The Trades

Research, insights and advice from craftsmen and industry experts

Plumb, Level, Square, and True: What They Mean and How to Measure

Straight lines and right angles are must-haves for any construction project, whether it’s a wall, door, window, or entire frame. But “straightness” only goes so far—you can have a line that is perfectly straight (that is, not bending or curving), but if it’s not oriented correctly, it can still result in slanted walls or a sloping floor. 

That’s where level and plumb come in—both measure straightness, but with a different relationship to the horizon. “Level” refers to straightness side to side (horizontal), whereas plumb measures straightness up and down (vertical).  

But what does all of this mean in practice? Read on to find out the definitions of level, plumb, square, and true, how they’re different, and how to measure for each.  

What does “level” mean?

“Level” is what you call a perfectly horizontal line. Horizontal means side to side. To be level with the world means...

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Wood Density Explained, Plus Wood Density Chart

For thousands of years, wood has been used for construction, and for making tools, weapons, and furniture. Most simply described, wood is the structural tissue found in the stems and roots of trees. And as you can imagine, not every wood is the same. Some types of wood are more suitable for construction than others, depending on their physical properties—which include density, texture, strength, hardness, stiffness, moisture content, potential for shrinkage, deformation, splitting, and flammability. 

There are two primary types of wood—hardwood and softwood—and both are used in different types of construction projects. The basic difference between the two classifications is not in their actual hardness. Hardwood and softwood are distinguished in terms of their reproduction: hardwood comes from deciduous trees, which produces seeds with a covering (think walnut, maple and oak); while softwood comes from gymnosperm trees, which have needles and produce cones...

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Pressure Treated Wood: Benefits, Uses, Types, Grades

Wood is a plentiful, renewable resource and one that construction crews know well. It can also, however, be difficult to maintain, especially when it is exposed to the elements.

“An option that you have with dimensional lumber is to pressure treat it. This prevents rot and fungus and bugs and other things that can destroy your material over time.” -Professional builder Jordan Smith

Benefits of pressure treated wood

Thanks to its chemical and preservative treatment, pressure treated wood is resistant to many common problems.

  • Resistance to rot. The chemical compounds used to pressure treat wood make it resistant to fungi that cause wood to rot.
  • Protection from insects. Similarly, treatments repel common insect threats like termites and carpenter ants.
  • Cost. Pressure treated wood is more expensive than untreated wood but given that it can last for decades, it often ends up being more economical in the long run.
  • Ease of Use. Pressure treated wood, like other woods, is...
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How to Read a Tape Measure

hand tools Sep 17, 2020

In the building trades, the tape measure is an essential measuring tool that will help you tackle projects both big and small—everything from estimate to build. Getting familiar with the measurements on a tape will also help you work faster and more efficiently. With enough practice, reading a tape measure down to fractions of an inch will become second nature. 

Get a complete tutorial on how to use a tape measure like a pro from builder and craftsman Jordan Smith in MT Copeland’s Hand Tools online course.

Anatomy of a tape measure

In the US, the standard tape measure will measure in Imperial units—that’s feet and inches—while the rest of the world uses metric tape measures to measure in meters and centimeters. No matter which measurement system your measuring tape follows, the basic anatomy of the tool and how to read it remain the same.  

Body or case

This is the housing that holds the coiled tape. It can be either plastic or metal,...

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The 3 Best Tape Measures According to Professional Builder Jordan Smith

hand tools Sep 17, 2020

Whether you are doing general construction work, framing, or even finer work like finish carpentry, measuring tools are an essential part of your toolbox. But the tool you’ll reach for the most is the tape measure 

“If there's one tool that you use all the time—every single day—as a contractor, it's going to be the tape measure. When you measure a remodel and you're giving a quote, you use a tape measure. When you're cutting lumber, you use a tape measure. You use a tape measure for absolutely every part of the building process—from estimate all the way through the final punch list.” - Jordan Smith

When choosing a tape measure, there are some must-have features you should look for, but you’ll also need to consider your own preferences and job type. 

5 Must-Have Tape Measure Features

Some tape measure features are non-negotiable, like a good standout length, solid body, and durable tape. Make sure that whatever tape...

