By Joshua Farnsworth
Precision is a major key to success in woodworking with hand tools. But, like all the other tool categories, it can be a bit overwhelming to understand all the different tools and gauges for laying out, marking, & measuring: mortise gauges, marking gauges, rules, squares, dividers (compass), panel gauges, etc. Confusing huh?
It’s also confusing to know what you should buy and what you should NOT buy. The below sections share my recommendations on buying woodworking tools for layout, marking, & measuring:
1. Urgent Layout, Marking, & Measuring Tools (Buy these First)
Below are my recommendation for types & brands of tools that you will likely need right at the start of your traditional woodworking journey. If you’re on a really tight budget, don’t fret. You can use your judgement to narrow down this list and make due without everything at first…but just make sure that you buy fewer tools at first, rather than lower quality tools. I guarantee that you’ll have to buy a better replacement down the road. But you can often find the highest quality antique tools for less than crappy tools.
Try Squares & Combination Squares
Squares have been around for thousands of years, and are an essential tool. “Tried and True” is an old adage that comes from this tool. I recommend buying a 6″ combination square and buying or building a larger try square. These are some of the squares that I recommend:
Buy a Combination Square
Don’t cheap out on a combination square, like I did initially. Now that I know what I’m doing, I realize that my popular $20 combination square is, in fact, not square, even though it had very positive reviews. A good combination square could be one of the most useful (and most often used) tools in your shop. I recommend buying a new Starrett 6-inch combination square (4R markings). I found the best prices here on Amazon and here on Highland Woodworking.
If you can find a used Starrett combination square, in person, and can test it for accuracy (see above) then go for it! If you want to buy a used Starrett combination square on eBay, ask the eBay seller to show you pictures of them testing the square: test the squareness by lining the square along the edge of a board and scribing a line along the inner side of the blade. Flip the square over and try to draw a line over the same line, again with the inner side of the blade. If the lines line up, then it’s good! If not, then move on.
At this time I really can’t recommend any other brands of combinations squares. The Starrett brand is synonymous with precision measurement. This square can replace a lot of other tools, so give it a try. The only difference between the $74 model and the $89 model is the finish on the blade, so go with the $74 square. Here are some charts from Starrett’s website to help you compare their different 6″ models:
Metal Try Squares
Most antique metal try squares that you’ll find are out of square when you buy them (some more than others), but can be brought back into square with a file. You can test the squareness by lining the square along the edge of a board and scribing a line along the inner side of the blade. Flip the square over and try to draw a line over the same line again, with the inner side of the blade. If the lines line up, then it’s good! If not, then true it up with files. Or better yet: make your own wooden try square (see below).
Make Your Own Wooden Try Squares
Rather than messing with old & new inaccurate metal try squares, why not build your own accurate wooden try square? It costs next to nothing, is beautiful, and will prime you for learning traditional woodworking! In this video Roy Underhill & Christopher Schwarz talk all about wooden try squares and also show how to make one:
The book “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” gives more precise measurements for the square in the above video. If you’d like to learn how to build another accurate try square, then download this free PDF tutorial from Jim Tolpin’s book “The New Traditional Woodworker“:
Buy a Sliding Bevel Square
Sliding bevel squares, or “sliding bevels”, are very useful for holding & transferring an angle. I prefer to use these in laying out dovetail joints, rather than using a dovetail marker. You can checkout my dovetail video to see what I’m talking about. You probably only need one sliding bevel. I have four, but that’s because I keep getting a bunch of “lot” deals from people, and sliding bevels always seem to be included! My beautiful antique sliding bevels don’t have any brand names on them, but I really love them. They’re gorgeous and they don’t loosen up. The blade should not move when locked. Some people especially like the “butt-locking” bevels that lock on the bottom (like these high end sliding bevels). Sliding bevels are fairly common at antique stores & flea markets, but you can also search for them here:
Buy 2-3 Dividers (Compass)
Dividers (or compass) are used for precisely taking and laying out measurements without ever having to look at a number. You can also use them for circumscribing circles or arcs. It’s good to have at least two dividers, for laying out dovetails (but 3 or 4 is best). I use them all the time.
