Words And Definitions Used In Home Improvement (GLOSSARY)

by Darwin Hall

small simple house

Have you ever wondered what a word meant while trying to figure out how to do a home improvement project?

I’ve been in that predicament many times in my DIY travels over the years.

It’s important to understand the meanings of common words contractors and tradesmen will often refer to.  Knowing a word’s meaning will give you a better understanding of the areas in your house when:

  • purchasing materials,
  • planning the job,
  • and hiring others to help.

There are various terms used in remodeling and construction that beginning DIYers should learn about, or at least be familiar with.  Here are some of them:

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  1. Actual Dimensions
  2. Amphere (Amp, A)
  3. Balusters
  4. Bat
  5. Batt
  6. Batten
  7. Beam
  8. Bearing Wall
  9. Blanket
  10. Blind-nail
  11. Bond
  12. Box
  13. Bridging
  14. Btu (British thermal unit)
  15. Building Codes
  16. Butt
  17. Butter
  18. Butt hinge
  19. Cantilever
  20. Casing
  21. Caulk
  22. Cement
  23. CFM (cubic feet per minute)
  24. Chalking
  25. Chalk line
  26. Circuit Breaker
  27. Codes
  28. Compressor
  29. Concrete
  30. Condensing unit
  31. Conduit
  32. Coping
  33. Corner bead
  34. Courses
  35. Cove
  36. Cripple
  37. Crown
  38. Cupping
  39. Dado
  40. Damper
  41. Deadbolt
  42. Double cylinder
  43. Dry wall
  44. Drywall
  45. DWV (drain-waste-vent)
  46. Easement
  47. Eaves
  48. Efflorescence
  49. Elbow (L)
  50. Evaporator coil
  51. Expansion joint
  52. Fascia board
  53. Female
  54. Fire Blocking
  55. Firebrick
  56. Flashing
  57. Floating
  58. Flue
  59. Fluorescent lamp
  60. Footing
  61. Framing
  62. Frost line
  63. Furring
  64. Fuse
  65. Gable
  66. Galvanized
  67. Gate valve
  68. GFCI (ground-fault circuit interrupter)
  69. Glazing
  70. Globe valve
  71. Grade
  72. Graphite
  73. Ground
  74. Grout
  75. Gypsum Board
  76. Hardboard
  77. Header
  78. Heat gain
  79. Heat loss
  80. Heat pump
  81. HID (high-intensity-discharge)
  82. Hip
  83. Hot wire
  84. Incandescent lamp
  85. Jack studs
  86. Jamb
  87. Joint compound
  88. Joists
  89. Kilowatt (kw)
  90. King studs
  91. Laminating
  92. Latch
  93. Lath
  94. Level
  95. Lintel
  96. Low-voltage wiring
  97. Male
  98. Mason’s line
  99. Miter
  100. Mortar
  101. Mortise
  102. NEC (National Electrical Code)
  103. Neutral wire
  104. Newel post
  105. Nipple
  106. No-hub
  107. Nominal dimensions
  108. OC (on center)
  109. Packing nut
  110. Panel
  111. Partition
  112. Pennyweight
  113. Pier
  114. Pilot hole
  115. Pilot light
  116. Plenum
  117. Plumb
  118. Point
  119. Post
  120. Post-and-beam
  121. Pressure-treated wood
  122. Primer
  123. PVC (polyvinyl chloride)
  124. Radiation
  125. Rafters
  126. Rail
  127. Rake
  128. Receptacle box
  129. Retaining wall
  130. Ridgeboard
  131. Rise
  132. Riser
  133. Roofing cement
  134. Roughing-in
  135. Run
  136. R-value
  137. Saddle
  138. Sash
  139. Screed
  140. Setback
  141. Settlement
  142. Shake
  143. Sheathing
  144. Shim
  145. Shoe molding
  146. Short circuit
  147. Siding
  148. Sill
  149. Sill cock
  150. Sleepers
  151. Soffit
  152. Soil pipe
  153. Sole plate
  154. Span
  155. Spline
  156. Stack
  157. Stile
  158. Story pole
  159. Strike
  160. Stringer
  161. Stud framing
  162. Studs
  163. Subfloor
  164. Sweep
  165. T or Tee
  166. Taping
  167. Thermocouple
  168. Three-four-five (3-4-5) triangle
  169. Threshold
  170. Timber
  171. Toenail
  172. Top plate
  173. Trap
  174. Tread
  175. Trimmers
  176. UL (Underwriters Laboratories)
  177. Underlayment
  178. Union
  179. Utility knife
  180. Valley
  181. Vapor barrier
  182. Volt (V)
  183. Warping
  184. Watt (W)
  185. Y
  186. Zoning

