Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Building the Nightstand Cabinets

This article contains instructions for the nightstand project.  A general overview of the cabinet trade is available here.

The set of nightstands which I built on the show should give you a good feel for the process of building a cabinet.  This is a very simple cabinetmaking project but I took my time and broke it into four videos because there were several fine points I wanted to mention.

I thought about building a standard kitchen or bathroom cabinet unit but I decided to do these instead for two reasons.  First, this was the only cabinet job that I happened to do while we were shooting the series.  Second, this sort of non-standard, one-off cabinet is actually a more common project for a working handyman.  Most of the time, it makes better financial sense for us to buy standard cabinets and install them than to make our own from scratch...unless we are doing a special cabinet to match existing built-ins.  Customers who are remodeling a kitchen or bathroom are more likely to hire a general contractor or full time cabinetmaker than a handyman.  That being said, the process and tools are the same for any kind of cabinet.  If you can build these nightstands you will have little trouble building an entire kitchen. 

One of the Finished Nightstands

Measured Drawings

The dimensions on the drawings are for the set of nightstands I built.  If you build this project, you will probably need to tweak the measurements to fit your own bedroom.

Carcass Pieces

Drawer Pieces

Final Details

High resolution .pdf drawings, suitable for plotting, are available at this link.

Step By Step

  1. Cut out the panel pieces using either a table saw or a circular saw with a straight edge.
  2. Cut the dados in the side pieces.   
  3. Cut a rabbet in the back of each side panel.  On non-finish sides, the rabbet should be as wide as the thickness of your back panel.  On finish sides it should be as wide as the back panel plus 1/4" for a scribe. 

  4. Assemble the bottom shelf into the dados of the side panels.  Use wood glue and small finish nails.  Be sure to square everything up before the glue dries.
  5. Measure the back of the cabinet and cut two nailers out of 1x stock.  Attach with glue and either pocket screws or finish nails.
  6. Measure the space under the bottom shelf and cut a toe piece.  Attach it with glue and finish nails.  
  7. Measure the front of the cabinet and cut a drawer front 1/8" shorter.  Set the draw front aside.
  8. Measure the back for a back panel.  Cut it out and set aside.
  9. Sand the front of the cabinet flush. 
  10. Use a router to put the round-over detail around the inside edge of cabinet and on the outside corners.  Be sure to mark which edges get the round-over so you don't rout the wrong edge.  Also, be sure to stop the inside round-over before it hits the drawer area.
  11. Install the cabinet-side half of the drawer guides. Make sure that they are square to the front face of the cabinet and lined up identically on both sides.
  12. Cut the round-overs on the tops.  
  13. Install the tops with glue and small finish nails.

  14. Cut out drawer box pieces from 1/2" stock.  If only 3/4" stock is available you will need to reduce its thickness either be using a stationary planer (preferred) or by resawing on a band saw or table saw.
  15. Plow a groove around in the fronts and sides of the drawer boxes to receive the bottom panel.
  16. Cut the dovetail joints in the drawer boxes using your preferred method.
  17. Glue and clamp the dovetail joints.  While the glue is still wet, insert the bottom panel and rack the drawers square.  Do not glue the panel.
  18. Nail in the back of the drawer box.  Glue is optional.
  19. When the glue dries, clamp the drawer box to the workbench and flush all of the joints using a belt sander (preferred) or low-angle hand plane.
  20. Install the other half of the drawer guides on the drawer boxes.
  21. Test fit the drawers.  Adjust hardware as needed.
  22. Cut the round-over detail on the bottom of the drawer front.

  23. Completely sand the cabinet, drawer front, and drawer box starting at 100 grit and working up to at least 220 grit.  
  24. Install the back panel in the cabinet using small panel nails or fine pneumatic staples.
  25. Prime the cabinet and drawer front using good quality oil or alcohol based primer.
  26. Lightly sand the cabinet and drawer fronts.  Carefully scrape out any drips or runs in the primer.  
  27. Attach the drawer fronts to the drawer boxes.  Apply masking tape to protect the drawer boxes.
  28. Paint the cabinet and drawer fronts with two coats of enamel to match the existing trim in the house.
  29. Install the knob on the drawer.
  30. Locate the studs in the wall where the cabinet will be installed.  Put a strip of masking tape along the all an inch or two higher than the cabinet and mark stud locations for easy reference while you work.
  31. Put the cabinet in place against the wall and level the top.  A few scraps of plastic laminate under the cabinet are often a good way to level it.  
  32. Set your scribe (carpenter's compass) the the maximum distance between the wall and the cabinet and mark the material to be removed.  Cut this off with a slow-moving orbital jigsaw, cleaning up with a block plane or sanding block as necessary. 
  33. Push the cabinet against the wall.  There should be no gap wider than the thickness of a piece of typing paper.
  34. Drill pilot holes and attach the cabinet to the wall with at least two heavy duty screws into the studs.  3" deck screws are fine for nightstands but use structural screws or 1/4" lag bolts for uppers or larger base cabinets. 
  35. Clean up the work site. 
  36. Touch up any scratched paint.
  37. Put in the drawers. 

Cabinetmaking Overview

This article is a general overview of the cabinetmaking trade.  Detailed instructions for building the nightstand project are available here.

This week on the show we started our four part mini series on how to build your own cabinets.  Although the project I chose as an example is a set of built-in nightstands, the process and techniques are very similar for most other types of cabinets.

What is Cabinetmaking?

The first cabinetmaker I apprenticed under used to say that "cabinetmaking is the study of all the ways you can stick together a box."  While he was definitely being snarky, his words do rather sum up the essence of the thing.  Everything a cabinetmaker builds is basically a hollow box, be it a tiny jewelry box, a kitchen sink cabinet, or a closet unit that takes up a whole wall of an office.  The sizes and use of the boxes might vary, but the tools and techniques used to construct them are basically the same.  This focus on boxes (which woodworkers call casework) distinguishes cabinetmaking from other fine woodworking specialties such as chair bodging (focused on turned spindles), carving (focused on shaping solid pieces of wood), or coopering (focused on making curved things like barrels).

Careers in Cabinetmaking

Cabinets have always been relatively expensive and have required a fair amount of skilled labor in comparison to their materials cost.  For this reason, cabinetmaking has traditionally been one of the higher status woodworking trades. 

Historically, cabinetmakers learned their trade under a master cabinetmaker. Apprenticeships typically began around the age of 10 and lasted seven years.  Nowadays the typical apprenticeship has shrunk in length to about 2 years, where the system still exists at all.  The shortening of apprenticeship terms probably has more to do with child labor laws than with any decrease in the amount of material an apprentice needs to learn.  Most of the monotonous work that was formerly done by teenage apprentices is now done by semi-skilled factory workers or machines.

Those cabinetmakers who are unable to find an apprenticeship either teach themselves (by reading my blog?) or go through degree programs.  Oddly, although there are plenty of associate degree (AAS) and master's (MFA) programs in cabinetmaking, there are very few bachelor's level programs, at least in the US.