I prefer a large compass around 9″-12″, and a smaller compass around 3″-4″. Custom hand forged (i.e. “expensive”) dividers are the “bees knees”, but most people will just buy some new or used dividers. Look for dividers that lock in place securely and have nice needle point tips. Here are some links to great new & vintage brands to look for:
Buy Cutting, Marking, & Mortise Gauges
This is a tool that you want to get right, since it determines the accuracy of all your work pieces. It’s a good idea to have more than one quality cutting or marking gauge (I’ll generically refer to them both hereafter as marking gauges), and one good mortise gauge, so you can keep and transfer multiple measurements during a project. You can find a lot of old wooden marking gauges at flea markets & tool sales. But their accuracy is usually questionable, just like the newer wooden marking gauges. Cutting gauges are my preference because they can cut across the grain better, and I especially like the wheel cutting gauges style (as shown in the photo below).
Top-of-the-Line Marking Gauge
The crème de la crème of gauges seem to be the Tite-Mark brand gauges (made by Glen-Drake Toolworks). I don’t own one, but have used these gauges out of friends’ toolboxes, and many top traditional woodworkers love them. Click here to learn more and to find the best price that I found on this tite-mark gauge.
Stay away from Cheap Marking Gauges
If you’re looking for a more affordable alternative please, please make sure you don’t go too cheap…like I did the first time. Stay away from $15 or $20 marking gauges like this one that I wasted my money on! I sadly discovered that the blade wasn’t removable for sharpening, and the wheel didn’t work. Thanks a lot Woodcraft! Remember, buy a tool once.
Affordable yet quality Marking Gauges
You can buy old marking gauges & restore them or even build a simple marking gauge out of firewood. But my new favorite affordable marking gauges (high quality and budget-friendly) are the Veritas Wheel Marking Gauges (pictured below). I really love mine. It is technically a cutting gauge since it slices rather than scratching (like the gauges with a pin). I originally bought the normal Veritas Wheel Marking Gauge (to replace the piece of junk that I initially bought). You can buy the Veritas here: click here
It’s always nice to have at least two marking gauges so you can store multiple measurements for a project. Again, if you’re on a budget, two are not necessary…just very convenient. My second new marking gauge was the Veritas Dual Marking Gauge (see below):
It can hold two measurements simultaneously, which means that I can store 3 measurements between my two marking gauges. This is important for when you’re repeating the same measurement on multiple furniture parts (like a table or chair). And this dual gauge also works as an excellent mortise gauge.
Here’s a video of the winning gauge:
Wooden Marking Gauges and Mortise Gauges
If you really want an antique wooden marking gauge and mortise gauge (for marking mortises), check out these wooden gauges on ebay. Just make sure they look sturdy. They should be very inexpensive, so it’s no big risk to buy a used one site-unseen. If you find a wooden marking gauge in a flea market make sure the gauge is sturdy when tightened down and that the wooden screws aren’t broken. Also look for wooden marking gauges that have a little flat knife striker rather than a pin point. A “cutting” gauge severs the wood fibers better. Remember, if there are two movable points on the gauges, then you’ve found a mortise gauge. One cutter means you’ve found a simple marking gauge. Buy both types if affordable. A mortise gauge isn’t absolutely necessary because you can always just use a single gauge for one mortise wall and then move the setting to mark the other mortise wall.
Marking Gauge Summary
So in summary, I still prefer the metal wheel marking gauges because of their precision and I recommend that you buy two Veritas wheel marking gauges, with at least one being the dual marking gauge. I also really like the wooden cutting gauges.
Make or Buy a Panel Gauge
A panel gauge is necessary for sizing your board’s width to show where to rip the board. Not many companies make these awesome and useful gauges.
When I was getting started in traditional woodworking I ordered the above antique panel gauge from a hand tool dealer, without seeing it first. But I was very disappointed to discover that the panel gauge head wobbled, even when tightened fully. Oh well, at least it looks cool on my wall now. Lesson learned: if you can’t inspect a vintage panel gauge, then ask the seller to check the rigidity of the head.
