Handy Glossary

This glossary is a work in progress.  As I use terms in the videos or blog which may not be familiar to the audience, I will try to write definitions here.  Feel free to comment if you think of a term I should add.

In some cases, the meaning of a term used in the trades varies considerably from region to region, from trade to trade, and even between union versus non union tradesmen.  I have tried to choose the term which is in the most general usage, both among tradesmen and in the home improvement magazines.

Although most of these definitions came directly from my own head, I did occasionally refer to a few books.  

Note:  The copyright to all material on this page is held by Creative Minority Productions.  Unauthorized copying, reproduction, redistribution, or production of derivative works is strictly prohibited.


aggregate. n. (masonry).  the pieces of rock and sand which make up 60%-75% of the volume of concrete, as opposed to the cement which is the matrix that holds them together.  Usually divided into fine aggregate, i.e. sand and course aggregate, i.e. gravel and rocks.  Designing concrete mixes is much more complicated than most people thing, which is why most handymen stick with sacks of “all purpose” ready mix form the home store. 


band saw. n. (general). a tool that uses a thin, continuous metal blade that runs between two or more wheels.  Band saws can be used for flat or curved cuts in wood, metal, plastic, stone, or even meat, making them one of the most versatile stationary tools in the shop.  Because of the thinner blade they require less horsepower to cut the same thickness of material than a circular saw. 
biscuit jointer. n. (woodworking). a high speed tool which cuts mortises into which thin wafers of wood (biscuits) are glued.  Biscuit joints are stronger than pocket screws but are easier to align than dowels and are used for many of the same applications as these joints. 
bench hook. n. (woodworking). a workshop fixture which is used to help hold wood for sawing and similar operations.  The basic design is a square piece of wood with two cleats on opposite corners.  The lower cleat rests against the edge of the bench.  The work is pushed against the upper cleat by the action of the saw.  It is common for the back side of a bench hook to be a shooting board and for the front side cleat to have miter guides or other improvements. 
Bench Hook

bench stop. n. (woodworking).  one of a broad class of fixtures which, when in place, stand proud of the workbench surface and prevent wood from sliding as it is being planed or sanded.  Some bench stops are held with clamps or in the vice, others are meant to socket into holes in the workbench, and others might be an integral part of the bench itself.  
A Bench Stop for Working the Edges of Boards

board. n. (carpentry).  A flat piece of wood with a rectangular cross section and a thickness of up to 1 1/2 inches.  Boards have both a nominal size, roughly corresponding to their width and thickness when cut at the sawmill, and an actual size, which is the size they are when you actually buy them at a lumber yard.  Thus a "2 x 4" was about 2 inches by 4 inches at some point in its life, but is now about 1 1/2 inches by 3 1/2 inches.    See also plank.

brace. n. (carpentry). a piece of board set at an angle to the other members of a frame to keep them from racking or bending out of alignment. Braces might be temporary to keep the frame straight while it is being lifted or permanent to stiffen the final structure. If permanent, they are generally let in to the studs so as to leave a flush surface for the wall system. 

brad. n. (woodworking).  a very thin finish nail made from 18 gauge or smaller wire.  Brads are typically used to hold finish woodwork together long enough for the glue to set, since they do not add much structural strength on their own.  

building trades, n. (general).  the trades which are typically associated with designing, creating, remodeling, or maintaining buildings.  Most of them have close analogues in shipbuilding and coach manufacturing. For instance, ship's carpenter is a different trade than carpenter, but they share many of the same tools and skills.  see also mechanical trades, wood trades, trowel trades.   


cabinet making. n. (general). the trade which is responsible for building cabinets, counters, and (often) architectural detail pieces such as mantle pieces, corbels, and fancy moldings, usually off site at a specially equipped cabinet shop.  Some cabinetmakers also go onsite to install the items they build, in which case they are essentially functioning as finish carpenters.  Indeed, there is often no hard demarcation between carpentry and cabinetmaking.  Many cabinetmakers also build furniture.  

carcass. n. (woodworking). the actual box or body of a cabinet or piece of casework furniture.

carpentry. n. (general). the trade that is responsible for cutting, shaping, and securing building materials to create the actual building.  Carpenters have traditionally been woodworkers but, over time, have increasingly worked in metals, plastics, and composite materials.  In general, any task which requires too much skill for a laborer but does not fall in the sphere of another trade gets done by the carpenters.  Carpenters tend to specialize in either rough carpentry (concrete forms, framing, etc.) or finish carpentry (siding, trim work, cabinet installation).  see also cabinet making.

