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Renovating in Modules
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June 1998
By John Thomas

No one’s job is simple. If you think it is you probably don’t understand it. Building, however, is reducible to a few basic concepts. Whether you’re building new or renovating, virtually all buildings are made up of repetitive modules of rectangles and triangles with the occasional curve thrown in. We combine these modules in patterns that should be level and plumb and square.
Everything is related. If the floors are out of level, for example, the walls sitting on them probably won’t be plumb. Then the doors and windows in the walls might not sit level and square and probably won’t close properly. And so on…
Building is not a pure science, however. Although the modules are abstract, the reality is that we work to acceptable tolerances. In rough framing, for instance, 1/8” is generally close enough. In finish carpentry, 1/32” may not be close enough, depending.
Building new or renovating, the same principles apply. One reason renovating is more difficult, however, is that in renovating you’re trying to adjust for the mistakes of others, or the effects of time, which cause buildings to settle, rot, and otherwise go out of whack.
Let’s say you’re building a wall in new construction. If it’s new, this is usually a simple rectangle. Top and bottom (plates) are the same length. The studs are all equal, and when it’s nailed together the diagonals of the wall are equal so you know it’s square. If it is square, it can be plumbed in both directions. If it’s not square, it will never be plumb in one direction.  Walls meet walls. If the first is out, so will the second be.
Okay, now you’re renovating. And now you’re trying to attach your new wall to an existing wall that’s out of plumb by 2” top to bottom. What to do?
If you build your new wall square and nail it to the out-of-plumb wall, your wall will be forced out of plumb by 2”. To make matters worse, let’s say the floor you’re building on is an old kitchen floor, 2” out of level with a 1” dip in the middle. (Flat and level are different; floors can be flat but not level.)
To correct the problems, you could cut top and bottom plates different lengths (2” to compensate for out-of-plumb.) And you could cut each stud a different length to accommodate for the dip in the floor. The simplest way, however, the fastest way, the best way, usually, is to go ahead and build your wall square but allow for the out-of-plumb-and-level in the existing building by measuring to the shortest dimensions. That is, make the wall square but 2” shorter in length to compensate for the out-of-plumb. And cut all studs 2” shorter to account for the out-of-level, and ignore the dip for now. Then erect the wall plumb and level and shim the gap where it meets the old wall, and shim the gaps in the floor. You may have to prenail the shims or use long nails to nail through.
This scenario recreates itself endlessly in renovating.
When measuring, never assume anything is actually plumb and level and square. It almost never is. If you assume it’s out of whack from the start, you’re already ahead. Then, whether you’re building walls, cabinets, roofs, or forms, stick with the modules. Leave room to compensate for irregularities at the edges by measuring accurately to the shortest points, and filling in the gaps. You’ll save a lot of time and avoid the frustration of trying to custom cut each piece of the puzzle.
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