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 have made about 12 wooden straight edges, mostly for my students to use. But I also own this nice 38″ Veritas Aluminum Straightedge.
It is precision ground and very accurate, and it doesn’t go out of true unless you drop it (don’t do that). Dropping a wooden straight edge is easily fixed if it goes out of true or is dropped…just re-plane the edge. But I’ll be honest, I usually reach for my metal straight edge because I can be certain that it’s perfectly straight, whereas I usually have to check the wooden straight edges before I use them to make sure they haven’t gone out of true.
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 wood, and inlay contrasting wood. They only take 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. But if you don’t want ugly angle iron in your workshop, here is a video (also see my blog post here) on making winding sticks:
Buy a Folding Rule
First off, traditionally a “rule” is for measuring and a “ruler” is typically 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. You can either buy a nice flat folding rule (pictured above) or a “zig zag” folding rule (pictured below). The zig zag folding rules are usually much cheaper, and have longer measurements, but they don’t fit in your shirt pocket as easily (not a big deal).
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) on the flat folding rules, rounded tops are more valuable (which may not matter to you).
Most good folding rules are made out of boxwood, and not painted. A lot of people love the Stanley No. 62 folding rule, which I also love (pictured above). If you’re on a tight budget, and you already have a tape measure, then that can get you by for awhile. I typically prefer tape measures for rough measurement of lumber length, but prefer the non-retracting folding rules for more accurate measurements. Here are links to a couple vintage folding rules that should work great for you:
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-foot 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 Lead Holder (Mechanical Drafting Pencil) or Pencils
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. A normal pencil or mechanical pencil will work just fine.
Another option to consider is a lead holder. Nearly 20 years ago, while in my high school architecture class, I was required to purchase a Staedtler Mars 780 “Lead 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! I really like it for woodworking because the lead is sturdy and doesn’t easily break. And the sharpener is built into the butt of the lead holder. 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. But sometimes I prefer a very fine led mechanical pencil (like these super cheap 0.7 mm Bic mechanical pencils), especially for marking dovetails. A 24 pack runs about $3.50 (about $0.14 per pencil). The lead breaks off very easily, but it’s worth it to get a super fine line.
B. Semi-Urgent Layout, Marking, & Measuring Tools (Buy these next)
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:
Make or Buy a Panel Gauge
A panel gauge is necessary for sizing your board’s width to show where to rip the board, if your marking gauge isn’t long enough. Not many companies make these awesome and useful gauges.
I’ve purchased quite a few panel gauges, and most are a bit wobbly. However, I’ve found that to not be a huge problem, if you hold the gauge fence steady while using it. You can sharpen & rehab these panel gauges the same way as I showed in the above video.
Finding antique panel gauges out “in the wild” may be a bit difficult, but sometimes you stumble on a bunch at one time. I went for a long time without seeing any, and then I bought 5 or 6 at a tool swap in one day. I paid around $15-$25 per panel gauge. You can sometimes find panel gauges on eBay (like these), but if you don’t want to mess with rehabbing antique panel gauges, you can just purchase one like this maple Lie-Nielsen panel gauge:
At $85 (I found the best price here) the Lie-Nielsen panel gauge isn’t cheap, but it’s in working shape, and it has a slot to use a cutter or a pencil (I prefer the pencil end in most situations). 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).
If you’re on a tight budget, then you can certainly also achieve similar results by measuring the distance of your rip cut at each end of the board, and then strike a line between those two marks with a straight edge (for a shorter board) or a chalk line (for a longer board).
Buy a Protractor
I’m always needing to check angles with traditional woodworking, especially with sharpening. A protractor is very useful for getting accurate angles for chisels, plane irons, and other edge tools. Here are a couple good protractors:
Make a Pinch Rod / Diagonal Testing Stick
You can get away with using a good square and folding rule to test squareness during glue-ups, but a diagonal testing stick (or “pinch rod”) is more accurate. Years ago Roy Underhill taught me how to use one, 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). Roy Underhill has a free video where he shows how to make these:
C. Non-Urgent Layout, Marking, & Measuring Tools (Nice & Helpful to Own)
This list of non-urgent Layout, Marking, & Measuring Tools reflects my experience getting started out. You may find that you need some of these tools earlier on, depending on the projects you decide to build.
Buy a Dial Caliper or Digital Caliper
Dial calipers are useful for precise measurement of thickness. They are very useful for saw makers and wood turners. I mostly use mine for measuring saw blade thicknesses and chisel handles (when turning them on a 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 helpful 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.
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. I generate my own dovetail angles with a square, compass, and chisel. That’s the more traditional method. Some people argue that the angle of the dovetail is really critical, and that hardwoods need to be somewhere around a 1:8 ratio and softwoods need to be around a 1:6 ratio. I think that’s silly. I’ve seen many intact antique dovetails that fall outside of these modern requirements. Yes, a super narrow dovetail angle can split easier and a super wide angle looks ugly, but don’t get too caught up with a precise angle. Just find dovetails that look good to you and use that angle.
But here are some dovetail markers if you are set on using them: