Wagering a guess on woodworker salaries

How much do woodworkers earn?

That’s a very subjective question. A lot depends on your definition of a woodworker. Is it the guy who sits in an office and designs cabinets or the woman who runs the CNC router or the kid who loads pallets of plywood into racks in the back of the shop? Our trade covers everyone from framing and finish carpenters to custom furniture builders, journeymen cabinetmakers, turners, carvers and luthiers, to name a few.

Beyond the tasks one performs, the location is also a major consideration. A wood artist who is building displays for Macy’s New York windows is going to make more than a furniture repair shop owner in a small town in rural Nebraska.

The best one can do is come up with some averages and then extrapolate from these by considering the type of work being done, the geographical location, the market, years of experience and other factors such as resources. For example, a cabinetmaker running an Altendorf F45 Elmo is probably going to produce a lot more work and of much higher quality than a competitor who is using a Craftsman contractor’s saw.

Government survey results

Back in May 2009, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics conducted a survey of employment throughout the United States. It collected wage data from 743,760 carpenters/woodworkers and calculated that the average hourly rate for the occupation was $20.98. This extrapolates to a monthly income of $3,637 and an annual salary of $43,640. Those numbers are very comparable to figures that were produced by private-sector PayScale.com, which in 2011 placed the average rate for the trade at between $14.82 and $24.23. (PayScale.com’s numbers average $19.52 per hour, or $39,040 annually, which is within about 7 percent of the government estimate.)

During the recession, wages don’t seem to have moved much: there were fewer paychecks, but they seem to have retained their value. The recovery might change that: if the housing recovery continues, woodshop employers will be competing more for quality employees.

That 2009 government study also reported that those in the top 10 percent of earners received an average of $34.01, while woodworkers in the lowest-earning 10 percent were paid $11.83. During the course of its survey, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that “the three industry sectors that employ the greatest number of carpenters are residential building construction, non-residential building construction and building finishing contractors.” It listed the average hourly pay rates for these sectors as $19.69, $23.32 and $22.05, respectively. Foundation, structure and building exterior contractors were listed at $19.80 while carpenters working within the motion picture and video industries were likely to receive $27.97 an hour.

Sounds like woodworkers should head for Hollywood.

What’s interesting here is that all of those numbers add up to woodshop averages of $43,373, which is very much in line with the overall study results and the private sector numbers.

Wages for cabinetmakers

According to a 2013 article on eHow.com, “the average salary range for a cabinetmaker with five to nine years of experience is between $18,313 and $51,097. From years 10 to 19, he averages between $39,663 and $60,505 annually. And if he has worked in the field for 20 years or more he has the potential to earn a maximum salary of $71,756.” Add all of those together and they average out to $48,267, which is about $5,000 higher than the other estimates. But keep in mind that the final number, $71,756, was qualified by the statement that it was potential earnings, rather than actual.

In a random, very unscientific phone survey of six long-term cabinetmakers taken in July, the most any of them had ever been paid was $62,000 a year (numbers are rounded). Their shops are located in Florida ($44,000, working in a large kitchen cabinet shop), Wyoming ($26,000, self-employed furniture designer/builder), upstate New York ($62,000 in an architectural millwork shop), San Diego ($51,000, self-employed building kitchen cabinets and small commercial jobs), Minneapolis ($38,000 in a shop that mostly builds plastic laminate and melamine institutional furniture) and close to Des Moines ($36,000, self-employed furniture and cabinet builder). The average for these six woodworkers was $42,800.

To recap briefly before we get even more confused, the average salary for woodworkers so far has been estimated at $43,640, $39,040, $43,373, $48,267 and $42,800. Average all of those and you get $43,424.

The distinction between self-employed and wage-earning woodworkers is pretty elusive. The eHow.com article says that “self-employed cabinetmakers earn between $18,000 and $60,000 annually, while those who work for companies earn an average of between $39,037 and $72,000 per year. Cabinetmakers who work for companies with fewer than 10 employees earn the highest salaries, between $23,583 and $61,042 yearly.”

No sources for these numbers were listed and, as the brackets are so wide it’s challenging to draw any conclusion as to whether employed or self-employed woodworkers do better. It would seem to suggest that self-employed, one-man shops average $39,000 while payroll employees make $55,518, but none of the government or other private sector data supports those conclusions. Beyond that, a self-employed woodworker has a number of deductions that can reduce his/her net taxable earnings significantly as the shop gains value in inventory and plant, so we’re not comparing apples to apples.

PayScale.com is a company that, among other services, helps employers determine fair compensation for a specific market in which they operate. In 2011, PayScale researchers found that the average rate for a woodworker “with less than 12 months in the field was between $9.50 and $13.50. With the accrual of one to four years experience, the rate rose to between $11.80 and $19.19. Five to nine years in the profession resulted in an hourly pay rate of between $14.52 and $21.49, while an individual with 10 to 19 years of experience behind them could expect to receive between $15.51 and $24.68. A veteran of 20 years or more was likely to get between $17.24 and $25.89.”

Do the arithmetic on those numbers and the average woodworker is making $34,664, assuming that experience is spread evenly across the years (that is, that there are the same number of woodworkers in each group). In a shop with a more experienced workforce, the number will slide a lot closer to the $43,424 working average mentioned above.

Factoring in location

When we ran a random test on their site, the results indicated that a bench carpenter with 20 years on the job has a median salary of $40,440 in Minneapolis and a cabinetmaker in that market would make $34,774. That is, the average woodworker would make $37,607 in the Twin Cities, which is a relatively conservative market halfway between the densely populated and thus slightly highly paid coastal zones. That makes sense.

To get the PayScale.com results, we had to input a lot of data (experience, location etc.), which they then compared to their database and, as our input was somewhat vague, the results are more random than empirical. An employer with specific data to input would get more precise results. The company also runs analyses for woodworkers who are considering relocating in response to job offers and provides data on comparable positions and salaries in other geographical regions.

Going back to the Bureau of Labor Statistics survey in 2009, one of the most striking aspects of the government study’s results was that location has a huge impact on pay rates. At the state level, Hawaii, Alaska and Illinois came in at $30.79, $28.40 and $27.44 respectively. At the other end of the scale, Montana was listed with an average rate of $16.96. What’s surprising here is that both Montana and Alaska are thinly populated and relatively remote geographically (that is, neither one sits on the doorstep of a major urban market), yet they are at each end of the scale. One explanation might be that everything is more expensive in Alaska because it has to be hauled there, so salaries are perhaps more commensurate with the cost of living.

In 2009, the best pay in the country for woodworkers was in King’s County, Calif., which is home to Naval Air Station Lemoore, a U.S. Navy jet air station. There, the median hourly rate for woodworkers was $36.45, followed by Fairbanks, Alaska, with $31.87. The Punta Gorda region of Florida was listed at just $14.56.

In 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics listed carpenter wages as $19.25 (median) and $21.51 (mean average). That translates to a range of $40,030 to $44,730 per annum, which is about 25 percent higher than most construction labor jobs.

If we average out the numbers for woodworkers across the country, based on both private sector and government studies, and include both scientific and anecdotal results and ignore regional variances, it seems that a woodworker halfway through his/her career should be making somewhere around $21.50 an hour and $43,000 annually. Take into account local markets, the type of work being done, years of experience, the amount of automation compared to handwork, whether one is self-employed or not and the average ranges from $9.50 an hour ($19,000 a year) to $35.88 an hour ($71,756 a year).

The bottom line is that, even when all the numbers are in, exactly how much a woodworker makes is still a very subjective question.

This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue.

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