A Directory of Home Improvement Words and Their Meanings


Adamesque. Architectural style based upon the work of Scottish brothers named Adam, in particular Robert Adam. In the United States, Adamesque, with its delicate classical decorations, is a subset of the Federal Style.

Allowance. Value of an item on the specification sheets; when a substitute material is used, the portion of its cost that is greater or less than the originally specified material shall be added to or deducted from the total price.

Amperes. Unit of measure of the power or flow of electricity. See also volts and watts.

Architect. Designation for a person or firm professionally qualified and licensed to perform architectural services.

Anti-kickback fingers. Metal grippers found on many table saws that help prevent the work piece from being propelled backwards and hitting the sawyer.

ARM. Mortgage with an interest rate that may vary over the life of the mortgage. Acronym for adjustable rate mortgage.

Asymmetry. Not in balance.

Auger. Drill bit for use in a brace.

Awl. A sharp, pointed tool used for marking or for making starter holes for nails or screws. Also known as a scribing awl or scribe.

Awning window. A window that hinges at the top and swings outward.

Balance. An equilibrium that may be visual or physical.

Bargeboard. Projecting trim board on the exterior of a house, typically covering the roof projection of the gable end. Term commonly used to describe the elaborated sawn or cut decorations along rooflines colloquially known as gingerbread.

Baseboard. Molding at the joining of the wall and floor; in England, termed a skirting board.

Basin wrench. Purpose-made plumbing tool used to connect or disconnect the nuts that fasten the faucet or other fitting that provides water to a sink.

Batts and blanket insulation. Insulation with the consistency of sponge cake, often of fiberglass, available in various widths and lengths to fill wall and ceiling bays. In describing this handsome Greek Revival doorway, one could use dozens of handy architectural terms—among them, capital, column, Corinthian, cornice, fluted, lintel, pilaster, and sidelight.

Beam. Main horizontal structural member in the construction of a frame house. See also post, joist, stud, and rafter.

Bearing wall. Wall that carries some or all of the weight of the structure above. Also called a structural wall.

Beetle. Two-handed mallet used in timber framing.

Bevel. An angled edge of more or less than 90 degrees.

Bevel gauge. An adjustable tool consisting of a handle and blade used for transferring and marking angles. Also known as a sliding bevel, angle bevel, bevel square, sliding t-bevel, and adjustable try square.

Bird’s-mouth. The angled cut made in a rafter where the lumber intersects the wall.

Blister brush. Felt brush used by plasterers to apply water to a drying surface in order to extend the plaster’s working time.

Board foot. The unit of measure for wood equivalent to the cubic content of a piece of wood 12 inches by 12 inches square and one inch thick.

Blueprints. Architectural plans of a building. The name refers to a photographic print in white on a blue ground or blue on a white ground that is made of the architect’s plans.

Boiler. Source of heat in a central heating system that uses hot water as the heating medium. See also furnace.

Brace. A hand-powered crank device used with specialized blades called bits to drill holes. Various designs include joist braces and corner braces. Also called a bitstock.

Bracket. Small, decorative projection that supports (or appears to support) an overhanging roofline or headpiece above a window or door. Common to many Victorian styles including the Italianate or American Bracket Style.

Breast drill. Large hand-powered drill with a breastplate that is used to apply added pressure while drilling.

Broad knife. Taping knife with a blade in the four-to-six inch range.

Building codes. National, state, and local regulations or statutory requirements gov-erning materials, construction techniques, and building occupancy in the interests of safety, public health, and other considerations.

Building inspector. Person authorized by your town or city to inspect buildings in progress for adherence to building codes and other regulations. See also code enforcement officer. Building paper. The material, often asphalt impregnated tar paper, that was traditionally applied to the sheathing prior to the application of the finished siding or roof material; also called felt.

Building paper. The material, often asphalt-impregnated tarpaper, applied to the sheathing prior to the application of the finished siding or roof material; also called felt.

Building permit. Legal document issued by the building department in your city or town granting permission for construction work. A fee is usually charged for issuing a permit.

Capital. Head of a column.

