The Trades

Research, insights and advice from craftsmen and industry experts

11 Essential Hand Tools Every Builder Needs

The tools that do-it-yourself enthusiasts use at home and the tools that professional builders use on construction sites are the same essential tools, but each version is made with a different user in mind.  

In general, tools designed for pros are going to be designed for constant use, precision, and mobility. Because they are designed to last longer, pro tools are often more expensive than tools for the DIYer—but they will likely outlast and outperform the cheaper versions. Professional grade tools are also usually more portable, with cordless features, clips, and other mechanisms that allow you to keep your tool at the ready.

11 Essential Tools Every Builder Needs

Professional builders should have the tools needed for specialty work as well as a lean toolkit of multipurpose hand tools that can work through a variety of jobs in a pinch. Professional builder Jordan Smith’s top ten essential hand tools are tools every builder should have from day one on the...

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70 Essential Construction Terms Every Aspiring General Contractor Should Know

construction basics Dec 28, 2020

Like any industry, the construction industry comes with its own set of lingo and terminology unique to the field. A working understanding of this builder’s glossary (although by no means exhaustive) will help you begin to understand and communicate construction concepts on the job site and across teams.

Construction design terms

On job sites, terms like “architectural drawings” and “blueprints” are ones you’ll hear often, especially if you are in construction management. Understanding their basic parts will help engineers, contractors, designers, and builders to execute the construction accurately.

1. Architectural drawing: The technical rendering of a house or other structure that is both an illustration of what the final home will look like.

2. Blueprints: Technical drawings created by architects, engineers, and designers that illustrate all the construction specifics of a house from below ground level, to the tallest ceiling.


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What Is Compression Force?

construction basics Dec 27, 2020

A fundamental concept engineers, architects, and builders need to thoroughly understand before undertaking work on any structure—from single-family homes to massive bridges and skyscrapers—is the idea of compression vs. tension. A tension force is one that pulls materials apart, while a compression force squeezes elements together. Every material has the capacity to hold up to a certain amount of compression and a certain amount of tension. 

To show the difference between compression and tension, engineering instructors often demonstrate with a material like rope, which can support a large amount of tension, or pulling before it fails, but has virtually no compression strength, since if you push on it from opposite sides, it will simply bend.

What is compression force?

The compression strength of a material is its ability to withstand external forces that push on it. When a column supports a load from above, it is under compressive stress. On a molecular level, the...

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A Guide to the 5 Types of Building Construction

construction basics Dec 24, 2020

Construction projects can be classified according to a number of criteria. Buildings may be categorized, to pick a few examples, according to their owners (say, public versus private), the materials used to build them, or their uses. The last in that list are also known as occupancy classifications and they are the basis of chapter 3 of the International Building Code (IBC) which divides structures into categories including assembly (both churches and restaurants), residential, institutional, and storage. (The IBC is a code that serves as the basis for local and state codes and helps assure that there are consistent standards within the United States.) 

The five building types discussed here, however, describe the necessary level of fire resistance that a building should have—which is determined largely by the size of the building and its intended use or occupancy. A 30-story apartment or office building (Type I) has more stringent fire resistance standards than a...

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How to Use a Speed Square

“There's so much math that this takes care of for you, where you don't have to figure it out with a calculator. Look at all of the features that a speed square has to offer, and then learn how to use them—that's the biggest thing that I can recommend. -Jordan Smith

A speed square is a simple, inexpensive, and lightweight hand tool essential for doing construction math. Beyond math, it has a multitude of uses on any job site. You can use it to determine a roof pitch, mark angles, guide saw cuts, scribe straight lines, and check if something is square. It’s also made of a singular piece of metal or plastic so that if it hits the ground while you’re working, it will still remain true.

What is a speed square?

Despite the word “square” in the name, a speed square is actually a right triangle with a perfectly 90 degree (square) edge and two 45 degree corners. It can also be referred to as a rafter square, triangle square, steel square, carpenter...

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Essential Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for Construction

construction basics Dec 23, 2020

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) recommends Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in construction for your eyes and face, feet, head, hands, and hearing. Different trades will require PPE beyond the basics, such as heat-safe shields and gloves for welding, harness gear for fall protection when working at heights, or specialty respirator filters to prevent exposure to chemicals. 

Whether you are working in a niche trade or doing general construction, all construction workers should always have these PPE basics on hand—you’re never going to regret wearing it.

Potential hazards on a construction site

The potential hazards on a construction site are vast and will vary depending on the job type. This isn’t meant to alarm you—the more you know about hazards, the better you can prepare. Most often the solution is simple. The right clothing like safety glasses, boots, a hard hat, and a few different types of gloves and respirator filters...

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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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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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How to Square a Foundation Using Simple Construction Math

 A solid house begins with a properly constructed foundation, and common to almost all of them is that they have right angles at their corners. (Note: If you are building a fun house or an avant-garde building, some common rules may not apply.) If the corners of your foundation stray too far from right angles, then beams, joists, and other structural supports will fit together only loosely—or not at all. A corner with a right angle is known as perfectly “square.” 

The first step to laying out most larger foundations is to set up batter’s boards (these are, simply, stakes with horizontal crosspieces) in the corners just beyond where the foundation will sit. You’ll then use the batter’s boards as guides to where you will string lines along what will be the edges of the foundation. 

These guidelines will help you determine the exact locations where you’ll want to construct forms for the foundation.

How to Guarantee Your Corners...

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Pier and Beam Foundations: Pros, Cons, and Considerations

If you’ve seen a house on stilts, you are familiar with the basic concept of a pier-and-beam foundation, one of the five types of house foundations common in the United States. While the image that may come to mind is a house on ten-foot high stilts above wetlands in South Carolina or Louisiana, many houses in, say, the suburban Dallas Fort Worth area, follow the same basic model. With them, however, the stilt—or pile or post—is only a few feet tall and is not visible from the street, either hidden by the house’s siding or soil and plants. 

A typical pier-and-beam foundation includes three main elements: concrete piers, which anchor the house foundation to the ground; posts or piles, which run between the piers and horizontal beams; and wooden beams, which support the weight of the house. The different components of the foundation help explain why this type of foundation goes by a variety of different names: Pier and beam, pier and post, pier and pile,...

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