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.

using a framing square

If it’s out of square less than 1/16th of an inch, it can be brought back into square with a simple trick using a metal punch.

repairing a framing square

Here’s a good video tutorial that shows how to bring a framing square back “into square”:

Buying Sliding T-Bevel Squares

Sliding T-bevel squares, or “sliding bevels”, or “bevel squares” 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 square. My antique rosewood & brass sliding bevel sqaures don’t have any brand names on them, but I really love them. They’re gorgeous and they don’t loosen up until you want them to. The blade shouldn’t move after you lock it down. Otherwise the angle will be changed. I like this type of face locking mechanism (pictured above).

Stanley sliding t bevel gauge on a dovetail board

And I also really like this style of the butt-locking mechanism (pictured above). As far as antique bevel squares go, the butt-locking bevel squares are usually in higher demand, and hence more expensive, so if you’re on a tight budget either go for the face locking style, or buy an affordable new but-locking bevel gauge, like this one:

Shinwa Stainless Steel Sliding Bevel Gauge

A student let me try out this Japanese-made butt-locking bevel gauge (pictured above) and I liked it. It held really tightly, and it runs about $25, which is a good value. You can buy it here at Taylor Tools or here at Amazon.

Three sliding T bevel squares with locking levers laying on a woodworking workbench

I own several nice rosewood & brass bevel gauges that have a face lever mechanism (pictured above). While they do hold tight, I don’t like them quite as much because the lever can get in the way, and you have to fidget with the back nut to get the lever to point out of the way. But if you find one like this for under $10, go ahead and buy it.

Which Bevel Squares Shouldn’t You Buy?

Now for a warning of what not to buy. Steer clear of new bevel squares that look like this (see it here), with a knurled brass nut:

bad bevel gauge square

Because of the knurled brass nut (which doesn’t offer leverage) it won’t tighten well at all. I’ve heard some people suggest that you can spend some time modifying this type of bevel square. But if you can get a beautiful antique bevel square for the same price, why spend time messing with a bad one like this?

And what about the really, really expensive sliding bevel squares? I’ve seen some over $150. And while they’re gorgeous, and I’d certainly accept one as a gift, I just couldn’t rationalize spending that much money on something that a $10-$25 tool handles perfectly. But to be fair, I’ve never tried a super expensive bevel square, so maybe I could be convinced.

Sliding bevel gauges are fairly common at tool swaps, antique stores & flea markets, but you can also search for them here:

Buying Dividers (Compasses)

Dividers (or compasses) are used for taking and laying out precise measurements without ever having to look at a number. You can also use them for circumscribing circles or arcs, like when laying out a profile on a custom molding. I also use them a lot for stepping off a bunch of dovetails, as you may have seen in my recent video on laying out dovetails with just a few affordable tools:

In my opinion, I feel like it’s good to have at least one pair of dividers. 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 large 9 to 12-inch dividers and smaller 3 to 4-inch dividers.

Three antique compass dividers on a woodworking Moravian workbench

Custom, hand forged dividers (pictured below) like this are usually the most expensive, whether you buy them new or used. Antique forged dividers are often collectible, which leads to the higher prices.

Antique blacksmith forged dividers compass

And I’ve even seen some new forged (or similar) dividers for a staggering $200! Again, I don’t feel like this is the best place to spend your tool budget. A higher price doesn’t always mean that a tool will work better.

A collection of woodworking dividers or compasses lying on a pine board

In fact, my favorite type of dividers can be purchased new or vintage at a very reasonable price. I prefer this spring style of dividers with a micro adjust wheel.

A spring style pair of woodworking dividers or compass with a collection of other dividers in the background

Why? Because if they get bumped, they bounce right back to the measurement that you set them at. The forged dividers, and screw-style of dividers (like the one pictured below) don’t have this feature. And I find those styles a bit tough to get accurate.

A thumb screw style pair of woodworking dividers or compass with a collection of other dividers in the background

I have purchased a number of antique spring dividers for around $10 to $20. You can find antique spring dividers with this search here on Ebay.