No matter how they make it into the trade, most cabinetmakers spend a few years working and learning under a more experienced cabinetmaker.  At the end of this period, if the shop is large enough, some of them are promoted into supervisory positions and stay.  The vast majority of them, deciding that they have no more to learn and having maxed out the pay scale, leave to set up their own shops.  The self-taught variety of cabinetmaker often skips to the starting his own shop stage, and proceeds to learn the trade by trial and error.  I don't have any statistics but, in my experience, most of them don't make it through the first year.  If you are serious about doing this for a living I seriously suggest that you find someone else to work for for a couple years.  You'll be working long hours for minimum wage, but it will still be a good investment.

My Own History in Cabinetmaking

In 2002 I was doing the handyman thing when I received an offer to apprentice under Howard Higham at Ridgeway Woodworking in Sweet Home, Oregon.  Howard's shop only did a few cabinet jobs a year, but they tended to be complicated high-end jobs for offices and custom homes.  He and I were the only two people in the shop, so I got to do a little bit of everything my first year.

Unfortunately, Ridgeway went out of business before my apprenticeship was officially over.  My "severance pay" was a contractor's table saw, a small jointer, a midi lathe, and a plunge router, all straight from the shop floor (They were Howard's back-ups; he sold his main tools.)

I thought about starting my own shop then and there, but I just wasn't ready.  So, in the dead of winter and flat broke, I went looking for another cabinet shop to finish my apprenticeship.  I took the first offer I had, which was in the main cabinet shop at Country Coach in Junction City.  Country Coach makes extremely expensive, semi-custom and custom motor coaches and tour buses.   I spent two and a half years there, working in the assembly and detail departments, repairing damaged cabinets, and occasionally putting in a day or two at a time in the mill. 

I left Country Coach in 2005.  I was tired of the long commute and generally unimpressed by their corporate culture.  My next job was at Golden West Homes in Albany, which was closer and a friendlier place to work.  Golden West makes mobile homes and, unfortunately, their cabinets at the time were made rather cheaply.  I had to rapidly learn how to make cheap materials look like "expensive" cabinets.  At Golden West I started as an assembler and later took over running their counter tops shop.  Actually, at some point or another I probably worked every job in their 20 person cabinet shop.

The nice thing about Golden West was that they not only didn't mind me running my own cabinet jobs on the side, but they let me order materials through the company.  By this point I had my own cabinet shop pretty well set up and I began moonlighting regularly.

When I left Golden West, I did so intending to run my own cabinetmaking business full time.  I quickly found that there were too many other small cabinet shops in town fighting for too few customers, so after a few months I headed down to California, where I ended up doing other kinds of construction.  So far, I have never gotten back into the cabinet trade full time.  As a handyman, however, I occasionally get to build or repair cabinets for my customers. 

 Cabinet Shop Work Flow

Typical Cabinet Shop Workflow

The basic work flow is the same for any cabinet operation.  A single cabinetmaker still needs to go thorough the same steps as a production shop with 100 employees.  The difference is that in the larger shops each of these functions will be conducted by a separate department where the employees have the tools and practice to do one thing very well.  Job assignment in medium size shops tend to be more fluid "Ok, today I'll cut out and detail pieces while you put 'em together."

Any or all of these steps can be, and often is, outsourced to other shops so a shop can focus on the things that they do best. 


When wood arrives at the loading dock it is usually rough sawn to random lengths and widths.  The workers in the mill (who may think of themselves as sawyers, not cabinetmakers) use a planer to bring the boards to the right thickness, a jointer to square and true one edge, and a rip saw to rip it to standard widths which are used in the shop.  In some operations the mill is also responsible for cutting out panel stock, although this job might also be assigned to the detail department.


The detailers are basically machinists who shape the parts of cabinets to look like the plans.  They use a variety of hand and power tools, but especially routers and table saws.  Depending on the complexity of the cabinets detail can range from being so simple that the assembly department takes care of it while they work (as it was when I was at Golden West), to being so complicated that it is a full time career path (as it was when I was at Country Coach).  The detail department is usually also responsible for building face frames.  I have to say that detail was usually my favorite job in the cabinet shop.


Assemblers are responsible for actually putting the pieces together into a cabinet.  In most shops an assembler can put together a complete cabinet every half hour, on average.  Interestingly, cheap cabinets are only slightly easier to build than expensive ones.  The skill of the detailers affects how well parts fit together, and hence how easy the assemblers job is.  Thus, chewing out the detailers for mistakes is a basic part of the assembler's job.

Final Detail

Certain details, such as flush sanding pieces or rounding over corners of cabinets are easier to do after the box is mostly assembled.  Larger shops will assign someone to do these full time.  He usually has a low workbench, good upper body strength, a belt sander, and an assortment of routers.  

Final detail is often handled by the assembly department but may be a department of its own in larger shops.


Sanding is one of the most important parts of cabinetmaking, but also one of the most boring.  Still, someone needs to do it.  The sanders are usually the most junior employees in the shop, and many people regard time on the sanding line as a right of passage.  Each of them will typically be armed with an array of portable power sanders and they might share stationary tools like stroke sanders, drum sanders, or edge sanders.

Doors and Drawers

Most shops try to use a finite number of standard sizes and styles for their doors and drawers.  This allows the D&D department to set up their machines and make batches of dozens or even hundreds of doors and drawers at the same time.  The work, while somewhat repetitive, is extremely important to do well because doors and drawers are always the most visible part of the finished cabinets.


Most shops make at least some of their own counters.  The tools and materials for this work are just different enough from cabinetmaking that it makes sense to separate the counters department in its own area.  Counter top making is a trade in its own right, but all journeymen cabinetmakers know the basics and often spend time in the counters department at some point in their careers.


Sawdust and wet finishes don't mix, so the finishing department usually has its own special area away from the power tools.  Probably 99% of commercial finishes are applied with an airless or HVLP sprayer in a spray booth.  Some small shops have one day a week when they sweep out the shop and do all their spraying.  No other work is done that day, so as not to kick up any dust. 


The job isn't done until the cabinet is installed in the client's house (or boat, or RV).  The job also involves trim carpentry and a certain amount of on-the-fly repair work (everyone drops a cabinet eventually).  Full time cabinet installers can more properly be thought of as finish carpenters, but most cabinetmakers do installs on occasion. 

Cabinetmaking Specialties

Cabinetmaking as a trade is pretty similar no matter what sort of work you do.  From a business point of view, however, many cabinet shops specialize in a particular kind of work.  


The single largest market for cabinets is in the kitchens and bathrooms of private homes.  Residential cabinet shops usually further specialize in either custom work, which is what it sounds like, or in production work, in which they mass produce relatively standardized cabinets that end up in tract houses, mobile homes, and apartment buildings.  Production cabinetmaking, like most medium manufacturing, has largely gone overseas.  The exceptions are certain industries like manufactured housing which have traditionally built their own cabinets in house and mostly still do.


