45 Weird Home Improvement Terms All DIYers Should Know

Updated: Apr. 30, 2024

What the heck are space balls? If you’re updating your kitchen soon, you best find out! Learn about this and other odd terms you’ll come across while DIYing.

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stick built shed

Stick Built

Stick built sounds a bit like a structure built with Tinkertoys or maybe relating to a fort you built in the woods as a kid. But “stick built” actually refers to houses, additions and other structures built “on site” using conventional framing lumber; most commonly 2x4s and 2x6s as the “sticks” used for the walls.

When you drive through a new development where carpenters are whacking together walls and standing them up, you’re looking at stick-built houses in the making. Modular, manufactured or factory-built homes don’t fall into this category; nor do timber frame or log homes.

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PEX takes its name because it is a form of polyethylene with cross-links, hence the X in PEX. The plumbing material has become en vogue because it doesn’t require glue and it’s less likely to burst if it freezes. It’s an acronym that gets thrown around a lot as one of those home improvement terms everyone uses but few could tell you what it stands for.

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birds mouth
Via Wikipedia/Slashme


A birdsmouth is the little triangular cutout in the bottom of a rafter that provides a flat area so the rafter can rest solidly on—and be solidly attached to—a wall top plate. The horizontal cut (where the rafter rests on the wall) is called the “seat cut;” the vertical cut (which snugs up to the exterior of the wall) is called the “heel cut.”

The rule of thumb when cutting a birdsmouth is to never remove more than one-third of the depth of the rafter to maintain the rafter’s structural integrity.

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PVC pipe
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Polyvinyl chloride is the actual name of one of the most versatile items in any shop, PVC piping. PVC was first synthesized in 1872 by a German chemist. Later Waldo Semon and B.F. Goodrich later made it more flexible and its use expanded. Just don’t get it confused with ABS pipe.

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DIY dictionary Cornice
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The term cornice comes from the Italian word meaning “ledge” and usually refers to some type of horizontal decorative molding. Such moldings may be three-foot-wide concrete bands adorning the top of a 30-story skyscraper or 6-inch sections of wood trim covering a drapery rod over living room windows.

By definition, the fascia or eaves around any house can be called cornices, but the term is usually reserved for architectural details with a more decorative flare; your neighbors would probably think you’re stuck up or weird if you tell them you’re going out to hang holiday lights on your cornice.

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medium density fiberboard
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Medium-density fiberboard or MDF is an inexpensive option for woodworking and carpentry projects. MDF is basically sawdust and glue fused together under pressure. It works well for shelving and storage projects because it cuts well. Try using MDF for a flooring project.

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Flux is part of a dynamic duo of products that allows you to connect copper pipe and fittings by “sweating” or “soldering.” Flux is an acidic paste that comes in a little round tin. The soldering process begins by cleaning the inside (or female portion) of the fitting and the outside (or male portion) of the pipe with a stiff brush and fine grit emery paper.

The paste is then applied to the fitting and pipe with a small brush and then the two parts are fitted together. (Use a rag to wipe off any excess material.) Heat is applied to the joint, then wire solder is applied to the perimeter of the joint; the paste helps draw the solder in to create a water-tight joint.

Since flux creates a pathway for drawing in the solder, keep the flux confined to the joint area so it doesn’t welcome solder into places it shouldn’t go.

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GFCI outlet
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GFCI is an important acronym to know when doing electrical work. It stands for ground fault circuit interrupter. What it does is shut off a circuit when it detects current is flowing through an unintended path. A GFCI plug receptacle will reduce the danger of deadly shock from faulty plug-in cords. See how to install a GFCI outlet and how to test a GFCI outlet.

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 cutting in paint
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Cutting In

It’s almost impossible to paint right next to rough-textured ceilings (a process called “cutting in”) without getting paint on the ceiling. Taping off the ceiling doesn’t work either. The solution?

Knock off the texture at the edge with a putty knife. Hold the knife at a 45-degree angle to the wall and run the blade along the edge of the ceiling. The blade scrapes away the texture and leaves a small groove in the ceiling. Clean out the groove with a duster or a dry paintbrush.

