If you’re a typical consumer (like me) the last thing you want to do first when you get a new toy, entertainment device or car is read the owner’s manual.  It’s more the American way to just dive into the enjoyment of the new diversion, learning as we go, and maybe unintentionally breaking something in the process.  Reading the instructions is always a last resort.

If you’ve ever purchased an IKEA furniture product, you know that “reading the instructions” is not even an option:  Basically, there’s nothing to read.  Although putting together an IKEA cabinet, for example, is pretty straightforward, the task is next to impossible without the so-called assembly instructions.  And the instructions contain no words.  In typical European (IKEA is made in Sweden) style, the instructions take the form of pictograms.  I have installed kitchen accessories in the past made in Germany or Austria that were the same format:  numbers and line drawings but no words.  (In one case a dimension for locating a drilled hole was specified to the half millimeter!  This kind of precision is laudable, but, good grief!)  What have they got against some explanatory text?  Americans are not big readers, but their attention span, analytical skills and patience are also in short supply…

Recently I assembled some IKEA furniture for a client.  As I went through the thinking process to decipher and figure out the meaning of the various pictures and symbols in the instructions, it occurred to me that some explanation – in the form of words – was necessary to more easily grasp what IKEA was trying to “say” with its picture puzzle.

Allow me to digress by saying (read:  “writing”), there ARE words in the assembly instructions.  109, to be exact.  That is, 109 English words which are translated over four whole pages into 33 – count ’em – 33 different languages!  Doing the rough math, this adds up to about 33 x 109 or 3,597 words comprising three small paragraphs which can be summarized as “Important!  Buy the right screws!  If you think the cabinet is too heavy, add legs!  If you are uncertain about the ability of the wall to support the weight, add more screws!”  You’d think IKEA could assume most of the world understands English and devote a little more space to words actually telling us something we didn’t know, like how to put the damn cabinet together!

I have to admit, the drawings of the humans (you and me) are cute.  They smile when things go right, like when your friend shows up to lend a hand, and frown in multiple expressions when things go south, like when you break something by hitting it on the floor.  There’s a depiction of a confused consumer looking at the instructions with a baffled look on the face and a “?” in a thought bubble.  Beside that is a drawing of a happy-faced goober holding a telephone with a direct line to “IKEA.”  But no phone number appears anywhere in the assembly instructions.

By chance I assembled the three pieces of furniture on carpet; the pictogram advises this to avoid damaging the “wood” parts as they are not real wood and can be dinged up if banged around on the hard floor.  Lay out a rug or at least some cardboard to soften the blow and protect the floor.

I started the operation by, believe it or not, “reading” the assembly instructions to familiarize myself with IKEA-ese.  Then I unpacked all the parts and fasteners.  I grouped all the identical parts together for organization and to make sure I had the amount of each noted in the instructions.  Better to find out at the start that you’re missing a screw, than an hour into it and wonder if you accidentally kicked it under the refrigerator…

The drawings are adequate but study them carefully as they are relatively small in size and so it might be easy to miss a detail, like a hole the size of a fly speck, or this period.  There are multiple holes typically, so lay out the pieces according to the drawing and note which holes are being referenced in the current step.  The picture has a helpful rotating arrow to show you which way to turn the screw (rolling eyes emoticon…)

A slot head and a Philips head screwdriver are listed (read:  “pictured”) as tools to use for assembly.  Only one operation has a picture warning “do not use a screw gun.”  I used a screw gun with a Philips driver for every operation.  In a future article I’ll discuss using the clutch on a typical screw gun to ensure you don’t overdrive the screw and strip the threads in the hole or worse.  If you are familiar with this feature, go for it.  Otherwise, get out the Ben-Gay and Ace bandage(s) for your wrist(s) to treat the carpal tunnel syndrome resulting from turning all those screws in by hand.

As you proceed through construction, frequently examine your work and make sure everything is fitting together evenly and equally.  These are precision-made parts; everything should line up and be square.  If something doesn’t fit or work properly, you probably used one piece where another is supposed to go, or put it on backwards, or upside down or both.  Take a break if you get frustrated, except if you live in Colorado, Washington or Amsterdam, then wait until you’re finished to “take a break.”

The plastic inserts that accept the bolts holding the drawer fronts on should be tapped in flush with the surface of the drawer front.  The picture shows using a hammer and board to transfer the hammer blows; the idea is to not mushroom the plastic before it seats in the hole.  A plastic hammer works well for this and you don’t need the board.

