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. But there are some exceptions, as I have found some affordable marking tools for not much money.
Buy a Try Square and 6-inch Combination 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
A good combination square could be one of the most useful (and most often used) tools in your woodworking workshop. If you’re not on a very tight budget I’d 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.
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:
If you’re on a budget, then you’re in luck! I actually tried out a bunch of affordable 6-inch combination squares and I found one brand that had pretty consistent quality, and were all actually accurate.
You can find it here on Amazon. They don’t adjust as smoothly as the Starrett combination square, but at about $12 each, I can overlook the smooth adjustments. I bought about 6 of them for my woodworking school, and they were all square.
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 T-Bevel Square
Sliding T-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 probably only need one sliding bevel. My beautiful antique rosewood & brass 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. I like the face locking mechanism (pictured above) and the butt-locking mechanisms (pictured below).
The butt-locking bevel gauges are usually more expensive, so if you’re on a tight budget go for the face locking style. I own several bevel gauges that have a face lever mechanism (pictured below) but don’t prefer these as much, as the lever can get in the way, and you have to fidget with the back nut to get the lever to point down. But if you find one like this for under $10, go ahead and buy it.
Sliding bevels are fairly common at antique stores & flea markets, but you can also search for them here:
- View Stanley No. 18 Butt-locking bevel gauges on ebay
- View new sliding bevels on Highland Woodworking
- View Vintage sliding bevels squares on ebay
- View New sliding bevel squares
What not to buy
Steer clear of new bevel squares (like this crappy one) that has just a knurled brass nut. It won’t tighten well at all. Some people suggest that you can spend some time modifying it, but if you can get a beautiful antique bevel square for the same price, why spend time messing with a crappy one? One of my woodworking students said he really likes this butt-locking Sliding T-bevel on Amazon for $27, but I haven’t tried it. And for goodness sake, why would you need a $150 sliding bevel? I don’t care how nicely it’s manufactured. It isn’t going to make $170 worth of difference in your workshop…ever.
Buy 1-2 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 one pair of dividers, but for laying out dovetails and other tasks, I like to have 2 to 3 handy, to hold different measurements. I use them all the time.
If you only want to start out buying one pair of dividers, start out with a six inch size. If you can afford it, then also look for a large 9″-12″ compass and a smaller 3″-4″ compass. Custom hand forged dividers are the most expensive, and the antique blacksmith forged dividers are the most collectible. I’ve even seen some new dividers for a staggering $200! Let’s not go there. I prefer the spring style of dividers with a micro adjust wheel (like those in the forefront of the above picture). You can find antique versions for around $10-$20 and new Starrett dividers of that style for about $70 (see the links below).
In searching for affordable dividers for my woodworking school, I found a really great one for only $7.99 on Amazon (find it here):
I don’t normally find a lot of the “affordable” tools to perform well, but a ton of my students have used these, and they work great (just like the above combination square in a similar price range). Here are some links to other 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 you’ll want to look carefully before you buy, because they can have some problems. However, you can watch my video on rehabbing antique gauges (and see the article here):
Cutting gauges are my preference because they can cut across the grain better. As my above video shows, you can actually modify a pin style marking gauge to act like a cutting gauge. But if you don’t prefer rehabbing your marking gauges, then I’d recommend buying a wheel style cutting gauge.
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. But if $90 (plus shipping) is beyond your budget, there are other options.
Affordable “junk” Marking Gauges
I have tried several of the really affordable marking gauges, and most of them are junk, especially the one from Woodcraft. I sadly discovered that the blade wasn’t removable for sharpening, and the wheel didn’t work.
Affordable yet quality Marking Gauges
I used to recommend the Veritas Wheel Marking Gauges (pictured above). I really loved them…for a while. But then I couldn’t keep the steel rod on the normal cutting gauge from slipping, even when the nut was tightened down all the way. It works pretty well, but not great. You can check out the Veritas cutting gauge here: click here.
Last year I found a newer manufacture (Taytools) that made basically the same marking gauge as the Titemark, and it’s only $30 (here). My guess is Titemark either doesn’t have a patent or they couldn’t prevent the new manufacture from selling a very similar gauge for $60-$70 cheaper. I have a few of these for my school, and they work great:
Which Mortise Gauge is the Best?