casework. n. (woodworking). the materials and methods used to construct the carcass of a cabinet
caul. n. (woodworking).  a rectangular scrap of wood which is placed between a clamp and the work being clamped.  Not only do cauls protect the surface of the work from clamp marks, but they help distribute the clamping force more evenly and over a wider area.
ceteris paribus. phrase. (general).  Latin for “all else being equal”.  What can I say, I’m somewhat over educated compared to other handymen. 
chamfer. n. (woodworking). a detail on a piece of wood in which one corner is removed at an angle (most often 45 degrees).  very common on mission furniture.  see also round-over
cinder block. n. (masonry).  A concrete block used to build walls, footings, and temporary bookcases in college dorms.  The term cinder refers to burnt out residue from foundries, which is often used as an aggregate when casting cinder blocks.  Cinder blocks are known to engineers and architects as CMUs (concrete masonry units).  A standard cinder block is 16”x8”x6”, but other sizes are available. 
clear. adj. (woodworking).  Free from knots, splits, grain reversals, and other ugliness, as applied to a piece of wood.  Ceteris paribus, a clear board will be graded higher, and thus cost more, than one with defects. 
clench. v. (carpentry).  a technique for fastening wood together in which a nail that is slightly too long (by 1-2 nail diameters) is driven through both pieces and into a steel clench plate or other metal object, which causes the tip of the nail to bend around in a hook shape.  Clenching was widely used prior to World War II where pullout resistance was required, because screws and powered screwdrivers were still quite expensive.  It is still a good technique for wood assemblies that need to move or hinge, such as the connection between slats on a traditional-style yurt.  Older workbenches sometimes have a clench plate permanently inlaid in the work surface.
Clenching Nails

cope. v. (woodworking).  a technique for inside corners of moldings and other trim in which one molding is cut away to fit against the adjoining molding.  This results in much tighter joints than a miter joint.  One of the best ways to spot a real finish carpenter is the fact that he can cope moldings faster than a regular laborer can cut them with a miter saw.  Some people use a jig saw or portable band saw for coping.  The hand coping saw is, however, still the best all around tool for the job.
coping saw. n. (woodworking). a small saw in which a metal frame holds a slender blade in tension.  Coping saws were formerly used extensively for curved cuts, but the electric jig saw has mostly supplanted them for this role.  They are, however, still the best tool for coping the ends of moldings. 

crosscut. v. (woodworking). to cut a piece of wood perpendicular to the grain.  See also rip.
crosscut saw. n. (woodworking). a saw, either hand or powered, with teeth that are optimized for crosscutting. 


dado. n. (woodworking). a slot or groove cut into a piece of wood parallel to the grain.  Dados are most often used to form dado joints in cabinet casework, in which shelves fit into dados in the side panels of the cabinet.

dado head. n. (woodworking). a cutting head for a table saw or radial arm saw which cuts a much wider kerf than a normal saw blade.  It is useful for creating dados, plows, rabbets, and many other components of joints, as well as certain types of moldings. The most popular type consists of two or more saw-like blades between which can be sandwiched chippers to remove material and spacers to adjust the width. 

dovetail joint. n. (woodworking). a strong but time consuming joint in which triangular tails in one piece of wood engage pins in the other piece of wood.  By far the most common use of dovetail joints is in the corners of drawers in high quality cabinets.  However, they are also sometimes used in corners of casework, and even in timber framing where purlins meet rafters. 

dovetail saw. n. (woodworking). a small saw with a reinforced back which is optimized for the precise rip cuts required in making dovetail joints. 


fascia. n. (general). a piece of relatively wide trim board which is attached to the outside edge of the rafters in a building, either as a decorative element or to protect the rafters from the elements

filen.  (general).  a flat tool with ridged teeth which is used to cut or shape hard materials.  Types of files are specified by length in inches, cross section shape (e.g. flat, round, half round, etc.) and style of teeth (e.g. single cut, double cut, bastard cut, etc.)  Note that a longer file with a given tooth style always has courser teeth than a shorter file with the same tooth style.

file. v.  (general).  to use a file 

froe. n. (woodworking).  A tool with a flat blade set perpendicular to a wooden haft.  It is struck with a mallet to split straight-grained green wood into shingles, fence rails, and other thin pieces.  In skilled hands it often works faster than a rip saw.  see also rive


gain. n. (woodworking). a shallow mortise, usually open at one edge, for example to receive a hinge or other hardware. 

