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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5 Best Caulk Guns According to Professional Builder Jordan Smith

hand tools Dec 24, 2020

Adhesives are becoming more and more common on construction jobs, and the tool you need to work with them is a caulking gun. 

Caulking guns come in a range of sizes from smaller 10-ounce models good for home improvement, to battery powered sausage guns for pros who work with adhesives all day. Using a caulking gun requires a lot of repeated motion, so make sure that if you’re using one often you spend a little more to get a gun that is comfortable in your hand with easy triggering.

Why a Caulk Gun Is an Essential Tool for Builders

“The number one cause for residential construction litigation is water infiltration, so we have got to keep water outside of our buildings. There's a lot of different strategies for that, but one of the detail strategies that we use is caulking.” - Jordan Smith 

Silicone caulking and other types of caulks and adhesives prevent water infiltration which is absolutely essential in construction. Just like any builder needs a...

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Wrenches 101: Uses and Types of Wrenches

hand tools Dec 23, 2020

Wrench sets aren’t a tool bag necessity if you’re primarily working with wood, but every builder should have a few multipurpose wrenches on hand to drive lag screws, level equipment, and make adjustments to fixtures and appliances. Professional builder and craftsman Jordan Smith recommends keeping a few adjustable wrenches on hand along with any specialty wrenches you need for your trade.

“As far as wrenches go in construction, you're mostly working with wood and you're not doing a whole lot of metal and bolts, but you do want a few good wrenches in your tool bag.” - Jordan Smith

What is a wrench?

The job of a standard wrench is to tighten or loosen nuts and bolts to fasten a joint. The head of the wrench fits over the nut providing leverage to tighten or loosen it. 

When you think of the classic home improvement wrench, you’re most likely picturing a crescent wrench. It’s a one-sided wrench with a curved head with an opening to slide...

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How to Use a Chalk Line

hand tools Dec 23, 2020

When you hear the term “chalk line,” it can refer to either the tool or the line that the tool creates. A chalk line tool is made of a body (also called a chalk box) that contains colored, powdered chalk and a long reel of string. You pull the string out, snap it against a surface to mark a line, and wind it back up. 

A chalk line is a handy tool to mark a straight line when you do not have a ruler handy and for marking a line over a long distance of 30 to 40 feet and beyond. It’s not going to give you a perfectly straight line so it is not a substitute for a straight edge when you need an exact measurement, but it’s great for when almost-straight will do.

How to use a chalk line

A key point to remember when using a chalk line is that the person who walks is the person who pops. That means if you are the one walking the tool to the other end of the distance you are measuring, you are the one who pops the line over the surface. Your helper on the other...

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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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The Best Utility Knives According to Professional Builder Jordan Smith

The words box cutter and utility knife are sometimes used interchangeably, but utility knives made for building professionals can do much more than slice through packing tape and cardboard. 

“If you're only going to buy one knife to carry on you when you are working in construction, I would recommend getting a very good box cutter.” - Jordan Smith

Standard box cutters are inexpensive and useful in their own right. They’re great for DIYers but aren’t tough enough to handle constant use on a construction site, or to cut though heavier materials like drywall and shingles. A pocket knife can often do the job, but a quality utility knife will do it safer and last longer.

Why Utility Knives Are an Essential Tool for Builders

“Make sure that you have a good quality [utility] knife on you because you'll be using it no matter what trade you decide to go into.” - Jordan Smith

Professional builders should have the tools they need to do their...

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The 3 Best Framing Hammers According to Professional Builder Jordan Smith

For the home builder, a classic claw style hammer is likely enough to do the job, but anyone getting into professional framing needs a framing hammer. They are more heavy duty than general construction hammers and have a few key features that make framing jobs much easier. 

If you are getting into framing, you’re going to want to buy a dedicated framing hammer.” - Jordan Smith 


What is a framing hammer? 

There are dozens of different hammer types for nearly every profession in the building trades, but a framing hammer is designed specifically to make framing jobs easier. Compared to a trim or finish carpentry hammer, a framing hammer will have a longer handle, more swing, and a heavier weight for driving nails in more easily. 

Framing hammers also feature a milled face for strong metal-to-metal grip on nail heads. Some will have magnetic nail start, or other special features like a side nail puller or tooth for board straightening. These...

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The Ultimate Guide to Choosing a Hammer for Any Kind of Construction Work

So many hand tools have been replaced by power tools in the construction industry, but hammers have remained an essential hand tool in every builder’s toolbelt. There is a vast range of hammer types specific to different types of work like framing, masonry, finish carpentry, electrical, and demo work. 

Often, the type of materials that you will be working with will dictate what type of hammer you should buy, but everyone who works in construction should also own a classic claw hammer—simple, multipurpose, and handy for a variety of different building and demolition tasks.

“Anything in the construction industry is going to be powered, right? We just don't have time to be making saw cuts with [a hand saw]. This has definitely been replaced by power tools. However, the hammer hasn't—we still use hammers every single day. It's probably the most reached-for tool in your tool belt.” -Jordan Smith

How to Choose a Hammer

“Don't get the cheapest...

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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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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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