Carbide. A hardening mixture of metals, especially tungsten carbide, used to strengthen cutting edges and teeth.

Casement window. Window that hinges at the side and swings outward. Casing. Molding used to trim door and window openings. Also called a surround and an architrave.

Caulk. Putty-like sealant used to fill gaps between two hard surfaces for weather-proofing or cosmetic reasons. Caulk is made of soft materials (typically silicone, acrylic with latex, butyl, neoprene, or oil-based compounds) that remain flexible.

Caulk gun. Hand-powered tool used to apply tube caulk, adhesive or other materials.

Certificate of insurance. Document each contractor should provide certifying appropriate insurance coverage in the event of personal or property loss.

Certificate of occupancy. Legal document issued by your city or town certifying that your dwelling is fit for habitation. In most jurisdictions, a new C. of 0. will be required upon completion of a renovation.

Chamfer. A beveled edge.

Checking. Fissures in wood that appear with age and weathering which at first are only superficial but eventually may penetrate deeply through the finish.

Chuck. The set of jaws on a drill or brace that grips the bit which does the actual cutting.

Chair rail. Decorative interior molding located at waist height that also protects wall surfaces. Change orders. Contractual amendments signed by owner, contractor, and, in some cases, the architect, during construction that specify material, labor, and/or cost changes in a job from the original specifications or schedule.

Chase. Wall or ceiling channel through which wiring, plumbing, or vents pass.

Classical. Building styles or elements that have been derived from the Roman or Greek buildings of classical antiquity. In practice, such revival styles as Georgian, Federal, Greek, and Renaissance Revival are classical; in contrast, Gothic Revival, Romanesque, and Queen Anne Styles allude to medieval (rather than classical) archi-tecture.

Closing. Meeting at which the legal formalities of a real estate sale are completed, including the transfer of the deed from the seller to the buyer; also called settlement in some regions.

Code enforcement officer. Building inspector; the person authorized by your town or city to inspect buildings in progress for adherence to building codes and other regulations.

Compass. A marking instrument with two legs joined at the top that is used to draw circles or arcs.

Compass saw. A narrow-bladed handsaw used to cut arcs or openings in boards or panels. The compass saw was once distinguished from the keyhole saw by having a broader blade, but today the names are used interchangeably.

Construction budget. Sum allotted for construction costs, from bidding through the completion of the project.

Construction documents. Drawings and specifications created by the designer that detail requirements for the building project.

Construction manager. Architect or other expert hired to supervise a construction project for a fee or a fixed percentage of its cost.

Corner board. Vertical boards at the comers of traditional wood-frame buildings.

Cornice. The decorative horizontal finish that projects at the crown of an exterior or interior wall.

Cost-plus contract. Agreement in which the homeowner and contractor agree in advance on a percentage of the total construction cost as a fee for the contractor’s services. See also lump-sum contract.

Covenant. Restriction specified in property deeds, typically regarding land use, subdivision, changes to the house, or other limitations.

Crawl space. Cellar area of insufficient height for standing.

Deadblow hammer. A mallet-like tool with a soft face and ballast within its head; the design minimizes rebound.

Dedicated circuit. Electrical line that services one receptacle or appliance. Typically used for furnace, hot water heater, or other larger appliances and, more recently, for computers.

Detail sheet. Architectural rendering that indicates special construction details of a house, such as for a staircase, kitchen cabinetry, or molding details.

Double-hung window. Window that slides up and down within its frame.

Draw. Method of payment in which a contractor will be paid on a periodic basis for work completed.

Dry wall. Finish material for walls or ceilings that consists of a layer of gypsum sandwiched between two layers of paper. It is applied dry (unlike plaster, whose finish it resembles). Also called gypsum board.

Ductwork. Network of round or rectangular pipes or ducts for the distribution of warm or cool air.

Easement. Strip of land inside the boundary of a piece of property that must be left free of construction. Easements are usually mandated by local ordinance, often for drainage or utility uses. See also setback.

Elevation. Architectural drawing that indicates the two-dimensional appearance of completed interior or exterior wall; the point of view is of an observer looking from a horizontal vantage.

