I frequently hear the words “contractor”, “carpenter”, and “woodworker” used interchangeably by homeowners. But, in the construction industry, these three words indicate vastly different occupations Each with its own unique responsibilities.

This article clearly explains the different roles held by these different trade professionals. Ultimately, it will give you better insight into whom you should call when you need to get work done!

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1. Contractor

contractor with hard hat and architectural drawings

“Contractor” is the word that most people use to refer to “General Contractors” (GCs). In fact, the term GC is often misapplied to any professional who works on houses for a living.

Ironically, very few general contractors do any sort of physical trade work at all!

Instead, what general contractors really do is hire other people to carry out work.

In essence, GCs are just project managers. They coordinate construction projects on behalf of clients. Ideally, they ensure that competent, qualified tradespeople are brought in to perform the work in a specified sequence.

For this service, GCs will charge a substantial fee, sometimes 50% or more of the total job valueThat is, 50% or more of the total cost of purchased materials and hired labor.

(The people whom contractors bring in to do the actual work are known as “independent contractors,” or “subcontractors” or subs). These subs might range in size from one-man operations, to substantial companies in their own right.)

What Background Do Contractors Have?

Most GCs have some background in construction, having worked as professional tradespeople at some point in their lives. However, having a trade background is not necessary for becoming a contractor. In my home state of North Carolina, for instance, nearly anyone can declare himself a contractor. But, they can only manage projects up to a certain value.

You can easily see how problems might arise from this situation.

Unscrupulous contractors have a thousand ways to keep profits high and job costs low. Hiring cheap, unqualified subs and using inferior materials are just two tricks for making more money.

For this reason, “contractor” has become something of a dirty word in the trades. At its worst, it implies a dishonest person who does none of the labor, but reaps the maximum reward.

Another Contractors Post You Might Find Helpful:

Previously, I wrote an article on common ways that bad contractors cheat their clients. It can be a helpful reference for anyone in a sticky contracting situation.

To be fair, though, this bad reputation is somewhat unjust.

I know plenty of good GCs who bend over backwards to keep clients happy and fees reasonable. This is while managing the whirlwind of problems that inevitably arise in a construction project.

However, I have also seen enough bad GCs to know that I’ve never really wanted to be associated with that. Nor do I want to spend all my days making calls, writing proposals, and driving endlessly to multiple jobs. I much prefer being a professional tradesman. That way, I’m the one doing the actual work, in the field, with my hands.

Which, brings us to our second example…

2. Carpenter

Contractor or Carpenter driving screws into porch post

Carpenters are tradespeople who build and fix houses and other larger wooden structures.

If that sounds a bit vague, it is.

This is because carpenters generally perform an innumerable variety of tasks. They build houses, decks, sheds, barns, pergolas, porticos, gates. Boardwalks, fences, staircases, doghouses, treehouses, cathouses, etc…

Carpenters puts roofs on houses, floors in houses, and siding on houses.

They run trim on home interiors and exteriors, install doors and windows. They build out closets, hang cabinets, and create yard structures like planter boxes, lattice screens and benches.

In addition, they fix all of these things when they break!

Carpenters often work for GCs

Actually, general contractors hire carpenters to do much of the work that needs to get done on residential jobs. Carpenters often have to collaborate with plumbers, HVAC specialists, electricians, etc., to help those people carry out their work.

doorways with headers framed by contractor

The point, though, is that carpenters do the work.

If you have a smaller job that needs done–a fence repair, for instance–it’s often not necessary to bring a GC into the picture. You can simply hire a freelance carpenter directly on your own. (This is how I get all of my business.)

The size of a job that a carpenter will take on may vary. One-man operations like myself will necessarily stick to smaller work. But, larger carpenter teams can probably tackle just about anything you ask of them.

How about Builders?

The term “builder” is sometimes applied to a trade professional who does a combination of carpentry and contracting. Builders will carry out the work that they specialize in. Often, they do framing, roofing, or siding on a house. Then they hire the other trades that they need to finish the project. (I grew up working for a pretty good builder…I call him Dad.)

Finer carpentry work–such as creating custom built-ins, stain-grade trim, and unique cabinetry–rides a borderline between trade work and true craftsmanship. Not all carpenters can tackle projects this intricate.

Which is where our third example comes in…

3. Woodworker

woodworker in woodworking shop

Bob Batura of Cutting Edge Woodworks

Woodworkers are highly skilled tradespeople who create furniture and other fine wooden structures.

Woodworkers tend to have shops full of very expensive, elaborate tools. And, they pour a higher level of devotion into their work than your typical tradesman.

Because their work is of such a flawless grade, woodworkers tend to take on projects that are quite small. (Compared to, say, a house). They build tables, picture frames, lamps, dressers. Typically, they obsess over the end result.

Why do they work with wood?

Primarily, because they love it! These craftsman rarely make much money from their projects. Only the absolute top tier of woodworkers get legitimately wealthy from their work. And then, only then because their pieces are viewed as true art. Those items fetch gallery prices.

(The most celebrated American woodworker of the last 100 years is undoubtedly Sam Maloof. Eleven presidents have sat in his famous long-tail rocking chairs at the White House. If you haven’t seen Sam Maloof’s deceptively elegant furniture, do yourself a favor and check it out.

They turn their noses up at carpentry!

Self-identified woodworkers often wont take on generic carpentry work. And, most carpenters simply aren’t capable of producing high-end woodworking.

That said, if you want some truly custom, finish-grade accents in your home, the people you most likely want to call are cabinetmakers and trim carpenters.

What do they do?

These tradespeople have a foot in both worlds. They can run exotic, stain-grade trim. Or build custom doors and windows. Even create elaborate bookshelves and built-ins.

But, be sure to have your checkbook ready!

Custom cabinets and trim carpentry can cost a small fortune, far more than people typically seem to expect.

Mass-produced cabinets exist for a reason. Even building straightforward cabinets can be very time-consuming. (And expensive!)

You may be able to find a woodworker who dabbles in cabinetmaking. Or, vice versa. Just remember: a designated furniture maker probably won’t be interested in building your kitchen cabinets.

Contractor, Carpenter, Woodworker Wrap-Up

In summary, remember these three broad definitions when you’re considering whom to call for a project:

General Contractors manage projects and hire subs to do the work.

Carpenters build and fix houses and other large-scale structures.

Woodworkers craft furniture and fine, custom pieces.

Every project you encounter will be best served by one of these unique trade professionals Possibly, more than one!


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