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Glossary of DIY Terms

When tackling d-I-y jobs, the first major hurdle for the uninitiated is all the unfamiliar words and phrases used in leaflets, instructions, catalogues, shops and so on. Here is an alphabetical guide to some of them; the explanations to other puzzling terms are made clear within the relevant sections. To start with, we suggest you have a quiet read through the list below – it is the kind of information that could come in handy at any time. The words and phrases come from all aspects of home maintenance, including decorating, electricity, building, plumbing, carpentry and so on. You may not even need to know their meaning for the type of work you tackle yourself, but these terms could crop up when discussing work with a tradesman, and our list will make sure everyone is talking the same language.

AC This stands for alternating current, as opposed to direct current. Alternating current reverses its flow at a regular rate, rather like the pattern of waves in the sea. With mains electricity in this country, the complete cycle occurs 50 times a second, and this is known as the frequency of the supply. DC current is now supplied only to very few districts in this country, and is the type of current produced by batteries. Inside a house, AC current can be transformed to very low voltages – for example, for use in bells and buzzers.

Aggregate This is a collective term for the mineral particles which are mixed with cement to form concrete. There are various grades. For example, heavy aggregate is made from sand, gravel, crushed stone or brick, and is used in concrete. Fine aggregate, usually made from sand, can be used in plaster, or in final rendering. Airbrick This looks like an ordinary brick, but contains small round holes, or a small grating. It will be set low down in an outside wall, and its purpose is to ventilate wooden ground floors, and prevent dampness caused by condensation.

Amps Short for amperes. A unit of measurement for electric current named after a French scientist. Amps are used to measure the volume of the flow of an electrical current – you could compare them with the number of gallons or litres flowing in a water pipe. See also Volts and Watts.

Arris This is the sharp corner or edge where two surfaces meet; you may come across this term in brickwork or masonry, where the corners of bricks and stones are known as arrises.

Asphalt This is made by adding sand or gravel to bitumen , to produce a black, hard-wearing, waterproof material used for roofing, paving, flooring, and various kinds of waterproofing. It is applied hot, when it is soft and easy to work with. It hardens on cooling.

Balusters These are the upright sections that support the hand-rail on a staircase.

Batten A length of timber which is small in cross-section. Battens are used for the supporting frame of structures such as cupboards, window-seats and so on, e.g. 5 cm x 2-5 cm. Or for supporting wall-fixed shelves and cupboards, e.g. 16 mm. x 2-5 cm or 16 mm. X 5 cm.

Beading is a small strip of moulding, made of timber or plastic, often used to finish off work, either to conceal a join, or for decoration. Bearer Bearers provide horizontal support; this term is often used for small timber sections supporting shelves, sinks, cupboards and so on. Bevel An angled or sloping edge, as for example in a bevelled mirror, which has a decorative sloping edge. Bitumen A tar-like waterproof material which is used for making asphalt, roofing felts, and damp-courses. Bituminous coatings are often applied to exterior pipes and gutters to seal and protect them. Before painting, you must seal with an aluminium sealer, otherwise the paint top-coat will become discoloured.

Bleeding through The technical term for discolouration of a top coat of paint, caused by colouring coming through from the surface underneath. It can usually be cured by the correct primer.

Blockboard See previous reference section on materials. Bolster Bricklayer’s chisel. Breeze blocks Large building blocks of precast clinker concrete. Brick Standard metric size is now 215 by 102-5 by 65 mm. , slightly smaller than the old imperial brick. New metric bricks can be used with existing brickwork by very slightly increasing the mortar joint. Commons are general building bricks; facings are bricks which are decorative, as well as being durable and weather-resistant; engineering bricks are practically impervious to moisture and are very hard with a high load-bearing capacity; stocks are clay bricks made in various districts, the colour varying accordingly, e.g. Kentish stocks are usually yellow.

Brushing out Painter’s language for spreading or brushing paint out to form an even coating over a surface. Burning-off A method of removing paint by using a blowlamp to soften and blister the paint covering, which can then be scraped away. Butt-joining Joining two surfaces together without any overlap; it is the kind of join you make when hanging wallpaper.