Now when you cut in along the top of the wall, the paintbrush bristles will slide into the groove, giving you a crisp paint line without getting paint on the ceiling. And you’ll never notice the thin line of missing texture.

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spud wrench

Spud Wrench

A spud wrench is a wrench with an adjustable or standard box wrench on one end and a tapered spike on the other. The spike can be used to line up bolt holes when installing pipe fittings, doing automotive work or—in the case of iron workers—for lining up bolt holes in girders and beams.

Some have offset handles for better leverage or access to parts. There are other types of wrenches that carry the moniker “spud,” so make sure you know what you’re buying before plunking down your dough and know your home improvement terms.

And yes, we know there is another tool called a “closet spud wrench” that is used in close quarters for closet spuds, basket strainers nuts and spud nuts.

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Plumb bob
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Plumb Bob

A plumb bob is a weighted object connected to a string that can be used to establish a vertical line. That weighted object can be as simple as a rock or as elaborate as the brass plumb bob shown. Some are bullet- or cone-shaped, but in the DIY home improvement world they’re often in the guise of a chalk box or chalk line.

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robertson screw
Daniel Hussey/Shutterstock

Robertson Screw

Most of us call Robertson screws “square drive” or “socket head” screws. They were invented by Canadian traveling salesman Peter Robertson around 1906. Up until that time, almost all screws were “straight drive” or “slot head” screws.

Robertson’s screws were superior to slot head screws since the square recess automatically centered the screwdriver, provided more surface area for the driver to press against and reduced the chance of slippage.

According to legend, Henry Ford discovered using Robertson screws could shave almost two hours off the assembly time of a vehicle. But since Robertson refused to sell exclusive rights to the screw to Ford, he turned to using a screw developed by a guy named—you guessed it—Phillips.

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Trunk Line

The word trunk often conjures up images of big things carrying lots of stuff: Car trunks crammed with suitcases, travel trunks packed with clothes, elephant trunks full of water. So, it comes as no surprise that the trunk line of a heating system is the large duct leading out of the furnace that delivers the massive amounts of air it takes to heat or cool a house.

This main trunk or distribution line often runs the length of a house and is punctuated by dozens of smaller feeder ducts that direct air into other areas of the home. The location of a trunk line depends on how and where the house was built. If a house has a basement, the trunk line is usually located there, but in warmer regions or areas where houses lack basements, trunk lines can run in the attic area.

As trunk lines move further away from the furnace, they often taper in size for greater efficiency. A trunk line must be sized properly for greatest efficiency—a calculation best left to the pros.

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Euro Hinge
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Euro Hinge

A Euro-style hinge—also referred to as a “cup,” “concealed” or, even, “35 mm” hinge—is a piece of hardware that does the work of a hinge, but does so “undercover.”

One part of the hinge is mounted to the back side of the door and is secured by boring a 35-mm hole, inserting the cup part of the hinge into that hole and securing it with screws. The other “half” of the hinge is surface-mounted inside the cabinet.

Working in tandem, they allow the door to open and close without being seen from the outside. There are dozens of different versions that determine how far the door can open, how much the door can weigh and other factors. Most Euro-style hinges have adjustment screws that allow you to alter and fine-tune the fit of the door in multiple directions in a home improvement project.

Check out this guide to Euro-style hinges.

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portland cement

Portland Cement

For starters, Portland cement has nothing to do with a city in Oregon or Maine bearing the same name. The name is derived from Portland Stone, quarried on the Isle of Portland in England. The material has been in widespread use for more than 200 years and is one of the basic ingredients in concrete, mortar, stucco and grout.

There are five types of Portland cement, each with its own strengths and weaknesses; some set faster or harder than others or work better in certain applications. The type you find in most home centers is “Type I.”

Don’t “mix up” the words concrete and cement. Concrete contains only about 10 percent cement; the rest is water (about 20 percent), aggregate (about 65 percent) and air (about 5 percent).

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pickled finish reclaimed wood white wash

Pickled Finish

Most finishes make natural wood darker. A “pickled finish“—sometimes referred to as bleaching or whitewashing—makes natural wood lighter. Where did it all begin? In days of yore, lime was often applied to furniture and other wood objects to prevent bug infestations. Today pine, ash, oak and other open-pore woods are the species most commonly “pickled.”