Because it’s such an important tool for dimensioning wood by hand I purchased this beautiful maple Lie-Nielsen panel gauge:
At $85 (I found the best price here) the Lie-Nielsen panel gauge is a good value for how much I use it. If you have time and some metal skills, then you should take a stab at making your own panel gauge (here’s a link to a good panel gauge building tutorial). You can sometimes find panel gauges on eBay (like these). But remember to ask about any wobbling!
Make or Buy a Straightedge
Ideally you should build your own straight edge, for testing board flatness & edge flatness. See my tutorial here. Use very stable wood that is quartersawn or riven. (Read Peter Follansbee’s awesome article on the best wood cuts). You can also find a great beginner’s tutorial on making a wooden straight edge (with hand tools) in Jim Tolpin’s book (click here).
I also own this nice 38″ Veritas Aluminum Straightedge. It is precision ground and very accurate. The only problem with using a metal straight edge is that you should never drop it. But I guess that’s the same advice with most other tools. Dropping a wooden straight edge is easily fixed…just re-plane the edge.
Buy a Folding Rule
I recently attended a tool collector’s meeting all about measuring devices, so what I share here is from people that know much more about measuring tools than I do!
First off, traditionally a “rule” is for measuring and a “ruler” is for drawing a straight line. Folding rules are used for somewhat-precision measuring. You can find vintage folding rules for really cheap, but beware; not all folding rules are created equal. Stay away from anything new.
Here’s what to look for: (1) make sure the numbers & lines aren’t worn off, (2) make sure the metal joints are in good shape (try applying oil), (3) not wobbly, (4) rounded tops are more valuable (which may not matter to you).
Most good folding rules are made out of boxwood, and not painted. Chris Schwarz recommends the Stanley No. 62 folding rule, which I love. Here are links to a couple vintage folding rules that I recommend:
Buy Metal Rulers
I recommend that you purchase a 12″-18″ metal ruler and a tiny 6″ metal ruler. I usually rely on measurements taken from gauges rather than numerical measurements, but having a couple metal rulers can be handy when precision isn’t super vital; like double-checking to make sure you’re about to make the correct cut. I also use the 6″ metal ruler for sharpening a back bevel on my hand plane irons (click here). Check out metal rulers here:
Buy a 12′ Tape Measure
Think rough measurements at the lumber yard. Most 12′ (4 meter) tape measure will do. This tool is very useful for rough (and long) measurements, but not for precision. I still use mine that my folks gave me when I was 8 years old, but here are a couple really good quality tape measures that will work well:
Buy a Marking Knife
Don’t buy 3 bad marking knives like I did! For example, don’t be tempted to buy this marking knife like I did at first. After I took the “Bench work week” class at Roy Underhill’s Woodwright School, I fell in love with a simple chip carving knife. That’s what Roy uses. Because of different chip carving knife shapes, make sure you get one that looks exactly like the first in the above photo. This is perfect for marking joints, like dovetails. I found my amazing new knife on eBay (here). This guy makes & sells them. You can search for new and used chip carving knives here:
- View this new chip carving knife that I purchased on ebay for $12 and I love it!
- View marking knives / striking knives on Highland Woodworking
- View other new chip carving knives
- View new and used chip carving knives on ebay
Chris Schwarz recommends purchasing a Blue Spruce Marking Knife…they’re very expensive, but you can check them out here. Some people like spear point marking knives like this, but I do not. Warning: do not purchase marking knives that have the bevel on just one side (like this one). You’ll have to buy another with the bevel on the opposite side in order to mark dovetails & other joints. Lesson learned. :(
Make Winding Sticks
Winding sticks are used to help you test a board for “wind”, or twisting. You set these parallel sticks at opposite ends of a board and sight down it to see if one corner is higher than the other.
DO NOT buy winding sticks. You can, and should, make your own winding sticks. It’s a perfect beginner’s project. And contrary to popular belief, winding sticks don’t need to be fancy. You can use simple straight pieces of quarter sawn scrap wood and add a dark inlay. I made my winding sticks out of some quarter sawn beech wood, and inlaid some walnut. They only took me about 1 hour to make. Chris Schwarz even suggests that beginner’s can buy angled aluminum from the hardware store and paint the ends for visibility. Chris has a good article about winding sticks here.
