How to Scribe for a Perfect Fit

Fit woodwork perfectly to even the waviest walls with an inexpensive compass.

How scribing works

Scribing is a simple technique that lets you fit cabinets, countertops, moldings and almost anything else to crooked walls. Using little more than a cheap compass fitted with a sharp pencil, you can easily transfer odd shapes or the profile of a wavy wall to your work piece. Once the line is scribed, it's a simple matter of filing, planing or sanding off the excess material to create a nearly seamless fit.

Of course, there are a few techniques you'll need to know for successful scribing. But they're easy to learn, and with a little practice you'll be scribing like a pro. We'll show you how to scribe countertops, cabinets, shelves and paneling and even how to fit a panel to a brick chimney. Once you learn how to scribe, a cheap compass will be an indispensable part of your tool collection.

The compass in the photo (available at home centers and hardware stores) is my favorite scribing tool, but you don't even need that for many jobs. Photo 1 shows how to scribe a line with just a carpenter's pencil. Photo 6 shows how to scribe an even wider gap by adding a scrap of wood.

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Common scribing problems and solutions

There are only a few rules to follow for perfect scribing. First, make sure your workpiece is positioned correctly before you scribe the line on it. Shim a cabinet to make it level and plumb, then place it as close as possible to its final position before drawing the line (Photo 1).

Don't just shove a countertop against the wall. Make sure it's parallel to the cabinets before scribing the line. To fit boards or moldings to corners that are out of plumb, first hold the workpiece plumb (Photo 5), then draw the line.

Next, remember that the distance between the point of your compass and the pencil determines the amount of material you'll remove, which in turn affects the final position of your project. Photo 7 is a good illustration. The gap between the window stool and the window is 3/4 in., but you only want a 1/16-in. gap. Set the distance between the compass point and pencil to 11/16 in. and scribe the line. After you cut away the material, the stool will move 11/16 in. closer to the window.

Finally, make sure to hold the compass at a right angle to the surface you're scribing from and maintain this angle while you draw the line. This is especially critical when the compass is spread wider apart or the surface you're scribing is very irregular (Photo 8).

Photos 1 - 8 show some of the more common scribing situations and demonstrate the techniques. Once you learn to scribe, you'll never again have to rely on a fat bead of caulk to hide ugly gaps.

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