Scribing three edges

Templates, tic sticking and more for efficient scribing in difficult situations. September 20, 2003

Most advice on scribing deals with one edge, but a lot of installs require two or more edges. By my count, there were six edges on this single piece that needed scribing:

The legs on the mantel I just installed came down the wall on the left side, extended out from the wall 5" along the non-level floor, turned and traveled 2" toward the hearth, went up the 3" crooked side of the tiled hearth, turned back toward the wall 2" and then went up the tile-faced surround. Then I had to do the second leg while keeping the heights of the two legs identical.

After a few hours of fussing, I decided that molding was the only way to make it work. Some of the gaps were just plain ugly. If I scribed them away, new gaps would appear somewhere else.

So how do you fit such an object without a ton of molding? How would you scribe a desk to fit in a niche (3 edges need to be scribed).

Forum Resposnes
(Cabinet and Millwork Installation Forum)
From contributor D:
Put your cleat on the wall and make a template out of 1/4 ply. Screw ply together using 1/2 pan head screws. Remember to screw ply from bottom up if at all possible, so when you place template on desk the screws don't scratch through desk or countertop. Always use a template when scribing, as it saves so much time and no need for moulding to hide bad workmanship. One other tip - whenever you scribe anything to sheetrock, such as desks or countertops, hold the cleat that goes on the wall 1/8 away with some 1/8 shims, then make your template tight, cut your top and install it, screw the top in place up through the cleat, then take the 1/8 shims out and screw the cleats back tight to the wall. No mouldings, no caulk - just walk away.

From contributor R:
Never had a problem but I'm a counter guy. A good trick is to use some strips of old laminate, fit them individually, then glue them together with a hot glue gun to form template.

From contributor B:
Your mantle leg could be marked with two setups - one for the floor, one for the wall. Hint - use a compass and mark for one direction at a time. Second hint - shim it into position before marking the scribe. Templates are a waste of time unless you are fitting curved surfaces.

From contributor D:
Contributor B, I take it all walls are 100% level and square where you come from. Every wall has some sort of curve or is some bit out of square no matter how small - that's the purpose of templates. As for your statement about shimming it into place first, 99% of installers who know how to scribe know that millwork usually comes oversized, that's why the best of us use templates.

From contributor B:
As far as shimming goes, I meant to temporarily shim or clamp the part in place, perfectly parallel to the position you want it to end up at so you can mark the scribe. The "curves" I referred to are not normal lumps, bumps and bows in the wall - curves are radius conditions, that is, walls that are actually laid out on a radius.

I installed commercial millwork, PL and pre-finished wood for a few years. Believe me, I can scribe with the very best of them. Pro installers rarely use templates. It is a fact. And we use compasses from the hardware store, which most do modify slightly.

From contributor M:
I agree 100% with you, contributor B. I've been installing high-end residential millwork for 15 years and using shims to plumb or level and then scribing with the old compass is the way to go. Most custom millwork is built to allow for this.

From the original questioner:
Imagine that you are installing a desktop into a niche (my current project). The niche has three sides. There is no way of shimming this desktop to be equal distance from both the left and right side. None that I can see.

The oversized top won't fit into the niche. An undersized top would fit into - but never fill up - the space. So without making a template, how do you solve this problem?

From contributor R:
To scribe a mantle you don't use templates, but to scribe a counter to fit in a niche, it's a good technique.

>Imagine that you are installing a desktop into a niche (my current project). The niche has three sides.

>So without making a template, how do you solve this problem?

There is a way, but damned if I can remember where my reference to it is - I'll keep looking. In the mean time, I've dealt with this by using two pieces of cardboard - one to handle a little over half the back and one side, the other piece to handle the other half and the other side. When I've got them fitting, I hot melt the two pieces together where they overlap.

Not sure why you don't want to use a template - it really doesn't take very long using the method above.

From contributor D:
If scribing a top into a niche and the top is oversized, let's say 3/4", which is typical, lift the top up at one side so it fits into the niche, remember to keep it square with the back wall, set your scribers or compass to 3/8" + or -, scribe the low side of the top, take it out and cut it, measure the back wall exactly and from the side you just cut, hold the tape and measure along the back of the top. Put a mark where your measurement lands, put the top back in with the opposite side down, hold your scribers or compass at your mark and scribe, and cut. Put the top in and scribe the back wall.

With a template I can do it twice as fast. If there is a faster way without a template, I would love to know it.

