Often when galoots get into discussions about tools, the focus is either on planes or saws…sometimes even chisels get some love. What seems to never get as much attention as they deserve are the layout tools. This point mystifies me, because one of the most important skills in handwork is being able to split a line, be it with a plane or a saw. Good layout tools, make sure that your line (and the cut it guides) ends up in the right place.
Shown here is a 12” combination square, a marking guage, a set of dividers, a resharpened steak knife that I use for layout (my marking knife from Blue Spruce will be on it’s way shortly) and a pen…I forgot the pencil and the sharpener…see layout tools just never get the love they deserve.
We have all heard the old axiom “buy the best you can afford” or “the only time you will be disappointed with an expensive tool is when you pay for it”. While these are both very good pieces of advice, very few of us have the cash to run out and buy a whole suite of Lie Nielsens. In the course of going through the tool set I will tell you where I think you can get away with vintage tools and where you probably should spend the money; layout tools are one of those places when it’s a good time to crack the wallet open.
My combination square is a Starrett and it comes from the factory absolutely perfect. It may be a bit of shock but the combo squares you get at the hardware store are not flat, and they are not square, why we even allow them to be sold as “squares” mystifies me. Yes you can tune up a combination square, but it’s a pain and you really should not support people who make crap tools, or they will just keep making them.
The Glen Drake Titemark is the finest marking gauge on the market today. You can get away with much cheaper gauges, but I reccomend you stay in the wheeled category, they leave really clean marks and are very easy to use. The micro adjust feature on any of these tools with worth the extra money if it’s an option. The reason I like the Tite-mark, is it has one handed operation (a big plus when laying out a mark on an edge) and has some very well though out accessories. At the least, get the gauge. If you happen to have some extra cash, mortising heads and the reverse bevel marker are both very nice to have. In use make a habit of sticking it in a dog hole or tool well so it does not roll off of the bench (the single flaw of these gauges).
Get a decent pen and pencil and go to an art supply store for a good solid aluminum sharpener to keep in your shop. Pencils need to be sharp to leave crisp lines and harder graphite is a good choice for erase-ability (carpenters pencils are WAY too soft), for rough stock cuts a pen holds up well, for finer layout the pencil, and of course…
The layout knife. The layout knife I have shown is not really ideal for this project but habits die hard. A dull edge leaves a good mark on end grain for dovetails, but a sharp edge works better for crossgrain work. I use a steak knife that I reworked the edge on to mark well in end grain, but if I am not careful it’s really easy to miss a line. A better choice would be a chip carving knife or a double bevel knife like I have linked above. If you are short on cash grab a jack knife and take some time to practice making good marks with it (or just use the scribe in that Starrett combo square you bought). I recommend knives with a single flat side and a single beveled side, there is less of a learning curve. Find something that is comfortable to hold like a pencil and your fingers will thank you.
Dividers. These tools are so under-utilized. I have several sets which is nice for retaining several setting on complex projects. One will be a good start, get spring and screw dividers with sharp points. Starrett makes good ones I have heard; but I have been fortunate enough to get some no-name vintage ones that are perfect, and its good to mix and match a bit with these tools so you don’t confuse one for another on a project. 6” should be good for this and other projects.
Once you start making good lines. You need to start cutting them…so in the next entry we will visit saws.
-- Make furniture that lasts as long as the tree - Ryan