You’re probably getting good at this by now, so I’ll leave you with the drawer adjustments to figure out on your own.  There are only six of them depicted in three drawings.

Go figure.

PS  If you have any left over parts, just kick them under the refrigerator…



The Ins and Outs of Doors, Part 1

Borrowing from the effusive Sally Field, “You like me!  You like me!” I am just cresting 3,000 views in one year (I assume this is good) and, turns out, the subject of doors is the most popular view to date!  Following your lead, this post covers basic installation techniques for interior doors.

Door installation is as much an art as a skill.  Rarely is the rough framing into which the door is placed square, plumb or level.  In remodeling, this can be due to settling and movement of the house over time; on the other hand, in all the time I worked as a trim carpenter in new construction, I never saw a framer (the guy who builds the walls) use a level or a plumb bob to ensure the walls and door openings were not leaning, twisted or shaped like a trapezoid.

In new construction you begin by assessing the rough opening.  The rough opening is the hole in the wall built by the framer where the door will be located.

Measure the inside width of the opening from stud to stud, top, bottom and middle.  This dimension should ideally be about one half-inch to one inch larger than the width of the door in its frame (jamb.)  You will need this extra space to place shims in order to square up the door so it will operate perfectly.  Measure the outside width of the door frame (jamb) from the outside of the hinge jamb to the outside the latch jamb to check the door width.  These vertical jambs are also called “legs.”  You should have a 1/4″ – 1/2″ gap all the way around if everything is sized correctly.

Measure the height of the rough opening; this number should be a bit taller than the overall door height (Remember:  “door” refers to the door slab hanging on its hinges inside the jamb or frame.   This is referred to as a “pre-hung door.”  We’ll discuss hanging a replacement slab in an existing jamb later…)  The top piece on the door jamb is called the “header.”

Go get your levels.  For door installation close is close enough, so if the bubbles are intact and there are black lines on either side of the bubbles, your level will work fine; we’re not building a boat here, as they say.  An assortment of 2-foot, 4-foot and 6-foot levels will come in much handier than one of those 6-inch levels which fits neatly in your tool box but is about as much help in hanging doors as a one-armed wallpaper hanger.

Levels should be accurate; the best way to ensure accuracy is to spend a little more for a good set.  Keep in mind the maxim about tools:  You get what you pay for.

Set the pre-hung door unit aside and just work with the rough opening for the moment.  Place the 6-foot level vertically on the hinge side of the rough opening; get rid of any protrusions like nail heads, staples and dried drywall mud so the level sits flush with the stud.  Note whether the surface is plumb (straight up-and-down.)  If it’s plumb…Frank Lloyd Wright built the house.  Use cedar shims to space the hinge jamb away from the rough opening the distance you measured earlier.

The shims are wedge-shaped; put them together to make flat surfaces to go against the stud and the jamb.  Nail the shims to the stud at the same heights as the hinges on the door.  They will stick out on both sides; you will cut them off later.

If the stud is not plumb, arrange the thicknesses of the shims to make a plumb surface (the shims) to attach the door jamb to.  This is where the wedge shape comes in handy.  Use your level to find plumb after installing, say, the top set of shims, then fit the correct thickness of shims between the stud and the level at the other end.  That makes the middle set easy to fit.  Now you have a plumb surface to fastened the hinge jamb to.

Now you are ready to put the pre-hung unit in its hole.  Man-(or woman-)handle the door into the rough opening.  This is easiest done with the door closed and secured by a plastic or wood “bolt” through the lock set hole into the jamb hole.  Some pre-hung doors come with a screw or nail through the jamb header or leg into the door edge; make sure you find and remove these first to save time and aggravation.

Align the outer edges of the hinge jamb to the wall surface on each side.  Drive one nail through the stop (the small board the door closes against) at the top hinge location, through the shims, pinning the door frame to the stud.  Now you can operate the door to see how to adjust it during installation for perfect operation.  I usually add one more nail towards the bottom, not through the shims, to add stability and ability to make adjustments in the door geometry.

Align the latch jamb with the wall surfaces; “capture” or hold it in place with shims top, middle (behind the latch bolt hole) and bottom friction-fitted between the jamb and the stud.  You will adjust these (see below) for proper gap, a.k.a. the reveal, around the door so it’s even, not too large, and not too snug.  Kind of like Goldilocks’ porridge, but different.

Close the door.  What?  You didn’t take out the temporary bolt yet?  Okay.  I’ll wait…

Close the door.  Gently.  Does it “clunk” pleasantly when it hits the stops, hitting the stops all the way around?  Yes?  Nail it all off and go take a smoke break if you live in Colorado.  Or Amsterdam.

