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    Essential Core Skills: How to Measure and Level

    Most common mistakes

    • Assuming your first measurement is accurate
    • Not using a template when many pieces need to be cut or drilled at the same time
    • Not measuring more than once

    Tools

    • Tape measure
    • Level
    • Squares
    • Chalk line
    • Plumb bob
    • Carpenter’s Pencil

    Any job requires accurate measurements. Your measurements may include (depending on your project) spaces, length, height, width, depth, amounts (i.e. landscaping materials) and angles (i.e. crown mouldings, wainscots, etc.). Without accurate measurements, your project will be a sloppy one.

    Obviously to get things straight and installed properly, leveling is very important. For someone like me, who is vertically challenged, using my eye it may look level from my height, but it isn’t. So, leveling is key, otherwise, things are not straight, plumb or aligned.

    My brother, who is in the construction field, constantly reminds me that things are not straight: there is no such thing as a straight wall, floor or ceiling nor are they flat. There is no such thing as a perfect angle (otherwise crown moulding would be a breeze to install). So, do not assume that if you take a measurement on one side of the room it is the same on the other side.

    When drawing your marks, always use a carpenter’s level. A torpedo level should be used only when you are dealing with small items, i.e. hanging a picture or a small shelf. My brother has taught me not to measure from the floor up or from the ceiling down for the reasons cited above: nothing is perfectly straight.

    Mark your measurements at frequent intervals and use a long straightedge to draw lines or your pencil dots. Check right angles with a square.

    Using a tape measure

    A blade that is 1 " or more wide is safer and easier to use. When making inside measurements, add the measurement of the tape case, usually marked on the case. Keep the tape measure straight and level – the slightest angle will impact accuracy.

    Using a Square

    Squares are used for laying out work, checking for squareness during assembly, and marking angles. The carpenter's square (framing square) is used for marking true perpendicular lines to be cut on boards and for squaring some corners. One leg is 24" long and 2" wide, the other, 16" long and 1 1/2" or 2" wide. The better types have a number of tables, conversions, and formulas stamped on the side to simplify many woodworking tasks.

    Another type of square is the combination square.  It has a movable handle that locks in place on the 12" steel rule. It is used to square the end of a board, mark a 45-degree angle for miter cuts and makes quick level checks with the built-in spirit level.

    Using a Chalk line

    This is a string or line coated with colored chalk used to transfer a straight line to a working surface easily and accurately. Useful in landscape projects. Pull the line out, hold it tight between the your two points of measurement, and then snap it to leave a mark.

    Using a Level

    Levels are used to make sure your work is level (true horizontal) or plumb (true vertical). Always use the longest level possible. The torpedo level is 8" or 9" in length, with vials that read level, plumb, and 45 degrees but use it for only small pieces. A two-to-four-foot level is a must for any home woodworking project or carpentry.

    Using a Plumb Bob

    This is a heavy, balanced weight on a string, which you drop from a specific point to locate another point exactly below it or to determine true vertical. A plumb bob will automatically create a vertical line when it is hanging free from the top. It is useful when hanging wallpaper.