Introduction to Buying Marking, Measuring & Layout Tools

By Joshua Farnsworth

In this article I’ll discuss which layout, marking & measuring tools you need for woodworking, and which ones you don’t. Precision is key to getting tight fitting joints, whether you’re using hand tools or power tools.

Woodworker inserting a tenon into a mortise on a table leg mortise and tenon joint

And layout, marking, & measuring tools like these squares, dividers, and marking gauges help you ensure accuracy. For example, it’s difficult to cut a tight fitting mortise & tenon table leg like this without accurate layout lines to guide you.

Moravian Workbench filled with woodworking tools for layout, marking and measuring

Here in my woodworking school, I have dozens of these tools, so I’ve had a lot of experience in seeing which tools I like best. But more importantly I’ve seen which tools my students like best. And I’ve found some really affordable options that actually work great, which is helpful for students who are on a tight budget. But it can be a bit overwhelming to understand all the different tools required for layout, marking, & measuring, so hopefully I can make it a little less confusing for you. At the top of this page is a video I shared that goes along with this article (part 2). Below is part one of the video, in case you missed it:

Buying Squares for Woodworking

Woodworker using a try square and a pencil to mark a board with shavings on a woodworking workbench

Squares have been around for thousands of years, and are an essential tool for determining if your board’s edge is perfectly 90 degrees to it’s face. That’s important because you want your joints to fit together. Squares are also used for making 90 degree marks on your boards. Squares come in many different sizes and styles, so I won’t mention every type here; just the types that I use here in my workshop.

Buying Combination Squares & Double Squares

Pile of metal 6 inch combination squares on a woodworking workbench with dog holes

Combination Squares are a more modern style of metal square, and I find them very useful in my workshop, for many tasks. The bar of the square slides back and forth to give you different lengths for measuring and marking your boards. The bearing surface of the square allows you to scribe both a 90 degree line and a 45 degree line.

Using a combination square to draw a 45 degree line on a board with a pencil

Double squares are like combination squares, but without the 45 degree bearing surface. The below pictured double square is of excellent quality, and you can find it here.

A double square used for woodworking

A combination square also works great as a depth gauge, for example, when you’re chopping a mortise.

Using a combination square as a depth gauge on a table leg mortise joint

It’s also useful for finding the center of boards. Just as a little side tip, to find a board’s center, I adjust the combination square close to what appears to be the center, and then I mark from both sides, and make marks with a pencil or a marking knife.

Using a combination square to find the center of a board

Right in-between those two marks is the center of the board.

Using a combination square to find the center of a board

Combination squares are also convenient because they’re usually purchased new, and are usually accurate if you buy them from a reputable maker. Vintage squares often need some work to get them back into square. I’ll talk about how to test a square for accuracy in just a minute. But I recommend that my students buy both a 6-inch combination square and a 12-inch combination square. I’ve found that those sizes cover most of the tasks that I encounter when building furniture.

A six-inch combination squares and a 12-inch combination square sitting on a figured white oak board

My Favorite Combination Squares (Budget-Friendly)

blue metal combination square checking the squareness of a board for woodworking

I’m always on the lookout for affordable tools that are also accurate, and I’ve found a couple combination squares that meet those criteria. I’ve bought a bunch of these for my school, and I have yet to find one that’s “out of square”. This particular brand runs about $15 for the 6-inch combination square and about $17 for the 12-inch combination square. You can find the 6-inch combination square here on Amazon for about $14 (including shipping) and you can find the 12-inch combination square here on Amazon for about $17 (including shipping) . They don’t adjust as smoothly as the more expensive combination squares that I’ll mention below, but for the price, I can overlook the smooth adjustments. I have bought about 7 of them for my woodworking school, and they were all square.

My Favorite Combination Squares (If You’ve Got Extra Money to Spend)

If you’re not on a very tight budget I’d recommend buying a new Starrett 6-inch combination square (I like the version with the 4R markings). I found the best prices here on Amazon (under $75) and here on Highland Woodworking. And here is the 12-inch Starrett combination square.

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 and outer side of the blade. If the lines line up, then it’s good! If not, then move on or negotiate a lower price.