gusset. n. (woodworking).  a brace, usually triangular or trapezoidal, made from plywood or other sheet material.


handyman. n. (general). a tradesman with the tools and skills to do a wide variety of repairs and upgrades to homes and other buildings.  Handymen tend to specialize in jobs that are too small to justify bringing in a specialist.  Most handymen are self employees but some work for property managers and other firms.  There is a wide range of capabilities among handymen, from semiskilled day laborers, to experienced general contractors.  see also jack of all trades

haft. n. (general). the handle of an axe, adz, pick, or similar tool.  “I’ve had this axe for thirty years—two heads and eight hafts.”


jack of all trades (JOAT).  n. (general).  A tradesmen with training and experience in several different trades, so the point where he is able to extract the commonalities of tools and technique and apply them to learning new trades very quickly.  While there is no such thing as a typical JOAT, Handyman Kevin is a good example of the breed.  Many JOATS work or have worked as handymen

joinery. n. (woodworking). the art and science of creating strong and attractive connections between pieces of wood.  Traditional joinery emphasized shaping the wood itself to form interlocking connections.  In the modern era adhesives and metal fasteners have become an increasingly important part of joinery.

jointer. n. (woodworking).  a stationary power plane which is used to create flat surfaces on one edge of a piece of board.  Most jointers can also cut tapers and rabbets, but a table saw is generally more convenient for these tasks.  Jointers range in size from little 3" bench top models up to 16" monsters that are capable of surfacing railroad tie size beams, with the 6" and 8" sizes being most popular in cabinet shops.  One rule of thumb to remember is "Jointers straiten boards but do not produce uniform thickness.  Planers create a uniform thickness, but do not straighten anything. "

jointer planen.  (woodworking).  the largest standard size of hand plane.   Jointer planes are usually at least 20" long and are used to produce precisely straight edges for glue joints and similar applications.  Jointer planes have been largely replaced by powered jointers in most shops. 


kerf. n. (woodworking).  the thin space of nothingness which is left when a saw cuts through wood

kerf. v. (woodworking). a woodworking technique in which numerous parallel kerfs are cut though a piece so as to allow it to be bent.  This technique is particularly useful for cleats on rounded corners of counters

kickback. n. (woodworking). what happens when the blade of a cutting tool grabs and launches a piece of material instead of cutting it.  Avoiding kickback requires good technique, use of feather boards and other fixtures, a sharp blade, and attention to the feed direction and feed speed.  Bottom line:  kickbacks happen to everyone.  Assume a piece will kick back, and never put your body where it will be in the way.


ledger. n. (carpentry).  a horizontal piece of wood on a wall on which another assembly is meant to rest.  Bolting a ledger to an existing wall is usually the first step when adding a deck, patio cover, or other addition. 

let in. v. (carpentry).  a carpentry technique in which gains are cut in a frame to allow braces nailers to sit flush with the studs.


medium density fiberboard (MDF). n. (carpentry).  a man-made wood material composed of fine grained organic particles such as wood fibers or wheat hulls.  MDF is often deprecated by woodworkers because of its weight and poor mechanical properties, yet they still use a great deal of it because it is affordable and easy to machine and paint.
mechanical trades. n. (general).  the building trades that traditionally install and maintain piping, ducting, and wiring in a building, as well as manufactured fixtures of many types.  They include electricians, HVAC technicians (aka tin-knockers), mechanical pipe fitters, fire sprinkler fitters, elevator technicians, alarm technicians, and others.   The mechanical trades are often further subdivided into pipe trades and wiring trades based on which they primarily work with. 

mission style furniture. n. (design). the second coolest movement in furniture design in history (after shaker). Characterized by quarter sawn white oak with contrasting dowels and other elements, vertical slat-like elements, and smoothly planed horizontal surfaces. Often associated with bungalow style architecture. Gustav Stickley (1858-1942) was the high prophets of mission style furniture, but plenty of it continues to be made today. Closely associated with the arts and crafts and craftsmen design movements.

mortise. n. (woodworking). a hollow or depression in a piece of wood, for example to receive a tendon in a mortise and tendon joint.

mortise. v. (woodworking).  the act of cutting a mortise

mortise and tendon joint. n. (woodworking).  a very strong joint in which a tendon on one piece fits tightly into a mortise in the other piece.  In a blind mortise and tendon joint the tendon does not go all the way through the mortised piece whereas in a through mortise and tendon joint it does.  In a loose mortise and tendon joint the tendon is a separate section of wood and both pieces are mortised.  


