How to Scribe for a Perfect Fit

Updated: Feb. 15, 2024

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

Next Project

An hour or less






Scribing is one of the key techniques for installing cabinets, countertops and built-in woodwork. Learn how to perfectly transfer odd shapes and wavy walls to your work piece, creating a perfect fit every time.

Tools Required

  • Belt sander
  • Block plane
  • Carpenter’s pencil
  • Compass
  • File
  • Jigsaw
  • Level
  • Rasp
  • Scribing tool

Materials Required

  • 100 grit sandpaper (for belt sander)

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 workpiece. 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.

Project step-by-step (10)

Step 1

Grab a Woodworking Compass

woodworking compass scribing wall Family Handyman

The woodworking compass is my favorite scribing tool, but you don’t even need that for many jobs. We’ll show you how to scribe a line with just a carpenter’s pencil. Also, we’ll show you how to scribe an even wider gap by adding a scrap of wood.

Step 2

Common Scribing Problems and Solutions:

Floating Shelves scribe for a tight fit

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. The photos below 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.

Step 3


scribe cabinets cabinet scribe moldingFamily Handyman

Slide shims under the base of your cabinet until it’s level across the top and the side is perfectly plumb, then place it as close as possible to its final position before drawing the line. Slide your carpenter’s pencil along the wall to scribe a line on the cabinet.

Step 4

Cabinets: Sanding to the Line

cabinet scribe molding sanding to the lineFamily Handyman

Sand to the line with a belt sander. Bevel the wood slightly for a tighter fit by tilting the belt sander as you sand. Remove more wood from the side that’s not visible.

Step 5


scribe countertopsFamily Handyman

Slide the countertop tight to the wall. Measure to make sure the front edge of the countertop is parallel to the front of the cabinets. Adjust the distance between the compass point and pencil tip to equal the widest gap between the wall and the countertop and tighten the thumbscrew. Run the compass point along the wall to transfer the contour to the countertop.

Step 6

Countertops: Sanding to the Line

sand to the line scribing countertopsFamily Handyman

Sand to the line with a belt sander fitted with 100-grit sandpaper. Test the countertop’s fit and repeat the sanding process and scribe a new line if necessary. Keep scribing and sanding until you get a perfect fit.

Step 7


scribe WainscotingFamily Handyman

To fit boards or moldings to corners that are out of plumb, first hold the workpiece plumb with a level. Set the compass for the widest gap and scribe the line. Saw or plane away the wood to the outside of the line. 

Step 8


scribe shelvingFamily Handyman

Fit a shelf to a corner that’s not square. Slide the shelf into the corner, keeping the long back edge tight to the wall. If the shelf fits between two walls, cut it about 1/2 in. too long and set it in at an angle. Run a pencil along the wall to scribe the line. Saw along the line. Repeat the process on the opposite end of the shelf.

Step 9

Window Stools

scribe window stools Family Handyman

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.

Notch your window stool and set it in place. Measure the gap between the back edge of the stool and the window and set your compass for 1/16 in. less than this measurement. Run your compass along the wall behind each end of the stool. Saw or file away the material to the lines. After you cut away the material, the stool will move 11/16 in. closer to the window.

Step 10

Irregular Edges

Scribe irregular edgesFamily Handyman

Scribing helps you fit a cabinet side, paneling or molding to irregular surfaces like brick. First, support the paneling or molding so its edge is plumb. Then set the compass a little wider than the widest gap and scribe the line. Be careful to hold the compass perpendicular to the surface being scribed.

It is important to 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.

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