Commercial cabinetmaking includes not only cabinets for offices, which are quite similar to their residential counterparts, but also specialized pieces for restaurants, shops, and churches.  Commercial cabinetmakers usually make more than residential cabinetmakers.  However, they usually need to be more sophisticated about things like blueprints and coordination with architects and other trades.

Coach and Boat Cabinetry

The cabinets in RV's, camp trailers, van conversions, and yachts are built in much the same way as those in buildings, but they are at least an order of magnitude more complicated.  Reasons why include:

  1. Much greater use of curved surfaces and non-right angles.  
  2. The cabinets need to fit against the chassis and body (or hull and decks) of the vehicle, which are often curved.  This means that the cabinetmaker doing the layout needs to be able to read the mechanical engineer's or naval architects drawings and pay attention to tolerances in new construction, or get really good at using scribe boards in refit work.  
  3. The cabinets typically need to accommodate equipment like radios, monitors, microwaves, and instrument panels.  This equipment may or may not have arrived at the time you build the cabinets so, again, you need to be able to read plans.
  4. Hoses wires tend to run behind or through the cabinets, so you need to leave enough access panels so that they can be worked on.
  5. Weight is a consideration on the lower horsepower vehicles.  This usually means that you need to find a way to make hollow-core doors and panels look expensive.
  6. Most motor coaches and yachts are obscenely expensive, so the customers are picky.  They have been known to send a $500,000 RV back because of one ugly knot hole on a cabinet door.
Most cabinetmakers who specialize in this sort of work come up at one of the big RV or boat factories.  Those who master the specialty might move into refit and repair work at a boatyard or RV dealership or set up on their own.

The most common configuration for an independent contractor is one guy with a portable shop in his van who hangs around a marina modifying the cabinetry and refinishing woodwork on yachts.  This can be a steady line of work, as long as you know how to keep boat owners happy and play the word-of-mouth marketing game.  Oddly, there seems to be no equivalent for land vehicles.  People don't keep RVs as long as yachts and when they need to modify them, they are more likely to bring them to a big dealership. 

Counter Tops

In the old days counter tops were a relatively simple area.  Most cabinet shops either built their own plastic laminate counters, or left a plywood top on the cabinets that a tile contractor could later cover with tile.   Now that solid surface plastic, stone, and bamboo counter tops have become more popular counter tops has become a specialty all its own and it is not uncommon to find shops that do nothing but build and install counters for other cabinet shops and contractors.

If I was going to start a cabinet business tomorrow I would probably specialize in counters.  The reason is that the capital requirements are much less.  Unlike a general cabinet shop, which needs several large stationary tools to be competitive, a counter top shop can run just fine with nothing but portable power tools.  Even the delivery vehicle can be cheaper.  You usually need at least a full size van to transport a cabinet package with the tools to install it but a set of counters fits in the back of a Ford Ranger (as long as you make a trestle for the truck bed).   


You can't really talk about cabinetmaking without mentioning furniture.  I should say right away though, that it is almost impossible for a cabinetmaker to break even on furniture.  To make a living selling art furniture you usually need an MFA, an agent, and either grant support or a trust fund.  To make a living selling mass produced furniture you usually need a factory in a poor Asian country and someone who is knowledgeable about tariffs and freight forwarding.  

Most of the people I know who "make furniture" for a living actually support themselves either by selling custom residential cabinets, teaching woodworking classes, or both.  They build the furniture because they are artists and they need to do something creative to stay sane. 

Why are the economics of custom furniture so bad?  Hypothetically, lets say that I still had my cabinet shop.  Lets say a customer came up to me with a picture of a mission style sideboard from the Crate and Barrel catalog and asked me to build them a "better" version.  No problem.  I would sit down for a few hours to sketch, then get them to approve a design (hopefully on the first pass).  Then I would sit down for a few more hours to draw and dimension everything.  You can't fool around on dimensions when you are using expensive wood.  Then I would spend about a week ordering materials, and building and finishing the piece.  Say about 50 hours total, counting design time.

The problem is, the original piece the customer saw in the Crate and Barrel catalog sells for $600, and, cognitively, they already anchored on this price.  I might be able to talk them up to $700, if I'm lucky.  Never mind that every part of the piece is higher quality than the C&B piece.  The wood probably cost me at least $150, and I also had to cover overhead and shop supplies (fasteners, glue, disposable finishing supplies, etc.) which probably cost at least another $30.  This means that my gross profit (before self employment tax and federal and state income tax) is $520, or $10.40 per hour.  This is less than half what I usually make on regular handyman work.

The above example was for a mission style piece.  The numbers get worse fast for, say, federalist or Georgian piece, with veneer work, hand carving and possibly lathe work.  It's easy to spend weeks building a federalist high-boy, only to find that you just averaged less than a dollar an hour on it.

This is why when most small cabinet makers build furniture they tend to keep it for themselves, or save it for a show; they don't make enough from selling it to bother.   

If I was going to try to make money from furniture I would focus on the design part, drawing a whole room or collection at a time.  Then I would find a factory, probably in Thailand or the Philippines, to build me a container's worth at a time.  But then I would still have to find a retail channel to sell it for me.  There are simpler ways to make money.

The Two Major Cabinet Systems

There are really only two ways to make cabinets.  Either they have a frame on the front, or they don't.  This seemingly minor difference has inspired over four decades of heated debate between cabinetmakers of which system is "better".  I personally prefer face frame cabinets, but I have built plenty of both and have to acknowledge that they each have their good points.

Face Frame (American)

Since the Renaissance this has been the dominant type of construction for furniture casework.  In the mid 20th century, when build in cabinets became widely popular, craftsmen in the new world mostly built them using this system.  The majority of existing 20th century cabinets in North America are face frame style.

Face frame construction consists of a carcass made of panel stock (usually plywood) to which a 3/4" frame is nailed or biscuited in the front.   The frame is always laid out and built first and dictates the geometry of the carcass.  The frame also adds a fair amount of structural strength; face frame cabinets are almost always more rugged than a frameless cabinet of the same size.

Door and drawer fronts for face frame are usually partially inset by cutting a 3/8" rabbet along the back edge, which results in a very nice light-tight joint but may also be fully inset (in the same plane as the face frame) or full overlay (completely outside the face frame.  It's nice to have options.

Creating high quality face frames requires accurate milling and cutting operations.  Wood straight from the lumber yard is almost never square or straight enough.  Some sort of joinery technology is required to hold the frame together.  Pocket screws  are currently the most popular, but dowels were widely used in the past.  Finally, careful sanding or hand planing is required to flush up the front of the frame where the sticking comes together.  All of the above requires time and money.  For this reason even cabinet shops that swear by face frame cabinets for kitchens and bathrooms often build frameless utility cabinets for closets or garages, where they won't be seen by company.

