Do Carpenters Need a License?

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Like many licensing rules, the need for a carpenter license depends on where you're going to work. You don't need a state carpentry license in Illinois, for instance, but your town or county government may require one. Other states require that you become registered or certified, or they determine whether you need a license based on the size of the project on which you're working.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

Licensing for carpenters varies among jurisdictions. Depending on where you live, you may have to acquire a state carpenter license, a city or county license or none of the above. Requirements for licensing vary widely too but typically involve paying a fee and having some amount of on-the-job experience. Your local building department should be able to tell you the requirements for where you live.

The Carpenter License Around America

Contractors — whether plumbers, builders, electricians or carpenters — aren't licensed or certified at the federal level. Requirements for the license (if they exist) are set at the state level or in some states by municipalities and counties. They apply to professionals, not people working on their own homes.

  • In Alabama, you need either a subcontractors' or general contractors' license to work on commercial construction projects worth $50,000 or more.

  • Arizona offers several different types of carpenter licenses, including carpentry, finish carpentry and a remodeling and repair license.

  • California has a state license for rough carpentry and one for finish carpentry. You need a license if a project is worth $500 or more.

  • Georgia requires a subcontractors' license for some specialties but not carpentry.

  • Iowa doesn't license contractors, but if they make more than $2,000 a year, they do have to register with the state.

  • You don't need a carpenters' license in Illinois. Even Chicago, the state's largest city, doesn't require one.

  • Maryland requires a license for any home improvement work.

  • New Jersey requires that carpenters register with the state but doesn't license them. Local New Jersey governments may set their own license requirements, however.

  • Texas has no state license but does have some local government licensing.

  • Wisconsin requires state licensing for projects over $1,000.

The best place to find out the requirements where you live is the city or county building department.

Carpenter License Requirements

Determining the need for a carpenter license is step one. If you do indeed need a subcontractors' license for carpentry work, step two is finding out what you have to do to qualify.

In Arizona, for instance, you need at least four years of hands-on experience as a carpenter or managing carpenters. You must pass two written tests: a trade test measuring your carpentry knowledge and one for business management. A "finish carpentry" license only requires the business management test and two years of experience. If you pass the trade test, you don't need any experience.

In Michigan, where you do need a carpenter license, also known as a maintenance and alteration contractor license, you need 60 hours of classes prior to taking the license exam let alone applying for your license. The classes cover topics such as job costing, estimating, design and building, risk management, contracts, marketing, project management and the Michigan residential code. You don't need a carpentry license in NY or NYC. The Big Apple regulates lots of specialized building trades but not carpenters.

Gaining Carpentry Experience

Maybe you've been working on personal projects with a circular saw since you turned 12, but that's not going to cut it with a state licensing board. If it requires one, two, three or four years of experience, it needs to be out there in the field as a professional. There are three main ways to get the hands-on training you need:

  • Apprenticeship: If you land an apprentice position with, say, the local chapter of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, the union will spend several years teaching you the trade. This is invaluable training even in a state that doesn't require a carpenter license.

  • Work as a carpenter's assistant: An assistant is a little lower on the totem pole than an apprentice, but you can still learn enough to qualify for a full carpentry gig.

  • Carpentry classes: Local trade schools or community colleges may offer classes in carpentry that you can use to learn the fundamentals and the proper, safe use of tools. That may help you in competing for an apprentice gig after you finish your coursework.

Financial Requirements

Nothing is worse for a property owner than a contractor or a sub who walks off or goes bankrupt with a project unfinished. If your state or local government does require you to take out a license, you may have to take out a surety bond as well. A surety bond is a guarantee of completion: If you don't complete a project, the bond company uses the money to finish the job and then tries to collect from you.

In Arizona, for instance, a specialty residential contractor such as a carpenter currently needs a $4,250 bond; if you do more than $375,000 worth of work in a year, the bond requirement rises to $7,500. A commercial specialty contractors' bond ranges from $2,500 up to $50,000 depending on the money earned per year.

Your carpenters' or contractors' license may come with other financial requirements. In Oregon, for example, you have to provide proof that you have general liability insurance coverage and workers' compensation insurance.

The General Contractors' License

In most states, even if they require a carpenter license, a general contractor can do the same work. Where a subcontractor is a specialist, a general contractor is supposed to have the scope to supervise a building project or handle a subcontractor's job.

In California, for example, a general contractor might supervise a project and hire subs to do the detail work. They could also do most of the work themselves or take on smaller jobs in a variety of roles: earthmoving, plumbing, electrical, foundations, framing, roofing, carpentry and laying the foundation.

Becoming licensed as a general contractor is tougher, but if you qualify for a general contractors' license, you have far more scope in what work you can perform. Licensed carpenters can only work outside carpentry if it's little jobs incidental to their work with wood.

Handyman vs. Carpenter

Like general contractors, handymen overlap with carpenters, at least for small-scale projects. A handyman is typically a jack of all trades who can work on a variety of small projects that don't require advanced technical skill. You wouldn't hire a handyman to repair a broken pipe or replace the railing on your deck, but he could tighten a leaky faucet and make railing repairs.

As handymen typically work on small projects, they can often do carpentry without a license. In Hawaii, for example, you don't need a license unless you're working on jobs worth more than $1,000 in labor and materials or that require a building permit. In Michigan, by contrast, if you do carpentry jobs, you have to acquire a carpenter license first.

Some states, such as New Mexico, classify handymen as a type of general contractor. In these states, you will have to complete the same process you would to get a general contractors' license.

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About the Author

Fraser Sherman has written about every aspect of business: how to start one, how to keep one in the black, the best business structure, the details of financial statements. He's also run a couple of small businesses of his own. He lives in Durham NC with his awesome wife and two wonderful dogs. His website is frasersherman.com