Actual Dimensions

The exact measurement of a piece of lumber.  For instance, a 2×4 is actually 1 ½ inches thick by 3 ½ inches wide.  See also Nominal dimensions.

Amphere (Amp, A)

A measure of the amount of electrical current going through a circuit at any given time.  See also Volt and Watt.

Balusters

Spindles that help support a staircase handrail.

Bat

Half of a brick.

Batt

A section of fiberglass or rockwool insulation measuring 15 or 23 inches wide by 4 to 8 feet long.

Batten

A narrow strip used to cover joints between boards or panels.

Beam

A horizontal support member.  See also Post and Post-and-beam.

Bearing Wall

An interior or exterior wall the helps support the roof or the floor joists above.

Blanket

Fiberglass or rock-wool insulation in a long roll15 or 23 inches wide.

Blind-nail

To nail so that the head of the nail is not visible on the surface of the wood.

Bond

The pattern in which bricks or other masonry units are laid.  Also, the cementing action of an adhesive.

Box

To mix the same kind and color of paint from small containers together before painting to ensure the paint’s color is exactly the same throughout the painting job.

Bridging

Boards nailed between joists to add rigidity and keep the joists from warping.  Often used to quiet squeaking floors.

Btu (British thermal unit)

The amount of heat need to raise 1 pound of water 1 degree Fahrenheit.  Heating and cooling equipment commonly is rated by the Btu it can deliver or absorb.  See also Heat gain and Heat loss.

Building Codes

Community ordinances governing the manner in which a home may be constructed or modified.  Most codes are primarily are concerned with fire and health; some have sections relating to electrical, plumbing, and structural work.  See also Zoning.

Butt

To place materials end-to-end or end-to-edge without overlapping.

Butter

To smear mortar on an edge, face, side, or end of a brick or block prior to placement on a surface.

Butt hinge

The most common type of hinge.  One leaf attaches to the door’s edge, the other to its jamb.

Cantilever

A beam or beams projecting beyond a support member.

Casing

Trim around a door, window, or other opening.

Caulk

Any of a variety of different compounds used to seal seams and joints against infiltration of water and air.

Cement

A powder that serves as the binding element in concrete and mortar.  Also, any adhesive.

CFM (cubic feet per minute)

A rating that expresses the amount of air a blower or fan can move.

Chalking

The tendency of some exterior paints to gradually erode over a period of time.

Chalk line

An enclosed reel of string coated with colored chalk, used to mark straight lines by pulling the string taut and snapping it, leaving a line of chalk.

Circuit Breaker

A protective switch that automatically shuts off current in the event of a short or overload.  See also Fuse and Short circuit.

Codes

See Building codes.

Compressor

The part of a cooling unit or heat pump that compresses refrigerant gas so it absorbs heat.

Concrete

A basic building and paving material made by mixing water with sand, gravel, and cement.  See also Mortar and Cement.

Condensing unit

The outdoor segment of a cooling system.  It includes a compressor and condensing coil designed to give off heat.  See also Evaporator coil.

Conduit

Metal pipes used to contain and protect electrical wiring in exposed settings.

