Make or Buy a Panel Gauge

A panel gauge is necessary for sizing your board’s width to show where to rip the board. Not many companies make these awesome and useful gauges.

When I was getting started in traditional woodworking I ordered the above antique panel gauge from a hand tool dealer, without seeing it first. But I was very disappointed to discover that the panel gauge head wobbled, even when tightened fully. Oh well, at least it looks cool on my wall now. Lesson learned: if you can’t inspect a vintage panel gauge, then ask the seller to check the rigidity of the head.

Because it’s such an important tool for dimensioning wood by hand I purchased this beautiful maple Lie-Nielsen panel gauge:

At $85 (I found the best price here) the Lie-Nielsen panel gauge is a good value for how much I use it. 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). You can sometimes find panel gauges on eBay (like these). But remember to ask about any wobbling!

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 also own this nice 38″ Veritas Aluminum Straightedge. It is precision ground and very accurate. The only problem with using a metal straight edge is that you should never drop it. But I guess that’s the same advice with most other tools. Dropping a wooden straight edge is easily fixed…just re-plane the edge.

Buy a Folding Rule

I recently attended a tool collector’s meeting all about measuring devices, so what I share here is from people that know much more about measuring tools than I do! 

First off, traditionally a “rule” is for measuring and a “ruler” is 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. Stay away from anything new.

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) rounded tops are more valuable (which may not matter to you).

Most good folding rules are made out of boxwood, and not painted. Chris Schwarz recommends the Stanley No. 62 folding rule, which I love. Here are links to a couple vintage folding rules that I recommend:

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 Marking Knife

Don’t buy 3 bad marking knives like I did! For example, don’t be tempted to buy this marking knife like I did at first. After I took the “Bench work week” class at Roy Underhill’s Woodwright School, I fell in love with a simple chip carving knife.  That’s what Roy uses. Because of different chip carving knife shapes, make sure you get one that looks exactly like the first in the above photo. This is perfect for marking joints, like dovetails. I found my amazing new knife on eBay (here). This guy makes & sells them. You can search for new and used chip carving knives here:

Chris Schwarz recommends purchasing a Blue Spruce Marking Knife…they’re very expensive, but you can check them out here. Some people like spear point marking knives like this, but I do not. Warning: do not purchase marking knives that have the bevel on just one side (like this one). You’ll have to buy another with the bevel on the opposite side in order to mark dovetails & other joints.

 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 beech wood, and inlaid some walnut. They only took 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.

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. But a lot of woodworkers are frustrated by continual sharpening & breaking of wooden pencils and plastic mechanical pencils.

Nearly 20 years ago, while in my high school architecture class, I was required to purchase a Staedtler Mars 780 “Led 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! It works much better for woodworking because of the sturdy leds and you don’t loose half the pencil while sharpening (like you do with wooden pencils). 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. You can use a normal pencil and still get good results. Sometimes I’m just eccentric.

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:

Buy a Protractor

I’m always needing to check angles with traditional woodworking, especially with sharpening. I struggled with getting my chisel & plane iron angles correct until I invested in one of these. Here’s a couple:

Make a Diagonal Testing Stick

You can get away with using a good square to test squareness during glue-ups, but a diaganol testing stick is better. Roy Underhill taught me how to use one during one of my classes, 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).

Buy a Dial Caliper or Digital Caliper

Dial calipers are useful for precise measurement of thickness. They are very useful for wood turners. I mostly use mine for measuring saw blade thicknesses and chisel handles (when turning them on a friend’s 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.

But you can find higher quality dial calipers and digital calipers here on Highland Woodworking (click here) or used dial calipers on eBay (click here).

Buy a Feeler Gauge

A feeler gauge is great 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.

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 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. Roy Underhill taught me how to generate my own dovetail angles with a square, compass, and chisel (watch my video tutorial here). That’s the more traditional method. And in “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” Chris Schwarz disagrees that you need special angles for softwood vs. hardwood. But here are some dovetail markers if you are set on buying them:

Continue to the Handplanes Buying Guide (#3)…

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