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 will clearly explain the different roles held by these different trade professionals. And, ultimately, it will give you better insight into whom you should call when you need to get work done!
“Contractor” is the word that most people use to refer to “general contractors.” And, the term general contractor is often then misapplied to any trade professional who works on houses for a living.
But, 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, making sure (ideally) that competent, qualified tradespeople are brought in to carry out the various phases of the job in a careful sequence.
For this service, GCs will charge a substantial fee, sometimes 50% or more of the total job value. That 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.” These subs might range in size from one-man operations, to substantial companies in their own right.)
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 and manage projects up to a certain value.
You can easily see how problems might arise from this situation.
Unscrupulous contractors have a thousand reasons, and a thousand ways, to keep profits high and job costs low on the projects they manage. Hiring cheap, unqualified subs and using inferior materials are just two tricks for wringing more money from a contract.
For this reason, “contractor” has become something of a dirty word in the trades. At it’s worst, it implies a dishonest person who does none of the actual labor, but reaps the maximum reward for a job.
(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, all 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 side of the industry. Nor do I want to spend all my days making calls, writing proposals, and driving endlessly from job to job. I much prefer being a professional tradesman–the one doing the actual work, in the field, with my hands.
Which, brings us to our second example…
Carpenters are tradespeople who build and fix houses and other larger 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…
They also puts roofs on houses, floors in houses, and siding on houses.
They run trim on home interiors and exteriors, install doors and windows, build out closets, hang cabinets, and create yard structures like planter boxes, lattice screens and benches.
And…they fix all of these things when they break.
Carpenters are the professionals whom general contractors hire to carry out much of the work that needs to get done on residential jobs. Carpenters will often have to collaborate with plumbers, HVAC specialists, electricians and masons to help those people carry out their work as well.
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.
(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–such as framing, roofing, or siding a house–then 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…
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–and they will obsess over the end result.
These craftsman rarely make much money from their projects. Only the absolute top tier of woodworkers can get legitimately wealthy from their work, and only then because their pieces are viewed as true art–items worthy of fetching gallery prices.
(The most celebrated American woodworker of the last 100 years is undoubtedly Sam Maloof. Eleven presidential butts 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. The documentary below is excellent as well.)
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.
These tradespeople have a foot in both worlds. They can run exotic, stain-grade trim, build custom doors and windows, and 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: because even building straightforward cabinets can be very time-consuming and materially expensive!)
You may also have a good shot of finding a woodworker who dabbles in cabinetmaking, and vice versa. Just remember that a designated furniture maker probably won’t be interested in building your kitchen cabinets.
In summary, just 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!
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