Coping

A rounded or beveled cap at the top of a wall so water will run off.  Also, a curved cut made so that one contoured molding joins neatly with another.

Corner bead

Lightweight, perforated metal angle used to reinforce outside corners in drywall construction.

Courses

Parallel layers of building materials,such as bricks, shingles, or siding, laid up horizontally.

Cove

A concave curve where vertical and horizontal surfaces join.

Cripple

A short stud above or below a window opening.

Crown

Paving that is slightly humped so water will run off.  Also, a contoured molding sometimes installed at the junctures of walls and ceilings.

Cupping

A type of warping that causes boards to curl up at their edges.

Dado

A groove cut into a piece of wood, usually to secure a plank or board in place and to give the board added support.

Damper

A valve inside a duct or flue that can be used to slow or stop the flow of air or smoke.

Deadbolt

A locking device activated only with a key or thumb turn.  Unlike a latch, which has a beveled tongue, deadbolts have squared off ends.

Double cylinder

A type of lock that must be operated with a key from the inside, as well as the outside.

Dry wall

A masonry wall laid up without mortar.

Drywall

An interior building material consisting of sheets of gypsum that are faced with heavy paper on both sides.

DWV (drain-waste-vent)

The section of a plumbing system that caries water and sewer gases out of a home.

Easement

A legal right for restricted use of someone’s property.  Easements often are granted to utility companies so they may service the utility lines running through as property.

Eaves

The lower edge of a roof that projects beyond the wall.

Efflorescence

A whitish powder sometimes exuded by the mortar joints in masonry work.  It’s caused by salts rising to the surface.

Elbow (L)

A plumbing or electrical fitting that lets you to change directions in runs of pipe or conduit.

Evaporator coil

The part of a cooling system that absorbs heat from air in your home.  See also Condensing unit.

Expansion joint

Flexible material between two surfaces that enables joints to ride out different rates of expansion and contraction.

Fascia board

Horizontal trim attached to the outside ends of rafters or to the top of an exterior wall.

Female

Any part, such as a nut or fitting, into which another (male) part can be inserted.  Internal threads are female.

Fire Blocking

Short horizontal members sometimes nailed between studs, usually located halfway up a wall.

Firebrick

Highly heat-resistant brick for lining fireplaces and boilers.

Flashing

Metal or composition strips used to seal junction between roofing and other surfaces or in the valleys between different slopes.

Floating

The next-to-last stage in concrete work, when you smooth off the job and bring water to the surface.

Flue

A pipe or other channel that caries off smoke and  combustion gases to the outside air.

Fluorescent lamp

A light source that uses an ionization process to produce ultraviolet radiation.  This radiation is absorbed by the inner coating on a fluorescent tube and re-emitted as visible light.

Footing

The base on which a masonry wall rests.  It spreads out the load.

Framing

The skeletal or structural support of a home.  Sometimes called framework.

Frost line

The depth to which the ground freezes below the surface.  This varies from region to region and determines how deep footings must be.

Furring

Lightweight wood or metal strips that even up a wall or ceiling for paneling.  On masonry, furring provides a surface on which to nail.

Fuse

A safety device designed to burn out if a circuit shorts or overloads.  This protects against fire.  See also Circuit breaker and Short circuit.

Gable

The triangular area on the end of a house’s external wall located beneath the sloping parts of a roof and the line that runs between the roof’s eaves.

Galvanized

Coated with a zinc outer coating to protect against oxidation.  Nails and screws used in exterior applications often are galvanized to prevent them from rusting.

Gate valve

A valve that lets you completely stop — but not modulate — the flow of water within a pipe.  See also Globe valve.

GFCI (ground-fault circuit interrupter)

A safety device that almost instantly shuts down a circuit if an electrical leak occurs.  Codes commonly require them on bathroom and outdoor circuits.

Glazing

The process of installing glass, by securing it with glazier’s points and glazing compound.

Globe valve

A valve that lets you adjust the flow of water to any rate between fully on and fully off.  See also Gate valve.

