INTRODUCTION TO BUYING MARKING, MEASURING, & LAYOUT TOOLS
By Joshua Farnsworth
Precision is the major key to success in woodworking with hand tools. But, just like with all the other hand 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, and are divided by urgent, semi-urgent, and non-urgent to buy:
A. 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 money than poor quality new tools.
Buy a 6-inch Combination Square and Try Square
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, because this tool helps you determine of a board’s edge is perfectly 90 degrees to it’s face. To start off, I recommend that you purchase a smaller 6-inch metal combination square and either buy a larger metal Try square or build a wooden Try square. I’ll discuss these tools below:
6-inch 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 Square
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.
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.