From contributor B:
Contributor D's way of scribing a top into 3 walls is the same way professional installers do it - no template needed. But then, they scribe a dozen times everyday. Using a template is a good idea until you are very comfortable with your ability to scribe right the first time; you can blow the scribe on a template without ruining the piece.

From contributor M:
Here is where we have to ask ourselves why we are scribing 3 edges tight to a typical sheetrocked opening when all of us know that when the space is occupied and the heat comes on there is going to be unsightly gapage... Lets tell the decorator it's got to be trimmed out.

From contributor R:
The correct way is to scribe large and leave the job with everything under tension. This allows for a fair bit of shrinkage.

From contributor J:
There's a method I've used over the years I think called "tick sticking" that'll scribe a finished top absolutely perfectly into recessed areas with any number of irregularities and walls. It consists of a rough sized template sheet a little smaller than the finish size and one stick with a point at one end. The rough template is temporarily tacked in the area with the front edge flush to where the finish top's front edge will be. The stick is positioned somewhat randomly all over this template (kind of like moving an hour hand around a clock), so the pointed end will touch critical spots along the outside perimeter. At each spot a line is drawn along the edge of the stick along with small aligning tick marks on the stick and template. Each spot's two aligning tick marks are numbered so they can be realigned. Position the template on the oversized finish top and temporarily secure. Lay the stick at each line and after aligning corresponding tick marks, make a dot on the finished top where the point on the stick is. Connect all the dots and cut. The accuracy will blow your mind. It's pretty easy to set up but hard to explain. Maybe somebody else could try. I think there was an article on it in an old Fine Woodworking.

In your situation (desk top) I would use a template (two piece). Cut first piece slightly smaller than the space, scribe it to one side and most of the back. Take second piece, large enough to scribe the second side and the rest of the back, and big enough to overlap the first piece. With the first piece out of the way, scribe the second piece to second side and whatever back it will cover. Get both pieces scribed as close as you want the finished job to be. Overlap them both tight against their respective walls and against the back, and mark the overlap of one scribe onto the other. Then screw them or hot glue them together, transfer your scribe line to the desktop, and scribe away. Leave it a little oversized so it will keep tension against the walls. 1/32 to 1/16. Flex the walls and use butcher paper or something similar when dropping into place. A good undercut on the side you are dropping first will help the edge of the top dent into the drywall on that side, also.

It gets easier with time, just like everything else. The mistake I made when starting out was to not undercut enough. If you put a hefty angle on the jigsaw, and make your cut just large enough to keep your line, then it's easy to sand to your finished scribe line with a light touch on the belt sander. If you don't undercut enough, you are sanding the whole thickness of the edge, and putting too much pressure on the sander, losing the delicate touch necessary to sand exactly to the line.

Another tip when scribing: the slower and easier you cut and sand, the faster the job will be done. Hurry the cutting and the sanding, and it will take forever.

From contributor C:
Contributor J mentions a technique ("tic sticking") I remember reading about. I've done my best to make a couple of sketches to illustrate what contributor J describes... please chime in here if I've got it wrong.

Here's the first sketch where I'm trying to illustrate how you lay the smaller template piece within the 3 sided area, and then use the tic stick to make reference marks:

And here's the second illustration, showing how the template is placed on top of the piece to be cut, and the "tic stick" is positioned on the index marks (that were marked on the template piece), and the point marks (from the point of the tic stick) are transferred to the piece to be cut. The "connect the dots" line below is the cut line.

My memory tells me that the accuracy is dependant on the number of marks you make. You really can *easily* scribe the most bizarre configurations using this method.

From contributor J:
You got it. As you remembered, the more dots, the more accurate. It is somewhat cumbersome to explain, but in practice is as fast or faster than any other way I know, and has absolutely perfect results. To those still puzzled, look at that picture again. At each position of the stick there's a line drawn along the edge of the stick and a small index mark drawn on the template, across the line and up the edge or across face of the stick. Put the same number (or letter) on the stick and on the template next to these marks. I use a piece of 1/4" ply about 1 1/2" wide. As long as it has enough room for a lot of tick marks and numbers.

From contributor Y:
That's just the way old boat builders do it. I would just emphasize that the sheet of paper or hardboard that is the 'template' must be aligned with what will be the front edge. The second drawing shows it being transferred to the piece-to-be-scribed without the front edges in alignment. Aligning that front edge is the most important thing!

