Learning Beginning Carpentry Skills

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"Level twice, build once." Constantly checking—and rechecking—is a key to good building.
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Figure 15: Nail board ends to backing.

MOTHER’s Handbook: Carpentry skills are really more of a mental game than a
physical one: The pencil is more important than the

Learning Beginning Carpentry Skills

A couple of summers ago, I took a leave from my desk job to
work with the three-man carpentry crew that was building my
family’s new house. I didn’t know much of anything about
carpentry skills, but I wanted to learn and was eager to

One day during the initial framing, I was talking
with the utility company worker who was hooking up our
temporary power line. “How many people you got working on
your house?” he asked me. “Three,” I said, referring to the
paid crew and shyly omitting myself. “That’s good,” he
said. “Three’s the perfect number. If you have any more
than that, one of them’s usually a lunt who does more harm
than good.”

That was me, all right—I was pretty incompetent. But
I learned. And, as a result, I may not be a professional
carpenter, but I am past the initial mismeasure and misnail
stage. So (with the help of two contractor friends, Bill
McCurdy and Chris Crosson), I’d like to share some building
lore for other people who don’t know a speed square from a
chalk line (and might feel a bit embarrassed about that
lack of knowledge). Anybody already competent with such
tools can stop reading now—you won’t learn anything
new here. This article contains those basic tips that
real carpenters don’t often deign to tell
beginning ones.
It’s just for us lunts.

Carpentry Skills: Measuring

The real secret to carpentry, one friend told me, is to
not misplace your tools. That may sound so obvious
it’s stupid, but it’s not half as stupid as you’ll feel the
first day you spend more time hunting tools than using
them. So, right off the bat, buy yourself a tool belt.
Stash your gear in those leather pouches, and you won’t
have to retrace all your steps every time you need the tape

(By the way, you know what a carpenter’s most important
tool is? I was shocked to realize this: a pencil .
Carpentry involves constant figuring and measuring. So if
you ain’t got a pencil, you cain’t build.)

Let’s talk about that tape measure. A locking, retractable
tape—that’s the thing you need, ¾ inch or 1 inch wide,
so it’s stiff enough for long, one-person measurements, and
16 feet to 25 feet long. Notice how the metal tab on the end of
that thing’s kinda loose? It’s not busted (my first
suspicion). Rather, that tab (Figure 1) pushes in when you
measure from the inside of a board and pulls out when you
measure from the outside—so it self-corrects for its
own width. Never give that looseness another thought; just
measure away, you’ll be OK. (Do use the same tape for the
whole job, though, in case one tape’s tab moves more than

Measure twice, cut once: Even professional
carpenters try to follow that axiom to avoid sawing boards
the wrong length. That makes repeating a measurement before
you cut mandatory for us beginners (I’ve measured three
times when I was nervous). Take care to read the tape
accurately, noting the right number of inches and fractions
thereof. When you read a tape upside down, don’t mistake
26 inches for 29 inches—and don’t accidentally think you’re
reading 7 feet 10 inches when you’re really reading 6 feet 10 inches (These
are really very easy mistakes to make, because we normally
read left to right, but you have to read an upside-down
tape right to left .)

How do you measure higher than you can reach? Let a lot of
tape out so you can run it past the end point you’re
measuring. It’ll curve back toward your hand, but as long
as the tape’s straight to the end point, your measurement
will be straight, as well (Figure 2). Use the same
tape-bending trick when you’re measuring against an inside
wall and can’t run the measure past your end point. (Or if
the tape measure case is an exact width, like 2 inches or 3 inches , you
can just run it into the wall and add its width—don’t
forget to do this—to the tape length you see.)

Carpentry Skills: Marking

OK, you’ve measured (twice). You’re sure you need to cut a
board 68 ¾ inches long. Now grab that board, hook your tape
over one end, run it down 68 ¾ inches inches, and mark the cutting
point with a big V whose two legs diverge from the exact
point. That V, or “crow’s-foot,” is a more accurate way to
mark an exact spot than a penciled line. You might get
thrown off by the width of a line or the fact that it may
not be perpendicular to the board, but a V points to
precisely the right spot. It also makes a big mark that is
easy to spot (that’s important).

Now you need to mark a right angle from that crow’s-foot so
the whole board will be 68 ¾ inches long. You can use a
combination square or a big framing
for that, but for my money the best tool for
the job is a speed square (a right triangle with
protruding rims on one of its sides). You can lay its
rimmed side against your board, line up the right-angled
side with your V mark and—zip—run your pencil
down that edge for a perfectly straight,
square-to-the-board line (Figure 3).

