Tips for Properly Measuring on the Job Site

Did you ever make a cabinet that was too big for a wall-to-wall space? Ever had to cut a full-height piece down because you couldn’t tilt it upright in the room? How about forgetting to measure for a heat register and having to remake a wide bedroom dresser?

You’re not alone. This goes on all the time – and often happens despite careful measuring and layout.

The way to minimize these potential problems is to measure carefully and accurately. Try to remember the old carpentry saying: Measure twice, cut once – and make sure the mistakes don’t occur more than once in your shop career.

Before You Measure

Find out a few things before you actually set aside the time to put your tape over the job.

For instance, what’s the builder like? Have you talked to him yet about your visiting to measure? You may well want him around during your site time, so he’s available to answer questions. If he’s an absentee builder, you may want to make sure someone from the builder’s staff is on-hand to talk to if something’s not right. Set up the best time to go, and make the visit count, as it’s a critical time for you as a fabricator.

Is the job ready to be measured? Here you may want to telephone or drop by the site before you set aside time to measure things.

Some shops even send out a ‘jobsite readiness’ questionnaire to determine if the place is ready. Basic questions such as whether the sheetrock is up, or whether the rough electrical is in place, can really affect your work. You certainly don’t want to spend the time going back to the site several times to re-measure.

This readiness list can be an excellent way of reminding yourself of all the other critical information that affects your work – whether the countertops or flooring materials (and their thickness) have been selected, for example. After all, can you really build cabinets without knowing these details?

You also have to ask, do you have the correct technical information you need to fabricate your work? Appliances – have they been selected? Ordered? Is there a written list signed off by the homeowner?

You may want to insist on this. We’ve all been burned before by unexpected appliance changes. There are some shops out there that will not build anything until the appliances are actually on site – that way the shop can guarantee that what actually turns up is what was specified.

The same goes for media equipment. Clients have been known to change their minds about a particular TV, and all of a sudden, that beautiful entertainment cabinet you’ve built in your shop no longer has the right opening.

At the Site

So what are some basic tools you should take along to the site when they really are ready for you? Remember, the first item of importance these days may not be a tape measure. Rather, a digital camera is a cheap and easy way to record what’s there, and can serve as an excellent reminder when you’re back in the shop, trying to remember if there was an electrical outlet under that window.

Some people take along a spare tape when they’re measuring, in case their regular one breaks or gets dropped off the scaffolding, or the contractor borrows it and disappears.

It’s also a good idea to have a tape that measures at least up to 25 feet. Laser tape measures are making inroads into our business – they’re fast and accurate and well worth checking out.

A framing square and a 6-ft.-long level are good to have along, although many shops are setting up laser levels when they measure these days. The self-leveling variety has come down in price, and makes pinpoint accuracy a breeze.

A floor-to-ceiling measuring device can be very useful, too, rather than trying to squash and bend your tape into a high corner.

We’re seeing laptops being used at measure-time by some, but most people still use a notepad and elevate each wall as they measure.

When you’re at the site, before you measure anything, check out the access – both outside and inside – as it will affect how you build your work. There may be immaculate landscaping, a long flight of steps outside or narrow hallways inside. In these cases, you may want to build the work in smaller pieces.

Make sure that your full-height cabinets can actually be turned upright in any room! Plan on a detachable kick if you have to.
Finally, be aware of distractions at the site – loud radios, crowds of other subs, painting or finishing going on. Eat before you go, take some water with you, and dress warmly if it’s a cold weather site.

What Affects the Work?

Remember the three dimensions that affect everything, and use a clear, non-confusing way of referring to them: right-to-left (RL), front-to-back (FB), up-down (UD). The other two useful and clear terms are: inside dimension (ID) and outside dimension (OD).

I could write a book about what needs to be taken into account when measuring; it’s always complex. The usual details of wall, floor, ceiling and countertop materials are all key, but often it’s the sequencing of it all that’s more important. If the floor goes in after your cabinets are installed, that can affect the dishwasher opening, and lead to a hearty “oops” if you’re not aware of that sequence.

Door and window openings are important, especially if the builder changes them after you’ve measured. Make sure he’s aware of this because he needs to call you if he changes anything.

Overhangs, set-backs and reveals all need to be taken into account. If your shop does not do shop drawings, you and the builder had better agree in some way to make things work if they’re not constructed on the site yet. Some shops take blue tape along, and map out full-scale on the sub-floor where cabinets will sit. That will help the carpenters, plumbers, electricians and even the clients.

You’re often dealing with alignments, and if things are not in place when you measure, you need to agree with the builder or lead carpenter on the job exactly how things are going to be. Maybe together you chalk-line out where a yet-to-be-built door opening will be.

Soon we may be measuring with ‘laser templators’ – cameras that take dimensions and transfer directly to CAD programs.

For the rest of us, we’ll have to rely on our tapes, pencils and an alert brain.