Does it hit the stop at one place but not uniformly around the perimeter?  To fix that, nudge the jamb legs in and out, top and bottom until the door hits the stops all the way around.  This will put the jamb either sticking out past the wall surface, or a little behind the wall surface.  You will deal with this when you trim out the finished door with casing.  Welcome to my world.

Now you can think about seriously nailing the two legs through the shims.  Before you put all 6 X 3 = 18 (yes, 18) nails in the jamb, start with one through the jamb at each set of shims.  Remember the gap?  If it’s uneven when you close the door and exam it all the way around, pry the jamb away from the shims to adjust it until it’s a consistent 1/16″ to 3/32″.  Too large will A.  look ugly; B.  transmit more sound and drafts; and C.  look ugly.  Too small will cause the door to rub and bind.  Adjust shims accordingly for a perfect fit.

You may notice the reveal at the top is a pie-wedge, i.e., uneven.  Adjust the shims behind the bottom hinge, adding thickness or taking it away to even up this gap.  This technique rotates the door slab to change that gap.  You might need to tweak the middle hinge shims to compensate for the bottom movement.  The bolt holes in the slab and the latch jamb should now be aligned.

Almost done.

Finish the installation by installing the remaining nails:  Three at each shim location, one each side of the stop and one through the stop.  If the header (remember the header?) is bowed up or down, shim and nail where it works to get rid of the bow.  Use the 2-foot level to check.

One more potential issue you may face in installing an interior door is a sloped floor over the width of the rough opening.  Use one of the shorter levels to test this before you begin.  Lift up the low end of the level, center the bubble and estimate the amount the floor is out of level across the opening.  This will be the distance between the bottom of the level and the floor on the low side with the level level.  Using a saw, neatly cut off this amount of wood from the bottom of the jamb leg on the high side.  This will compensate for the slope.  I do not recommend cutting the bottom of the door to match the slope of the floor; this is difficult to do neatly, and only draws attention to the slanted floor.  No one looks at the bottom of the door anyway…

Okay, enough for now.  Later we’ll get into a few more tricks and tips that will make you the Dior of Doors.

Oh come on!  Fashion IS Art!

A Cut Above Average


“Measure twice, cut once” is an old carpentry saying you’ve undoubtedly heard at least one old carpenter say.  That old saw is part of the wisdom of the ages.  Trouble is, unless you know how to measure, you might find you’ve “cut it twice, and it’s still too short!”  The world cries out for a reliable wood stretching tool but, to date, the technology eludes mankind.

I am reminded of a high-end cabinet installation I worked on with the lead finish carpenter.  The design called for a 12 foot wide arch over the window at the kitchen sink.  The wooden arch spanned the distance between flanking wall cabinets, a precise dimension.  When the custom arch arrived, the carpenter attempted to install it only to discover it was 1/8 inch too long for the space between the cabinets.  He decided to make an “executive decision” and neatly removed wood from the center of the arch, replacing the missing wood with a wooden carving to disguise the repair.   Then he installed the furniture-grade “arch” on the wall.  The owner came home, looked at the “arch” and said, “That’s not an arch!”  True enough, when you remove the center of an arch and put it back together, the curvature of the arch appears “broken.”  The owner demanded it be removed and replaced with the original design – an arch.  The designer reordered the (very expensive) part; when it finally arrived, the carpenter measure its width, just to be sure.  It was 1/8 inch too short for the space.  Upon being informed of this by the carpenter, the designer fumed, “Well, can’t you just cut 1/16 inch off each end?”

Measuring can be tricky business.  Some basic tape measure lore will help ensure your projects are the correct size and wasted time and materials are kept to a bare minimum.

The spring tape measure, patented in 1868, replaced the carpenter’s folding ruler as the favored measuring tool in the 1920s.  Made of curved metal, it is designed to stand out when extended to allow control when measuring long dimensions.  The tang on the end hooks the tape to the board as you pull out the tape.   The tang also floats (moves) back and forth a distance equal to its thickness, to provide both inside and outside measurements that are accurate.

Whether measuring inside or outside dimensions, an alternative method to ensure accuracy is to “burn an inch.”  To use this technique hold the tape with the 1 inch mark  lined up with one end of the distance to be measured;  over longer dimensions this step requires the assistance of a helper with a good eye and steady hand.  Pull the tape to the other end of the measurement and read the tape, subtracting the 1 inch you “burned.”