Typical Face Frame Cabinets

Frameless (European)

Frameless cabinet technology emerged from the ashes of World War II.  Europe was rebuilding their bombed out cities but faced a shortage of both machine tools and hardwood lumber.  They developed a cabinet system which requires no stationary power tools except a table saw and a drill press, and can be built completely of particle board or other man made lumber.  In true European fashion they standardized the dimensions for cabinets so that most critical measurements are multiples 32mm.  For this reason frameless cabinets are also referred to as "32 mm cabinets".  All of these were noble goals, and the basic design was sound.  Unfortunately, because the system does lend itself to cheap materials and low tech production, most of the truly crappy cabinetry in the world is now frameless.

This doesn't mean that frameless cabinets can't be made with high quality plywood and careful joinery.  In fact, many reputable custom cabinetmakers use frameless technology exclusively.

Frameless cabinets first made it to the US in the 1970's, but didn't make serious inroads here until the coming of IKEA in the 1980's.  At present face frame and frameless cabinets are more or less tied in popularity here.    

Frameless cabinets nearly always use full overlay doors and drawer fronts that cover the edges of the carcass when they are closed.  Since the edges of the panels are not covered by a face frame they need to be banded by gluing on strips of melamine or veneer. 

Frameless Cabinets

Types of Cabinets

The majority of cabinets fall into a couple of standard shape profiles with more or less standard dimensions. 


An upper is any cabinet that hangs off the wall and doesn't touch the floor.  The primary place uppers are encountered is in the kitchen.  A "standard" upper for a room with flat 8' ceilings is 48" tall and dies into the ceiling, which makes its bottom edge about 51"  above the finish floor.  In rooms with higher or sloping ceilings you will need to decide whether to build extra tall uppers or to leave a space between the tops of the cabinets and the ceilings.  The shelves in uppers are usually 11 1/8" deep, which leads to an overall depth from face frame to wall of about 12" (after adding the back panel and face frame). 

The upper over the kitchen range normally has a ventilation hood built in.  Always try to get a tear sheet with dimensions and mounting instructions for the hood before you lay out the cabinet.  In a pinch, though, a 30" wide opening works for most.  The cabinet directly over the range hood is usually only 21" tall overall, whereas the one over a standard refrigerator is usually 24" tall.

Uppers are often referred to as wall cabinets.


Lowers sit on the floor and are designed to hold a counter at a convenient working height.  Lowers come in different heights for kitchens and bathrooms.  Normally the top of kitchen cabinets is  is 34 1/2" from the floor and the overall depth of the cabinets is 24".  Bathroom lowers are only 28 1/2" high because children need to be able to brush their teeth over the sink.  They are often not as deep as kitchen cabinets because bathrooms are smaller than kitchens and floor space is at a premium.

Lowers are sometimes referred to as base cabinets.

Full Height

Full height cabinets sit on the floor and are the same height as the tops of the uppers.  Their depth is chosen to put the faces flush with either the uppers or the lowers.  Full height cabinets are sometimes called floor-to-ceiling cabinets.


Inserts are cabinets which are meant to slide into a hole framed into the wall.  Because framers work to much looser tolerances than cabinetmakers, the cabinets don't always fit.   Also, a finish carpenter can usually hang shelves in the hole and trim it out in less time and materials than a cabinetmaker can build a cabinet.  As you might be able to tell, I don't really like inserts.  The only time the sort of make sense is in some sort of assembly line situation where the cabinet shop can have the insert built as the house comes by, and the installer only needs to slide it in.  However, the last time I was in this situation, at Golden West, I had to rebuild about half my inserts because people tried to pound them into holes that were too small.  I don't think I've built one since I left.

Specialty (i.e. Equipment) Cabinets 

Gone are the days when cabinetmakers built lovely hardwood cabinets to hold phonographs and early radios or televisions.  Even today, however, most electronic equipment is safer and looks better when it is installed in a handsome cabinet.  Usually these take the form of custom entertainment centers, which are a good line of work for many cabinet shops.  The server cabinet that we made a few weeks ago is another good example.  I had a friend of a friend who made a good income by building cabinets to hold metal detector equipment in the lobbies of government buildings.

The shape and size of every equipment cabinet will be dictated by the shape and size of the equipment.  You also need to consider air flow, ease of connecting cables, and adequate structural support for heavy equipment.

One of the best parts about this work is that the equipment usually becomes obsolete in a few years which gives you the chance to sell the customer another cabinet. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Replacing an Interior Door

When you do handyman work for property managers, there are some jobs that seem to come up again and again.  The toilet fill valve that we replaced last week is one of them.  Replacing an interior door is another.  Some time soon I will show you how to snake drains and patch fist-shaped holes in drywall, and you will just about be ready to set up practice as a handyman.

Hanging a door slab is super easy but, as I go into apartment units and "flipped" houses, I usually see a lot of examples of people who got it wrong:  the bevel points the wrong way (or isn't there at all), the door sticks, or there isn't enough air gap at the bottom.  Watch my video, and you won't have to worry about any of this.

Tools Needed

  • Circular Saw.  I suppose you could cut the slab with a hand saw.  I've done it, but it takes a miserably long time.  Use a circular saw with a fine-tooth plywood blade if you have one.
  • Router with a 1/2" straight bit or a butt chiselThe router is faster, especially if you have a hinge jig, but a chisel will do perfectly well. 
  • Portable power plane or bench plane.  Use the powered version if you have it, but a regular #4 or #5 hand plane will work fine. 
  • Tape Measure
  • Screw Driver
  • Hammer
  • Electric Drill w/ door knob drilling kitThere are various kits out there and which one you use is largely personal preference. 
  • Super Wonder Bar or panel jack.  This is optional for lightweight doors, but almost essential for heavy solid doors. 
Tools for Hanging Doors (Not Shown: Super Wonder Bar)

Step By Step

  1. Measure the door opening.  Buy a door slab that is at least as big as your opening.  Standard door slabs are usually 80 inches high and come in width increments of 2".  If you are working in a rental you should buy the cheapest one you can find since the tenants will just destroy it again.
  2. Determine which end is "up" on your door slab.  The bottom usually has thicker wood inside it than the top (knock on it to find out).  Draw an arrow or other mark in pencil so you don't flip the slab by mistake.  
  3.  Cut the bottom to adjust the door slab height.  The height of the slab should be the same as the height of the door opening, minus enough space to easily clear any carpet, minus another inch if the unit has central heat or AC.  
  4. Cut the door to the correct width by cutting a 1/2 degree bevel (approximately).  The width of the long side of the bevel should be about 1/6" narrower than the door opening. 

    Bevel on Edge of Door (Not to Scale)

  5. Clean up the beveled edge with your plane.  The edge should be nice and straight with no visible saw marks.  At this point the maximum width of the door slab will be about 1/8" less than the width of the door opening.
  6. Mark the tops of the hinge gains on the door by measuring the location of the hinges in the door frame from the top of the door opening.
  7. Measure the distance between the edge of the hinges and the door stop.  Mark this distance plus a smidge on the door slab. 