Grade

Ground level.  Also, the elevation at any given point.

Graphite

A soft, black carbon powder used to lubricate working metal parts such as those found in a doorknob or lock.

Ground

Refers to electricity’s property of seeking the shortest route to earth.  Neutral wires have the job of grounding a circuit.  An additional ground wire — or the sheathing on metal-clad cable or conduit — protects against shock if the neutral wire is interrupted.

Grout

Thin mortar that fills the joints between tiles or other masonry.

Gypsum Board

See Drywall.

Hardboard

A manufactured building material made by pressing wood fibers into sheet goods.

Header

Heavier framing — usually two standard dimension boards sandwiched together and laid on edge — typically above the top of a window, door, or other opening as support.  In masonry, a header course of bricks or stones laid on edge provides strength.

Heat gain

Heat coming into a home from sources other than its heating/cooling system.  Most gains come from the sun.

Heat loss

Heat escaping from a home.  Heat gains and losses are expressed in Btu per hour.

Heat pump

A reversible air conditioner that extracts heat from outside and air inside.

HID (high-intensity-discharge)

A lamp that operates in the same way as a fluorescent tube, but that has a bulb like an incandescent lamp.

Hip

The outside angle of a roof formed by the intersection of two sloped sides of the roof.

Hot wire

The wire that carries electricity to a receptacle or other device — in contrast to a neutral wire, which carries electricity away.  See also Ground.

Incandescent lamp

A lamp using a metal filament that glows brightly as electrical current flows through it.

Jack studs

Studs at both sides of a door, window, or other opening that are used to support the header.  Sometimes called trimmers.

Jamb

The top and sides of a door, window, or other opening.  Includes studs, frame, and trim.

Joint compound

A synthetic-based premixed paste used in combination with paper or fiberglass tape to conceal joints between drywall panels.  See also Taping.

Joists

Horizontal framing members that support a floor and/or ceiling.

Kilowatt (kw)

One-thousand watts.  A kilowatt hour is the base unit used to measure electrical consumption.  See also Watt.

King studs

Studs on both ends of a header that help support the header and run from the wall’s sole plate to its top plate.

Laminating

Bonding together two or more layers of materials.

Latch

A beveled metal tongue operated by a spring-loaded knob or lever.  The tongue’s bevel lets you close the door and engage the locking mechanism, if any, without using a key.  Contrasts with a deadbolt.

Lath

Strips of wood, expanded metal mesh, or a special drywall that serve as a base for plaster or stucco.

Level

True horizontal.  Also, a tool used to determine level.  See also Plumb.

Lintel

A load-bearing beam over an opening, such as a door or a fireplace, in masonry.

Low-voltage wiring

Electrical systems that use between 6 and 30 volts to run.  A transformer steps down the power from the voltage of the house.  Low-voltage systems include phones, doorbells, thermostats, and some lighting.

Male

Any part, such as a bolt, designed to fit into another (female) part.  External threads are male.

Mason’s line

A heavy string that does not sag or stretch, making it useful for marking the placement of building materials or as a line to indicate level when building to a wall.  Often brightly colored so it is highly visible.

Miter

A joint formed by beveling the edges or ends of two pieces of material, then fitting them together to make an angle.

Mortar

The bonding agent between bricks, blocks, or other masonry units.  Consists of water, sand, and cement — but not gravel.  See also Concrete.

Mortise

A hole, slot, groove, or other recess into which another element fits.  Also the act of making such a hole, slot, or groove.

NEC (National Electrical Code)

A set of rules governing safe wiring methods.  Local codes — which are backed by law — may partially differ from the NEC.

Neutral wire

Usually color-coded white, a wire that carries electricity from an outlet back to ground.  See also Hot wire and Ground.

Newel post

A post at the bottom, landing, or top of a staircase to which the handrail is secured.

Nipple

A short length of pipe.  Typically threaded and used to connect to runs of pipe for water or gas supply.