When you’ve got your measurement using either method, measure again.  “Measure twice…” at a minimum.  Repeated measurements improve accuracy and skill.  Who knew “pulling a tape” was a skill?

Your choice of tape measure(s) should be considered as carefully as any other selection of the “right tool for the right job.”  Not all tapes are created equal.  Some are too narrow to stand out (extend) very far without collapsing.  Others have incremental marks that depict dimensions as small as 1/64 inch, which are extremely difficult to see  and mark accurately.  1/16 inch gradations are adequate to just about any measuring task; if you absolutely need to measure to a 32nd of an inch, it’s not difficult to interpolate between the 1/16 inch marks.  Tiny marks on a tape measure increase eye strain, especially if you are using your tape measure repeatedly.  European cabinet accessory manufacturers sometime specify dimensions to the half millimeter, believe it or not; this is about the width of a grain of salt.  The 1 millimeter mark on a metric tape measure roughly equates to a “fat” 32nd inch.

A “fat” 32nd inch?

Some woodworking tasks require exacting dimensions, meaning you cannot choose convenient dimensions like when you build a jewelry box of your own design.  Examples include installing any kind of finished trim wood to other existing structures, like cabinets.  Your measurement might be accurate, but “accurate” is a hair’s-breadth longer (or shorter) than your tape measure’s smallest mark.  In this case, good practice is to call the measurement a “fat” 16th (or whatever), cut the piece long (fat) then test fit it. You can “sneak up on” the correct dimension by repeatedly shaving off a few microns until you get an exact fit.

By the way, the width of a typical circular saw blade “overhang,” also know as “side clearance” (the outside edge of the kerf), is on the order of 1/64 inch to 1/128 inch. On a miter saw, move the piece of wood to be trimmed to touch the flat part of the blade body (not the teeth) and then bring the saw into the wood; you can shave off tiny increments with each pass.

The easiest “rookie error” to make is to cut on the wrong side of the line you marked when measuring.  It goes without saying you have just removed the width of the saw kerf  from your original dimension.  There are at least two ways to make this embarrassing mistake:  using your circular saw line guide incorrectly; and forgetting which side of the cut is the keeper and which is the waste side.  (A third related way is to use your circular saw line guide correctly, but to begin the cut from the wrong end of the pencil line, which puts the saw kerf on the keeper side instead of the waste side.)

Laying out studs when framing a wall can be done easily with a fat, flat framer’s pencil, the kind you sharpen with a small hand axe.  On the other hand, finish woodworking, also known as fine woodworking, requires a more delicate touch.  Whatever lead hardness you like to use – HB, No.2, etc. – make sure your pencil has a sharp point at all times.  Look directly over the mark on your tape measure and draw a narrow mark on the wood in line with the line on the tape.  Repeat this procedure on the opposite end if you are setting up a straight edge or scribing a pencil line to follow with the saw.

You can improve accuracy and precision by honing your skill at using a sharp pencil point to make your mark and setting your straight edge “right on the mark.”  Trial and error will be a good teacher as to where the best match is between your pencil mark and the edge of the saw blade or the saw guide.  If this sounds like splitting hairs, it is.

The placement of a straight edge saw guide relative to the line you want to cut is easy.  Carefully measure the distance between the edge of your saw’s shoe on the wide side to the saw blade kerf.  When you measure the size of the piece you want to cut, subtract and mark  this distance on the wood.  Do the same on the opposite end.  The two marks are then used to locate the straight edge so the blade cuts on the outside (waste side) of the line as the shoe follows the straight edge.

It  goes without saying all tools need to be set up and maintained for accuracy.  Follow the manufacturer’s guidance for squaring up blade, table and fence; setting miter and bevel angles and stops; and any other adjustable parts of the tool.  Check these routinely to discover and correct problems that arise from normal use.

Specialized measuring devices include calipers (inside and outside), scribing tools, squares (framing, rafter and adjustable), compass and story poles.  A story pole is usually  built for a particular task, like measuring vertical dimensions for a stairwell installation, such as minimum headroom.  A scribing tool is used to scribe (draw or scratch) a line on one board that duplicates the shape, profile or edge of another board (or the wall), the objective being the two will eventually match when cut.

Finally, measuring is both a skill and an art:  creating a finished piece of woodworking that looks perfect to the eye doesn’t happen overnight.  Until you have become proficient at measuring and using your measurements confidently to build stuff, make trials and errors on scrap wood.  If Carnegie Hall was the ultimate destination for a woodworker like it is for a singer or musician, you’d still get there the same way:  Practice, practice, practice!