We love old houses, but you’d be hard pressed to find a clean 90-degree angle anywhere. Today, we’re breaking down some of our favorite tricks on how to make things look straight and level, even when they’re not!
Here’s a (not so?) fun fact: regardless of when your house was built, it’s imperfect! The floors aren’t perfectly level. The walls aren’t perfectly plumb. The corners aren’t perfectly square. But guess what? Whether you’re hanging a curtain rod, installing kitchen cabinets or replacing a bathroom vanity, these imperfections are generally not that big of a deal if you know how to deal with them.
But before we jump into how you can work around the fact that your home isn’t perfect, let’s define some terms.
Square | Forming a right angle. In a home, this applies to the meeting point between two perpendicular surfaces such as two walls, or the junction of a wall and a floor. This can be checked with a speed square or framing square.
Many factors can contribute to a structure being out of plumb, level or square. Age, settling of a building, human error and inaccurate measuring tools can all contribute to this type of Old House Charm, as we like to call it. Regardless of your home’s age or how it earned its – ahem – charm, there are countless ways to work around it! These are our favorites.
We measure with lasers
Self-leveling laser levels are absolutely indispensable for old homes! We’ve used our favorite Bosch unit for everything from installing kitchen cabinets to hanging artwork and gallery walls. Perhaps our favorite use though, was creating a level paint line two-thirds of the way up our master bedroom walls:
Starting at one point, then shooting a laser beam around a room to ensure consistency is as easy as it looks! Just make sure your laser doesn’t move throughout the process and you’re all set. Often times, I’ll mark the floor with painter’s tape where I need to keep the laser level. Below, we used it to mark the level line to install IKEA mounting rails for the Two Flat’s Unit 2 kitchen!
See also: How we cheated our way to a straight ceiling!
We caulk (almost) ev-er-y-thing!
We like to joke that caulk is the glue that holds an old home together! So much so, in fact, that we even wrote a whole post about it. That’s obviously not the case, but filling joints of varying degrees of imperfection with a smooth bead of paintable caulk is a great, inexpensive way to eliminate the visual distraction of uneven seams and joints.
For example, the ceilings in our laundry room are very much out of level. When we went to install the fillers at the top of the cabinets, we did our best to scribe our cuts, but we filled in the final imperfections with (a whole lot of) caulk. Once the caulk was dry, everything was painted and the result is what looks like a perfect joint. Tip: For extra large gaps, try using backer rod! It gives the caulk something to adhere to, rather than emptying a whole tube into the abyss.
See also: How to get a perfect caulk line + our favorite caulks.
We rely on filler panels + trim
Installing filler panels eliminates larger unsightly gaps between surfaces. They’re also integral in filling gaps between cabinets and walls. Very rarely, if ever, will the wall that a cabinet meets be as perfectly square as the cabinet itself. This is where filler panels come in. Essentially, a filler panel is a length of finish board that fills in the space where a cabinet doesn’t meet the wall or where cabinets meet each other.
When walls are really out of plumb, filler panels can be scribed or cut intentionally out of square. Using clamps to scribe surfaces is a handy way to make sure panels align with the cabinet sides they’re intended to conceal.
We’re okay with ‘visually level’ and splitting the difference
Finally, when all else fails and no amount of math or careful cutting can make a surface perfectly level, it might be time to settle for visually level. Visually level is exactly what it sounds like. It’s an acceptance of the fact that a disproportionate amount of effort would be required to make something perfect. For example, completely removing an entire windows’-worth of trim molding just to make an adjacent surface look level might be a fool’s errand, and I’m not touching that with a ten-foot pole!
A time that this trick comes in extra, super duper handy is when we’re hanging high curtain rods. In our Chicago home, our ceilings aren’t generally perfectly level, but splitting the difference between the un-level ceiling and level window casing can pull they eye away from noticing. In a case like this, almost perfect can end up appearing perfect if you use your eyes as a level as opposed to using an actual level. Sometimes it’s the only way!
What are we missing? Do you have a go-to trick when things aren’t level, plumb or square? We’d love to hear your tips, because we still have two kitchens’ worth of filler and trim panels to install in our 130 year old Two Flat. Old home lovers, unite!