One more thing is that it is a lot simpler if the back end of the tick stick is square. Then you just draw along one edge and across the back edge, and maybe back up the other edge a bit, thereby eliminating the potentially confusing array of hieroglyphics.

From contributor D:
I own an installation company and if I ever caught any of my employees doing it like that, I would fire them on the spot. It's like using a screwdriver all day when you have a screw gun. To the point "I have seen it done that way", it takes 5 times longer than any other way described. Also it's not even close to as neat as the other ways, not to mention all the setup time and material. Anybody wonder what you're supposed to leave the template on while you're playing with all these marks?

From contributor C:
I do think the tic stick method can be a highly accurate way to scribe a *captive* piece in a *difficult* situation. I certainly wouldn't use this approach for a straightforward one-sided scribe, but I would certainly use it in situations where standard approaches wouldn't provide the needed accuracy.

As to the efficiency of this method... if I had a very expensive piece of material that I had to fit in a very difficult spot, a few more minutes spent making sure of a dead-on scribe is, to me, highly efficient.

Maybe it's an issue of production work versus custom work. Fussing with fits often cannot be justified in production work, where in custom work, it's part of the package (where the "fit" expectations are often much higher).

Maybe it's worth including some qualifiers... such as a piece that's being dropped in a 3 sided nook with "squirrelly" walls (finished walls that can't be scraped up), no molding to cover the gaps, and you only get one try. I'd be very interested in hearing how you'd scribe such a piece in a faster and more accurate way.

There's seldom one method that works best in all situations... in really tricky fits, I do think the tic stick approach has a lot going for it.

Also - there was an earlier comment regarding how such a piece would shrink/expand and throw any precision fit out the window. There's some real merit to this comment if the piece in question is solid wood. On the other hand, if the piece is plywood, then a precision fit would remain consistent through humidity swings.

From contributor B:
You said "Maybe it's an issue of production work versus custom work. Fussing with fits often cannot be justified in production work, where in custom work, it's part of the package."

I do not know what you mean by production work, and I am not sure what anyone means by custom, but in commercial work, everything has to fit tight. And it does. No gaps allowed big enough to push a credit card into. That is WIC standard.

Contributor D is right. Anyone using a template for all but the most unusual scribing conditions would be fired on the spot. A three sided nook with squirrelly walls is not an "unusual" condition.

And someone has got to say it - installers cut scribes that fit with a skilsaw. Fussing and jigsaws are for hobbyists. Any Joe hobbyist can do a task well if he has unlimited time. Doing it well and quickly, that is the hallmark of a real craftsman.

From contributor J:
Jeez guys, nobody's recommending this way for typical stuff but it does work as fast and more accurately than anything else when out of the ordinary scribing is required.

From contributor C:
I'd like to think that everybody (to a certain extent) is right... How 'bout this:

Situation - 3 sided captive scribe with really bad walls. Can't scratch the walls during installation, and fit must be credit card tight.

If the scribe can be done using the "slightly oversize tilt" method, by all means go for it. When the profile of the scribed piece is so wacky that the above won't work, tic stick it.

I think one area where the tilt and scribe method won't work is when the shape of the wall varies significantly between where the tilted piece touches the wall, and where the finished piece touches the wall. I've done many installations in 100-200 year old houses where this would be the case.

I think contributor J is on track when he says "...nobody's recommending this way for typical stuff but it does work as fast and more accurately than anything else when out of the ordinary scribing is required." Key phrase: "when out of the ordinary scribing is required"

I found the comment: "And someone has got to say it - installers cut scribes that fit with a skilsaw. Fussing and jigsaws are for hobbyists." interesting ... I agree that when a skilsaw can be used, it's the quickest way to make the cut (I cut at a 30 degree bevel and then fine tune), but when there's any jogs or inside radiuses, I'm not sure how the scribe can be cut using a skilsaw.

I think we're all on the same page in this thread, just focused on different levels of difficulty.

From contributor Y:
After 30 years of scribing concrete forms to rock walls, timber framing, custom furniture building, custom cabinetry, and most importantly boat building, I don't leave home without my 3 circular saws, 4-5 hand saws, my Sawz-all and jig saw, my 1/4" hardboard, template paper, and two 29 cent compasses! That works 99% of the time until you've crawled into the hull of a boat to scribe a $400 piece of teak into the curved side of the hull with longitudinal members. They haven't built the compass to do that scribing yet.

So, how does one fit a trapped top wider at the rear, with say a 2"-3" or larger front edge?