This tutorial shows how to create a pickled finish.

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torpedo level

Torpedo Level

It should come as no surprise that most torpedo levels are tapered or torpedo-shaped. What is surprising is how many uses people find for them. They’re small—6 inches to 12 inches in length—and have vials that indicate plumb, level and, sometimes, 45 degrees.

Because of their diminutive size and shape, they’re ideal for working in tight spaces. Some have magnetic edges giving plumbers and those working with metallic parts a “third hand” while working. Torpedo levels fit nicely in a tool belt and junk drawer and are handy for leveling pictures, determining the slope of pipes and leveling over short distances for home improvement projects.

Here is an essential guide to levels and plumb bobs.

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Access Panel
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Access Panel

An access panel is a door, panel or piece of plywood that can be easily removed to provide access to a shut-off valve, drain or other (most often) plumbing part to which you need occasional access in order to make a repair. Learn how to install a shower faucet and access panel. Perhaps the most common place you’ll encounter an access panel is on the back side of the plumbing wall of a bathtub or shower.

Though a piece of plywood will usually suffice, you can purchase a manufactured access panel, complete with a frame and removable door, for about the price of a takeout pizza. Installing one involves cutting the appropriate size hole in the drywall, then gluing the frame in place.

Increasingly, access panels are being installed to provide easier access to low-voltage and communication wiring systems and devices. Some sneaky people use access panels as a place to stash valuables. Check out our ultimate guide of secret hiding places in your home.

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green treated pressure treated wood lumber
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Green Treated

“Green treated” (aka pressure-treated) refers to wood that’s had preservatives forced into it, under pressure, to help protect it against decay and insect attacks. Today, the most commonly used preservative is ACQ—Alkaline Copper Quaternary. The copper in the solution is the chemical that imparts the green color; as the wood dries and reacts to sunlight, the color fades to gray.

Brown or “cedar tone” treated lumber may be either ACQ lumber treated with a brown stain or lumber treated using CA (Copper Azole).

The most important thing to know when purchasing any pressure-treated lumber is that they’re treated to various degrees of chemical retention levels. Common ratings include “ground contact,” “above ground” and “below-ground contact”; make sure to purchase the right material for the job. Steer clear of lumber and landscape timbers stamped or tagged “treated to refusal”; it’s a vague term and guarantees no specific level of treatment.

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Space Balls

Space Balls are hard rubber balls—about the size of a miniature pea—used to help center the panels in frame-and-panel cabinet doors and prevent them from rattling. The panels in raised and flat-panel cabinet doors are purposely left loose so they can expand and contract—without impacting the frame—as humidity levels rise and fall.

In the “dry season”—when panels are at their smallest size—they can shift around and rattle annoyingly. The space balls—installed as the door is assembled—are large enough to fill the gap between frame and door, yet flexible enough to “give” when the panel expands.

Check out this quick-and-easy cabianet door tutorial.

Photo: Courtesy of Rockler

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drip cap
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Drip Cap

Drip cap is an L-shaped flashing that goes over windows and doors after they’re installed (but before siding is installed) to prevent moisture from seeping in from above. One leg of the “L” goes over the window or door brick mold, while the other lies behind the siding that will go above.

Some windows and doors that have uni-body or molded frames have their own form of built-in drip cap and don’t require any additional flashing.

Drip cap is inexpensive, goes on easily and can save you—and your window—a world of moisture trouble further down the road.

Plus, check out these 101 Saturday morning home improvement projects to get your house in tip-top shape!

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paver base

Paver Base

When you look out over your patio, what you see (hopefully) are nice solid patio stones or pavers laid in a neat pattern. But there’s a lot that goes on below; exactly what goes on varies from region to region and builder to builder—but here are the basics of adding paver base as part of a home improvement project.

Once the area has been dug out and flattened, the paver base is installed. This paver base normally consists of a 3- to 6-inch layer of aggregate material—often limestone— containing crushed rock that ranges in size from about 3/4 inch down to dust-sized particles.

