What the Carpentry Pros Wish You Knew

hands with pencil marking lumber board
  • 1 hours
  • Beginner

Carpenters have the world of handling hammers and constructing wood furniture down to an art. They work with wood every day, from framing in houses to making small repairs.

Inasmuch, they see what homeowners are doing while maintaining and updating the home. When a pro views the work of an amateur, they’ll have some perspective to offer.

Some advice is related to safety, some to knowledge, and some just helpful hacks. Any way you cut it, these are the things carpenters wish you knew.

1. How to Measure

Perhaps the most basic skill of any carpentry project is learning to accurately measure. It may seem simple, but there are many reasons a measurement can be imprecise.

Start with a quality tape measure. Some tape measures are actually put together incorrectly, starting you off on the wrong foot.

Regardless of your tape measure, start your measure at the one inch line. They are more reliable from that point than from the end.

Speaking of the end, make sure your metal tab isn’t bent or pulled too far forward when you take a measurement. This mistake can skew your numbers by one-eighth inch or more.

Get a companion to help you with longer measurements. Since precision is key, having one person line up and hold the end of the tape measure in place is helpful while you line up and read the other end of the tape measure.

Speaking of reading a tape measure, you should learn what all those little lines mean. While inches and feet are pretty easy to identify, anything under an inch can cause a bit more confusion.

However, tape measures are set up to address this issue.

The longest line between each inch marker is the one-half inch. The slightly shorter lines between the one-half and the inch lines are the one-quarter and three-quarter lines.

Note that some tape measures have 32 lines per inch, although 16 is more standard. You can go back to basic math here to relearn how to convert fractions.

For example, 2/8ths reduces to ¼, and 4/8ths reduces to 1/2. When frequently working with a measuring device, though, it’s easier just to memorize the order of the measures.

Starting at the left, the first line will be one-sixteenth (1/16th). Next is 2/16ths, which is 1/8. Continuing on, the order for measurements in an inch is as follows:

1/16, ⅛, 3/16, ¼, 5/16, ⅜, 7/16, ½, 9/16, ⅝, 11/16, ¾, 13/16, ⅞, 15/16. Notice there are eight 1/16th measurements that land on every other line.

man measuring lumber

2. How to Mark a Line

Once you’ve figured out how to properly use a tape measure as a measuring device, the next step is to properly record the measurement.

Use a sharp pencil in your markings. A wide pencil can leave too much variation for the location of your cut. A pen often doesn’t mark as well and cannot be erased. A marker is also too wide and too permanent for precise work.

Precision is essential at every stage. If your tape measure is slightly skewed, the pencil mark is a bit off, and the blade is not quite right, you may have a big issue with your cut length.

When marking longer lines, use a straight edge. It’s easy to drift off in one direction or another without it. While you’re at it, make sure your straight edge is properly aligned.

3. How to Align the Saw Blade

With your measurements and marks in place, it’s time to make your cuts. Now is the time to understand blade width. Without this understanding, you can knock your cut accuracy off by 1/16” or more.

For some cuts, you’ll align your sawblade directly with your line. However, if you need the full length of your measurement, align your saw blade with the outer edge of the cut.

For example, if using a miter saw to cut a piece of base molding, lower the blade to your line. Ensure the blade meets the line on the cutoff section of the board before making the cut.

This blade width is called kerf, and it can make the difference between an accurate cut and a cut you need to redo.

woman with safety goggles using power saw

4. Safety Risks of Poor Design

We honor the DIY spirit here at DoItYourself.com, but it’s important to know when you’re in over your head.

For example, if you don’t have an education in engineering, you’ll want to consult someone before building an elevated deck that’s expected to support the weight of a hot tub.

Adequate structural support is essential to many areas of your home, from the foundation to load-bearing walls to roof supports.

5. Your Skill Level

Once again, being a go-getter is a good thing, but be realistic about what you can handle. Your knowledge and skills will improve over time, but if you don’t know how to do something, call in a friend with more experience or hire a pro.

Only you can evaluate where your skills lie, so be honest with yourself and others.

6. What Tools You Need

If you have a saw, a hammer, and a cordless drill, you’re well on your way to accomplishing many DIY carpentry tasks. But there are countless tools you could have at the ready.

It’s important to know which tools are essential and which are a nice, but perhaps unnecessary, convenience.

For example, know your saws. A miter saw is a great multi-purpose tool for many household tasks. It’s useful when you’re building any type of shed or building, working on flooring, or installing door trim.

A miter saw will cut angles on boards, which is essential to many projects. A compound miter saw also has the ability to make a forward and back cut that a stationary miter saw can’t achieve.

Then there’s a similar saw, called a chop saw. A chop saw and miter saw are often confused, but a chop saw is equipped to cut through huge pieces of wood, like beams.

Another common power saw is a circular saw. These saws are good for cutting through a variety of woods. A reciprocal saw is another useful option for making rough cuts through pallets, flooring, and any number of other materials.