You know what? I just left something out. You should first
use your right-angled tool to check the end of the board
that you won’t be cutting. I know, you bought your wood
from the lumberyard, so it’s supposed to have square ends.
Check it anyway—sometimes it won’t. Once you’ve made
sure that end’s square (cut it square if you have to),
measure those 68 ¾ inches and mark your cut.

And anytime you goof and mark a line in the wrong place, be
sure to run a squiggly pencil line all the way
through the bad line when you draw the correct one.
Otherwise, you’ll have two lines to choose from when you
cut, and—inevitably—you’ll sometimes pick the
wrong one.

Now suppose you’re ripping (cutting with the grain instead
of across it) down the length of a long board, or cutting
across a full-sized sheet of plywood. Sure, you can mark
the V on both ends of the board, so you’ll know where to
start and end your cut, but your square won’t reach all the
way across, so how can you mark a straight cutting line
between those points? Well, it’s time to pull another handy
aid out of your well-supplied tool belt: the chalk
. This is a string that’s covered with colored
marking chalk. Pull the end out of its case, hook its tab
over the near V on your board, run out some string (keeping
it off the board), line it up on the far V and pull it
taut. Then lift the string ( straight up) in the
middle (keep it taut now) and let go (Figure 4). It’ll snap
down against the board. Lift the string off, winding as you
go, and the chalk it shed when snapped will leave a nice
straight line that marks the entire length of your cut.

A few chalk line pointers: Get a blue one; red
chalk lines are rainproof and practically indelible. Don’t
use it on wet wood—damp chalk will gum up the inside
of the case. If you can’t hang the string’s tab over a
board end, drive a nail partway in at the starting point
and hook the tab over that. If you have to mark a long
line, have another person snap the middle of the string
while you hold the taut end. Need an exceptionally
long mark? Have that assistant pin the string down in the
middle and then snap the line on both sides.

One more thing to consider before you cut: You’ll need to
support your board on sawhorses or a table. Don’t brace
both ends and cut in the middle; the board will sag in and
trap your saw blade. Instead, support the long side of the
board, as close to the cutting line as possible, then saw
off the short side.

You’ll have to vary that arrangement if both pieces are
going to be long. Otherwise, the free-falling piece will be
so heavy it’ll break off before you finish cutting and
leave a splintery stub. In that case, ask a friend to hold
the free end. If no one’s around, put a third sawhorse
under the falling piece, not at its far end (remember the
pinching problem), but near the middle of the falling
piece, just a little toward the cut (Figure 5).

When cutting a big piece of plywood, you can set two boards
on two sawhorses, lay your plywood on top of them so the
cutting line runs between the sawhorses, and then cut as
little into the support boards as possible.

Carpentry Skills: Cutting

Handsaw or circular saw? Handsaws are less
popular—they’re slower and more tiring to
use—but they will get the job done. If you use one,
concentrate on keeping it Straight, and don’t let its body
twist sideways into the wood. Hold it at a 45 degree angle,
start the notch with a few pulling strokes, then push and
pull with an even, steady motion that lets the saw do most
of the work. You can steady the board with your opposite
knee and reach over to grab the waste end with your free
hand right before it breaks off to keep the wood from

Getting tired? The saw may well be dull. Have it sharpened,
and you’ll be amazed how much stronger you suddenly become.
Also, be sure you’re using a crosscut saw (the
ordinary one with lots of little teeth) for cutting across
boards and a ripsaw (fewer and larger teeth) for
cutting with the grain.

Having trouble following the line? Examine your mistake. If
you’re cutting a straight line but it bears left or right,
the fault is yours. Practice holding the saw straight to
the line while you cut. If the top of the cut is on the
line but the bottom is beveled (slanted) in or out, you’re
not holding the saw blade vertically square to the board.
Hold a square up against the blade as a guide while you cut
(Figure 6) until you develop an eye for sawing correctly. If
your cuts all have curves, your saw blade is bent. Get
another saw.

Circular saws (Skilsaw is a popular trade model)
are definitely the most common cutting tool—but watch
out, they’re dangerous! Never let that spinning
blade get near your hands, legs or any other part of your
body. Never let it cut its own power cord. Never
get the blade pinched in a cut—it can kick back into
you. Never put a blade on with its teeth going the wrong
way (the saw will jump out of the cut). Don’t jam
its blade guard open to “make things easier.”
Always cut with the saw on the supported side of
the board, not on the one that will fall off.
Unplug it when you want to adjust the blade or
leave the worksite. In other words, treat that tool with
lots of respect.

But don’t let me scare you off: A circular saw is immensely
useful. It can cut at angles. With special blades, it can
saw through a variety of materials (even concrete). And it
can make those standard straight cuts with ease.