When this material is compacted, the materials nest into one another forming a surface that’s, well, as hard as a rock. In some areas of the county, this paver base is referred to as “Class 5”; in other areas it may be called “crusher rock,” “road bed gravel,” “ABC” or some other name.

It’s important to get the paver base flat since the next step is to install and level an inch of coarse sand, then lay the pavers. In areas that need to withstand vehicle traffic, a heavy-duty geotextile or other fabric is often laid down before the paver base is installed.

Step-by-step tutorial on building a paver, brick or stone patio.

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Mcky Stocker/Shutterstock


Particleboard is a manufactured wood product composed of sawdust, wood chips or wood shavings mixed with a resin. This concoction is layered, compressed, subjected to heat and cut to shape, resulting in a sheet material that can be used for a variety of things.

It’s often used as shelving or as an underlayment for carpet. Plastic laminate may be applied to both sides to create a product that can be used to create everything from furniture to cabinets to wall paneling. Head into IKEA and you’ll find acres of particleboard.

There are a few things particleboard is NOT. It’s not medium density fiberboard (MDF)—a material with greater density and weight composed of more uniform particles. It’s NOT oriented strand board (OSB), a material composed of large wood chips and strands that’s structurally equivalent to plywood.

It does NOT have great nail or screw holding ability, nor is it all that water resistant; water can quickly cause the material to swell and lose structural integrity. But if you need something flat and cheap for use in a dry place, particleboard will do you proud.

Learn how to make a plastic laminate tabletop with a particleboard substrate.

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style d roof edge
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Style D Roof Edge

Style D, also known as “DL,” “drip edge” or “eave drip,” is a type of roof flashing, applied to the edge of a roof prior to shingling. It’s shaped more like a “T” than a “D”—but that’s construction terminology for you. One arm of the “T” extends a couple inches onto the roof, the other arm extends about 1 inch beyond the roof and the lower leg extends about 1 inch down onto the fascia.

It performs a variety of functions: It helps protect the edges of exposed plywood and OSB sheathings, it creates a clean edge for supporting the edges of shingles and it helps deflect water away from eave boards and/or into gutters. (Water can easily run 1 inch uphill—Style D prevents that.)

Style D roof edge is usually sold in 10-foot lengths, is available in steel, aluminum and vinyl, and can commonly be found in metallic, white, brown and tan.

Learn how to install Style D roof edge as part of a soffit installation project.

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ripping a board
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Ripping a Board

Ripping a board is the term used to describe cutting a board lengthwise or parallel to the grain. (Cutting perpendicular to the grain is referred to as cross cutting.) If you need a 1-3/4-inch-wide board, you might “rip” a 1×6 lengthwise to the needed dimension. Ripping can be accomplished using a table saw, circular saw or even a handsaw. Learn how to safely rip boards on a table saw for home improvement projects.

One thing to be aware of when ripping, is the possibility of kickback. On long cuts, the resultant kerf (aka saw cut) can close up and pinch the blade, violently propelling the saw or board toward or away from you. You can usually hear the blade starting to whine or bog down just before this happens, so pay attention with not only your eyes, but also your ears. And stay clear of the projected kickback path of the board while you work.

Check out this video: How to safely rip boards on a table saw.

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monkey wrench
Photo: Courtesy of Wikipedia

Monkey Wrench

A monkey wrench is a tool with two parallel, smooth-face jaws. It’s one of those home improvement terms that sounds funny at first. The upper jaw is fixed while the lower jaw is connected to an adjustable screw mechanism that can create wider or narrower openings. Monkey wrenches were commonly used in carriage making and excel at gripping the parallel edges of 4-, 6- and 8-sided nuts and bolts.

While it resembles a pipe wrench it’s NOT a pipe wrench. The jaws of a pipe wrench contain ridges for better gripping smooth surfaces and round surfaces, and are slightly angled so they pinch the pipe tighter when pressure is applied to the handle.

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Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter
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Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter

An arc fault circuit interrupter (AFCI) is a device that “trips” or shuts down power to a circuit when it detects electrical arcing. Common causes of arcing include faulty and frayed lamp and appliance cords, faulty or overheated extension cords, loose connections in outlets, switches and light fixtures or even a nail inadvertently driven into a wire. How common is this? An estimated 40,000 fires a year are attributed to faulty wiring, resulting in over 300 deaths and 1,500 injuries. It’s important to learn how to diagnose and fix an arc fault circuit interrupter problem.