No-hub

A clamp-and-sleeve system for joining together cast-iron drainage pipes. (Molten lead was used to join the joints of older hub-type pipes.)

Nominal dimensions

The labels given to a standard piece of lumber.  For example, 2×4 is the name for a rough-cut piece of about 2×4 inches.  It is then finished by planing and sometimes sanding it down to its actual dimensions.  See also Actual dimensions.

OC (on center)

The distance from one regularly spaced framing member to the center of the next.  Studs and joists commonly are 16 or 24 inches OC.

Packing nut

The nut that holds the stem of a valve in place; contains stem packing material to prevent leaks from the stem.

Panel

Wood, glass, plastic, or other material set into a frame, such as in a door.  Also, a large, flat, rectangular building material such as plywood, hardboard, or drywall.

Partition

An interior dividing wall.  Partitions may or may not be bearing.

Pennyweight

A system of measuring the size of a nail.  Originally derived from a unit of weight, pennyweight is represented by the letter”d”.  For example, a “10 penny” nail would be designated 10d.

Pier

A masonry post.  Piers often serve as footings for wood or steel posts.

Pilot hole

A small-diameter hole that guides a nail or screw.

Pilot light

A small, continuous flame that ignites gas or oil burners when needed.

Plenum

The large hot-air supply duct leading from a furnace before branching into ducts.

Plumb

True vertical.  See also Level.

Point

To finish a masonry wall by filling the cracks with mortar or cement.

Post

Any vertical support member.

Post-and-beam

A basic building method that uses just a few hefty posts and beams to support an entire structure.  Contrasts with stud framing.

Pressure-treated wood

Lumber that has been saturated with a preservative.

Primer

A first coating formulated to seal raw surfaces and hold succeeding finish coats.

PVC (polyvinyl chloride)

A type of plastic pipe that’s suitable for cold water, but not hot.

Radiation

Energy transmitted from a heat source through the air surrounding it.  So-called “radiators” actually depend more on convection than radiation.

Rafters

Parallel framing members that support a roof.

Rail

Any relatively lightweight horizontal element, especially those found in fences.  Also, the horizontal pieces between panels in a panel door.

Rake

The inclined edge of the roof of a home.

Receptacle box

A small box made to accommodate electrical devices such as switches and plugs.

Retaining wall

A structure that holds back a slope and prevents erosion.

Ridgeboard

Topmost beam at the peak of a roof to which rafters tie.

Rise

The vertical distance from one point to another above it; a measurement you need in planning a stairway or ramp.  See also Run.

Riser

The upright piece between two stairsteps.  See also Tread.

Roofing cement

Asphalt- or plastic-based compound used as an adhesive and to seal flashings and minor leaks.

Roughing-in

The initial stage of a plumbing, electrical, carpentry, or other project, when all components that won’t be seen after the second finishing phase are assembled.

Run

The horizontal distance a ramp or stairway traverses.  See also Rise.  Also a length of electrical cable or conduit.

R-value

A measure of the resistance to heat transfer that an insulating material offers.  The higher the R-value, the more effective the insulation.

Saddle

See Threshold.

Sash

The part of a window that can be opened, consisting of a frame and one or more panes of glass.

Screed

A board used to level concrete after it has been poured into a form.

Setback

The distance a home must be built from property lines (dictated by zoning ordinances).  Also, a temporary change in a thermostat’s setting.

Settlement

Shifts in a structure, usually caused by freeze-thaw cycles underground.

Shake

A shingle that has been split, rather than cut, from wood.  Consequently, shakes often have a rougher, more natural appearance than standard shingles.

Sheathing

The first covering on a roof or exterior wall, usually fastened directly to rafters or studs.

Shim

Thin material inserted to make adjustments in level or plumb.  Tapered wood shingles make excellent shims in carpentry work.

Shoe molding

Strips of molding commonly used where a baseboard meets the floor.  Sometimes known as base shoe.

