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Wood has been used as a building material since the dawn of civilization. Tools that resembled modern hand tools first began to be made around 1500 B.C. By the Middle Ages, many of the basic techniques and the essential tools of carpentry were perfected, largely by monks in the early monasteries.

Over time, as local societies advanced, many specialties developed in the field of carpentry. The primary work came from building construction. Buildings were mostly built with braced-frame construction, which made use of large, heavy timbers held together with mortised joints and diagonal bracing. In this kind of construction, carpenters were often the principal workers on a house or other building.

Carpenters also were responsible for many of the necessities that kept their towns running from day to day. Pit sawyers milled lumber from trees. Carts and wagons called for wheelwrights, who fabricated wheels and axles, and then, as transportation became more sophisticated, coach and wagon makers appeared. The increased use of brass and iron led to work for patternmakers, who created the wooden forms that were the first step in casting. On the domestic front, cabinetmakers and joiners were skilled in building furniture or creating interior trimwork.

It is no surprise that the role of carpenters has continued to change, largely due to the rise of machine technology. Since the mid-19th century, balloon-frame construction, which makes use of smaller and lighter pieces of wood, has simplified the construction process, and concrete and steel have replaced wood for many purposes, especially in floors and roofs. Power tools have replaced hand tools in many instances. But as some carpentry tasks in building construction have become easier, other new jobs, such as making forms for poured concrete, have added to the importance of carpenters at construction sites. Carpentry continues to be an important and necessary trade.