    Transfer These Measurements to the Door

  8. Hold your hinges against the edge of the door, lining them up with the marks you made, and trace around them in pencil.
  9. Use either a router or chisel to cut the gains, making sure that the depth of the gains is the same as the thickness of your hinges.  
  10. Screw the hinges to the door.  Use an awl or a fine drill bit to create a pilot hole so the door won't split.  If you don't have a fine drill bit you can chuck a finish nail in your drill and it will work just as well. 
  11. Optional: Prime and paint the door.
  12. Hang the door in the opening, using your Super Wonder Bar or panel jack to support it while you slip in the hinge pins.  Make sure the door closes without binding, knocking off any high points with your plane as necessary. 
  13. Follow the instructions that came with your door-knob drilling jig to drill the large hole for the doorknob and the smaller hole for the latch barrel.  Keep in mind that latch sets can have either a 2 3/8" or 2 3/4" backset (the distance between the edge of the door and the center line of the knob) and you need to adjust the jig accordingly.
  14. Shove the latch barrel into the hole as far as it will go and mark around the latch plate in pencil.
  15. Use either a chisel or router to excavate the gain for the latch plate.  
  16. Install the door latch and knob assembly.  
  17. Test the door and make any final adjustments to the hinges or latch hardware.

Installing Trim on a Door Opening

In ordinary maintenance work, you will rarely find yourself re-trimming a door.  It is a fairly common finish carpentry task in general remodeling work, however.   I plan to do some videos in the future about trim carpentry because it is a subject with many tricks and subtleties.  For now, however, I will give you a quick sketch of the process.

Interior trim is made up of three different components:  jambs, casing, and stops.  The jambs are usually 1x boards which have been ripped to a width equal to the thickness of the walls (studs plus drywall).  They form the finish opening of the door.  Casing is the molding frame that goes around each side of the door like a three-sided picture frame. Stops are the moldings which go around the inside of the jambs, which the door closes against.

Cross Section of Interior Door Trim

Every time you trim a door you have two options.  1) Buy a pre-hung door  2) Trim out and hang the door yourself.  If you have a shop, of course, you can make your own pre-hung door units and bring them to the job site.  I have done it both ways, and I think it basically comes down to personal preference.

Installing a Pre-Hung Door

The jambs come preassembled with the stops installed and the door already hung.  All you need to do is put the unit in the rough opening, shim the sides and top until everything is plumb and level, then drive enough 9d finish nails to make sure it stays in place.  You still need to install casing, though, as described below.

Trimming Out a Door Opening from Scratch

  1. Cut one piece of jamb which is 1/2" shorter than the rough opening is wide.  Cut two pieces of jamb which are 1" shorter than the rough opening is tall.  
  2. Cut hinge gains in one of the long pieces of jamb.  The proper locations aren't really standardized, but these measurements should work for most interior doors:

    Placement of Hinge Gains on a Door Jamb

  3. On the floor, assemble these three pieces into a three sided rectangle using 9d finish nails.  Square up the top corners and tack scraps of wood on to hold everything in place.

    Preassemble Door Jambs on the Floor

  4. Place your assembled jambs in the rough opening.  Put wooden shims between the jambs and the rough opening to hold the jambs plumb and level.  

  5. Once the jambs are in place, drive 9d finish nails though to shims to hold them in place.
  6. Saw off the pieces of shim which are sticking out.  You can also just snap them off, but they don't always break cleanly.  
  7. Measure the width at the top of the finish opening.  Cut a piece of stop that is just a hair longer than this measurement.  Bend this piece slightly to spring it into the top of the opening.  The flat edge of the stopshould be the same distance from the edge of the jamb as the thickness of your door.  When you have this piece positioned correctly, nail it in with finish nails.  
  8. Measure from the face of this top piece of casing to the floor.  If there is not final flooring in place then subtract 1" from this measurement to leave room for the flooring guy to do his thing.  Cut the two side pieces of stop to length and nail them in.  Be extra sure that they are a uniform distance from the edge of the jambs (it helps to use a combo square set to the right distance to position them).   Nail them off.  
  9. For generic "picture frame" style casing, start by cutting the top piece.  Cut one end at 45 degrees (preferably using an electric miter saw) then mark and cut the other end.  You want the bottom edge of the casing to be 1/4" from the edge of the jamb and 1/2" longer then the width of the finish opening, so as to leave a 1/4" reveal after the molding is installed.  
  10. Nail up the top piece of casing, being sure that the reveal (the gap between the opening an the edge of the molding) is a constant 1/4" all the way around.  Again, a combo square is very helpful.  
  11. Make the 45 degree cuts on the ends of the vertical pieces of casing.  Then return your saw to 90 degrees.  Measure the distance from the top of the top casing to the floor.  Subtract 1/2" if the finish floor is not in place yet.  Cut the pieces to this length.  
  12. Nail up the vertical casings.  Always start nailing up near the miter so it holds together and does not gap.  Then four or five more finish nails at regular intervals, making sure your reveal stays constant.  
  13. Repeat steps 9-12 to case the other side of the door.
  14. Hang your door as described at the start of this article.

Cutting in a New Door

Don't do this at all unless you either:  1) Are absolutely sure that this is not a bearing wall.  2)  Are comfortable enough with remodeling carpentry that you know how to build a false wall and properly size load bearing lintels. 

This is actually a fairly common task that people ask handymen to do, and I promise I will do a video on it in the future (as soon as I find someone who needs to add a door and doesn't mind me filming myself do it).  In the mean time, this Fawlty Towers Episode will give you an idea of how these things sometimes play out.


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Changing a Toilet Fill Valve

Working on toilets may not be glamorous, but handymen get to do it frequently.  Luckily, toilet repairs fall into two categories:  either it is a quick repair that you can do in a few minutes, or the toilet isn't repairable and you swap out the whole thing.  The quick fix problems are much more common, and the most common of those is a bad fill valve.

How Toilets Work

A normal residential toilet works by releasing the water in the tank into the bowl, which flows by gravity into the bowl.  This displaces whatever is in the bowl already up and into the drain.  For the sake of simplicity, I will leave a discussion of pressurized commercial toilets, Japanese smart toilets, and other oddities for another day.

First, let's look at the main parts.  If you are near a bathroom, you may want to open the tank of a toilet up and see if you can find them all.

