Recently there have been articles discussing tape measure maintenance, selection and how to use them in the shop. My opinion is to use them at the cutoff table for large crosscuts with a radial arm or chop saw, and leave them there. There should not be a dedicated place in your woodworking tool cabinet for a tape measure. The closest I would come would be a fabric tape to measure curved work. I worked in construction for a while and used a tape for everything, I just don’t see their place among the measurement devices for fine woodworking.
These are the tools I use to measure for my work.
#1 The folding rule. #2 Steel ruler (starting at zero) #3 Calipers with inch and decimal placements #4 Set up bars #5 Marking gauges #6 6” combo square
So the first one, the folding rule is the first thing I grab when I enter the shop.
It goes right in my back pocket and stays there until I am done with the day. My preference is the rules with the measurements on the inside of the fold as they can be placed flat against the work to measure with the remainder of the fold massing upward. I just get mad at the rules that are reversed and have the mass under the measurements like the one pictured at top. I would like to find one that is laid out like that and has the slide out depth measurement, but I have yet to find one. I also have a few that fold outward and then flip back over, I used one to make a sector like shown in “By Hand and Eye”. They are cumbersome and don’t flow as easy for me so I don’t use them too often.
The steel rule is probably my second most used measurement device.
I bought about 6 of them when I finally found the ones I wanted. I use the general steel rule #1201 The rules are great and very accurate.
Another pet peeve I have is rulers that don’t start at zero, but instead have about 1/8” before the measurement lines begin, can somebody please explain this one to me?
The biggest thing you will need accurate measurements for in woodworking is for mortises and tenons. I have a few tricks that will help get your layout lines dead on accurate.
Using calipers, set up bars and marking gauges in conjunction can add a level of accuracy to your work you will love. You can make the most beautiful and cleanly executed mortise in the world, but if your layout lines are off it makes no difference.
Trick # 1 : How to setup your marking gauge.
Knowing how to get the first measurement on a marking gauge is key to having every measurement after be correct. For marking a line a set distance in from a shoulder I use set up bars and place it on the table then lay my gauge on the bar and drop the plunger down until it hits the table. If you are doing dovetails and need to know the stock thickness this trick works well, just lay the stock on the table and put the gauge on the stock and drop the plunger to the table.
Another way you can achieve this is to open your calipers to the measurement you need, flip the calipers over and use the back plate to set your gauge.
Trick #2 : Adding in your mortise width.
Now you have the first measurement for your mortise, next you need to define your outside line. My trick for is to use your first marking gauge and a setup bar the thickness of your needed mortise. Place the setup bar atop the first marker and the second gauge atop the setup bar. Drop the plunger down to the face of the first gauge and Bobs your uncle both gauges are set.
If you don’t want to use my wild balancing act another way to do it for the ambidextrously challenged is to place two setup blocks atop each other. One for the distance you want the mortise from the shoulder and one for the width of the mortise and plunge down from the top of both.
It helps to have two different looking gauges so you don’t pick up the wrong one.
When you get your setup bars check them with calipers to make sure they are accurate, I have had a few duds that I had to get rid of.
Setup bars are very useful as you can see and can be used alone to setup your table saw blades and router table bits.
I use a six inch combo square quite a bit as well for the same processes. Try to get a quality one. I have thrown a few away because they were out of square and they usually had a plastic knob to tighten down the rule so look for brass knobs and you will probably get a good one.
If you are going to drop the measurements and go “Old School” using ratios and modes to create your piece the calipers and marking gauges can be used with dividers to help get that pin point accuracy you are looking for.
I hope by seeing the way I measure it adds to your toolbox of ideas and helps you measure more accurately so you can concentrate on building your masterpiece.
-- Brian Noel