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.
A compass is key for this project.
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.
Slide shims under the base of your cabinet until it's level across the top and the side is perfectly plumb. Slide your carpenter's pencil along the wall to scribe a line on the cabinet.
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.
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.
Sand to the line with a belt sander fitted with 100-grit sandpaper. Test the countertop's fit and repeat the process shown in Photo 3 to scribe a new line if necessary. Keep scribing and sanding until you get a perfect fit.
Fit a board to a corner that's not plumb. Use a level to hold the board plumb. Set the compass for the widest gap and scribe the line. Saw or plane away the wood to the outside of the line.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.
Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here's a list.