PEC Tools 12

UPDATE: I have recently gotten two other new 12-inch combination squares from Taylor Toolworks that I really like, this PEC 12-inch 4R Combination Square and also this LaSquare 12-inch 4R Combination Square. They are both quite well-made, beefy, and at about $75 each, they are more affordable than the Starrett 12-inch combination square. You can see Taylor Toolwork’s full line of combination squares here and their double squares here.

Quick Links to All of My Recommended Combination Squares

Here are quick links to the combination squares that I’ve recommended above, so you can quickly compare prices.

Buying or Making Try Squares

joshua farnsworth squaring up a board edge with an antique try square

If you’re looking to go more traditional, then a Try Square may be a great option for you. Metal try squares are quite common on the antique market, but often require a good deal of filing to get them back into square.

Filing a vintage metal try square in a metal vise

Shop-made wooden try squares are much easier to get back in square, but do require a good deal of time to make them. It’s a tradeoff.

Using a wooden try square to square the edge of a board

How to Square up an “Out-of-Square” Square

Using an antique try square on a board

Many of the antique metal try squares that I’ve purchased are out of square when I’ve bought them, but they can be brought back into square with a file. When buying a vintage try square, it’s a good idea to test it for squareness so you make sure it will be accurate. Here’s how I do it:

how to square up a try square

First I line the square up along the edge of a straight board and draw a fine line along the inner side of the blade. I 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 square! I also like to test the outer-side of the blade. If the try square isn’t square, then either move on, or negotiate a lower price. Because it really does take a good deal of filing to get them back into square.

checking the end of a board for square with an antique try square

What about new Try squares?

What about new Try squares? I’ve found that many new Try squares are actually out-of-square, and usually too expensive for what you get. That’s why I recommend to either buy combination squares or look for antique Try squares. If you’re going to spend time squaring a try square up, you might as well get a superior antique Try square. But if you like the look of try squares, and don’t want to take the time to find an antique try square, then go ahead and buy a new try square. Here are some new metal try squares on Highland Woodworking.  But just make sure you can return the square if it’s “out of square”, or be willing to do some filing to get it in-square.

Where to Buy Antique Try Squares?

I have bought my large collection of antique try squares at many different places, including tool-collector swaps, from farmers, flea markets, antique stores (usually way overpriced), and on Ebay. You can view vintage metal try squares here on eBay.

Make Your Own Wooden Try Square

Would you like to learn to build your own accurate wooden try square? It costs next to nothing, is beautiful, and the work will prime you for learning traditional woodworking! In this free video Roy Underhill & Christopher Schwarz talk all about wooden try squares and also show how to make one:

Chris’ 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“:

This book is an excellent introduction to traditional woodworking and can be purchased: here at Highland Woodworking or here at Amazon.

Buying a Framing Square

using a framing square to cross cut lumber

I use framing squares in situations when I don’t need quite as much accuracy, like when I’m crosscutting rough lumber or when I’m doing rough carpentry. It’s not because a framing square can’t be accurate, but because it’s harder for me to register a framing square against a reference surface than with a try square, for example.

Just recently I used my framing squares a lot when I laid out a bunch of stringers for the new front stairs I built for my house (if you’ve attended a class here, and eaten on the front porch, you’ll be glad to see these new stairs!).

stair stretchers laid out with a framing square

You may have also seen me use a framing square in my recent video on building a Viking camp chair. Framing squares are also very useful in timber framing.

joshua farnsworth using a framing square on a timber frame building

Students in our timber framing class have learned just how useful a framing square can be for laying out timerber frame joints.

students of a timber framing class using a large mallet to secure roof

While I don’t use it for really accurate furniture joints, it’s still important to have your framing square be in-square. I’ve had great luck with this accurate new framing square:

laying out lines on a board with a framing square

It’s made by Starrett, and is actually quite affordable at around $30-$35. You can find it here. I’ve also had great luck with my other beautiful framing square, a vintage Stanley Sweetheart No. 3, which you can find here on Ebay.

stanley sweetheart number 3 antique framing square

Due to the outdoor environment where framing squares are mostly used, they can easily get dropped or bumped, and can go out-of-square.