The Trades

Research, insights and advice from craftsmen and industry experts

How to Space Balusters Evenly Every Time

construction math Nov 26, 2020

Balusters—the vertical posts along deck railings—are an architectural detail that you may not think about that often. When someone has spaced them unevenly, however, they provide a visual reminder of why you should take the time to get a project exactly right. Once you start looking at deck baluster spacing, you’re going to notice how often they are poorly spaced. “Don’t point it out at your friend’s house,” professional builder and craftsman Jordan Smith advises. “Just notice it and think, I’m not going to do that when I’m building stuff.”

Terminology: Balusters, Spindles, Balustrade

Balusters or spindles (another term for the same feature) are the vertical posts that fill the open section of a railing.

A “balustrade” was originally simply a series of balusters, though it also refers to the entire handrail—its top and bottom railings and the balusters too.

Supporting posts are located along a...

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What Is Glue-Laminated Wood (Glulam)?

wood Nov 18, 2020

Short for “glue laminated timber,” glulam is a newly popular addition to the family of engineered wood products with an unusual name. Glulam beams offer a unique combination of beauty and strength. According to APA, the Engineered Wood Association, it’s stronger than steel.

“What’s great about glulam is that you can sand them and bring out all of the grains. You can use more exotic woods and get pretty beams that are actually structurally solid. You’ll see a lot more of this in the future.” -Professional builder Jordan Smith

While glulam has attracted the interest of builders and architects in recent years, it in fact has a long history. The original Swiss patent for this type of engineered wood dates back to 1901 and one of the earliest buildings in the United States using it was a USDA Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin that was completed in 1934—it is still in use today.

An old postcard showing the Forest Products...

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The Ultimate Guide to PVA Wood Glue

Go into the wood glue aisle of a big box store, and what you will find are mostly PVAs—polyvinyl acetate glues. The chemical compound that gives these water soluble, non-toxic glues their name was discovered more than a century ago, and since then they have been used to seal, prime, and join wood products together. PVA wood glue is ideal for bonding wood to wood, but it can also be used with other wood products: plywood, chipboard, and MDF. 

The PVAs available today are often described as being stronger than the wood they join. The impressive bonding strength of wood glue can be verified through tests subjecting samples to typical stresses: shear, axial, and bending. In most cases, even including the world’s hardest woods, they will fail not along the glue joints but at other points where the wood itself will snap.

PVA Wood Glue

It’s likely that the first glue you ever used was a PVA: Elmer’s Glue. Wood glues are a particularly strong PVA.

The ingredient...

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Polyurethane Glue: When to Use This Construction Adhesive

construction materials Nov 17, 2020

Polyurethanes, polymeric compounds that are close cousins of epoxies, were first discovered in 1937 by the German chemist Dr. Otto Bayer. They are commonly encountered as foams, for example, as insulating foam for mattresses and molded foam used in surfboards, but they have also been used as adhesives throughout much of the world since the 1950s. 

Polyurethane glue entered the American market until 1994 when the Gorilla Glue company began selling polyurethane glues. (For many Americans, Gorilla Glue is the more familiar name for polyurethane than its chemical one.) Over the last two decades, it has become one of the most common go-to construction adhesives that contractors depend upon for all sorts of jobs. Popular brands include Titebond and Loctite.

Similar to cyanoacrylates, polyurethane adhesives require a chemical reaction in order to cure, and that reaction is set off by moisture. 

“If you’re gluing concrete to wood, no problem,” explains builder...

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Nails vs. Screws: When to Use Each Kind of Fastener

Nails and screws perform a similar function, and some types of nails (like spiral shank nails) even look like screws—which might lead you to believe that these two fasteners are interchangeable for construction and home improvement projects. They are not. Each one has different strengths and is best suited to different tasks.

Among the factors to consider when choosing between nails and screws are: 

  • The types of stresses the fasteners will be subject to
  • The scale of the project and the speed at which you need to complete it
  • Whether the structure is temporary or permanent
  • What tools you’ll be using to install the fasteners
  • The materials that they are being used in
  • The project budget
  • Whether the fastener head will be visible or not in the completed structure. 

In general, screws have better holding power and superior strength than nails, and they are more easily removable. They can be used in almost all cases, except for when the fastener needs to disappear...