Certainly it can't slide in, nor can it tilt in without damage to the walls. I'd gander there are many times when a credit card fit just isn't possible.

Hot melt and 2" rips of 1/8" door skin work quite well for fits that are difficult allowing all cutting to be done one time in a different location.

From contributor B:
Scribing with a compass directly off the wall and then cutting about 1/8" shy of the line with a skilsaw at a 30 degree bevel and finally using a belt sander (50 grit) to sand to the line is the fastest, most accurate way to scribe. For the weird stuff you are not sure you can cut right the first time, use a template and the same tools.

As for jigsaws, they are great for inside corner cuts, and nice for jobs where you want to keep the flying dust down, like occupied suites.

From contributor L:
A field joint in the top would help when installing it in the 3 sided niche, especially when it has a tall front edge that won't let it tilt in easily. Fit each piece, then drop in place and assemble joint.

We use a system that makes this type of job quick and easy. There is a link somewhere on WOODWEB for Quickscribe. Check it out.

From contributor S:
Templates are the way to go when you want to build the countertop at the shop and get in and out of the customer's home right quick. Jigsaws are great for coping molding, but I'd hate trying to follow an 8' scribed line with one. Some of those things that work best in new/unoccupied construction, ain't the way you want to do it on a remodel, and vice versa. People make all those same arguments over stair treads.

Here's another twist to this quandary. I have two cabinet units that are captive on three sides. There is a base cabinet with doors 24" deep and the upper is open bookcases 12" deep. Both have face frames. However, the countertop is an integral part of the upper - it forms the base of the upper and is typically attached before installation. Delivering them separately and relying on the installation crew to assemble after scribing raises as many issues as it resolves.

From the original questioner:
I have the same problem coming up, which was a hidden agenda in my original post. I've built a hutch, face frame, base and upper cabinet and integral countertop, and the whole unit needs to be inserted into a niche (about 40" wide). Think I will build a template.

Also, how about scribing the face frames and then attaching on-site?

From contributor I:
I now have another tool in my proverbial tool box. I have used a scribe, and templates, skill saw and belt sander, jig saw, and trimmer router, block plane, sanding block, or wood rasp to fit to various other surfaces. Most of the time it's about the best possible job in the best possible time, but some times I want to try some thing different - it's fun and that's part of why I am a carpenter. Some time ago I was installing a random width fir floor against a field stone fireplace. The difference between long and short points on the cuts were up to 6 inches. I used a square and a homemade scribe (a scrap stick), but I think that the "tick sticking" would have been better and faster. I'm glad to add this trick to the proverbial tool box and may just try it for fun.

From contributor L:
There really is an easy way to do an excellent job of fitting the tough jobs without working so darn hard. The task at hand is to fit something that is trapped on 3 or possibly 4 sides, as in wall to wall and floor to ceiling. We need to inlay the opening with our product. Think inlay. That is the job at hand. Now take that thought, put yourself in a shop with lots of neat tools you don't have with you, and how do they make all these intricate inlays, so nice and perfect? Routers and templates is how. Take that thought to the job with routers and templates and it becomes a snap. Inlay the opening is the job we need to do.

Look at the approach they present at and tell me it can't work.

From contributor I:
I looked at In my previous post I said I used a trim router - this is what I was talking about. But I would use it on hardwood base on a wavy floor. For the random width flooring scribed up to a field stone fireplace, I doubt this would work well. Scribing around one stone you could have 270 degrees of cut surface. The thickness of the guide would prohibit accuracy. But I like the tool, and the concept, and the tip.

From contributor L:
When scribing hardwood base to a wavy floor with a router, the router bit tends to split the wood along the grain when cutting all the way through. I make a cut around 1/4" deep or so, then whack off the rest with a saw set at an angle. The line you follow is a 1/4" deep cut instead of a pencil line, so it goes pretty fast.

The limitation on using an offset router against stone is how flat the stone is. The offset part of the router, which holds the bit, is only 1/4" or so away from a flat wall up about 3 inches. If the stone is fairly flat then you can get the router into all the nooks; if the stone projects out too far in that 3 inch height, the router won't work here. You can also tilt the router out of a cut, then plunge it back into the work on the other side of the obstruction and work only the part the router didn't cut, such as when a light switch or an outlet is in the way or if the stone is flat enough except in a few spots. For flat stone, tile, brick, or curved walls, I use the offset router for making templates to follow with the other router. If scribing to the outside of a wall with a 48 inch radius, the quickscribe will follow it exactly, but will cut a 49" radius because it cuts 1 inch from the wall. You need to put that inch back on to have a good fit. Thus the need for still another tool. What we really need is the woodworker's Vegomatic (it slices, it dices, it does everything) so we don't need boxes of heavy tools to lug around.