For straight cuts, first make sure the blade is set just
1/8 inches deeper than your board (it works more efficiently and
tears the wood less). Then hold the saw so the power cord
and your body are out of the way, start the motor and let
it reach full speed before the blade enters the wood.
Unfortunately, the guide sights at the front of a circular
saw often don’t work well as guides (don’t ask me why), so
you have to look around the side and watch the blade itself
moving along your cutting line. That means you’ll need to
wear safety goggles to keep flying sawdust out of your
eyes. (Earplugs are good, too, for muffling the noise.)

The first inch of a cut is all-important. Get that straight
and the saw’ll pretty much steer itself. If it’s off your
line, though, pull the saw out and start again. If
necessary, hold the blade guard handle back with one hand,
and evenly push the saw all the way through the wood with
the other, letting it rest flush on the supported board
(Figure 7). Don’t push it too hard—forcing the tool
increases the risk of accident and can damage the motor.
Don’t try to back a circular saw out of a cut while it’s
running—it may kick back instead. Turn the motor off
as soon as the cut is finished, but don’t put the saw down
until the safety guard has snapped back into place and
completely covered the blade.

Leave the line. This carpenter’s axiom means you
want to cut just along the waste side of your penciled
line, so you can still see the line on the wood piece you
use. Why? Because the width of a saw cut (the kerf) can be
substantial (1/8 inches or more), so if you cut on the
line, you’ll remove wood from your measured side, as well.
(For the same reason, don’t mark a series of cuts all at
once on a board: The kerf waste will throw them off. Mark
one, cut one. Then mark the next, cut the next.) So don’t
forget: Cut so the line stays on the piece you want,
not on the waste piece.

Are you having trouble making the saw run straight across
the cut? Then once you’ve got it lined up to start your
cut, set a speed (or other) square flush against the saw’s
other side, and hold it there while you cut. That’ll help
keep your saw on course and give you a beautiful finished
cut. A speed square’s 45°-angled side makes an
especially useful guide when you need to make 45 degree cuts.

Carpentry Skills: Nailing

Finally, the soul (and sometimes frustration) of carpentry:
driving nails. Real carpenters can wham a nail home in two
or three hits, but that skill comes with practice,
lots of practice. (I still can’t do it.) These
tricks will help, though.

First, pick a hammer that feels comfortable: properly
balanced and neither too heavy to use repeatedly nor too
light to have much impact (try one about 16 or 20 ounces).
That’ll make a big difference.

Next, get the right size nail. The rule of thumb here is
that the nail should go twice as far into the second board
as it traveled through the first—i.e., its length
should be three times the thickness of the first board.
You’ll want a common flatheaded nail for ordinary
jobs, a spiral (spiral-shanked) nail when you need extra
holding power and a finishing (no-headed) nail for
inside jobs where you don’t want the head to show (Figure 8).
If your work’s going to be exposed to weather, use
galvanized nails. They resist rust.

Hold your nail in place, either with your thumb and
forefinger or—if you want to protect your
fingertips— between your palm-up fingers, like a
cigarette. If you’re nailing a really tiny nail or you’re
in an awkward position, you might use needle-nose pliers,
cardboard, putty or chewing gum to hold the nail in place.

Tap the nail to secure it, remove your hand, hit it a bit
harder once or twice (not full force, or you may send it
zinging off into space) and then pound it in. At first, you
may tend to use your wrist too much when driving nails
because that gives you finer control (fewer misses). Try
instead to get your entire arm into the act with a loose,
swinging motion. You’ll hit with more power and tire less
quickly. Also, resist choking up on the hammer to increase
your accuracy. Make yourself learn from the get-go how to
do it right.

Is the nail going in crooked? Well, if it’s a third or more
in, it’s too late to reorient it. Pull it out and try
again. Happen again? You may be trying to nail through a
knot or curved grain. If so, you’ll have to predrill your
hole (drill it slightly smaller and shorter than the nail)
to get any nail to go in straight.

Is the nail—curses!—bending over? That’ll
happen a lot if the wood’s too hard to nail easily. In that
case, make sure you’re not using too puny a nail for the
job at hand, or try rubbing soap or wax on the nails to
help them slide in. Or simply eliminate the hassle by
predrilling your nail holes. Of course, the problem may be
that you’re hammering the nailhead at an angle instead of
straight on. Only practice will solve that

In the meantime, you may be able to tap that bent nail in
by carefully banging straight on its head (if you’re
lucky), or you could try to straighten it out with sideways
blows. If neither trick works, you’ve got to pull the nail
out. Grab the culprit with the claws on the back end of
your hammer, put the tool’s head down on the board (you can
lay a putty knife or thin wood strip under the hammerhead
to keep it from marring the board) and pull. If you do put
a small block of wood under your hammerhead, you’ll have
extra leverage and pulling power— that’s a big help
once the nail’s partway out (Figure 9).

