by Tim Uhler
It does no good to carefully lay out and snap lines for plates
if you don't pay equal attention to plumbing and aligning the
walls. Like many carpenters, I learned this the hard way. In
the past, we've been forced to adjust the lengths of rafters,
taper the drywall at ceiling corners, and even struggle to hang
doors straight and trim them evenly — all because of
poorly plumbed and aligned walls. Now we take the time to plumb
and align the walls properly to ensure that the top plates end
up directly above the bottom plates. It takes our three-man
crew about 30 minutes to plumb, straighten, and brace all the
walls on an average 1,200-square-foot floor of a house. On the
following pages, I'll describe our method.
Simple Tools, Basic Materials
It takes only a few basic tools to plumb and straighten walls
— mainly a good level and some nylon dry lines. We like
Stabila's Plate Level (800/869-7460,
www.stabila.com) because it can be extended
the height of the wall and its offset design doesn't get thrown
off by bumps and bows in the studs. And we recently started
using a PLS5 point-to-point laser (800/601-4500,
www.plslaser.com), which lets the operator
know the wall is plumb when both the down beam and the up beam
hit the edges of the plates (see Figure 1). I also use a 3-foot
stepladder; although two of the guys on my crew are tall enough
to reach 8 or 9 feet up with a nail gun, I'm not so
Figure 1. A plate level (top left) is
handy for plumbing walls because it extends from plate to
plate. The author's crew uses a point-to-point laser to plumb
walls by aligning the down beam (top right) with the bottom
plate and positioning the top plate overhead so that the up
beam (bottom) just catches its edge.
Finally, we order 2x4 material for bracing. The braces should
run at a 45-degree angle, so for 8- and 9-foot walls we use
Plumbing Perimeter Walls
The process of standing and plumbing the outside walls really
begins when we frame the deck, which we're careful to make
level and square. Our walls are already sheathed when we stand
them, which means they've been squared on the deck.
In most cases, when we stand the walls the outside corners are
either dead-on or within 1/8 inch of being plumb. Now, I may
take some heat for saying this, but I think it's acceptable for
the corners of an 8-foot-tall exterior wall to be as much as
1/4 inch out of plumb. I allow this tolerance because racking a
wall once it's been sheathed is difficult. If the wall is less
than 10 feet long, we might be able to rack it by pushing on
the upper corner with a forklift, but that will get us only
about 1/8 inch.
If we're really desperate, we might "remodel" the corner by
pulling the sheathing nails from the corner studs, beating them
plumb, then renailing the sheathing. But, in fact, because
we're careful at the deck framing stage, this is almost never
necessary, and the vast majority of our walls are on the money
or less than 1/8 inch out of plumb.
Straightening and Bracing
Next we stretch our dry lines to gauge the straightness of the
wall. Many framers I know stretch the string between 2x4 blocks
nailed to the inside edge of the plates, which allows them to
use a 2-by block to gauge the space between the plate and the
line. We prefer to put the string 1/2 inch above the plates and
in line with the inside edge (Figure 2). Then we stand under
the wall and sight up the inside edge of the plates to see
where they are in relation to the line, which is faster than
using a gauge block.
Figure 2. The author stretches a nylon
line from end to end above the wall, then sights up from below
to see whether the top plate is straight.
Because we always cull the best plate stock, straightening the
walls is fairly easy. The plate is either good where it is or
has to come in or go out. It's unusual for our plates to be
more than 1/2 inch out of parallel with the dry line.
If we like the plate where it is, we'll go ahead and nail
diagonal braces between the deck and plate to hold it in place.
Generally we start bracing at one end of the wall and work our
way toward the other end. But if there's a really big bow
somewhere, that's where we'll start. It goes without saying
that it's next to impossible to straighten a bowed header, so
we're also careful to reserve the straightest stock for long
Spring braces. We typically use spring braces to push
the plates out or pull them in. If the top has to go out, we
nail the 2x4 brace on the flat against the plates, sit against
the middle to "shorten" it by springing it down, and then nail
the bottom to the floor. We try to hit a joist; if we can't, we
nail the bottom of the brace to a cleat that does.
When we get up off the brace, it springs back and pushes the
wall out — usually too far, which is exactly what we
want. We then take a 4-foot 2x4 scrap and wedge it between the
bottom of the flat brace and the deck. This shortens the brace
and pulls in the top of the wall. We wedge the 2x4 scrap in as
tightly as needed to bring the top plate in line with the
string (Figure 3), then nail it off.
