Combining Technology and Foundational Knowledge in Union Carpentry | OLFA - ProfessionalOLFA – Professional

Combining Technology and Foundational Knowledge in Union Carpentry

Combining Technology and Foundational Knowledge in Union Carpentry

By Javier Alcaraz

Technology is dramatically changing the carpentry industry, allowing carpenters to combine their own skills with tools that get the job done faster and easier. A few examples I can think of include:

  • Carpenters no longer have to pull a tape measure and manually mark lines in floors while on their knees to lay out interior points and walls – a process that sometimes could take days. Now, tools like Trimble’s QML800 save contractors time by crisscrossing two laser beams onto the floor to mark interior points, based on the plans stored on an Android tablet. Everything is controlled from a tablet, which can be used to load new plans or add new points, and it’s highly accurate and much faster.
  • When cutting drywall, carpenters previously used just the tape measure and a knife. Now, a tool called a PanelMax – a portable milling machine to cut drywall that has a circular saw and router attachments – allows precise milling of corners, even curved corners.
  • Instead of reading blueprints on paper, a lot of foremen walk the jobsite with an iPad and use a collaborative PDF reader that architects and contractors can access simultaneously, with any updates appearing immediately.
  • Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), allow safer jobsite inspections, such as scaffold jobs. Instead of sending a carpenter up the scaffolding to inventory materials, a drone can be sent up to take photos and videos, which also saves time from having to set up anchor points and ladders that allow a person to reach a higher floor safely. Drones also can be used during general contractors’ safety inspections to ensure fall protection like handrails and netting are set up.

Because many of these technologies have evolved out of simpler tools, foundational knowledge of basic tools remains important.

Foundational Knife Knowledge is Critical

To get the most out of any tool and be the best we can be, we have to keep up with technology, but also understand the basic rules on how to use a tool. A plumb bob at one time was an essential tool for a carpenter to determine the plumb level; now, everyone uses lasers, but you need to know how the plumb bob works to understand the laser.

In my role as instructor at the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters Apprentice and Training Program, I ensure apprentices know how to use tools properly and safely, so they can combine their foundational knowledge with any new capabilities that come along, and continue to grow as a carpenter.

For example, we teach students through demos how to properly use one of the most basic yet important tools on a jobsite: a knife. We teach the importance of keeping a knife sharp at all times – because if you’re using a dull blade, you have to put more force into the cut. That increases the risk of the blade slipping and cutting you, even when you’re wearing your personal protective equipment (PPE).

We also teach students to dispose of their sharps – critical for both the short and long term. If you throw used blades where all jobsite garbage goes, whoever is emptying or picking up the garbage could get cut, even if they have their PPE gloves on. Or, if a contractor is cutting carpet, removes a dull blade and tosses it on the ground, the blade can end up under the carpet, and stay there until the next contractor rips up the flooring – creating a risk that second contractor ends up cutting themselves.

Something I really like about OLFA is that they have a sharps container for used blades. As a carpenter, I was used to trapezoid blades and thought OLFA knives were just box cutters. Now that I use the snap-off utility knives all the time, I love that I can just snap a dull blade, place it in the sharps disposal container, and keep working.


Javier Alcaraz (Local 363) is a union carpenter and instructor who educates apprentice and journeymen carpenters for Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters Apprenticeship and Training Program.