What’s that? The nail just won’t come out? This time bend
the hammer down sideways instead of pulling it
back. This’ll bring out almost any nail, but it’ll be too
bent to reuse.

Suppose you drove the nail in just fine, but then you
realized that the boards were placed wrong, so now you need
to take it out. The hammer claws won’t squeeze under the
nailhead, so try banging the top board from the back and
then the front to see if that makes the nailhead protrude
enough to grip. No luck? Use a flat-faced pry bar (a
wonderful tool that’s often appropriately called a wonder
bar), and either wedge it under the nailhead or use it to
pry the two boards apart so you can pound the nail point.

Does the wood split when you drive a nail? If so, don’t
position the nails too close to the end of a board. Try to
keep them at least as far away from the edge as the board
is thick. Also, make sure all your nails aren’t going in
the same stretch of wood grain. Stagger them.
Still splitting? Blunt the tip of the nail with a
few hammer hits before you drive it. It’ll then tear, not
pry, its way through the fibers and be less likely to split
the wood. Still splitting? Sorry. Guess it’s time to
predrill your holes again.

When you’re nailing one board onto the edge or end of
another (edge or end nailing), the union will be
stronger if you drive your nails in at slight alternating
angles rather than all straight down. The same holds true
for face nailing , nailing two boards back to
back. If the face-nailed boards are both the same width,
you can’t use the 3X rule of thumb to determine nail
length. Instead, pick nails that would protrude slightly if
nailed straight down, then drive them in at angles.

Actually, if appearance isn’t a factor, you can use longer
nails for face nailing and clinch them for a joint
that just plain won’t come apart. Drive the nail all the
way through. Bend the nail tip over with your hammer claws.
Then hammer the nail over and flat. The bent tip will stick
back into the wood.

If you’re doing finishing work, you don’t want to have
nailheads or round hammerhead marks (carpenters call them
donkey tracks) in the wood, so use finishing nails with no
heads. Then when the nail gets close to the wood, grab a
nail set . (It looks somewhat like an iron pencil.
The “lead” fits into a dimple in the little finishing
nail’s top and you hammer on the “eraser” end.) Drive the
nailhead a bit into the wood with the nail set (Figure 10),
and fill the resulting hole with wood putty.

My least favorite kind of hammering is toenailing, angle nailing through one board into another. The classic
toenail goes out the end of one board and into a second,
right-angled one (Figure 11). It’s hard to do. You can split
the board end off, drive too low or too high or push the
board out of position.

To avoid these mishaps, start your nail at a spot on the
board halfway up the nail’s length. Drive it almost square
to the wood until you get it started, then turn it to a
45° angle and pound it on down. If the board end
splits, blunt the nail tip, start higher up on the board
and/or predrill the hole. To keep your hammering from
pushing the top board off line, start that board off the
line in the other direction to compensate ahead of
time for its tendency to slide. Or start a toenail on the
opposite side of the board, and alternate driving the two
nails to keep the board in place. Or simply hold the board
in place with your foot, a wood block or clamps.

Actually, the fact that a toenailed board tends to move
comes in handy when you do need to move a board over to a
chalked line or nail a bowed board to a straight one. Just
start a toenail in the direction you want the board to go
and pound away!

One last nail tip: Never leave a nail in a loose
piece of wood, most especially if its point is sticking
out. Otherwise, sooner or later, without fail, somebody
will injure either a tool or a foot on it. (One of my
contractor buddies stepped on five such nails in one day,
but luckily his extra-thick soles prevented real injury.)

Other Building Tools and Aids

Another surprisingly useful carpentry tool is
string. It seems like anytime you want to
establish a line to build to, you have to run out a taut
length of string. Nylon is best; it’s strong. To draw and
tie it tight, use this trick: Drive a nail where the string
needs to end, loop it around the nail eight or more times,
then make another loop, draw the string through it, lay
that round the nail and tighten (Figure 12). It’s remarkably
easy to do and undo that knot.

String lines often help when you want to level
something—and you’re leveling all the time in
building. A spirit level and a plumb bob are
pretty straightforward tools (Fig. 13). The former has a
bubble in a vial to help you check that things are level
horizontally (often called simply level), and often another
vial to check that something’s level vertically (or plumb).
A plumb bob, a weight on a string, is good for leveling
vertically or checking that one object is centered over
another. Be sure to use these tools precisely (don’t let
the bubble in a spirit level be just “slightly off
center”). Use a level in more than one direction (for
instance, make sure that post is plumb front to back as
well as left to right). Make sure you’re holding a level
against a straight, smooth surface (a good reason to use it
in more than one spot). And recheck something for
level or plumb after you finish nailing or securing it.