Major Parts of a Residential Toilet

Things might me shaped a little differently in your toilet, but all eight of these parts should be there.  Basically, when you push the flush handle (4) it pulls on the chain and raises the flapper (7).  This rapidly lets water out of the toilet tank through the flush valve (8), flushing the toilet.  Once the tank is mostly full, the flappers own weight causes it to fall back into the flush valve and seal the toilet again.  Meanwhile, when water leaves the tank it allows the float (2) to lower, opening the fill valve (1), which allows water in from the supply (3).  This water comes out of the fill valve in two places:  some of the water comes out at the top of the valve, refilling the tank.  The rest of it goes through the refill tube (5), to refill the bowl.  The overflow tube has another important purpose; if a misadjusted float allows too much water to go into the tank the excess will go down the overflow tube instead of flooding your bathroom.   

All eight of these parts are replaceable.  However, the most common failure point is the fill valve because it has the most moving parts.  Modern fill valves mostly use a plastic diaphragm and needle valve design, not unlike a small engine carburetor.   This design tends to work perfectly until the diaphragm wears out, at which point it rapidly stops working at all.  This is actually an improvement over older designs, which tended to have long annoying deaths. 

The second most common failure point is the flapper.  The rubber wears out and allows water to leak past, causing the toilet to run off and on all night.  Because flappers only cost a few bucks it is common practice to replace them whenever you change the fill valve.

The rest of the parts take longer to wear out and mostly only need to be replaced when some idiot breaks them.

In general, in North America replacement parts for toilets interchange between the different brands.  This means that you can keep a "universal" fill valve kit on the truck and know that it will work in at least 90% of your clients' toilets.  These parts are available at any hardware store, or you can buy them here and support my show:


Step by Step

  1. Turn off the water supply to the toilet.  This is usually a small valve coming out of the wall or floor.
  2. Flush the toilet to empty the tank.
  3. (Optional) Use a sponge or towels to soak up any remaining water in the tank.
  4. Place a small bucket or wad of towels on the floor under the tank.  Disconnect the supply hose, using channel locks if necessary. 
  5. Unscrew the plastic nut at the bottom of the fill valve assembly.
  6. Unclip the refill tube from the overflow tube and lift the fill valve assembly out of the toilet tank.
  7. Place the old fill valve assembly next to the new fill valve assembly.  Adjust the new assembly so that its length and float height are close to that of the old assembly.  
  8. Put the new fill valve in place and tighten the nut.  It should not be necessary to use tools to tighten it unless you have unusually weak fingers.  
  9. Clip the refill tube to the overflow tube so the end of the the refill tube points down the overflow tube.
  10. Verify that the flushing lever arm can move freely.  If there is interference then rotate the fill valve assembly.
  11. (Optional) replace the flapper.  It just hooks on, so you don't need tools.  
  12. Reattach the supply hose and turn on the water supply to refill the tank.
  13. Use a piece of tissue to check for leaks.
  14. Flush the toilet to make sure it works.  

Other Toilet Repairs

You will occasionally need to replace a broken flush lever or fill valve.  A flush lever attaches with a single nut, but you may need to (carefully) bend the new one to get a good flushing action.

A flush valve is slightly more involved because you typically need to remove the entire tank to undo the spud nut at the bottom of the valve.  I will probably do a video on this in the future.  It isn't too terribly hard, just beyond the scope of this article. 

Sometimes, of course, the toilet itself is cracked.  In this case, you will need to replace the whole thing.  This isn't as hard as it sounds, as long as you are physically strong enough to straight-arm a toilet.  The base of the toilet is held to the floor with two bolts.  Drain the toilet, disconnect the water supply, and undo the bolts.  Lift the whole toilet up and throw it away.  You will need to replace the wax ring which seals the bottom of the toilet to the hub at the top of the drain pipe.  The trick is to lower the toilet evenly onto the new wax ring.  Otherwise, the wax deforms and gets destroyed and you need to get another one.

Where things get interesting is when the drain hub itself is damaged, or when the floor has rotted away too badly to support the new toilet.  Then again, anything that makes more work for a handyman is job security for me, so I shouldn't complain. 


Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Building a Server Rack

When it comes to electronics, whether you are talking about computers, communications, or sound, the serious gear usually comes in rack-mount cases. Often, you can pick up used gear that is a few years old for not much money. Unfortunately, the racks themselves don't get obsolete, so even the used ones are pretty expensive. This means that you may end up paying more for the rack than you did for the equipment inside it.

Luckily, a real handyman can build a rack much more cheaply than he can buy one.

My main computer cluster lived on cinder blocks for months before I got around to putting it in a rack. Not only was this setup hideously ugly, but the vibration from the fans resonated the blocks and translated through the floor joists to make a constant hum that drove my downstairs neighbor nuts (that was OK, he already didn't like me). I decided to build a proper rack. When I went online, though, most of the designs I found were made out of dimensional lumber and looked almost as ugly as the cinder blocks.

The Cinder Block Approach

Working from a cabinetmaker's sensibilities, I designed the rack that I built this week on the show. It is structurally efficient, better looking than most of the home-made racks on YouTube, and channels the air flow from the fans through a particle filter to keep dust and hair out of the machines.
You can build a rack the size of mine for under $50. Without even counting shipping or assembly costs, this is less than half what an equivalent store-bought rack would cost. I chose the dimensions mainly to make the best use of a common furnace filter from the hardware store. You could easily make it twice as tall and use two filters, or find a smaller filter and make it lower. You could also go without the filter, but I would only recommend this if you were running your computers in a fairly clean indoor environment. Computers suck a lot of air and any dust in a room is going to end up in your fans.

If you are using this for radio amps or stereo equipment you may want to adjust the width and make the cabinet a bit shallower; most amps I've seen are not nearly as deep as a server computer.

Measured Drawings

A high resolution .pdf file, suitable for printing, can be downloaded here.

Or, you can take dimensions off these screen shots. You may need to zoom your browser to read them:
Panel and Frames

Casework Construction

Door Construction

Step by Step

  1. Cut out the OSB pieces, using a table saw or portable circular saw.

  2. Cutting OSB Panels on the Table Saw

  3. Cut pieces of 2x2 softwood to go all the way around the bottom deck. It is easiest to mark the 2x2 directly from the bottom deck and cut to the mark with your saw. Attach these cleats with glue and either clenched nails or drywall screws

  4. Adding Cleats to the Bottom Deck

  5. Cut out the face frame. Optional: If a jointer is available then rip the pieces a little bit oversize and use the jointer to make sure the edges are perfectly square. When crosscutting the face frame pieces to length you will want to use your squarest saw and, if necessary, clean them up with a disk sander or a block plane. If you are working with portable tools, you may want to build a shooting board to use with your hand planes.

  6. Build the face frame, using your preferred joinery technique. In the video I use a pocket screw kit. Biscuits or dowels would also be a good choice if you have either a biscuit jointer or a doweling jig. If you don't have any of these three and are thinking about investing, I would recommend a pocket screw kit because it is the most affordable option and the most frequently useful under job site conditions.

    You can also just drill dowel holes freehand after carefully marking and center-punching the locations. This is a very slow way to build face frames, but it does make acceptable joints.