Figure 3. A carpenter nails the brace to
the wall, then springs it down by sitting on it (above left)
before nailing it to the deck. When he gets off, the brace
springs back up and pushes the wall farther out than it needs
to go (above right). Next, one carpenter sights the plate to
the line and the other pulls the wall in by wedging a 2x4 under
the brace (right).
We also use spring braces to pull walls in. The only difference
is we don't sit on the spring brace when we first nail it in.
If the wall proves really hard to move in, we'll pull it
slightly farther than necessary, knowing it will probably creep
back out a bit.
Using a push stick. Sometimes a wall is so hard to move we
can't budge it with a 12-foot spring brace. In that case, we
use a push stick, a 16- or 20-foot brace that can be sprung
even more than a 12-foot brace. We wedge the push stick between
the top plate and either a solid cleat on the deck or the
bottom plate of a nearby wall (Figure 4). We leave the push
stick in place long enough to secure the wall with a normal
brace. There's usually so much tension on the brace, we push
the wall 1/8 to 1/4 inch beyond plumb before bracing it. When
we remove the push stick, the wall usually creeps back to a
Figure 4. A normal-length brace may not
have enough spring to bring a stubborn wall to plumb, so the
crew uses a long pusher stick to move the wall before securing
it with a regular brace.
We frame most of the interior walls before installing the
joists above, so we plumb and align those after the exterior
walls. Interior walls go quickly because many of them intersect
exterior walls, which are already plumb. Because they're framed
with 2x4s and are unsheathed, interior walls are easy to rack
square and straighten; we can usually muscle them straight
without using spring braces (Figure 5).
Figure 5. An unsheathed wall can usually
be racked square with muscle power alone (top). If the plate
doesn't have to go far, it can be pushed into position with a
brace nailed on edge (bottom).
We straighten the longest walls first, especially hallways,
because it's particularly noticeable when they aren't straight.
In most cases, hallway walls don't hit the exterior, so we
start at one end, plumbing and bracing in both directions;
plumb and brace the other end; then straighten in
In halls and stairways with parallel walls, we straighten and
brace only one side, then quickly straighten the other side by
nailing temporary 2x4 spacers between it and the side that's
already straight. After we're done with the interior walls, we
go back and check all the door openings to make sure they're
plumb enough for the finish carpenters.
How Much Bracing Is Enough?
Some framers I know use so much bracing you can hardly walk
through the house. I believe that if you place the bracing
carefully, there will still be room to work inside. We usually
put braces right at the corners and every 8 to 12 feet in
between, taking care to avoid placing them in front of
It's not necessary to use a dozen nails at each brace, but you
do have to make a solid connection. We put three nails at the
top and two or three at the bottom of each brace. We make sure
we haven't nailed into the joints between the plates, and we
test every brace before moving on. We learned to do this after
the bracing on a gable rake wall came loose. No one noticed the
gable had moved out of plumb until it was too late, and the
finish carpenter had to shim the tops of some cabinets way off
Sometimes you need to be creative about how to install braces.
We don't want to nail into a basement or garage slab, so in
those areas we angle in the braces from nearby walls or
wood-framed floors (Figure 6).
Figure 6. While working on a slab, a
carpenter runs the brace in from an angle to avoid marring the
concrete floor (top). Below, carpenters rack a wall square by
nailing a diagonal to an outrigger fastened to the bottom
When to Remove the Bracing
The wall bracing doesn't come out until the floor or roof above
is sheathed. On a two-story house, we'll leave the first-floor
braces in place until we need to use them on the walls above.
We leave the upper-floor braces in until the roof is stocked.
This is especially important with heavy roofing material like
tile, because stocking too much in one place can cause the
rafters to push walls out of whack.
This happened to us about a year ago in a kitchen with a
long-span cathedral ceiling. Even though the walls were braced
and the rafters sheathed, there was enough weight in one spot
to push the outer wall out of plumb, which we didn't notice
until it was time to install the cabinets.
It's always a good idea after framing is complete to go back
and check the walls for plumb. Even if you did a superior job
of bracing, there's always some "creep" that happens when
people start climbing around on the walls to set joists or
trusses. This is particularly true if it rains a lot before the
roof is tight to the weather — a common occurrence in our
area. Drenched framing sometimes bows even more when it
dries.Tim Uhler is a lead framer for Pioneer
Builders in Port Orchard, Wash., and a JLC contributing