The AFCI protection can be in the form of a special circuit breaker in the breaker panel or a special AFCI receptacle. Generally, when an AFCI receptacle is installed as the first outlet in a circuit, those downstream are likewise protected. AFCI devices have been around since the late 1990s and the National Electrical Code has increasingly mandated their use; now (for new home construction and remodeling) they’re required in most living areas. Existing residential wiring isn’t impacted by the code—but it’s not a bad idea to upgrade circuits when you remodel, or for safety’s sake. Plus: Learn how circuit breakers work.

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California Corner

Since three pictures are worth 3,000 words, let’s take a look at three diagrams. Before we start, bear in mind the whole “corner” scenario revolves around providing a proper nailing surface or backing for drywall in the corner. You can see in illustration A that there’s nothing to secure the drywall to on one of the walls. This type of corner is called a “Tick off the drywaller corner.” In the “Traditional corner” (B) you can see there’s adequate backing for drywall on both walls. The downside is that it requires 4 studs (or 3 studs with scrap blocking) to create the corner and there’s no space for insulating the corner. The “California corner” (C) can be built using fewer studs, plus it provides room for tucking in a few inches of insulation. The origin on the name remains one of those great carpentry mysteries.

Learn the “Do’s and Don’ts” of drywall installation. It will help you avoid seven common home improvement mistakes people make when tackling their drywall projects. Enjoy the foibles of our enthusiastic but sadly misguided drywall installer as he shows you the right way and the wrong way to get the job done.

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Pocket Screw Joinery

Pocket screw joinery is a system—employing special drill and driver bits—used to join boards or pieces of plywood to one another. Installing pocket screws involves using a jig to drill a sharply angled, 15-degree hole through the back of one board, then driving a special screw through that hole into the second board to draw them tightly together. Learn how to use pocket screws here. It’s often used in cabinetmaking and furniture building. Here’s how to build cabinets with pocket screws. The term “pocket” comes from the design of the hole which contains an upper “pocket” for the head of the screw to push against; this pocket also hides the head of the screw.

Pocket screws create a solid, simple-to-make joint. Because of the size and visibility of the hole, it’s usually located in areas that are concealed or rarely seen (though special plugs can be used to fill the holes.) Craig Sommerfeld, founder of The Kreg Tool Company, is credited with popularizing pocket screw joinery in the 1980s. The company today is the leader in creating the jigs, clamps and screws used to create pocket screw joints. Learn how to use a pocket screw jig in woodworking projects.

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Setting Compound

Setting compound is a powder—primarily plaster of Paris—which, when mixed with water creates a fast-setting material used to fill gaps and cracks in drywall. There are a wide range of setting compounds available, each accompanied by a number—5, 20, 45, 90, 210, etc.—that relates to how many minutes it remains workable before it starts setting or hardening. There are “easy sand” and standard versions available. Check out this expert advice on choosing the right joint compound.

Pros often use “5” to “20” minute compounds since these fast setting compounds allow them to fill large gaps around electrical boxes, in corners and between sheets, and then move quickly on to applying the joint and topping compounds for the final coats. Rookies should use fast setting compounds with care; they have a short working time and any resultant ridges, blobs and imperfections may require hours of sanding in order to smooth them out. Here’s why it’s worth it to use setting-type joint compound.

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paint sprayer hvlp spray gun
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HVLP Spray Gun

A standard spray gun—usually connected to a compressor—aggressively propels finish onto your project; so aggressively, in fact, that as little as 25 percent of the finish may actual wind up on your project. HVLP spray guns dispense finishes at high volume, low pressure (HVLP) which results in less overspray and, when used properly, a finer finish. Cabinetmakers and furniture builders love them.

There are two kinds of HVLP spray gun systems. A dedicated system employs a turbine to atomize the finish. These systems are small and portable, but can be quite expensive. A conversion system converts the high-pressure air from a compressor to a lower pressure to create a lower volume, more controlled spray.

