Home Improvement Glossary - part 4


Saddle. See Threshold.

Saddle tee. A fitting used to tap into a water line without having to break the line apart. Some local codes prohibit its use.

Sanitary fitting. Any of several connectors used to join drain-waste-vent lines. Their design helps direct waste downward.

Sanitary sewer. Underground drainage network that carries liquid and solid waste to a treatment plant. See also Storm sewer.

Sash. The part of a window that can be opened, consisting of a frame and glass.

Scratch coat. The first coat of mortar or plaster, roughened (scratched) so the next coat will stick to it.

Scratch sealer. A protective, usually clear, coating on wood or metal.

Screed. A straightedge, often a 2x4 or 2x6, used to level concrete as it is poured into a form or to level the sand base in a form. Also, the process of leveling concrete or a sand base.

Scribe. To use a geometry compass or scrap of wood to transfer the shape or dimension of an object to a piece of wood to be cut.

Sealant. Coatings used to protect tile and grout from water infiltration.

Semivitreous tile. Semiporous ceramic tiles that can be used indoors, in dry to occasionally wet locations.

Septic tank. A reservoir that collects and separates liquid and solid wastes, diverting the liquid waste onto a drainage field.

Service entrance. The point where power enters a home.

Service panel. The main fuse or breaker box in a home.

Set. The process during which mortar or concrete hardens.

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

Setting nails. Driving the heads of nails slightly below the surface of the wood.

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

Sewer drain. That part of the drainage system that carries liquid and solid waste from a dwelling to a sanitary sewer, septic tank, or cesspool.

Shake. A shingle that has been split, rather than cut, from wood.

Consequently, shakes often have a rougher, more natural appearance than standard wooden shingles.

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

Shim. A thin strip or wedge of wood or other material used to fill a gap between two adjoining components or to help establish level or plumb.

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

Short circuit. A condition that occurs when hot and neutral wires contact each other. Fuses and breakers protect against fire, which can result from a short.

Shower pan. The floor of a shower stall that houses the drain. Can be a prefabricated unit made of fiberglass, acrylic, terrazzo, or other materials.

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 that they are not damaged by ice produced by cold weather.

Slate. A rough-surfaced tile that has been split, rather than sliced, from quarried stone.

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

Slump. The wetness of a concrete or mortar mix; the wetter the mix, the more it spreads out, or slumps.

Small-appliance circuit. Usually has only two or three 20-amp receptacle outlets.

Snap cutter. Cutting tool for tile. Resembles a glass cutter, except that it is mounted on a guide bar.

Soffit. Covering attached to the underside of eaves or a staircase.

Softwood. Lumber derived from coniferous trees, such as pines, firs, cedars, or redwoods.

Soil stack. A vertical drainpipe that carries waste toward the sewer drain. The main soil stack is the largest drain line of a building into which liquid and solid waste from branch drains flow. See also Vent stack.

Soldering. A technique used to produce watertight joints between various types of metal pipes and fittings. Solder, when heated to molten form, joins two metal surfaces together.

Solderless connectors. Screw-on or crimp-type devices to join two wires.

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

Solvent-welding. A technique used to produce watertight joints between plastic pipes and fittings. Chemical “cement” softens mating surfaces temporarily and enables them to meld into one.

Spacers. Bits of finished wood or particleboard used to fill in the space at the end of a run of cabinets. Also small pieces of plastic that are used to ensure consistent grout-joint width between tiles.

Spalling. Cracking or flaking that develops on a concrete surface.

Span. A distance between supports.

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

Square. The condition that exists when two surfaces are at 90 degrees to each other. Also, a tool used to determine square.

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.

Stiles. Vertical members of a door assembly or cabinet facing.

Stone tile. Marble, granite, slate and flagstone. Dimensioned (or gauged) stone is cut to uniform size. Hand-split (or cleft stone) varies in size.

Stop valve. A device installed in a water supply line, usually near a fixture, that lets you shut off the flow to one fixture without interrupting service to the rest of the system.

Storm sewer. An underground drainage network that collects and carries away water coming into it from storm drains. See also Sanitary sewer.

Story pole. A measuring device, often a straight 2x4, with a series of marks set at regular intervals, used to verify that a course of masonry units is spaced at the proper height.

Straightedge. An improvised tool, usually a 1x4 or 2x4 with a straight edge, used to mark a line on material or to determine if a surface is even.

Stretcher. A brick or block laid between corner units.

Strike. The process of finishing a mortar joint. See also Joint strike.

Stringer. The main structural member of a stairway.

Stripping. Removing insulation from wire or sheathing from cable.

Stucco. A finish composed of two or more layers of mortar applied to either indoor or outdoor walls.

Stud. Vertical 2x4 or 2x6 framing members spaced at regular intervals within a wall.

Stud finder. Electronic or magnetic tool that locates studs within a finished wall.

Subfloor. Usually plywood or another sheet material covering the floor joists.

Subpanel. A smaller, subsidiary fuse or breaker box.

Substrate. The setting bed and any other layers beneath a tile surface.

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

System ground. A wire connecting a service panel to the earth. It may be attached to a main water pipe or to a rod driven into the ground.