Shims are little wedges of wood you use as spacers
when, for one reason or another, things don’t quite meet as
they should. You just push the shim in the gap as far as
necessary (to fill the gap completely, drive one shim in
from one side and another from the other) and then nail.
They’re the carpenter’s way of cheating—and they’re
so useful that lumberyards call them “cedar shakes” and
sell them by the bundle.

There are a few other tools that even the beginning
carpenter will probably need. You’ve just got to have a
drill; electric is best. Screwdrivers
come in handy all the time. You need several so you’ll have
the right size for the screw you’re driving. (Remember that
if wood is quite hard, you can predrill the screw holes.)
Three or four nail sets will take care of your
finish nailing needs. A staple gun, pliers
(particularly locking pliers) and a utility knife
(it holds razor edges for cutting) are ordinary tools with
lots of uses.

A set of three or four wood chisels will help you
in a multitude of ways. A sliding T-bevel (Figure
14) is like a small square, but it has one free-moving,
adjustable side. You can use it to “capture” any non-square
angle and “transfer” it to a board you’re cutting. (Always
double-check the transferred angle before you cut.) Some
kind of plane will help you smooth surfaces and
shave off that inconvenient extra width. (The easiest type
to use, in my opinion, is Surform. It has replaceable
cheese-grater-type blades.) And safety goggles can
save your eyes from flying chips of wood or metal. The ones
with real eyeglass frames are much better than the clear,
all-plastic type that scratch and fog up easily.

Miscellaneous Building Tips

Always make a complete drawing of everything you plan to
build. And be sure to include the width of the
material in your calculations. If you’re making a simple
square box, for instance, with the two side walls inside
the two end ones, those side walls will have to be cut two
widths shorter than the end ones to keep the box square.

Speaking of widths, you probably already know that a 2 by 4
isn’t really 2 inches by 4 inches, just as a 1 by 6 isn’t really 1 inches by
6 inches. Boards get planed a bit from this nominal size
in their final milling. So a 2 by 4 is actually 1½ by 3½ inches, and a 1 by 6 is ¾ inches by 5½ inches.

Put the information in the last two paragraphs together and
you can figure out why the most common 2 by 4 board, the
stud, used to frame all those 8 foot-tall walls, is
actually 3 inches shy of being 8 feet long. Have you got it? The stud
in a framed wall, like the inside walls of a box, sits on a
2 by 4 and is topped by a 2 by 4. The real width of those two
boards (1½ inches plus 1½ inches) adds up to 3 inches, so the
stud has to be 3 inches short for a wall exactly 8 feet tall.

Never leave the end of a board dangling between supports in
anything you build. Always nail it to something. (Add some
backing, called blocking, if need be.) If another
board’s going to butt up against the first one, you’ll want
to cut the first board so it ends halfway across that
nailing surface (Figure 15). Then you’ll have something left
to nail the other board to.

Want to be sure a large corner makes a true right angle?
Measure 3 feet out one side and 4 feet out the other. If the
distance between those points (the hypotenuese of a right
triangle) is 5 feet, you’re on the mark.

Do you want to know if any rectangular structure you’ve
laid out—from a box to a house site—is square?
Measure the diagonals. If they’re equal (and, indeed, all
four corners are right angles and the opposite sides are
equal), you’re in business.

Building Fever

Obviously, I can’t tell you everything about carpentry in
one article—even if I knew it! In fact, I haven’t
actually told you how to build anything ; I’ve
just tried to help you start using the tools. You’ll have
to figure out your own projects. Better yet, get a
carpenter friend to make some drawings for you of that
first bookcase or woodshed. Getting that kind of design
help while you sit together over a cup of hot tea can be

But once your builder friend’s finished those sketches and
you’re out there alone with tape, hammer and a stack of
boards waiting like a disassembled jigsaw puzzle,
then some of my advice may well come in handy and
help you avoid some of the goofs I made while I was
learning these simple lessons.

Penny (D) Nail Size in Inches

Why are nails sized in “pennies”? In England, they used to
be sold by the hundred. One hundred 2 inch nails cost six
pennies, so they became known as sixpenny (6d) nails!

Penny  Length   No. Per Lb. 
2d 1 847
4d 296
6d 2 167
8d 101
10d 3 66
12d 56
16d 47
20d 4 30