  7. Building the Face Frame

  8. Sand all of the joints flush on the front of the face frame.

  9. Attach the face frame to the cleats on the bottom deck. Leave a 2 1/2 inch space between the front of the face frame and the front of the bottom deck. Attach the the frame with either pocket screws or dowels.

  10. Attaching the Face Frame to the Bottom Deck

  11. Attach the side panels to the bottom deck and face frame, using glue and either drywall screws or 1/4" pneumatic stapler. Be extra careful not to split the face frame.

  12. Attach two 1x2 cleats around the back opening of the cabinet. Use either screws or staples with glue.

  13. Cleats Around the Back of the Cabinet

  14. Attach more pieces of 2x2 horizontally across the back opening, keeping each piece exactly level with the corresponding rail on the face frame. Hold each piece in with glue and a 3" deck screw.

  15. Place 2x2 blocking between the face frame rails and the 2x2 rails in the back of the cabinet. Use 9d finish nails on the face frame side and common nails on the back. For larger equipment (like a 4U server or an interruptible power supply) you will want to use 2x3 or even 2x4 blocking, or add another piece down the center. Use straight pieces of wood. A bowed piece will make it hard to get your equipment in and out.

  16. Blocking to Support the Equipment

  17. If, like me, you left extra space for future equipment cut a piece of cardboard or poster board that you can wedge or staple in to cover the gap in the face frame. This will keep the equipment fans from drawing air from the hot side of the rack.

  18. Add a few pieces of 1x4 blocking across the top of the the cabinet. These will give you something to screw the top panel to and will make it sturdier, in case some fool decides to sit on your rack.

  19. Sand everything flush at the top of the cabinet so the top panel will have an air-tight fit.

  20. Attach the top panel. Use screws without glue so you can get in if you ever decide to modify the rack at a latter date.

  21. Build the door frame, using the same process you used for the face frame.

  22. Cut thin cleats to hold in the filter. Getting the cleats the right thickness can be tricky, as you want to hold the filter snugly and also have a relatively tight fit with the case to minimize air bypassing the filter. You will probably want to chamfer one edge of the cleats with a plane or on the table saw to get more clearance for opening the door. Use fine brads to hold the cleats on wile the glue dries.

  23. Optionally, add a few strands of cord or wire across the cleats to hold in the filter (an old boot lace would probably work well). Mine fit tightly enough that I didn't bother with this step.

  24. Add hinges and a latch to the door. I used small strap hinges and a magnetic cabinet latch but other types would probably work. You may need to chop out pieces of the cleat to get enough space for the hardware. You can also add a knob or handle to the door, if you want.

  25. Closeup of Hinge and Door Cleats

  26. Hang the door, adjusting the hinges and latch as needed.

  27. Install your equipment. You may need to plane or pare away some wood where the fit is too tight.

  28. Installing the Equipment
Now you know how to build nice racks for electronic equipment. Hopefully, this means that the next time you see a wicked awesome tube amp or web server at the swap meet, you won't have to pass it up because you'll be able to build a place to put it.

The Finished Rack Cabinet

For a better looking cabinet you could easily build this using plywood and hardwood, then paint or stain it. Or, if you are into high performance applications (bitcoin mining?) it would be pretty easy to plumb this with copper water lines or peltier junctions for cooling. As designed now, though, it will should fine for a small computer cluster for an office or a research group.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Dealing With Really Strong Rare Earth Magnets

In the video this week, I solved a technical problem for some librarians, building a very simple jig out of 2x4 and conduit to separate some extremely powerful magnets.  At the time, I was working very intuitively...and it turned out fine.  Actually, this is the only Handyman Kevin video so far that I was able to record in a single take.

I thought it would be interesting to actually look at how an engineer would deal with this problem.  I once flunked out of a pretty good engineering school and I have actually spent a few years working as an engineering technician, so I definitely know enough to be dangerous.   This digression does raise an interesting point, though, which I would like to emphasize.  Even though we handyman types spend 99% of our careers working by intuition and rules of thumb, there does come a time when you need to stop and think about theory a bit.  It can be the difference between whether that bearing wall collapses and takes the client's house (and maybe you) with it or not.

But anyway, back to magnets.

A (very cursory) look around the web indicates that magnets this size have a pull force around 200 lbs.  Remember, though, that the force between two magnets is twice that much.  Actually, since there were three magnets in the stack, it was even more.  How much more?  A quick trip around the web reveals some disagreement between physicists about the exact formula.  Engineers, however, seem to do well enough applying the inverse square law to magnets separated by distance. Unfortunately, I haven't been an engineer for a long time.  My Googling skills are top notch, however, and a few moments later I found this magnet calculator from K&J Magnetics.  After fiddling around a bit, I was pretty sure that the force on the holding the end magnet to our stack of three magnets was around about 240 lbs.

Fortunately, we didn't have to tear it straight off; we could slide it off sideways--shear force, in other words.  One thing I did remember from engineering school, is that the static friction force between two magnets is equal to the coefficient of friction between them, times the normal force pressing them together.  A little more Googeling showed that the coefficient of friction between these sort of magnets is about 0.2.  Therefore, the amount of shear force we needed was about 240 lbs x 0.2 = 48lbs.  This was a little more than I could generate with my bare hands, mainly because there isn't a good way to get leverage.  With our scissor-type separator jig, though, this was no problem.

The scissor jig uses leverage for a mechanical advantage, trading distance for force. The force required out at the end of the handles is only about 1/3 as much as at the magnets, or 16 lbs.  Even a beat-up handyman like me can put 16 lbs on the ends of some 2x4s.  

To there's your lesson for the week:  engineering mechanics applied to 2x4 technology.  Perhaps next time we will delve into more high tech materials.  A rock, perhaps, or some bailing wire.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014


Sawhorses are useful things.  There should be at least one pair in every handyman's pickup.  Pull them out, and they become your temporary work surface in a client's driveway or back yard.  If you need a workbench, then throw a board over them and you're ready to go.  Make some waist-high ones and clamp your miter saw to them.  Better yet, make three (one a few inches taller than the others) and use the third as a support for long pieces.

Make a couple of short ones, put a piece of 2x12 across them, and you have the perfect little bench to stand on when you are hanging or finishing ceiling drywall.

Did you get stuck helping with your church's (school's/lodge's) pancake breakfast?  A couple of tall sawhorses and piece of plywood make a great table, and you can still use the plywood afterwards.  Trestle tables have been in use since at least the dark ages, because they are so handy to break down.

Ever drive on a freeway and see a granite counter-top or window guy's pickup? He probably has a big wooden trestle in the back that he clamps his counter tops or windows to so they won't get damaged in transit.  It would be handy to know how to build one of these, if you ever need to transport a counter slab or a window.  Luckily, it is constructed exactly like a sawhorse, except for a couple of extra boards nailed on for clamping surface.