Cavity wall A wall made in a double layer, with a gap in the middle, tie-irons or cavity ties hold the two walls together at intervals.

Cement is made from chalk or limestone and clay, with a small amount of gypsum. It is used for making mortar and for concrete. Small quantities for minor repairs are available from DIY shops. Centres Carpentry or fixing instructions will often tell you to fix things ‘at x centres’. This means make your fixings at intervals of whatever x is. Chamfer This is a carpentry term, describing where two surfaces meet at right angles, and the edge is shaved away to form an angled corner.

Channel This simply means a groove, either cut into a material or fixed onto it as a ‘U’ shaped section.

Chase or chasing A channel or groove cut out to receive a pipe or wiring, for example.

Chipboard See previous reference section on materials.

Circuit breakers are fitted to fuse boxes in some houses, instead of fuses, as a protection against overloading.

Cisterns are tanks for water, either for storage or for flushing.

Cladding Any material used to face a building or structure.

Concrete is made from a mixture of cement, sand, water and aggregate , which sets hard and is used for a variety of building purposes.

Conduit The protective casing for electric cables.

Coping is the brick or stone used to finish off the top of a wall. Course A horizontal layer of bricks. Cove A moulding which fits into the angle between the top of the wall and the ceiling – useful for concealing cracks, or the edges of ceiling tiles.

Cramps An alternative for clamp. Cross-lining Hanging lining paper lengthways so that the joins in the lining will not occur at the same places as the vertical joins in the top covering.

Curtain wall This is a term you may meet in modern architecture for a non-load bearing wall. Cutting-in is a term for painting right up to an edge, e.g. on window frames. It is best to use a special brush with an angled edge.

Dado The lower part of an inside wall, with a different decorative finish from the rest. Dados can vary in height from about 76 cm 12 ft 6 in. to 1-37 m..

Damp-proof course The layer at a bottom of a wall that stops the progress of damp. It can commonly be made of slate, lead, bitumen, copper or zinc. Electro-osmosis, and injected silicone are ways of installing a d.p.c. in an old building.

Damp-proof membrane A damp-proof layer applied to floors to check the penetration of damp. Distemper A type of paint which is virtually obsolete. It was made from finely ground chalk , colouring, and size.

Dovetails are found in ‘dove-tail’ joints. Two pieces of timber to be joined at right angles are cut into a series of fan shapes which fit into each other exactly: very strong and decorative.

Dowel A small piece of wood and the neutral is coloured blue. Eaves The lowest overhanging part of a sloping roof.

Efflorescence Technical term for white crystalline substances that sometimes appear on new brickwork or fresh plaster; deposits should be cleaned off with dry coarse cloth, or brushed away. Then apply two or three coats of a neutralising liquid.

Eggshell Used to describe the level of shine in a paint finish, about halfway between matt and gloss. Elbows are pipe fittings for connecting two lengths of pipe to each other at various angles, e.g. 90’, 135°

Elevation Term used by architects and designers for drawings to scale of the vertical parts of a building, I.e. each wall of the building seen straight on from the front; usually drawn in conjunction with a plan, which illustrates the design of the building as seen in horizontal section. Embossed papers have a raised pattern, and are also known as relief papers. Female fitting Plumbing term for a pipe fitting which has a socket, plain or threaded, into which a tube or ‘male’ fitting can be inserted. Used when talking about timber to describe the character of the graining patterns.

Fillers The wide range of preparations available for filling holes, dents, cracks, chips, etc. There are different types according to the material to be filled. Fillet A term used in joinery for a small, thin strip of wood. Flat A ‘flat’ finish is a matt finish. Flock paper and vinyls have a raised pile design, with a velvety texture. Flush To finish off flush is to finish off level or flat.

Fuses Cartridge fuses are small tubes sealed at both ends.with metal caps. They contain a deliberately weak link of thin wire which protects an electrical circuit from overloading, as a safety measure.

Gauge A standard of measure for the thickness of items such as sheet metal, wire, and screws.

Galvanized When steel is galvanized, it has been coated with zinc to prevent rust.

Gland A sealing ring around the stem of a tap, valve or fitting. Glands prevent leaking and are generally adjustable.