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Shower hand rail
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Universal Design

Universal design is all around you—you just may not call it by that name, it’s newer to the world of home improvement terms. It’s the mindset in design, architecture and city planning that makes buildings and environments universally accessible to those of all ages, abilities and disabilities. Check out 14 ways to make a home safer for older people. Common examples of universal design in home improvement include:

• Making certain all spaces are easily accessible via ramps, elevators or design that eliminates the need for these

• Doors that are 36 in. or greater in width, with handsets that are levers rather than knobs

• 60- x 60-in. turnaround spaces for those using wheelchairs, scooters or other mobility aids

• Light switches that operate using flat panel switches versus toggle switches

Other elements of universal design include “talking” stop lights, closed-captioned television and buttons and controls that can be distinguished by touch.

Find lots more great information on universal design on websites such as this.

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dirty paint rags

Spontaneous Combustion

You learned about spontaneous combustion in school but it’s also one of those home improvement terms you should know. Spontaneous combustion is a chemical reaction that occurs in certain materials which causes them to burst into flame spontaneously. Spontaneous combustion can occur when hay, sawdust, coal, compost, oil-based products and other everyday materials are stored improperly and—in simple terms—the internal heat that is generated isn’t allowed to escape.

The scenario home improvement DIYers need to be very cognizant of is the one dealing with oily rags. A pile of oil-laden rags not given enough elbow room for the oils to dissipate can be a disaster waiting to happen. One painter tells the story of having left a few dozen rags out on a client’s sidewalk to dry. The homeowner came home and did him a “favor” by cleaning up and packing all of the rags in a trash can in the garage. The rags burst into flame, taking the garage with it.

To prevent spontaneous combustion, let rags dry out in the open air after use and store them in a sealed metal container

Check out more tips for preventing home fires.

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Sweating a Joint

“Sweating” and “soldering” are synonymous home improvement terms used to describe the process of using heat and solder to join copper pipe and fittings to one another. You can tell your neighbor you’re heading downstairs to “solder” a joint—but “sweating” makes you sound much more worldly and DIY home improvement hip.

Sweating involves multiple steps, each of which must be done correctly to ensure a water-tight joint. Both the pipe and fitting must be deburred (remove any sharp edges, metal or shavings resulting from cutting the pipe), then cleaned with a wire brush and emery sandpaper to remove dirt, oils, burrs and other substances that could get in the way of creating a tight fit. Flux is applied to both parts, then the two pieces are snugged tightly together. The joint is heated, usually with propane or MAPP gas then, once the proper temperature is reached, solder is applied to the perimeter of the joint. If you’ve done your prep work correctly, the solder is sucked into the joint creating a long-lasting water-tight seam.

Professional plumbers—because they sweat hundreds of joints in a year—are fast, precise and rarely err. But with practice, even confident beginners can “sweat a joint.” There are many YouTube videos describing this process in detail. Plus, this article has more details about how to solder a copper pipe, as does this article.

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Quarter-Sawn Lumber

A board is considered “quarter-sawn” when the growth rings run, more or less, perpendicular to the face of the board. Quarter-sawn boards generally have straight grain and are less prone to shrinkage, compared to other boards. These factors don’t come into play with the 2x4s you use to frame a closet—but it does with the shelves and cabinetry you put into that closet; you want those boards to remain straight, flat and stable.

Some quarter-sawn boards, especially those of white oak, exhibit gorgeous rays or flecks; a hallmark of much Craftsman-style furniture. Because of their stability and beauty, quarter-sawn boards are often actively sought out by woodworkers—meaning they may also come with a heftier price tag.

Illustration by Melanie Powell, from “Woodworking FAQ” by Spike Carlsen (Story Publishing, 2012)

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chair rail

Chair Rail

Chair rails are horizontal moldings applied to walls designed to protect them from “irrationally exuberant” chairs on the move. Not surprisingly, they’re usually installed about 30 inches from the floor—the approximate height of most chair backs. Aesthetics also play a role; proportionally a wall looks best with the chair rail positioned about one-third of the way up from the floor. Chair rails also serve to cleanly define space so you can apply different wall treatments—wallpaper, paint, wainscoting—to the upper and lower sections of a wall.