Ell. A building addition at right angles to the main axis of the original structure.

End grain. The cross grain at the end of a workpiece.

Equity. Difference between the value of a property and the owner’s total remaining indebtedness.

Essex board measure. A table that gives board measure in feet.

Fabric. Physical material of a building.

Fascia. Flat, vertical boards that form a band around the edge of the roof. See also cornice and soffit.

Featherboard. An adjustable arm fixed to the top of a table saw to brace the workpiece against the fench, holding the work in line while the saw is cutting.

Fenestration. Arrangement of openings (windows and doors) in a building. Portion of a fireplace or furnace where the fire or flame is located.

Ferrule. A metal cap or ring fitted around the end of a shaft or handle to strengthen it.

Filling knife. A wider-bladed version of the putty knife.

Finishing knife. Taping knife with a blade eight to 14 inches wide.

Firmer chisel. All-purpose wood chisel used to form and shape wood elements.

Fixed-price contract. See lump-sum contract.

Fixture risers. Vertical plumbing pipes that carry the water, hot or cold, to each fixture.

Fixtures. Any of the various parts of the plumbing or electrical systems that are installed permanently in a building, such as bathtubs, basins, toilets, and wall or ceiling lighting fixtures.

Flashing. Sheet metal (copper, aluminum, or lead) or other material used in roof and wall construction to protect the joints in a building from being penetrated by water.

Flats. The sides of a nut or bolt head.

Floor plan. Architectural drawing that shows the location of the rooms in a structure, drawn as if from the point of view of an observer looking from directly above the building. Separate floor plans for each story of the building indicate outside walls, interior room configurations, wall openings (windows and doors), appliance and plumbing fixture locations, and other details.

Footing. Rectangular concrete mass set below grade level onto which the foundation wall or piers are set. The purpose of the footing is to distribute the weight of the building evenly onto undisturbed earth around the foundation.

Footprint. The perimeter and inside area of a house foundation.

Foundation plan. Top-view drawing that indicates the outside dimensions of the house and the specifications for grading, excavation, and footing and foundation wall construction.

Frame construction. Construction in which the structural parts are wood or depend upon a wood frame for support (as in a brick veneer wall).

Framing. Process of assembling the skeleton of a building, typically consisting of the lumber elements. See also stud, joist, beam, and rafter.

Frame saw. A broad category of saws including handsaws in which a narrow metal blade is drawn taut within a wooden or metal frame.

Frost line. Depth the frost penetrates into the earth in a given location, a determining factor in how deep the foundation footings must be set.

Furnace. Source of heat in a central heating system that uses hot air as the heating medium. See also boiler.

Gable. Triangle at the top of an end wall of a building formed by the eave line of a double-sloped roof.

General contractor. Person who manages the construction process, handling financial, scheduling, materials, and personnel matters pertaining to a building project.

GFI. See ground-fault interrupter.

Gimlet. A small tool with a screw point for boring holes.

Gingerbread. Sawn or carved exterior decoration found in many Victorian styles, characterized by spindle work and turned posts on porches and bargeboards on rooflines.

Girder. Major horizontal beam.

Grit. The abrasive particles on sandpaper; the size of the grit determines the abrasive value assigned to each grade of paper.

Ground-fault interrupter. Safety device that functions as a secondary fuse to shut off power to the outlet and prevent electrical shock in the event of a fault in the electrical ground.

Ground sill. See sill.

Grout. A thin, coarse mortar used to seal between tile joints.

Grout float. Rubber-faced, trowel-like tool used to spread grout.

Grout saw. Specialty saw used to remove old grout below the level of the tile.

Guard. Fixed or movable safety devices that prevent injury, especially in limiting exposure to saw blades.

Gusset. A wood or metal reinforcement at a structural joint for added strength or rigidity.

Gypsum board. See drywall.

Handsaw. A hand-held saw powered by the muscle of the user; term is used to describe the traditional carpenter’s saw.

Hardscape. Wood, stone, and other fixed elements in a landscape, including walls, fences, driveways, walkways, terraces, and decks.

Hawk. Plasterer’s carrying device used to hold extra plaster in one hand while troweling with the other.