nailer. n. (woodworking).  a board, usually horizontal, which is built into an assembly to make it easier to attach to another assembly.  For example cabinets have nailers at the back through which screws are driven to attach them to a wall.  Some walls, in turn, have nailers let into them to make it easier to attach the cabinets.

normal. adj. (engineering).  acting perpendicular to, especially as applied to a force vector.  “The force of gravity is normal to the flat surface.”


oriented strand board (OSB). n. (carpentry).  a man made lumber material composed of fairly large chips of wood glued together in a matrix.  OSB has much better structural properties than many other man made materials, such as MDF, but is considered far too ugly for finish applications.  It is, however, an ideal material for building shear walls and for building sheathing which will later be covered with stucco.  Furthermore, OSB is often used in place of plywood for temporary construction because it is much cheaper.


panel. n. (woodworking). a piece of material which is relatively thin and is wide relative to its length

particle board. n. (woodworking).  a man made lumber material composed of sawdust sized pieces of wood (and sometimes actual sawdust) which are treated with a glue matrix and squeezed into flat sheets.  Particle board is heavy and has poor structural characteristics, which is why it is often referred to as “sh**-board” by cabinetmakers.  However, its dimensional stability and easy of sanding make it an excellent underlayment for many counter and flooring materials.  Particle board is often coated with white melamine (a thin plastic film material) to make economy-grade cabinets and shelving.

peen. n. (metalworking).  the back side of the head of a metalworking hammer, which is used to stretch the metal.  A ball peen is hemispherical and is used to stretch the metal in all directions, such as for setting a rivet.  A cross peen is wedge shaped and is used to stretch the metal along one access, such as to draw out the tang of a tool.
peen. v. (metalworking). to flatten and stretch metal by striking it with a hammer.  See also clench, planish, upset 

peltier junction. n. (electronics). a type of solid-state heat pump which runs on DC current and is useful for silently cooling critical spots like the computer processors, micro machines, or a single beer.  Peltier junctions are usually too small to efficiently replace full scale refrigeration equipment, but their price has dropped to the point where they are assessable to hobbyists. 
plain sawn. adj. (woodworking). the method of sawing a log which yields the largest volume of useable lumber, making it extremely popular with commercial saw mills.  Plain-saw wood is less strong, harder to work with hand tools, and much more likely to warp than quarter sawn lumber.  see also quarter sawn

planish. v. (metalworking).  a method of finishing curved pieces of metal in which the piece is held against a planishing ball and struck with a planishing hammer to create a surface composed of numerous little craters or hammer marks.  When done properly planishing smooths irregularities left by previous processes, work-hardens the surface of the piece, and creates an attractive “hand worked” surface. 

plank. n. (carpentry). 1. a flat piece of wood with a rectangular cross section which is at least 1 1/2" thick.  Unlike boards, properly inspected planks are safe for use as a temporary work surface.  2. an engineered assembly, usually made of aluminum, which is designed to replace traditional wooden planks in scaffolding applications. 

plow. n. (woodworking).  a slot or groove cut into a piece of wood parallel with the grain.  Also known as a groove, particularly west of the Rockies. 

plow. v. (woodworking).  the act of cutting a plow.  Specially designed plow planes were formerly used, but a table saw with a dado head is now considered the tool of choice. 

pocket screw joinery. n. (woodworking).  an improved type of butt joint which uses a special screw within a recess for reinforcement.  Pocket screw joints are ubiquitous in the commercial cabinet world because they are fast and easy.  Production shops use a pocket screw machine to rapidly form the pockets, a table with pneumatic clamps to hold joints together while they are being screwed, and a pneumatic screwdriver to drive the screws.  Smaller shops and job site carpenters use a jig that works with a standard electric drill, but still find plenty of uses for pocket screws.
A Portable Pocket Screw Kit for Use with an Electric Drill
proud. adj. (woodworking).  to protrude slightly above the surrounding or adjoining surface, usually by 1/32 inch or less.  

purlin. n. (carpentry). the intermediate structural pieces which run between rafters in a roof frame, to which the roof system is typically attached.  Purlins in residential construction are often 1x4 or 1x6 boards, whereas in commercial construction or timber framing they may be substantial timbers in their own right. 