There are dozens of profiles and sizes of chair rail. Some can be as simple as a single 1×3, while others contain numerous convex and concave profiles. Others are “built up” consisting of two, three or more moldings stacked to create a period look.

Installing chair rail is a great DIY home improvement project, even for beginners. The materials are relatively inexpensive and you can get by with basic hand tools and a miter saw—either manual or powered. The biggest challenge? Figuring out the best and most attractive way to butt chair rail moldings into existing window and door trim—especially if that trim is thin.

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Remodeling Box

Most electrical boxes in your home are nailed to the wall studs or ceiling joists before the drywall is hung. But what do you do if you want to mount a box in a finished wall for a home improvement project? Or in a place where no stud or joist is located? Use a remodeling, or “old work,” box.

Remodeling boxes can be metal or plastic. Most mount to the drywall using some sort of mechanism that pinches the box between the flanges on the front and ears that flip down or expand on the back.

One of the most common mistakes made in mounting a remodeling box is cutting the hole too large; an oversized hole doesn’t give the flanges or ears anything to “pinch” against.

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ring shank nails

Ring Shank Nail

Ring shank nails are those with ridges or spirals around the shank; those little ridges can increase the holding power of the nail by 40 percent or more. The ridges act as little barbs or wedges that lock the nail firmly into the wood once it’s driven.

Perhaps the most commonly-known ring shank nails are those used to secure drywall—you want those nails to stay put since any “pop” will create a pimple on the wall surface. Nails used for building pole barns or installing siding, metal roofing, deck boards and other home improvement projects—scenarios where lumber is more likely to shrink and expand due to extreme temperature and moisture changes—are also often of the ring shank variety.

This tenacity comes with one disadvantage: Ring shank nails can be a bear to pull; often the head will pop off before the nail can be extracted. And if you are able to yank one out, they leave a pretty nasty looking hole.

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Tack Cloth

A tack cloth or tack rag is a lint-free material—often gauze-like—impregnated with a tacky substance used to remove dust and dirt from wood prior to finishing; a task essential to applying a smooth finish. Paper towels, cloth rags and vacuums may remove dust initially, but they also kick it into the air where it can land back on your project—putting you right back where you started.

A tack cloth only costs about $1 and, if stored in a sealed plastic bag between uses for home improvement projects, can be used multiple times before losing its “stickiness.” Some folks make their own tack rags by soaking cheesecloth or old diapers in various concoctions of shellac, varnish, linseed oil and/or mineral spirits. Type “how to make tack cloth” into your search engine and you’ll find plenty of options and opinions. Many woodworkers and finishers maintain that microfiber cloths—available in the car-care section of many stores—are just as effective in removing and holding onto dust as tack cloths.

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Chalk Line

A chalk line (or chalk box) is a tool containing string and powdered chalk used to create long straight lines on long flat surfaces. Most look a bit like the teardrop shaped tree ornaments you see in old Christmas photos. The inside of the chalk “box” contains powdered chalk and a spool of string 50 or more feet long. The outside contains a handle for reeling in the line along with a hook attached to the end of the string for home improvement projects.

To create a long straight line one starts by marking both ends of the intended line. A helper (or a hook) holds one end of the line while another person heads to the opposite mark, letting the string unreel along the way. The line is snugged tightly, then snapped, leaving a long straight line. There’s no simpler way to establish a long straight line for installing tar paper or shingles, laying out walls or cutting plywood.

Powdered chalk is available in a variety of colors, each with its own special “talent.” Blue is a good all-purpose chalk with good visibility on concrete and plywood; red chalk is more permanent and is slower to wash or rub off; white chalk is non-staining, thus good for interior work; and bright orange, yellow and green chalk can be more easily seen in low-light areas. Most chalk boxes—because of their teardrop shape—can also double as plumb bobs for establishing vertical lines.