There are also manual saws, such as a hacksaw, handsaw, coping saw, jab saw, tooth saw, drywall saw, and many others.

Oftentimes these do the job as well as their powered counterparts. For example, a miter box and miter saw can easily replace a power miter saw for many tasks.

7. The Importance of Wood Care

Your job as a homeowner and a carpenter will be much easier if you’re dealing with properly maintained wood surfaces. Do your best to keep up with regular care in order to minimize the need for repairs.

Protect wood surfaces from rain and other water sources. Keep your gutters clean to avoid overflow onto the fascia and siding. Check the roof annually and make any needed repairs.

Watch drainage around the outside of the house to make sure there’s no pooling near the foundation or deck footings.

Also maintain the wood surfaces themselves. Protect your wood deck by re-staining it every few years as needed.

Address peeling or flaking paint on your home. Sand it down, apply a primer if necessary, and paint while the weather is dry.

Inside the home, care for wood surfaces by using coasters for drinks and trivets for hot or wet dishes. Don’t let plants drip on wood shelving or floors.

hands sanding wood frame

8. The Need for Properly Aligned Doors

Interior and exterior doors are a central component of most homes. A door that doesn’t hang right can drag on wood floors, leaving scratches. It may also squeak.

A misaligned door can cause issues with the door frame and may not even close properly.

On exterior doors, a problem can be a safety hazard, allowing criminals access to your home. It can also increase the number of critters that can squeeze in and provide a freeway for cold air through gaps.

If you have any issues with doors, address them before they multiply.

9. The Ability to Identify Insect and Rodent Issues

As you probably know, insects can wreak havoc on the wood structure of your home. Termites, powderpost beetles, carpenter ants, carpenter bees, bark beetles, and wood borers can all be problematic.

Watch for the signs of these critters in the house so you can address it early on. While working on other projects, if any wood feels soft or sounds hollow when you tap it, investigate further.

Obviously, chews marks, tunnels, and sawdust are signs of wood-eating bugs too. You may also find discarded insect wings lying around, which they shed before taking shelter.

Rodents can be every bit as destructive. Be on the watch for droppings in drawers, in the attic, or in the back of cupboards.

Rats and mice create paths around the edges of rooms so they can use their whiskers to guide them. Look for urine marks or oily spots with clumps of hair attached.

Also watch for chew marks on furniture, cables, linens, or paper products. You can often hear rodents in the house as well. They may scurry along in the ceiling above or chew on materials inside your walls.

10. Terms of the Trade

Carpentry relies on certain terms to keep everyone on the same page when describing how something is done. Before you bring up the YouTube videos or read through tutorials, understand some of the common terminology.

For example, “plumb” means something is straight from top to bottom. This can be used when referring to a door frame, the framing for a closet, or the side of a play structure.

“Level” on the other hand, means something is flat or straight from one side to the other. This is a crucial measurement in many woodworking projects.

In addition, you’ll hear the phrase “square”, which refers to the 90-degree angle where two surfaces meet. Again, this could be a doorway, or a window frame, deck, flooring surface, or wall.

11. Houses Aren’t Square

You may be surprised to discover very few houses are completely square. It will come up again and again as you tackle projects around your home.

While most builders do their best, inaccuracies, differences in materials, settling of the home, and other factors will cause things to shift out of square.

It’s crucial to understand this because if you rely on a corner being square, but it’s not, you may find your entire project is off-kilter.

For example, if you install hardwood flooring flush against a wall that isn’t square, about ten rows in you’re going to find out exactly how far out of alignment you are.

12. The Characteristics of Different Woods

different types of lumber

Just like there are right tools for the job, there are the right woods for specific tasks. Do some research to better understand the different options.

Softwoods like pine are easier to work with, but probably aren’t the best option for durability. Other woods are great for long-lasting furniture and durable flooring, like oak, hickory, or maple.

Some woods are better for outdoor projects, such as redwood, teak, and cedar. You may also need to decide between treated and untreated lumber.

Most wood doesn’t hold up to moisture well, so it needs good protection outdoors and when used in areas prone to moisture, like the bathroom, kitchen, and laundry room.

Other wood materials should never be used in these spaces, like MDF (multi-density fiberboard), which tends to swell in damp areas.

13. Actual Time and Cost Expectations

Perhaps the main thing carpenters wish you knew is to expect the unexpected. Even with the best plan, experience, and tools, projects will be derailed in a variety of ways.

There’s an adage in the industry that any project will take twice as long and cost three times as much as you expect it to. Whether you hire someone to do the job or you tackle it yourself, you’ll find this to be true more often than not.

14. It’s Worth the Investment to Do the Job Right

Having said that, professionals also recommend doing the job right the first time. It’s easy to look for shortcuts when making a repair.

However, even if you have to wait awhile to save up more money, doing it right the first time will save you cash in the long run.

Get your carpentry station set up with these Carpenter Tool Set Buying Tips and better understand Carpentry Basics.