quarter sawn. adj. (woodworking).  wood that is sawn from the log in such a way that most of the growth rings are perpendicular to the face of the board or plank.  Quarter sawn wood is less economical in terms of yield from the log, but much more beautiful and stable under temperature and humidity changes.  Mission style furniture is known for showcasing quarter sawn wood elements. see also plain sawn

rabbet. n. (general).  a recess or slot cut in a piece of wood.  Unlike a dado, one side of a rabbet is open to the edge of the piece.  Rabbets form part of many different joints and are also used to make the wood on the back of a cabinet thinner so it is easier to scribe it to the wall.  

rip saw. n. (woodworking).  A saw, either hand or powered, with teeth that are optimized for ripping.

round-over. n. (woodworking).  a detail in which the edge of a piece of wood is rounded or radiused.  The single most beloved cabinet detail of the RV industry, since it keeps customers from hurting themselves while the coach is in motion.  Can also refer to the router bit which makes this detail:  “I went to the hardware store to buy a ½” round-over bit."

router. n. (general).  a high-speed rotary power tool that is used to shape wood, plastic, and other materials using specially-designed bits.  Routers typically use a collet type, female chuck and have maximum speeds of 8,000-10,000 rpm.  This distinguishes them from shapers which operate at lower speeds and use a spindle to hold tooling. 


saw set. n. (carpentry). a pliers-like tool used to adjust the set of a hand saw, the angle at which the teeth are bent out from the center line of the blade.  Saws with a wider set are less likely to clog or jam, while saws with a narrower set are more precise and take less effort to cut.  Setting the teeth is a standard step when sharpening hand saws.  Saw sets are usually designed to set either course teeth, as on construction and logging saws, or fine teeth, as on cabinetmaking saws.  

A Saw Set

shooting board, n. (woodworking).  a workshop fixture for producing accurate 90 degree (or some other angle) ends on boards.  The most common design is shaped like a bench hook except for a rabbet along one edge along which the plane runs.  Shooting boards are almost essential for producing high quality miter joints in things like picture frames with hand saw.  There is also a long skinny variation which is meant for squaring the edges of boards.  In practice, though, it is unnecessary as long as the woodworker has a jointer plane and reasonable skill.

shy, adj. (woodworking). slightly shorter than (usually be 1/32 inch or less)

smidge, n. (carpentry).  a little bit.  A distance which is perceptible, but too small to accurately measure with an ordinary tape measure.  Probably about as thick as the line your pencil leaves when you lay things out. 

softwood, n. (woodworking).  generic term for most coniferous woods.  Some woodworkers also include softer deciduous woods like alder in this classification.  Because they are fast growing, softwoods are, well, softer than hardwoods.  However, they tend to be much more affordable.  For this reason softwoods tend to be used in applications where they will be covered in the finished product by hardwood, paint, drywall, etc.  The most common commercially available hardwoods in the Western US are Douglas fir, yellow pine, and something called "white wood" which is usually either larch or hemlock.  All three are quite acceptable as a secondary wood for cabinetmaking. 

strong, adj. (woodworking).  slightly longer than (usually by 1/32 inch or less)


tang. n. (metalworking).  a thin extension at the back of a tool which is meant to stick into a handle.  Not as strong as a socket, but much easier to make. 
tendon, n. (woodworking).  A protruding tongue of wood which is meant to engage a mortise to form a mortise and tendon joint.

tendon saw, n. (woodworking).  A medium saw with a reinforced back which is designed for the type of cross cuts that are used in forming tendons and other joints.  In an non-powered shop it is also used to cut stock to length and to miter moldings.  It is probably the most used hand saw in a cabinet shop. 

timber framer. n. (general). a specialist carpenter who builds structures out of heavy timber, using traditional joinery. Timber framing is like building cabinets except that the cabinet carcass is the size of a barn.

trowel trades, n. (general).  the building trades which traditionally work with masonry and plaster-like materials.  They include masons, cement masons, plasterers, drywall finishers, and others. 


wood trades, n. (general).  the building trades which traditionally work with wood materials (even if metals and plastics have taken over in modern times).  They include rough carpenters, finish carpenters, timber framers, drywall hangers, flooring installers, painters, roofers, and others. 

woodworking, n. (general).  the art and science of choosing wood and designing, building, finishing and installing wooden objects, weather practical or decorative in nature.  Woodworking itself is not a trade, but many trades require woodworking skills. 


Cobb, H.  (1948).  The Complete Home Handyman’s Guide.  William H. Wise & Co.

Porter, L., Lawshe, C., & Lascoe, O.  (1960).  Machine Shop Operations and Setups [2nd Ed.]  American Technical Society.  Wiley.

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