From the original questioner:
Quickscribe has a sister tool called Scribemate. With the two tools, you have a large inlay capability. That is, you make a template with Quickscribe which is 1" too great (or too small) in radius. Follow along your template with Scribemate, which offsets your router bit by 1", and you route your real piece to a "perfect" fit. Anyone out there using Scribemate?

From contributor I:
How aggravating it is to try describing what I am thinking. I will take another stab at it. I see five problems with the Quickscribe and the Scribemate which are eliminated by other, simpler scribing methods, such as the "tick sticking".

1) If one is scribing to a surface such as field stone, the variations in the amount of material cut is from 0 to 6". This would require cutting with the Quickscribe 1/2" to 1" of material away, then resetting the template, cutting another 1/2 to 1" of material away, then resetting the template, cutting… and so on. With the tick sticking method, one would set, mark, cut - a lot faster, less tools.

2) Inside corners where two stones meet to form a sharp point in the wood would leave a minimum of a 1" radius using the Scribemate. With the tick sticking and a jigsaw, the cut could come to a point and exactly fit the stone.

3) The lighter tool box is appealing to me. However, an extension cord, the Quickscribe, the router, the Scribemate, jigsaw, could all be eliminated in lieu of a stick and a coping saw. However, I would still use a jigsaw for time concerns.

4) It seems to me that the Quickscribe depends on a high degree of skill to keep the tool perpendicular to a radically changing surface. For example, a 4 1/2" wall which needs a top notched on three sides of that wall. To make the transition from 0 degrees to 90 degrees to 180 degrees is not impossible, but more difficult than the tick sticking which leaves no room for error.

5) Of course, the cost. The tools I already have will do everything I want to with excellent quality in the least amount of time. With the addition of the Tick Sticking (or scrap wood) I can do more, better, and faster with what I already have. For me, I don't see the value.

The next time you're at the store buying those 29 cent compasses, buy a few different sizes of flat washers. When you need to scribe, just stick a sharp pencil in the hole and roll it down the wall. While this won't work to scribe a floor to field stone 6 inches away, it does a pretty good job on countertops that are within 3/4".

What a great trick... I'm thinking with the right fender washer, you could extend the "reach" to nearly 1-1/2 inches. I plan to try it out.

I carry a roll of butcher paper in the truck, and most the time it just sits there. But once in a great I get some really weird shape I have to scribe to. I can cut with a pair of scissors, arcs, angles, brick faces, stone, whatever faster than I can on the wood. Also, I don't screw up good materials this way. Once I get the look I want, I tape it on the piece and cut close but not quite, then do a final in place last fit.

I just wanted to pipe up in defense of my jigsaw, which is my primary tool for cutting scribes. A Skilsaw would never get within ten feet of my countertops. I scribe with a sharp pencil in a compass, or simply cut a small piece of wood to use that is the exact thickness I need. I use my Bosch jigsaw with a sharp 101BF blade and cut right to the line, with some blue tape protecting the countertop surface. I will use a bevel except where the front edge of the counter needs to be square. One scribe and one cut that does not need repeating or sanding will always be the fastest way. Making a long cut with a jigsaw can be time consuming, but it eliminates the need for additional steps. Templates are absolutely necessary for certain conditions if you want a perfect fit with a minimum number of steps. The tick stick method shown seems to be way too time consuming for me, although I have used the principle in a different application.

From contributor S:
That Bosch jigsaw is the only jigsaw I ever had that was a good jigsaw. I said above that I'd hate to cut a long line with a jigsaw, but I'd do it with that Bosch. I have a top handle one, but I wish I had the barrel one instead. I really like those Dewalt blades that have those wavy looking nubs instead of pointy teeth, too.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor A:
A couple of things 1) jigsaws do have value as scribing tools - especially with a good downcut blade - not yet available on a skilsaw. 2) In a 3-sided captive scribe, I've found the best method is to use Quik-Grip spreader clamps to stretch the walls out. You'd be surprised at how far they can move. When you put the piece in place and release the clamps it looks like your cabinet was born there. (Warning: use a large piece of scrap plywood as a base for your clamps or you might have a sheetrock repair bill.)