Buy a Lead Holder (Mechanical Drafting Pencil) or Pencil
I use a pencil all the time to mark the wood or to darken the lines that I marked with my marking knife or cutting gauges. But a lot of woodworkers are frustrated by continual sharpening & breaking of wooden pencils and plastic mechanical pencils.
Nearly 20 years ago, while in my high school architecture class, I was required to purchase a Staedtler Mars 780 “Led Holder” and Staedtler HB lead. At the time I thought it was a bit expensive, but 18 years later and the led holder is still working! It works much better for woodworking because of the sturdy leds and you don’t loose half the pencil while sharpening (like you do with wooden pencils). The special Staedtler Mars Plastic Eraser is also pretty amazing…it’s practically residue-free…doesn’t crumble like most erasers.
This type of pencil is not absolutely necessary, just convenient. You can use a normal pencil and still get good results. Sometimes I’m just eccentric.
2. Semi-Urgent Layout, Marking, & Measuring Tools
Below are my recommendation for types & brands of tools that you will need fairly soon after you get started in traditional woodworking. You may discover that you want to make something early on that requires some of the below tools:
Buy a Protractor
I’m always needing to check angles with traditional woodworking, especially with sharpening. I struggled with getting my chisel & plane iron angles correct until I invested in one of these. Here’s a couple:
Make a Diagonal Testing Stick
You can get away with using a good square to test squareness during glue-ups, but a diaganol testing stick is better. Roy Underhill taught me how to use one during one of my classes, and it works perfectly. You can just make the wooden part by hand, and then purchase these Veritas Bar Gauge Heads for around $15-18 (click here). I also just discovered that Veritas came out with a nice metal version for $69 (click here).
Buy a Dial Caliper or Digital Caliper
Dial calipers are useful for precise measurement of thickness. They are very useful for wood turners. I mostly use mine for measuring saw blade thicknesses and chisel handles (when turning them on a friend’s lathe). Dial calipers are more reliable than digital calipers, and don’t need batteries. But digital calipers are more affordable. So you just need to balance that decision out in your own mind. I don’t use dial calipers very often so I just purchased these digital dial calipers on Amazon.
Buy a Feeler Gauge
A feeler gauge is great for using under a straight edge to see how far a surface is from flat. This is particularly useful when flattening the soles of hand planes. Lay a straight edge on the sole and see where you can push the feeler gauge under. I purchased this feeler gauge on Amazon for around $5 and it is suitable. No need to get fancy here.
3. Non-Urgent Layout, Marking, & Measuring Tools
Buy Trammel Points?
Trammel Points are useful for scribing large arcs & circles (think a round table top). From my photo, you wouldn’t believe that it would make a large circle. But you can simply insert your own piece of wood, at any length. My tramel points were given to me, but you can find some good used ones by talking to antique dealers. But honestly, you’ll find a better deal on ebay (search ebay tramel points here). Highland Woodworking also has a good selection of new precision trammel points (search here).
Buy a Dovetail Marker?
I don’t think it’s necessary to purchase a dovetail marker, but some people really like them for speed. Roy Underhill taught me how to generate my own dovetail angles with a square, compass, and chisel (watch my video tutorial here). That’s the more traditional method. And in “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” Chris Schwarz disagrees that you need special angles for softwood vs. hardwood. But here are some dovetail markers if you are set on buying them:
Hand Tool Buying Guide Shortcuts:
- #1 Buying Guide: Workbench & Tool Storage
- #2 Buying Guide: Layout, Marking, & Measuring Tools
- #3 Buying Guide: Handplanes
- #4 Buying Guide: Handsaws
- #5 Buying Guide: Chisels
- #6 Buying Guide: Sharpening & Honing Supplies
- #7 Buying Guide: Mallets & Hammers
- #8 Buying Guide: Hand Drills, Braces, & Bits
- #9 Buying Guide: Tools for Curved Work
- #10 Buying Guide: Files, Rasps, & Sanding
- #11 Buying Guide: Fastening, Gluing, & Clamping
- #12 Buying Guide: Carving Hand Tools
- #13 Buying Guide: Tools for Green Woodworking