I own and operate a custom woodworking shop. We manufacture architectural pieces, such as doors, windows, moldings, trim, and cabinets. Doing custom work means that if someone comes in with a piece of trim that’s 150 years old, we can reproduce it.
Right now I have an entire house’s worth of millwork laid out in my shop. It’s for a new construction that is meant to look like an old Victorian home.
I might be doing drawings for different custom tooling or figuring out the design by mocking it up. For example, I’ll make part of a piece to figure out how something will go together.
I’ll make a rough-cut list of the quantity of material I need, doing calculations to figure out how to maximize it. I’m also pulling out pieces from my inventory to work with.
My training was pretty much in the field, working in the trade. I first started working in a cabinet and furniture shop in high school.
Then I went to college and started doing bench carpentry work. I was working alongside master craftspeople and learning from them.
My last job before I opened my own shop was with an architectural millwork company that specializes in historic restoration. We made window sashes, doors, moldings, things like that.
I use math, such as geometry and trigonometry. For the business aspect, communication skills are essential so you can present yourself well and communicate clearly with clients.
Studying sculpture at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design gave me a more critical eye and taught me how to look at things correctly, such as how to tell when something is out of proportion.
But you don’t really need a degree to do what I do. I went to college because I was interested in art. I had an interest in furniture design, and I thought studying art would help me further that interest. Furniture designing didn’t really go anywhere for me, though.
Wood, to me, is magical; it’s beautiful. Working with wood when I was a kid in my dad’s workshop, I was drawn to the material more than anything. I wanted to try making a career of it.
Mostly by word of mouth. My shop regularly works with a handful of contractors and architects. I’ll do the design work, or clients will show me their drawings and say, “Make this.” Or they’ll bring in old wood or pieces of things they want remade.
We mostly work on a bid system. Sometimes, although rarely, we bill for the cost of time and materials.
There are a lot of things. I love my work, and I’ve always been compensated well for it.
I get to use a variety of different machines and hand tools, like a joiner, table saw, and chisel. But mostly, I like producing something tangible at the end of the day.
Find a mentor. Listen, and take in as much as you can from people who have been doing this kind of work for a long time.
When thinking about where to work, know that, in bigger shops, it’s more like an assembly line. In smaller shops, there may not be as much opportunity to move up the ladder. But be patient. You’ll definitely be learning a lot.
Elka Torpey, "Woodworker," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 2016.