Don’t Measure When You Can Mark (And other things I learned on the Habitat build.)

Needless to say, I do a lot of “working on houses” but this is the first time it’s been sponsored by my Actual Real Job, which has nothing to do with houses– building them or otherwise. They do have a couple of volunteer days with our local chapter of Habitat for Humanity though, which is as close as my two jobs ever come to intersecting.

I showed up at the jobsite promptly at 8AM and reminisced about the times I used to do this as an actual real job. (It’s easy to be sentimental when it’s 75 and sunny with a pleasant breeze, but when its 98 and humid, I prefer sitting at my desk in the air conditioning thankyouverymuch.)

By 8:15 I’d already learned something new:

  1. A lot of people don’t know how to read a tape measure. I was shocked. Shocked. What are they teaching kids in school these days anyway? You don’t need calculus, you need to know how to read a tape measure. My trim sensei Al told me he was working with nun once who called out the measurement for a piece of siding as “Sixteen feet and three noogies.” Which is as good a thing to call them as anything, I suppose. (Hint: If you want to refresh your tape measure skills, try this.)
  2. You don’t actually need to know how to read a tape measure to hang trim. You do need a tape measure, but the numbers are irrelevant.
  3. No one has ever taught me the right way to do anything construction related before. Ever. I sort of had an epiphany when Sensei Al was giving me guidance on using the miter saw — a tool of which I own two and have used thousands of times in the last six years– and I realized that no one had actually ever taught me how to use the saw. Or the proper nailing pattern for hanging trim. Or the most effective way to use my tape. No person who actually does this stuff for a job has ever approached me with the intention of teaching me something, nor have I ever approached them with the intention of learning. That’s not to say I can’t do some things– tile, drywall, rough framing, trim work, check, check, check, check, I can do all of these things, and well– but there are certainly some things I’d like to learn on the job from the masters as well.

Like this…

Baseboard Coping Lessons from Sensei Al

Al took me under his wing early in the day and soon realized I wouldn’t be relinquishing my death grip on the brad nailer any time soon. He walked me through coping the baseboard including using a coping saw – when I told him I most often cope things by sticking a roto-zip bit in my dremmel and giving it a quick buzz he almost fell off the porch.

I still maintain that my dremmel way is fast and easy, but I may be persuaded to go by a coping saw now.

Step 1: Measuring

(Also, sorry about the grainy iPhone photos I was surreptitiously taking while working. You get what you get.)


Don’t use the numbers. Set your tape up flush with one wall, back of the tape to the other wall (or board) and lock it in place. Keep your tape locked, lay it on the piece of wood, and mark at the back of your tape.

It’s shocking to me that I have numbers dyslexia and this never occurred to me before.

Step 2: Cutting

I was always under the impression that you put your two flat boards up on opposite ends of the room, then coped both ends of the other two boards. Sensei Al told me to start with my first board flat, the cope just the right corner of the next board moving counter-clockwise around the room (or closet) this way, you’re only doing right-handed copes each time.

Start by identifying the side that should be coped (in this case, always the right one.)


Then turn it upside-down and good side out. Cut it on an “inside corner” 45.


Then, swing the miter table over to the opposite side to about 23-degrees and back-cut only down the straight part of the trim.


(If you didn’t cut the piece upside-down to begin with, you’d have to swing it around to do this cut. Read: Pain in the ass.)


Now you can measure your piece by putting your tape on the flat end (which will now sit flush with your already in-place piece of molding) and marking behind the butt of your tape. The “measurement cut” will be a straight cut as the left side of the wood will always be flush against the wall.

Step 3: Coping

Following the same angle as the back cut, use a coping saw on the decorative edge.


Some tips from Sensei Al on coping:

  1. Have a sharp blade
  2. Keep your wrist loose (I had the kung-fu grip on my saw, relaxing my hand made it 100 times easier)
  3. Use long strokes of the blade
  4. Only turn the saw when moving the blade up and down


Step 4: Nailing

Two nails on every stud. Find the studs by tapping a knuckle on either side of an electrical box.


While I can hear the difference, I actually can’t tell in the slightest which is more “hollow” sounding. I liked the “peek into the electrical box and see if you can see the stud” method, myself.


And… there you have it.

I did two rooms today, which is the fastest I’ve ever put that much trim in.


It’s Not All Fun And Trim Though

The rest of the team did some serious work as well, including hanging doors, installing window and door casing, installing underlayment, pulling up carpet padding, oh, and my boss got to remove a toilet.


I was all, “how’s that going, good, ok I’m just going to go back over in here with my trim nailer. See ya.

You can see the rest of the team found jobs that were not a part of the toilet-removal-committee as well.



As far as I can tell, none of us have been fired yet for deserting the field. Well, there’s always tomorrow…

Seriously Though…

Thanks to all the Habitat regulars for the tips, tricks, and general degree of patience in dealing with us. It was a great experience volunteering with this group, and I wish Danielle and her family the best of luck in their new home!


4 Responses

  1. Habitat rocks! It’s through volunteering with Habitat (~ 14 years now) that I got enough knowledge and confidence to undertake my addition and remodel.

    Good tutorial on coping. Something I also learned how to do at Habitat 🙂 The baseboard here is rectangular so I only get to do it at Habitat, so my skills tend to get rusty in between installs.

  2. Hey there! Just found your blog today. I’m a newbie who is looking forward to my first day working with Habitat for Humanity in a couple of weeks. From what I’ve gathered from you and Gene’s comment, it sounds like I’ll definitely be learning a lot! (Except I do know how to read a tape measure though. =P What *are* they teaching kids these days??)


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