Header. Wooden beam positioned over a door, window, or other opening to bear the weight of the structure above. See also lintel.

Heating load. Amount of heat required to heat a structure that is determined using an arithmetical formula that factors in the size of the structure, its insulation, and the local climate.

Heat pump. HVAC system that uses compressed refrigerant to concentrate the relative heat of the air, ground, or ground water for heating or cooling.

Hook scraper. A scraping tool with a sharp metal blade fixed perpendicular to the long handle.

House wrap. Membrane applied to the exterior of the house that prevents the infiltration of air but allows water vapor to escape.

Hydronic heating system. Term synonymous with hot-water heating.

HVAC. Shorthand term for heating, ventilation and air-conditioning.

I-joist. Prefabricated structural member made of laminated veneer lumber. In section, it resembles the capital letter I. See also joist and laminated veneer lumber.

Infiltration. Flow of air that enters the house through gaps around windows, doors, electrical boxes, and other exterior openings.

Insulation. Materials used in walls, ceilings, and floors to prevent heat transmission. See also R-factor.

Jamb. Side or head lining of a door, window, or other opening.

Joint compound. Premixed, plasterlike substance applied with a putty knife to cover nail holes and joints between sheets in gypsum board construction; also known as mud or spackle.

Joist. One of a series of parallel beams laid edgewise, often of lumber of nominal 2- inch thickness, that support floor or ceiling loads. Joists are, in turn, supported by beams or bearing walls.

Kerf. The cut made by a saw in a piece of wood, or the width of that cut.

Kitchen triangle. Design guideline regarding the location of the sink, refrigerator, and stove; according to the rule, each of the three elements is set into a point of a triangle whose perimeter is not more than 22 feet with sides 5 to 9 feet in length.

Lath. In wet-wall construction (i.e. when the plaster is applied wet rather than in dry gypsum boards), the lath is the wood, metal or other material that is attached to the frame of the building prior to plastering to act as a base for the plaster.

Laminated veneer lumber. Structural lumber manufactured of thin layers (veneers) of wood glued together to form joists, beams, or headers.

Light. Individual panes of glass in a window sash.

Lintel. Horizontal member, usually of metal or stone, that supports the load over an opening, such as a door, window, or fireplace.

Loggia. Roofed, open gallery, often with a row of arches or columns.

Lump-sum contract. Agreement in which the homeowner and general contractor agree in advance on a total price for a job; also called a fixed-price contract. See also cost-plus contract.

LVL. See laminated-veneer lumber.

Mandrel. A cylindrical shaft or axle on which a tool or blade is mounted.

Masonry. Brick, concrete, stone, or other materials bonded together with mortar to form walls, piers, buttresses, or other masses.

Mass. Three-dimensional bulk of an object, such as a house.

Millwork. Wood components that are finished and assembled at their place of man-ufacture, often including windows, doors, and paneling.

Miter. An oblique surface shaped on a piece of wood or other material so as to butt against an oblique surface on another piece to be join with it; a matching angle cut.

Molding. Strip of wood (or occasionally of plaster or other material) used for finish or decorative purposes. A molding has regular channels or projections, and it may be flat, curved, or both. Moldings are used as transitions from one surface to another and for visual appeal.

Mullion. Large vertical bar between separate window units. See also muntin.

Muntin. Wooden elements, also called glazing bars, that separate the panes of glass in a window sash. Or equal materials. Goods, typically finish materials such as carpeting, light fixtures, or tile, that may be substituted for equivalent items listed on the spec sheets. The term “or equal” also implies that the substitution may be done at no cost to the homeowner if the alternate choice is priced the same as (and thus equal to) what was specified. Also called allowances.

Nailing surface. A wood member fastened to an interior surface to provide an attachment point for another surface or element. Also called a “nailer.”

Nail set. A flat-pointed punch used to countersink nails beneath the surface of a wooden workpiece.

Nippers. Pliers-like device used to trim off small shards from a piece of tile.

Outline specifications. Preliminary listings of materials and instructions to be used for estimating purposes. See also specifications.