Now that we’ve discussed marking gauges, let’s move onto mortise gauges. If you’re on a tight budget, you can just use a normal marking gauge or cutting gauge to layout mortises. It’ll just take a little more time to adjust the marking gauge to layout both lines. A dedicated mortise gauges saves time, and makes it a little easier to prevent making a mistake.
I have used the Veritas Dual Marking Gauge for a few years (see below) and can share a pretty informed opinion.
It can hold two measurements simultaneously, or it can hold the size of your mortise chisel. This is important for when you’re repeating the same measurement on multiple furniture parts (like a table or chair). This is an appealing gauge for someone just wanting to purchase one gauge, rather than a separate marking gauge and mortising gauge.
You can purchase it at Highland Woodworking (here) or directly from Veritas for around $55. You can usually find them used on ebay also. However, this gauge can slip too, due to the insufficient nut, though it doesn’t seem to slip as much as the normal Veritas cutting gauge. What I really don’t like about this “mortise” cutting gauge is that it’s hard to adjust the fence and maintain the size of the mortise setting. Yes, Veritas sells a “shaft clamp” to lock the two rods together, but it’s an extra $10. That doesn’t sit well with me. In my opinion, the feature should be included, and shouldn’t cost an extra $10 (plus shipping) for a part that likely cost them $0.50 to manufacture. If you want to drop about $65 plus shipping from Canada (for the gauge plus the shaft clamp) then it’s not a bad gauge, especially when considering that a similar setup from Tite-mark would run you well over $200. Ouch!
If you’re not a fan of tool rehab, then I’d recommend the Veritas dual marking gauge. But if you don’t mind spending an hour of rehab time, then I’d recommend going the route of an antique wooden mortise gauge to supplement the metal Taytools cutting gauge that I recommended above. I really like the wooden mortise gauges that have a brass nut that micro-adjusts the pins and has brass on the fence (like the “mustache” style above). The Stanley 77 mortise gauge is one that I really like (you can find them on ebay here). You shouldn’t pay more than $25 for one in good condition.
Here is a demo of the Veritas dual marking gauge if you wanted to learn more:
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 the one you buy looks sturdy. 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. As mentioned above 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. They should be inexpensive, so it’s no big risk to buy a used one site-unseen. If you find a wooden marking gauge or mortise gauge in a flea market make sure the gauge is sturdy when tightened down and that the wooden screws aren’t broken. If the marking gauge or mortise gauge doesn’t have cutters, but pins, that’s okay. You can follow my video tutorial above to convert them from pins to cutters. A “cutting” gauge severs the wood fibers better in most situations.
Marking Gauge Summary
So in summary, for budget-minded woodworkers I recommend buying the Taytools brass marking gauge for $30 with free shipping and an antique wooden mortise gauge (if you like to rehab tools). If you’re not on a tight budget then you can buy the Veritas Dual Marking gauge (with the extra shaft clamp) for about $65 plus shipping. If money is no object, then go for the Tite-mark gauge with the mortise wheel attachment.
Buy a Marking Knife / Striking Knife
Some people get really picky about purchasing a marking knife, and insist that you purchase a $200-$300 marking knife. Hmmm…while they’re pretty, I can think of a lot of better ways to spend that much money, half of which involve food. But if you’ve got plenty of extra money and you’re already well fed (and you can’t think of anything else to spend your money on), then go for it!
My friend David Ray Pine (see his workshop tour here) has been making reproduction 18th century furniture for 40 years, and he’s marked countless dovetails and other joints using his old pocket knife. Similarly I use chip carving knives (see above photos) and inexpensive Veritas spear shaped marking knives in my school (see below). Some marking knives have a double sided bevel (like a pocket knife and chip carving knife) and some have one flat face and one side with spear shaped bevels. Either style will work fine, but you just have to hold them differently when marking dovetails. When marking the tails onto the pin board, the pocket knife style requires you to tilt the knife outward a bit more to make sure you’re getting up close to the tails. But with the style that has a flat face, you would run the flat face right against the tail.
Even though I use both styles, I prefer the Veritas “Striking Knife” (see above & buy it here). Each knife runs about $17.50 plus shipping.
- 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
I have tried a lot of other marking knives, and can tell you with confidence to stay away from any inexpensive spear shaped marking knives (aside from Veritas) such as those on Ebay and Amazon. They look like the more expensive knives, but the steel is not tempered, and won’t hold an edge, even after extensive sharpening. Buyer beware!