Glasspaper is the correct term for sandpaper available in coarse, medium and fine grades for different applications.

Glazing beads are strips of timber used with putty to hold glass within a frame.

Grain This describes the way the fibres of wood run.

Ground The term used for a plain background colour, of say, a wallpaper or carpet.

Grout or grouting is a waterproof cement-based paste used for filling in gaps between ceramic tiles; conveniently available ready-mixed.

Gully Gullies at ground level outside a house carry waste fluids down into the drains.

Hardboard See previous reference section.

Hardcore Broken brick, stone or rubble used as a base for floors, pavings and roads.

Hardwood Simply means timber from any deciduous tree, and even includes balsa wood.

Hips The line where two sloping edges of a roof meet.

Housing A channel usually cut across the grain to ‘house’ or hold fittings such as shelves. Immersion heater A metal-sheathed electric element inserted into a hot water tank or cylinder to heat the water.

Inspection chamber Commonly called a manhole. A way of getting down to an underground drainage system. Jamb The vertical face inside a door or window opening. Jelly paint – see thixotropic. Joist Timber or steel beam supporting a floor or ceiling. An r.s.j. is used to support a ceiling when a structural wall has been removed.

Jubilee clips Handy bands of metal which can be tightened by means of a metal screw to fit rubber hose or piping firmly onto taps.

Kerf The cut made by a saw. Key To key a surface is to roughen it so that another material can adhere properly, in painting, for example. Kilowatt A unit of electricity equal to 1,000 watts.

Kilowatt hour The amount of electricity used by an appliance is measured in kWh; this is 1,000W used for one hour.

Knots are the round marks left in timber by branches. ‘Live’ knots must be sealed with ‘knotting’, a proprietary compound made from shellac and methylated spirits, before painting, otherwise sticky resinous substances may start to bleed through after a while. ‘Dead’ knots, usually black around the edge, will come out easily; they should be removed, and the gap

Lap joint Wallpaper joint with a slight overlap.

Lagging The insulating material which is wrapped around pipes and tanks to prevent them from freezing. Hot water tanks should also be lagged as an economy measure.

Laying-off A term used in painting for the final brush strokes, which should leave the surface absolutely smooth. As a general rule, you should ‘lay off on wood in the direction of the grain.

Lintel The stone, timber or reinforced concrete beam spanning an opening such as a door or window.

Load-bearing wall A wall which is carrying the weight of the structure above it, which could be another storey, or the roof.

Making good Getting rid of surface defects before painting or papering. Masking out Covering up a surface to prevent paint from adhering. Mitre A 45° diagonal join between two right-angled surfaces. Usually cut with the aid of a mitre block.

Module A standard unit of size. Mortar A mixture of lime or cement with sand and water for joining and bedding bricks, stones etc. Mortise A hole, usually rectangular in shape, which has been cut out of a piece of wood to take a fitting. In the case of joints, the mortise is cut to take the tenon, which is the shaped end of the piece of wood to be joined, cut exactly to fit the mortise hole.

Mullion A vertical division between windows; it can be stone, metal or wood.

Newel The main supporting post for stairs and bannisters.

Nipple A small valve which when opened with a key allows air to escape from a system.

Nosing The overhanging part of a stair tread.

Offering up Fixing instructions will sometimes tell you to ‘offer up’ the fixture to the wall; this means hold it in the right position, so that you can mark the correct position for the fixings.

Oilstone A fine-grained stone used with a lubricant for sharpening tools.

P.a.r. An old-fasnioned term standing for ‘planed all round’. Prepared, or planed timber, will be slightly smaller, say 3 mm. , than its stated size.

Pebble dash is a wall surface made from fine gravel thrown onto soft mortar.

Plumb simply means vertical or true.

Pilot hole A hole drilled to make passage easier for the subsequent screw. Plug To plug a wall is to fill a pre-drilled hole with a material which will take a screw.

Pointing The mortar joints between brickwork; re-pointing involves raking out the old, soft mortar and refilling the joints with mortar mix.

Primers. They are a vital part of the painting processes, ensuring that the paint can adhere to the surface; on some surfaces primers prevent staining; on metals they guard against corrosion; they are also used to seal porous surfaces.