Now, if you just need a couple of sawhorses, I guess you could got to your local home center and buy a couple of the plastic jobbies.  I guess I should come clean; I've bought them before myself.  Plastic sawhorses get the job done, but they have their drawbacks.  First of all, they aren't cheap.  You'll pay at least twice as much as you would for the lumber and nails to build your own.  Second, they only come in one size.  Third, they don't weigh much, so as soon as the wind picks up, they are going to go flying.  Fourth, they just aren't sturdy enough to trust your weight to.  If I am going to dedicate space in my truck to sawhorses, then I want to be able to use them with a plank for scaffolding when I am painting, finishing drywall, or any other task that has me working just a couple feet too high for comfort. 

The first time you make a sawhorse, it will take you at least half an hour.  By the third time, you'll have that down to 15 minutes.  When I make large batch of them, I can turn one out every 10 minutes without too much trouble.  Building sawhorses is a valuable skill and, once you master it, you will never run out of uses for the things.

In the video I made a sawhorse the same height as my tables saw to use as an out-feed support when I cut long pieces.   I have included a few critical dimensions in the sketch below.  These may not be too useful to you, unless you have the same model of saw I do.  Incidentally, I've been pretty happy with the Rigid saw, so you might want to consider it if you're in the market.

Most of the time, you will want to use some sort of 2x stock for the top piece and some sort of 1x stock for the legs.  In practice, most of them get built out of whatever wood was left over from the last job.

I went over the general process in the video, but here it is again.  I think I am slightly indebted to Fine Homebuilding Magazine for this technique, because I believe that is where the guy who taught me learned it, back the '80s.

  1. Cut a piece of 2x4 or 2x6 to length for the top piece.  Sawhorses are usually between 2 and 3 feet long.
  2. Cut the legs out of 1x4 or 1x6.  Run them about 6" long at this point, so you will have plenty of room to angle the ends.  
  3. Mark and cut the gains in the top piece.   Remember that the legs splay outward in two dimensions.  This step will be much easier of you set your bevel to the approximate angle, mark it, and then use your combination square to mark the gains.  Frankly, the exact angle isn't critical, as long as you have the same angle for all the legs in a set of sawhorses.
  4. Nail the legs into the gains, letting them run long at the top.  Use 6d or 8d nails, and add a dab of wood glue it it's handy.
  5. Use a hand saw to cut the tops of the legs level with the top of the sawhorse.
  6. Nail gussets (made of 1x, OSB, or plywood) to the legs to keep them at the proper angle.  It usually helps to gut out one gusset, then use it to mark the other side.  
  7. Cut the compound angle on the ends of the legs.  If you are trying to make the sawhorses a certain height, the you want to turn the sawhorse upside down and use a straight edge to transfer the dimension.  Otherwise, you can measure to an arbitrary length and use your bevel to mark.  
That's all there is to it.  With a little practice, you will be able to crank out as many sawhorses as you need in no time flat.  At some point, you will probably even be able to do it with the camera rolling while trying to explain yourself.


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Easy Camera Mounts

This week I showed you how to build a handy little camera mount out of a couple pieces of job site debris and a 1/4-20 machine screw.

On a "run and gun" how-to documentary like Handyman Kevin, finding a good way to hold the camera is an eternal challenge.  I usually need both hands free to demonstrate the project, yet I often don't have another person around to operate the camera.  I do have a regular tripod, which I use quite a bit.  However, it is sometimes too big to fit in tight spots and I don't always remember to bring it with me.  In other words, I've had to make a few of these little camera mounts.

The Job Site Scraps Mount

Here are the steps to build it, in case you missed some of them in my video:

  1. Find a smallish piece of 1x4 (or wider) lumber and a longer piece of 1x2 lumber.
  2. On the 1x4 mark out a piece about 3 1/2" x 6" with an off-center 1 1/2" square hole in it.
  3. Cut out the square hole by drilling holes in two opposite corners, then cutting along the lines with either a coping saw or jig saw.  At this time, also drill a 1/4" hole for the screw that will hold the camera.
  4. Cut the piece of 1x4 to width and length.
  5. Cut the 1x2 piece approximately in thirds.
  6. Use a knife or rasp to round the corners of one of the 1x2 pieces.
  7. Use drywall screws to assemble to 1x2 pieces into some sort of sturdy base.
  8. Mount the 1x4 piece to the base with two drywall screws.  It should fit tightly enough to hold the camera in place with friction.  If it is too loose, shim the edges of the square hold with paper or scraps of aluminum cut from a soda can.
  9. Put the 1/4-20 screw through the hole in the mount and secure it in place with nuts.
This mount works surprisingly well, considering how crude it is.  Not only does it hold the camera at whatever angle I want, but the base actually makes a pretty stable handle for hand-carry shots.  However, I would have made one design change:  If I had had them, I would have used wing nuts instead of drywall screws to hold the head in adjustment, as I did in the next mount.  Not only are they easier to adjust, but they last longer.  

The F-Clamp Mount

One of the problems with the kind of videos I make is that I often need shots where I am up a ladder on an outside wall, or in a crawl space.  The next camera mount works well for these because it can clamp to rafters, joists, fascias, or columns under houses.

Note:  I have a relatively light camera.  If you use this mount with a larger video camera, you will probably want to beef it up accordingly.  Also, it you have an expensive camera and are planning to hang it from the second story, think about a safety line attached to a second clamp, in case you fumble when you are undoing the clamp.

Camera Mount on a Fascia

Camera Mount on the Bottom of a Floor Joist
I was at home when I built this, so I had access to my main resource piles and could choose the best hardware for the job.  The most important piece is an f-clamp with a 1/4" hole drilled near one end.  I suppose this is one more use I should have listed for f-clamps in last weeks blog.  One nice feature is that, if I need the clamp back, I can unscrew the mount and stow it.

I drilled a hole in the end of the clamp and attached two angle brackets, allowing the camera to be positioned in three axes.  The connections between the angle bracket and the clamp and between the two angle brackets are made with double wing nuts on a 1/4" bolt (a short piece of all-thread would also have worked).

The screw that holds the camera is used very similarly to the one in the previous mount.  The double nuts hold it at just the right depth to fully engage the tapped hole in the camera.  Life will be easier if you put a dab of Loctite on one of the nuts, so keep if from turning when you adjust the other nut.

Completed F-Clamp Mount

Close-up of Head Articulation

Other Ideas

Hopefully, these two designs have shown you how easy it is to make your own camera mounts.  The same basic ideas can be used to create a wide range of camera holding fixtures.  You could glue a piece of 1/4" all-thread into the end of a broom stick, put a crutch tip on the other end, and you will have a very workable monopod for taking pictures on a hike or at your kid's soccer game.  Or build just the head from the job site scraps mount, Velcro it to the fender of your truck or to the nose of your skateboard, and go out to make some YouTube magic.  Just try not to break your camera or your neck.

With a little creativity, you could probably even make a pretty decent tripod.  I'm not sure it would dollar out, given how affordable they have gotten recently, but it might be a good handyman conversation piece.