Short circuit

A situation that occurs when hot and neutral wires accidentally come in contact with each other.  Fuses and circuit breakers protect against fire that could result from a short circuit.

Siding

Planks, boards, or shingles used as an external covering of the walls of a home.  Typically nailed to the sheathing.

Sill

The lowest horizontal piece of a window, door, or wall framework.

Sill cock

The valve of an outdoor faucet.  Building codes frequently require sill cocks to be frost-proof so they are not damaged by ice produced by cold weather.

Sleepers

Boards laid directly over a masonry floor to serve as nailers for plywood, or strip or plank flooring.

Soffit

Covering attached to the underside of eaves or a staircase.

Soil pipe

A large pipe that carries liquid and solid wastes to a sewer or septic tank.

Sole plate

Bottommost horizontal part of a stud partition.  When a plate rests on a foundation, it’s called a sill plate.

Span

The distance between supports.

Spline

A thin piece of wood fitted into slots on the edges of two joined boards to strengthen the joint.

Stack

The main drain pipe that runs vertically through a house.  The stack carries away sewage and waste water to the sewage system and vents gases above the roofline.

Stile

The vertical upright on either side(and sometimes the center) of a panel door.

Story pole

A pole with lines mark on it that indicate the height of courses in a wall or other vertical distances in construction.  Used to frequently check the height of building materials rather than using a tape measure each time.

Strike

The plate on a door frame that engages a latch or deadbolt.  In masonry, it means to smooth a joint of mortar between bricks, blocks, or stones.

Stringer

A long piece of lumber used to support stairs.

Stud framing

A building method that distributes structural loads to each of a series of relatively lightweight studs.  Contrasts with post-and-beam.

Studs

Vertical 2×3, 2×4, or 2×6 framing members spaced at regular intervals within a wall.

Subfloor

The first layer of a floor.  Usually made with planks laid across joists.  See also Underlayment.

Sweep

A flexible strip placed on the bottom of a door for insulation and to prevent drafts.

T or Tee

A T-shaped plumbing fitting.

Taping

The process of covering drywall joints with paper tape and joint compound.

Thermocouple

An electric device for measuring temperature.

Three-four-five (3-4-5) triangle

A simple mathematical method to check whether a large angle is square(90 degrees).  Measure 3 feet along one side, 4 feet along the other; if the corner is square, the diagonal distance between those two points will equal 5 feet.

Threshold

The plate at the bottom of some — usually exterior — door openings.  Sometimes called a saddle.

Timber

A structural or framing member that is 5 inches or larger in the smallest dimension.

Toenail

To attach to boards by nailing diagonally through the corner of one board into the other board.

Top plate

The topmost horizontal element of a stud-frame wall.

Trap

A plumbing fitting that holds water to prevent air, gas, and vermin from backing up into a fixture

Tread

The level part of a staircase.  See also Riser.

Trimmers

See Jack studs.

UL (Underwriters Laboratories)

An independent testing agency that checks electrical and other components for safety hazards.

Underlayment

Cement-like product that is used to level floors prior to laying down the surface material.  Sometimes used to refer to the subfloor material or material laid on top of the subfloor.  Usually some type of plywood installed below the surface material of the floor.  See also Subfloor.

Union

A plumbing fitting that joins pipes end-to-end so they can be dismantled.

Utility knife

A razor-blade knife with a long handle and retractable blade.

Valley

The intersection of two roof slopes.

Vapor barrier

A waterproof membrane in a floor, wall, or ceiling that blocks the transfer of moisture.

Volt (V)

A measure of electrical pressure. Volts x amps = watts.

Warping

Any distortion in a material

Watt (W)

A measure of the power an electrical device consumes.  Watt hours (WH) express the quantity of energy consumed.  See also Volt, Ampere, and Kilowatt.

Y

A Y-shaped plumbing fixture.

Zoning

Ordinances regulating the ways in which a property may be used in any given neighborhood.  Zoning laws may limit where you can locate a structure.  See also Building codes.

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