We’ve all had our breath taken away by a beautiful wooden home or building, or stared in rapt attention at the framing of a home when it’s first raised to the sky. A smooth table with custom woodwork or even a well-worn bar stool can elicit a sort of nostalgia from even the most hardened of hearts. Carpentry is one of the oldest forms of human artistry, and without these skills, many of the landmarks we know and love throughout history would have never come to be. Carpentry is more than just the know-how to put two pieces of wood together or cut a 2-by-4, it’s being able to look at a tree, a piece of wood, or even a pile of sheetrock and see the end result inside of the materials.
Whether you’re getting into carpentry for the first time, or are looking to learn a little bit more about the history of the craft, once you dive into this stunning discipline you’ll never look at even the simplest shelf the same way again.
What is Carpentry?
While carpentry used to refer to the art of building with wood, in modern times it has evolved to include building structures out of many different materials, including plastic, fiberglass, drywall, and more. A skilled carpenter does still need a strong background in woodworking to truly master carpentry, but their skill set expands to the whole scope of construction and craftsmanship needed to complete projects both large and small.
Carpentry is more than just connecting pieces together to build a structure. A carpenter must understand the materials they are working with; they need a strong grasp on both planning and physics to ensure that their structures stay upright and endure even the toughest of storms.
And, of course, a good carpenter is aware of sustainable building methods to help preserve the environment, prevent deforestation, and to reduce building costs. Carpenters use a mix of electric and hand tools to craft seamless, beautiful designs and buildings that stand against the test of time. So the next time you appreciate a well-worked cabinet or a four-story building, take a moment to think about the carpentry skills needed to create that work of art.
History of Carpentry
Lumber has been around since before humankind took their first steps on the planet, and has served as one of the keystone building implements throughout history. Woodworking tools can be traced back thousands of years thanks to archaeology, and while the size and complexity of the projects at hand may have changed, many of the tools carpenters use today, including hand planes and chisels, have been around since the Middle Ages or even longer back.
In the past, long before framing nailers, finish nailers, and brad nailers were readily available, carpenters had to master the art of holding together structures using only wood. These structures used wooden joints to lock together pieces of wood into a solid construction that would last for generations or had wooden dowels used to pin pieces together. Once the wood expanded, these pins would lock the wood into place. Carpenters still use wood joints to hold some projects together, though in many cases wood glue or other substances are used to ensure the joints don’t weaken over time.
In the past, each town needed at least one carpenter to keep things running smoothly. Carpenters not only helped build structures like barns, churches, and homes, they also helped repair wagons, crafted barrels, and built furniture. While carpentry has become more accessible thanks to the prevalence of power tools and air compressors, these same skills carry over to the modern day, where no building project is ready to get off the ground without a master carpenter at the helm.
Tools for Carpentry
Carpentry tools run the gamut from general tools like saws, drills, and levels, to specialized tools meant for detail working and precision. A true carpenter has a mix of manual and electric tools at their disposal, and never goes anywhere without their handy laser level, utility knife, sawhorse, and measuring tape.
Saws are one of the most important carpentry tools, second only to measuring tapes, of course. From band saws, mitre saws, angle grinders, cordless circular saws, corded circular saws, table saws, reciprocating saws, and scroll saws to jigsaws and everything in between, making sure that each piece of framing and wood joint are the correct length for the project at hand is the difference between a beautiful end result and a home that looks fit for the crooked man and his crooked cat.
Drills, drill presses, screwdrivers, rotary tools, wood routers, stud finders, and hammers are all indispensable pieces of technology for carpenters, not to mention a handy nail or staple gun. And with the addition of a tool belt and worktable, any project is sure to get off to the right start.
For detail-oriented projects, or for those pieces of wood that just don’t line up quite right on their own, a chisel and hand plane can take the edge off of any sticking joint or rough surface, and a final swipe with sandpaper, either by hand or with an orbital sander or electric sander, can smooth out any kinks in seconds flat.
For bigger projects, there are heavy duty machines that can make projects much easier. Jointer planer combos, drum sanders, belt grinders, cabinet saws, and wood lathes are examples of these. There are also tools that will help keep a wood shop clean, like shop a shop vacuum or a dust collector.
Carpentry is one of the foundations of human creativity, allowing us to take simple materials and craft them into large structures or tiny keepsakes. From the keeps of Medieval castles to the scaffolding around the Empire State Building, creating a sign with a CNC router, or even installing a barn door, carpentry helps us build things outside of the average imagination, and helps keep us safe and warm inside our homes thanks to the talent and know-how needed to ensure that structures stand the test of time. Whether you are looking to get more hands-on with your next building project, or are simply curious about what makes a master carpenter a true master, there is no denying that carpentry has a rich history that can be traced back to long before humans developed writing. From the city of Ur to artisan craftsman in Tokyo, carpentry has a wide-ranging history across the planet, one that continues to expand and explore while still honoring the techniques from the past. So take a moment to appreciate the incredible works of craftsmen worldwide before you strap on your tool belt and start planning your next carpentry monument. Just make sure to bring your tape measure.
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