Quarry tiles Durable clay floor tiles, of a reddish colour. Quoin The external corner of a wall. Rails Horizontal parts of a frame, e.g. for a door or a table. Rebate A rectangular recess or step cut along an edge of a piece of wood. Rendering A layer of cement mortar applied as a protective coating to outside brickwork.

Reveal The side of a window or door opening.

Ring main An electrical circuit arranged in the form of a ring. Riser The vertical part of a step.

Rubbing down The process of making a surface level, e.g. before painting, by using an abrasive. Screed A thin layer of plaster on a wall, or a thin layer of concrete applied to level a floor.

Scribing Marking a cutting line, usually with a knife or some other sharp instrument. Scribing strips or pieces are cut from thin timber or hardboard to fill uneven gaps between walls and fitments such as sink units, or built-in wardrobes.

Seasoning Allowing timber to dry out before it is used. Section The shape of an object as you would see it if the whole thing was cut through at right angles to its face. Sectional drawings used to illustrate instructions can seem very confusing, but once you learn to understand them, they are extremely helpful.

Shake A fault in a piece of timber, usually a split or a crack.

Size Thin liquid glue used to seal a porous wall before hanging paper; do not size emulsion-painted walls. Slip The ease with which a pasted length of wallpaper or vinyl can be moved when first applied to the wall. Soaking means leaving a length of pasted wallpaper folded to become pliable before hanging. Different papers need different soaking times. Soffit This describes the underside of an architectural feature. The soffit board, for example, is the horizontal board fixed to the underside of overhanging rafters.

Softwood simply means timber from cone-bearing trees, not necessarily particularly soft.

Solvent Liquid which will dissolve or soften other substances. Spreading capacity The average area covered by paint, varnish etc., expressed in sq. m. per litre. Will vary according to porosity of surface. Spur An electrical term, meaning a branch cable from a ring circuit.

Stile The upright at the edge of wooden framing.

Stop cock The valve on a pipe which allows you to turn off the water supply.

Stopped If a channel or rebate is stopped, it means that it does not run the whole length of the piece of timber.

Stopping Trade term for filling gaps and cracks before painting. Stoved , A paint coating which has been dried and hardened in an oven. Stretcher A brick laid with its long sides in line with the face of the wall. String The timber side of a staircase which supports the steps. Strippers Various proprietary mixtures of chemical solvents which can be applied to remove old paintwork. always follow directions on the bottle carefully. Stripping is also the term used for removing old wallcoverings. Stucco A coat of fine plaster on a wall or ceiling.

Studs These are the uprights in a partition. A stud partition is constructed on a timber framework or skeleton.

Sugar soap A caustic substance which is dissolved in water and used for washing down dirty paintwork before repainting.

Template A wood or metal pattern used as a guide for marking out a shape before cutting.

Thermal capacity The amount of heat a substance will absorb and store.

Thermostat A device for maintaining a constant temperature.

Thinners are liquids which are mixed with paint to make it more workable. Thixotropic describes specially-constituted jelly paints which cover in one coat, will not run, and do not need stirring.

Throat A narrowing in a chimney flue. Tolerance The agreed amounts by which sizes may differ from standard sizes, to allow for imperfections in cutting etc.

Traps Sinks, Wcs and gullies all have traps to seal off smells coming from the drains. The trap is a section of the pipe shaped so that water always remains in it to act as the seal – e.g. the S bend.

Turpentine substitute is white spirit. Two-pack Describes products which must be mixed together to react before use. Unit The charge for electricity is based on the number of units used. A unit is 1,000 watts of electricity used for one hour. See also Kilowatt. Veneer Very thin sheets of decorative timber, used as a surfacing material.

Volts The unit for measuring the pressure or force which causes an electric current to flow in a circuit. Water hammer Knocking sound occurring when a pipe is turned off quickly.

Watts The pressure of an electric current is measured in volts. The size of the current is measured in amps. The resulting power is measured in watts. The wattage and voltage of an appliance are usually marked on it. Wet-and-dry-paper Waterproof abrasive papers that can be used wet for rubbing down paintwork, the water acting as a lubricant.

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