinetry, or the experience. It would be fair to say that a site carpenter is able to build some sort of cabinet and that a shop carpenter would be able to build some sort of building, but I wouldn't go any further.

From contributor E:
I have been a carpenter for 35 years, and am very proud of it. Where I live in a small town in Iowa, I have to be equally adept at building a 400,000 variable pitch roofed house, pole barn, cathedral cabinet doors, laminate work, siding, roofing, etc. To frame houses that are being built today, the framing guy is as talented as the cabinet guy, in my opinion. Anyone can build a cabinet, granted not as nice as we who have worked in cabinet shops, but to try to get 2 or 3 different pitches on a roof to work out, not everyone can do that.

From contributor U:
And that 1/4" difference between the carpenter and the cabinetmaker is in the length of their index fingers. Remember, "Don't use remaining fingers as push sticks."

From contributor G:
The difference between a cabinetmaker and a carpenter... It's the style and size/weight of hammer one uses for the job one has. A brad verses a 16 penny nail. Both can be hammered, but at what finesse is it done?

From contributor J:
I worked in a shop for about 12 years. Now I work on site doing cabinet installs and various other finish carpentry projects, with some rough carpentry thrown in here and there to pay the bills. I can honestly say that my shop experience is more valuable in the field than my field experience would be in the shop.

From contributor L:
I live in Canada, in S.Ontario, and have worked all over North America, and in Europe, to some degree. I was born in the province of New Brunswick and trained by masters. When we built a custom home we worked from the ground up. We built the cabinets in the house, installed plaster board when time allowed, and did all of the finish carpentry. We were taught as much as possible about the entire job, as carpenters were usually responsible for all of the other trades on site. I have worked on homes from 1200 to 50 thousand sq feet, and built wall units and kitchens and many types of cabinets. Every day I thank the men who taught me and I only wish that there were young people willing to learn and the time and money to do just that. We suffer from not enough new blood and too many under trained people. The difference really depends on the person, but the more one knows about the other, the better it is for all of us in the trade.

From contributor NN:
I couldn't help but laugh at some of the responses here. Having a carpenter build fine custom cabinets is like having a house painter paint your family portrait.

From contributor SS:
Hogwash. Most of the people I know who work at cabinet shops went to tech school for carpentry. A competent carpenter can build cabinets and vice-versa.

From contributor NN:
I don't think anyone is suggesting carpenters are incapable of building cabinets - they can build almost anything out of wood. How well and how accurate they build them is a whole other question.

From contributor R:
That is the question, isn't it. I don't think the average carpenter is capable of building cabinets to an acceptable level. Like I have said before, give most carpenters a skill saw and get out of the way, but a table and a jointer could be a problem. Then if it comes to a CNC router, forget it. This is all based on the premise that a majority of carpenters are framers and few are finish carpenters.

From contributor BB:
I have my own business in the UK and I specialise in making freestanding and fitted furniture. I consider myself a cabinetmaker. A good friend is a general carpenter. Things like scribing are more his skill set than mine, not because he can't do what I do and vice versa, but because he doesn't have the experience. On the other hand, I know someone else who calls himself a carpenter but makes furniture (badly).

By trade my dad was a heating engineer, but after finishing college he changed careers and moved into making replica antique furniture, but when asked his profession, he didn't say heating engineer. Surely this debate should be how you define what you do on an every day basis.

In the UK there are 3 types of woodworker:
1. Carpenters, aka chippies. These do the general fix stuff, roofing, etc.
2. Joiners - this is in two categories, bench and site. Finer things like windows, stairs budget kitchens.
3. Cabinetmakers. These will make the finer things for the home such as bespoke furniture, fitted and freestanding. Things you'll find in large houses such as custom kitchens, bathrooms, etc. Things that have style and are designed and carefully hand finished.

Cabinetmakers work to the 1000th of an inch, joiners work to the 100th of an inch, and carpenters work on the closet job to home.