Tailpiece. That part of a fixture drain that bridges the gap between the drain outlet and the trap.

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

Tee. A T-shaped fitting used to tap into a length of pipe at a 90-degree angle for the purposes of beginning a branch line.

Teflon tape. A synthetic material wrapped around pipe threads to seal a joint. Often called pipe tape. See also Pipe joint compound.

Template. A pattern to follow when re-creating a precise shape.

Terrazzo tiles. Bits of granite or marble set in mortar, then polished.

Thermocouple. An electric device for measuring temperature.

Thin-set mortar. A setting adhesive for tiles.

Three-four-five method. An easy way to check whether a corner of a large area is square. Measure 3 feet along one side and 4 feet along the other. If the corner is square, the diagonal distance between those two points will equal 5 feet.

Three-way switch. Operates a light from two locations.

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

Tile nippers. A cutting tool for making small notches and curves in tile. It resemble pliers but has carbide-tipped edges.

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

Time-delay fuse. A fuse that does not break the circuit during the momentary overload that can happen when an electric motor starts up. If the overload continues, this fuse blows like any other.

Throw mortar. To place mortar using a trowel.

Toe-kick. Indentation at the bottom of a floor-based cabinet. Also known as toe space.

Toenail. To drive a nail at an angle to hold together two pieces of material, usually studs in a wall.

Tongue-and-groove joint. A joint made using boards that have a projecting tongue on the end of one member and a corresponding groove on the other member .

Top plate. The topmost horizontal element of a stud-frame wall.

Trap. The part of a fixture drain that creates a water seal to prevent sewer gases from penetrating a home’s interior. Codes require that all fixtures be trapped.

Transformer. A device that reduces or increases voltage. In home wiring, transformers step down current for use with low-voltage equipment such as thermostats and doorbell systems.

Travelers. Two of the three conductors that run between switches in a three-way installation.

Tread. The level part of a staircase.

Trim tile. Tiles that are shaped to turn corners or define the edges of an installation. Includes, cove trim, bullnose, V-cap, quarter round, inside corner, and outside corner.

Trimmers. See Jack studs.

Trowel. Any of several flat and oblong or flat and pointed metal tools used for handling and/or finishing concrete and mortar.

Tuckpointing. Refilling old masonry joints with new mortar.


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 the subfloor. See also Subfloor.

Underwriters knot. A knot used to secure wires in a lamp socket.

Underwriters Laboratories (UL). Testing agency that examines electrical components for hazards.

Uniform Plumbing Code (UPC). Nationally recognized guidelines prescribing safe plumbing practices. Local codes take precedence over the UPC when the two differ.

Union. A fitting used with threaded pipe to facilitate disconnecting the line without having to cut it.

Utility knife. A razor-blade knife with a retractable blade.


Valley. An intersection of roof slopes.

Vapor barrier. A waterproof membrane in a floor, wall, or ceiling that blocks the transfer of condensation to the inner surface.

Veneer. A thin layer of decorative wood laminated to the surface of a more common wood.

Veneer tape. A ribbon of reinforced wood veneer applied to plywood or other rough wood with glue or heat-sensitive adhesive.

Vent. The vertical or sloping portion of a drain line that permits sewer gases to exit the house. Every plumbing fixture must be vented.

Vent stack. The upper portion of a vertical drain line through which gases pass directly to the outside.

The main vent stack is the portion of the main vertical drain line above the highest fixture connected to it.

Vitreous tile. Ceramic tiles with a low porosity, used indoors or outdoors, in wet or dry locations.

Volt (V). A measure of electrical pressure. Volts x amps = watts.

Voltmeter. A device that measures voltage and performs other tests.


Wall box. A rectangular enclosure for receptacles and switches. See Junction box.

Wall anchor. A fastener such as the toggle bolt or Molly that is used to secure objects to hollow walls, or a concrete anchor used to secure objects to concrete or masonry walls.

Warp. Any of several lumber defects caused by uneven shrinkage of wood cells.

Water hammer. A loud noise caused by a sudden stop in the flow of water, which causes pipes to repeatedly hit up against a nearby framing member.

Water supply system. The network of pipes and fittings that transports water under pressure to fixtures and other water-using equipment and appliances.

Watt (W). A measure of the power an electrical device consumes. See Amp, Kilowatt, and Volt.

Weep holes. Openings made in mortar joints to facilitate drainage of built-up water.

Wet saw. A power tool for cutting tile. A pump sprays water to cool the blade and remove chips.

Wet wall. A strategically placed cavity (usually a 2x6 wall) in which the main drain/vent stack and a cluster of supply and drain-waste-vent lines are housed.

Whaler. A doubled 2x4 secured to the outside of a concrete form to strengthen it against the pressure of the concrete as it is poured.

Wye. A Y-shaped drainage fitting that serves as the starting point for a branch drain supplying one or more fixtures.

Yard. The unit of volume by which ready-mix concrete is sold; equal to 1 square yard (27 cubic feet).

Zoning. Ordinances regulating the ways in which a property may be used. See also Building codes.

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