Palladian window. Three-part window consisting of a central arch flanked by two shorter flat-topped windows. Named after sixteenth-century Italian master Andrea Palladio.

Picture molding. Interior molding located immediately below the ceiling that is used for attaching hooks to hang picture frames.

Pier. Masonry column used to support the structure of a house.

Pilaster. Flattened or half-round column projecting from a wall.

Plantscape. Vegetative components of a landscape, including the trees, shrubs, flowering and fruit-bearing plants, and ground cover.

Plate. See top plate.

Plot plan. Top-view drawing that identifies the boundaries and other significant aspects of the land on which the structure is to be built as well as the structure itself.

Plumb. Precisely vertical.

Pocket cut. A saw cut made in the interior of a board or panel.

Pointing. Filling of open mortar joints between masonry units (brick, stone, block). See also repointing.

Post. Main vertical structural member in the construction of a frame house. See also beam, joist, stud, and rafter.

Preservation. Conservation of original architectural fabric.

Program. Outline of needs, expectations, budget, and design inclinations that define a design task. The program will guide the designer in creating a structure that satisfies the homeowner’s objectives, site and other limitations, building regulations, and any other constraints.

Proportion. Relative size of different elements to one another, often expressed in ratios.

Punch list. List of final problems to be corrected when a construction job is approaching completion.

Rafter. One of a series of inclined structural members that support the roof, running from the exterior wall to the ridgepole or ridge board.

Rafter tables. The numerical chart found stamped on the carpenter’s square that is used to calculate rafter dimensions.

Rebar. Steel rods set into concrete to add strength; shorthand for reinforcement bars. Rehabilitation. Modification of original structure or elements for adaptation to new uses.

Repointing. Renewal of deteriorating mortar between masonry units (brick, stone, or block) by removal of old, crumbing mortar and the tooling in of fresh mortar.

Restoration. Act of returning a structure or object to its original appearance.

Retainage. Payment scheme in which the homeowner retains 10 percent of each interim payment until substantial completion of the job, when the withheld monies are released.

Reversibility. An attribute of drills and drivers that allows the direction in which the motor turns to be reversed for withdrawing as well as driving.

R-factor. Measure of insulating ability; the higher the R-factor, the greater the insulating value. Also referred to as R-value.

Ridgepole or Ridge board. Horizontal member at the peak of the roof to which the top ends of the rafters attach.

Right-of-way. Legal right of passage over another person’s property, usually specified in the deed to that property.

Rip fence. An adjustable guide on a table saw that is positioned to regulate the width of a workpiece being ripped.

Rise and run. The terms used to indicate the degree of incline (the rise is the vertical measure, the run is horizontal) in laying out rafters, stair carriages or other construction elements.

Riser. Vertical board that closes the space between the treads of a stairway. See also tread, stringer.

Rough-in. Preliminary stage of electrical, plumbing, or HVAC work where the wires, pipes, or ductwork that will eventually be obscured by finished walls and ceilings are installed.

Rough opening. Unfinished opening in a building for a window or door.

Sash. Wood or metal frame in which the glass lights of a window are set.

Scale. Relative height, width, depth, and size. When applied to a drawing, the size of the drawing in relation to a full-size structure, usually expressed in ratio such as Vz inch = 1 foot.

Serrated. Marked with tooth-like notches (serrations) at the edge.

Set. The bend given to sawteeth beyond the plane of the blade itself in order to prevent binding by insuring that the kerf cut will be slightly wider than the blade.

Section. Drawing or model of a part of a building that has been cut vertically or horizontally to reveal the interior or profile; a floor plan is an example of a section, where the cut is made through all the doors and windows so as to best show the construction.

Setback. Minimum distance specified by local ordinance that a building must be located (or “set back”) from its boundaries. See also easement.

Sheathing. Layer of boards or plywood over the supporting structure of the house but beneath the final siding or roofing material; called “sheeting” in some regions. Sheeting. See sheathing. Sheetrock. Proprietary name for sheets of plasterboard. See also gypsum board. Shingle remover. Thin-bladed demolition tool used for removing shingles, as well as for prying off boards and other elements. Also known as a Slater’s ripper.