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Speed Square

Speed Square

Speed Square is the street name (but also a registered trademark of Swanson Tool Company) used to describe a small triangular-shaped tool treasured by carpenters, woodworkers and DIYers worldwide. It’s in the shape of a right triangle. One leg is imprinted with a ruler, the other leg has raised fences along the edges which can “hook” on the edge of a board, while the hypotenuse contains degree markings which allow the user to mark angles from 0 to 90 degrees. With the fence hooked over the edge of a board, the remaining two sides are ideal for marking 90- and 45-degree cuts, or for guiding a circular saw while making those cuts. The degree markings on the hypotenuse make it especially useful in marking roof rafter angles.

Its small size (each leg is about 7-in. long so it easily fits in a tool belt) and its versatility make the Speed Square a mainstay in most carpenters’ tool belts or tool boxes for home improvement projects and one of the home improvement terms often used.

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reciprocating saw sawzall
Derek Hatfield/Shutterstock


Sawzall—though a registered trademark of Milwaukee Tool—is the term often used to describe any brand of reciprocating saw. It’s not hard to see how the nickname developed since a reciprocating saw indeed “saws all” materials. Depending on the type of blade installed, it can cut through lumber, metal, plywood, plastic and cast iron pipe—you name it—making it a favorite of remodelers. Blades commonly range in length from 3 to 12 inches and can have anywhere from 6 teeth per inch (for aggressively cutting lumber) to 18 or more teeth per inch for smoothly cutting metal. These saws cut in a back-and-forth motion, similar to a handsaw that’s just downed four espressos. The “shoe” at the base of the blade is designed to rest against the material being cut to prevent the tool from hopping around. What it lacks in precision it makes up for in versatility and aggressiveness. It’s a handy tool for home improvement projects. Learn how to cut a cast iron pipe.

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16d Nail

A 16d nail is one that’s 3-1/2-inches long. But what the heck does the “d” stand for? After all, it’s used to describe the length of finish, box, common and other nails. One explanation is that the “d” hearkens back to the era when Romans ruled England and the monetary unit was the denarius (which had the same value as an English penny.) Legend has it that one hundred 3-1/2-inch nails cost 16 pennies back then. And it would follow suit that one hundred 2-inch (or 6d) nails cost, well, 6 pennies. So, it’s an archaic term, but is apparently one that’s here to stay.

For trivia lovers, there is a formula for translating “d” or penny length into real length—sort of. Divide the “d” number by four, then add 1/2 inch to arrive at the actual nail length. To determine the length of a 4d nail, divide by four (that gives you 1) then add the 1/2 inch. Bingo, your 4d nail is 1-1/2-inches long. This formula works for nails up to 10d in length—after that it no longer works and you’re on your own.

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The Family Handyman

Teflon Tape

When most of us hear the word “Teflon,” we think of frying pans. But in the world of plumbing, it’s usually used in reference to Teflon tape. Teflon tape—generically called PTFE or pipe thread tape—is a thin, “stretchy,” tape you wrap around male pipe threads before screwing them to their female counterparts. It doesn’t have a sticky side, but rather clings to the pipe and itself as you wrap it tightly around the threads. Teflon tape does two important things: One, it acts as a sealant to plug small gaps that might be present after the joint is assembled; and two, it acts as a lubricant so the pipe goes together more easily initially and also comes apart more easily when disassembled. Standard Teflon tape is used on steel, plastic, PVC and copper water pipe. There’s a special type of Teflon tape formulated for gas pipes.

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The Family Handyman

3-Way Switch

A 3-way switch is one that allows you to control a ceiling light (or other electrical fixture) from two separate locations. Common scenarios would be 3-way switches located at both the top and bottom of a stairway, or having 3-way switches next to doors in a room with two entry points.

If you look at a 3-way switch you’ll notice it looks different from a standard “single pole” switch. The actual switch is larger because there’s more going on inside. And there’s an extra screw terminal on the side that allows a connecting point for an extra “common” wire so the switches can “talk” to one another. And you’ll notice, the toggle lever won’t have ON and OFF markings. You may even encounter 4-way switches—both in your house and in the electrical aisle of your home center—that allow you to control a fixture from three different locations.

It’s pretty easy to replace a 3-way switch; after you shut off power and withdraw the switch take a quick photo, then move the wires—one by one—from the defective switch to the new one for your home improvement fix.