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What Is Engineered Wood?

construction materials Nov 10, 2020

Engineered wood boards are generally made from the same hardwoods and softwoods used to manufacture lumber, but mixed with additives like adhesives. This type of wood often utilizes waste wood from sawmills, and are treated through chemical or heat processes to produce wood that meets size requirements that are hard to find in nature.  

Engineered wood is used in a variety of applications, from home construction to commercial buildings to industrial products.

“Engineered lumber is lumber that although it comes from wood, it's been processed to be something slightly different and perform in a different, oftentimes better way than what just the raw wood would perform.” -Professional builder Jordan Smith

7 Popular Types of Engineered Wood

Engineered wood products are available as framing members—beams, for example—and sheet goods, which can be used as sheathing or flooring.

1. Laminated Veneer Lumber (LVL)

Made of wood veneers that are compressed...

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Types of Fasteners: Nails, Screws, Bolts, Anchors, Rivets

construction materials Nov 09, 2020

Fasteners may be small, but they literally keep buildings standing as they hold its different elements together. While some of the world’s oldest surviving structures—like the Pyramids in Egypt—rely only on gravity to keep their walls together, most buildings depend upon fasteners. Professional builder and craftsman Jordan Smith explains:

“From the very beginning, we’ve had two main joining techniques. One is mechanical fastening, that is stuff like nails, lashes, anything that mechanically binds the material together. And we have adhesives—that is a chemical connection.”

Until the 19th century, every individual nail or other fastener was forged by hand, making them an expensive commodity. Pioneers would often burn down their old houses and then sort through the ashes in search of nails that could be reused. Today, mass production has not only brought the cost of metal fasteners down, but also created a greater variety of sizes and shapes...

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Types of Nails For Every Construction Project

construction materials Nov 09, 2020

A nail may appear to be the most straight-forward item you’ll use in construction. Its design is simple: a point, a straight shank, and a head. They have been used since the days of ancient Egypt and for more than 5,000 years builders have turned to them to attach beams and joists to one another. 

However, this most basic type of fastener also comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, some best suited for structural frames and others used in finish carpentry work. As professional builder and craftsman Jordan Smith explains, there are ones with “different tips, different shanks, and different heads, all depending on the purpose the nail was designed for.”

Nail Materials and Coatings

In addition to different nail shapes, the different materials used to make nails and their coatings (or sheathings) make them best suited to particular conditions and situations. There are a few different metals commonly used to make nails.


Most nails are made of steel, with...

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Types of Screws for Every Construction Project

construction materials Nov 09, 2020

Three types of fasteners are ubiquitous in construction: nails, screws, and bolts (paired with their partners, nuts).

Threads are the most obvious difference that distinguishes nails from screws, and what helps make screws the perfect fastener for many situations where tensile strength and holding power are your primary concerns. 

“As they thread their way through the fibers, instead of pushing them out, they’re sneaking in between them. When I try to pull it out, now I have fiber sitting directly on top of this thread.” -Jordan Smith

While threads are common to all screws and they give screws their holding power, there are still many different types of screws, with thread and head designs best suited for certain tasks or materials.

Drive Types

Screws can be described by their drive types, which is the space where a screwdriver or a drill bit is placed in the screw head to install (or remove) it.

Flat Head Screws

A flat head screw, which has a single slot...

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Best Drywall Anchors: 4 Types and Their Uses

construction materials Nov 09, 2020

“Use the right fasteners and the right anchors in the right situations and you’ll be much happier than just throwing a dry wall screw in for absolutely every application that you can think of.” - Jordan Smith

When you need to hang an item on an area of your wall where wall studs aren't available, a drywall anchor will do the trick. It’s tempting to use a fastener leftover from another project or whatever you have on hand (like a drywall screw), but it’s important to use the right fastener for the job. The object that you are hanging will be more secure and therefore safer, plus you will avoid damaging your walls. 

There are a variety of anchors made specifically for safely hanging objects on hollow walls, which range from lightweight jobs like hanging a small picture frame, to holding the weight of a full length mirror. Typically, the anchor package will list the maximum amount of weight that the anchor can hold, the size drill bit(s) you will...

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