Siding. Finished surface of exterior walls, commonly clapboard or shingles.

Sill. Lowest member of the wood framing of a house, the sill rests on top of the foundation wall. Also referred to as sole, sole plate, and ground sill.

Site plan. See plot plan.

Soffit. Underside of a roof overhang or cornice.

Soil pipe. Pipe carrying waste from plumbing fixtures to septic system.

Sole. See sill.

Sole plate. See sill.

Specifications. Series of sheets attendant to the architect’s drawings that specify standards of performance for a job as well as schedules of the materials to be used.

Splitter. A fin-shaped piece of steel beyond the blade on a table saw, which separates the stock being ripped to prevent it from binding on the blade.

Stair carriage. See stringer.

Stringer. Sides of a staircase onto which the risers and treads are attached. Also called the stair carriage.

Structural wall. See bearing wall.

Stud. One of a series of vertical wood or metal structural members, usually (in the case of wood) of nominal 2-inch thickness, used as supporting elements in walls or partitions.

Subfloor. Layer of plywood or boards laid over the floor joists on which the finished floor is applied.

Supply pipes. Plumbing that delivers clean water to the fixtures. See also waste pipes and fixtures.

Surround. See casing.

Survey. Document prepared by a surveyor that delineates the extent and position of a tract of land.

Symmetry. Proportionally balanced, as in a building in which the elements on either side of a central line correspond in size, shape, and position.

Tail cut. The cut made at the lower end of a rafter.

Tang. A projecting shank or tongue from a file, chisel or other metal blade that is fitted into a wood or plastic handle.

Takeoff. List of materials required for a particular job, usually derived from the spec sheets (see also specifications); used in cost estimating.

Teflon tape. Thin nonadhesive material applied over pipe threads to seat fittings.

Top plate. Horizontal framing member to which the lower end of the rafters are fas-tened. Also referred to as the plate or wall plate.

Trap. A U-shaped piece of pipe found beneath all plumbing fixtures; gravity holds a small amount of water at is base which prevents sewer gases from entering the home.

Traveler. Antique measuring device consisting of a simple wheel with a handle attached by a rivet to its center, which was rolled along surface to be measured.

Tread. Horizontal boards of a staircase colloquially known as the step. See also riser, stringer.

Tree calipers. Oversized calipers used to measure the diameter of a tree and to calculate the amount of timber to be sawn from it.

Trimming out. Stage of construction at which the final trim elements are installed by the various trades.

Upset price. Agreed upon maximum price for a job specified in a cost-plus contract. See also cost-plus contract.

U-Value. Measure of the heat loss through a window.

Valley. Joint between the planes of two inclined roof surfaces that form a runoff for rain water. Vapor barrier. Layer of plastic or other watertight material applied to the inside of exterior walls to prevent inside moisture from condensing within the walls and to limit air and water infiltration from without.

Variances. Exceptions granted by local authorities to zoning regulations. See also zoning and easement.

Veneers. Thin sheets of wood (typically an inch thick or less) used for finished surfaces in furniture and, when glued up in multiple layers, to form plywood and laminated-veneer lumber.

Vergeboard. See bargeboard.

Volts. Unit of measure of the rate of an electrical current. See also amperes and watts.

Volume. Interior space of an object. Wall plate. See top plate.

Waste pipes. Plumbing that drains the water and other waste from the fixtures. See also supply pipes and fixtures.

Watts. Unit of measure of the rate of the power actually used by an electrical appliance. See also amperes and volts.

Weatherstripping. Lengths of metal, plastic, felt, or other material used to line the sides, top, or foot of doors or windows to prevent infiltration of air and moisture.

Wet wall. Bathroom or kitchen wall containing plumbing lines.

Wing. A section of or addition to a house that extends out from the main part of a structure.

Wire nail. Machine-made nail of the types generally available today.

Wire stripper. Purpose-made tool for removing insulation from wires.

Worm-drive. A screw-and-wheel drive mechanism used in certain heavy-duty hand-held circular saws.

Zoning. Local ordinances specifying the restrictions in a given area (or zone) regarding the use of that land.