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Hardwood vs. Softwood: What’s the Difference?

There are two primary categories of wood: hardwood and softwood. Both are used in different types of construction. But the difference between the two doesn’t have to do with their actual hardness or density, it’s in how the trees reproduce.

To explain it most simply, a wood is classified as a hardwood if the seeds that the tree produces have a coating in the form of a fruit or a shell. Softwoods produce seeds that don’t have a coating, which are dropped to the ground. These biological differences do impact the characteristics of the wood, which in turn impacts their uses. Read on for a complete guide to hardwoods and softwoods.

What is hardwood?

Hardwoods are angiosperm trees, or plants that produce seeds with a covering. They usually form flowers to reproduce. They’re fertilized by birds and insects that carry the pollen to other trees, and when they’re fertilized, the trees form fruits, nuts, or seeds. These types of hardwood trees include walnut,...

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All About Wood Construction: Advantages & Disadvantages

Wood is one of the oldest building materials used by mankind.  It was used to build everything from Neolithic longhouses to the first Temple of Jerusalem, built with the cedars of Lebanon. Today, wood frame structures dominate residential construction in the United States. More than 90 percent of American homes are built with wood frames. 

However, a number of tragic urban fires—in the United States, the most significant was Chicago’s Great Fire in 1871—led builders to consider other options for taller, higher density buildings. In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, concrete and steel came to dominate the construction of taller buildings. Wood became reserved for interior details, occasionally (when treated) exterior cladding. At most, wood played a supporting role in projects where concrete and steel did the heavy lifting. 

That is changing, however, thanks to engineering advances, new protective treatments for lumber, a desire to construct...

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All About Timber Framing: History, Characteristics, Joinery

While the materials used to construct buildings are remarkably varied—bricks, thatch, stone, and more—one construction material stands out above all others in popularity: wood.  

“Early humans lived under trees. As those trees fell down, they took shelter underneath the fallen trees,” professional builder and craftsman Jordan Smith explains. “ And then it wasn't long before they figured out: You know what? We can stack these to make walls or we can lean them against each other.”

From those humble beginnings, a type of construction known as timber framing came to dominate wood construction. The Horyuji Temple in Nara, Japan, built around 600 C.E., is the world’s oldest existing wooden building, and it was constructed using the timber framing method.  

“So for everybody who has durability concerns about wood. we've got buildings that are still standing today that are 1400 years old.”—Jordan Smith 

...

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Drywall vs. Sheetrock: What’s the Difference?

construction basics Jul 17, 2020

You may notice that home builders sometimes use “drywall” and “Sheetrock” interchangeably, or even as verbs—as in, “I’m going to Sheetrock this room”. In fact, Sheetrock® is a brand of drywall that is a registered trademark of the U.S. Gypsum Company, but there are no functional differences between drywall and Sheetrock®. 

Since its invention over a hundred years ago, drywall has eased the process of building a house and embarking on home improvement projects. Before the advent of drywall, builders had to apply plaster in layers on supporting wooden strips called laths. Each coat necessitated ample drying time, and the plaster needed time to harden at the end of the process. Needless to say, lath and plaster was inefficient.

The prototype for drywall—a layer of plaster between four layers of wool felt—was first made in the late 19th century and was called Sackett Board, for its inventor, Augustine Sackett. The...

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5 Common Electrical Symbols All Builders Need to Know

blueprints Jul 17, 2020

Heating and air-conditioning systems, plumbing, electrical outlets and wiring (including lighting), and other mechanical systems are typically detailed in MEP (mechanical, electric, plumbing) plans, and installed by specialists in their field. While builders don’t need to understand everything in the MEP plans, builders should be aware of how these systems will operate and where the wires and pipes will be placed. 

Architects also include information about outlets and switches in their power and data plans—which are part of the blueprints package—though these are generally not as comprehensive as MEP plans. Some elements of these plans will have more direct implications for builders as recessed lighting, ceiling fans, and features that have to be blocked (surrounded by a small frame) for support. 

Of the different systems on MEP plans, you’ll want to pay special attention to the electrical elements and their placement. Jordan Smith explains in his ...

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