And in searching for affordable dividers for my woodworking school, I discovered a few pair of really great dividers, which are quite similar to my antique version. I used to recommend this pair of 6-inch dividers, which I paid an unbelievably low price of $8 for (I bought 4 or 5 of them), but they are now unavailable as of the writing of this article (see them here):

dividers compass laying out dovetails on a board with a woodworking workbench

My students also liked those dividers. And recently I have gotten a couple other affordable dividers (both under $15) that I like even more than the previous one. This pair of Yankee dividers has become my favorite new pair:

Yankee Spring Dividers

You can find them here. I have the 6-inch dividers. The steel construction is substantial, and the adjusting nut moves very smoothly. Also, another pair of dividers that I love (pictured below), made by the same company has some attractive brass parts. I have the 4-inch size, and like it. But the 6-inch size would work just as well. You can find the brass pair of dividers here.

Yankee Spring Dividers Quick-Adjust Nut Brass

Quick Links to All of My Recommended Dividers

Buying Marking Gauges & Mortise Gauges

MARKING GAUGES

Marking gauges are tools that are used to scribe accurate reference lines when laying out your furniture joints. And these are tools that you definitely want to get right, since they’re so important in helping your joints fit together. There are just so many bad marking gauges on the market. So I’d like to help you understand which marking gauges are the best value.

A single pin wooden antique marking gauge

Marking gauges come in a few different styles. Some, like this one have single, nail-like pins. This type of marking guage does have it’s uses in certain situations, like when you have strong grain, and it’s usually the cheapest to buy and easiest to make. But on most joint layouts, it doesn’t give a very crisp knife line. You want a knife line when you’ll be using a chisel to cut along the line. A pin will give a fuzzy v-shaped line, especially when cutting across the grain.

Cutting a fuzzy line with a pin marking gauge

That’s where cutting gauges come in. They’re also called slicing gauges.

Antique cutting marking gauge sitting on a woodworking workbench

Traditional wooden cutting gauges (like the one shown below) have a cutter that actually slices a crisp and accurate line, especially across the grain.

Woodworker using a wooden cutting gauge marking gauge on a piec of figured quartersawn white oak lumber over a Roubo woodworking workbench with other marking gauges in the background

But if you’ve already got a wooden pin-marking gauge, don’t fret! There’s a method for using a file to modify the pin into a slicing cutter, which I showed in my video on rehabbing marking and mortising gauges. I’ll share a link to that video in the notes below.

Filing the round pins of an antique mortise gauge

Antique marking gauges, like this one (shown below), with a brass fence and exotic wood can work amazingly, and are lovely. But they can also be quite collectible, which takes them out of a lot of people’s price range.

Collectible antique marking mortise gauge sitting on a a Roubo woodworking workbench with other marking gauges in the background

Which Marking Gauge is the Best?

My personal preference for marking gauges is a wheel-style cutting gauge. The cutter is a round, disc shaped blade that gives a very nice, crisp line.

Taytools solid brass wheel woodworking cutting marking gauge laying out dovetails

These were made as far back as the 1800’s, but there are a lot of new wheel cutting gauges on the market. But I need to warn you that I have tried some of the really inexpensive wheel cutting gauges, and many of them are poorly made. And on the higher end, wheel cutting gauges, like this Tite-Mark wheel cutting gauge, can get up around $90 to $100. And that’s before you buy add-ons. They can jump up around $250. I have used the Tite-Mark wheel cutting gauge, and it really is nice. But another manufacture has made a very similar wheel cutting gauge, and it sells for around $30 or $35 (find it here).

Large collection of Taytools brass marking cutting gauges sitting in a Moravian Workbench tool tray

I bought one of them, and loved it so much that I bought a couple more for my school. Now I have these gauges for all of my students. I really prefer this style of wheel cutting gauge because it has an adjustable barrel that moves the cutter up and down, but more importantly because it uses two thumb screws to keep the bar from moving.