Beginner measuring tools

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Forum topic by BusterBrown posted 07-30-2013 05:01 AM 1231 views 0 times favorited 12 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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24 posts in 1239 days

07-30-2013 05:01 AM

Topic tags/keywords: question

I’ve been doing some rudimentary woodworking for the past few months and am at the point where I’m noticing the limitations of my haphazardly assembled tool collection and pondering more serious upgrades/additions. It occurred to me that even the best tools need to be properly aligned which in turn requires quality measuring tools. My collection of those includes a speed square, a 4’ level, a 6” level, several tape measures, a 2’ ruler, a 3” drafting square and a chalk line that can double as a plum bob. I’m thinking I should add a straightedge, a combination square and probably something(s) else I’m not aware of yet. My questions for the forum are:

- What are your recommendations on ‘essential’ measuring tools for a hobbyist shop?

- Are there specific brands or sources I should consider?

- Do these need to be bought new to ensure accuracy or can I consider secondhand goods? If so, how do I make sure levels are level, squares are square, etc.?

Oh, and I apologize if this has been asked and answered before. Please kindly point me to the relevant thread(s). I did try several searchers before posting. Thanks!

12 replies so far

View TCCcabinetmaker's profile


930 posts in 1779 days

#1 posted 07-30-2013 05:29 AM

different brands of tape measures have different scales, the difference isn’t really all that noticeable unless you are inextreme precision circumstances, but they exist, so try to stay to one brand for measuring unless you are working with someone else who uses a different brand…. I use alot of stanley tapes now days, but mostly because that is what people around me use.

I like a ruler for my drafting purposes. I use compasses (also called dividers in the carpentry world), protractors, framing squares, speed squares machinist squares, string lines and plumb bobs (you won’t want chalk getting on things)
For speed squares you want metal NOT plastic, but a yard stick is a useful tool to use as a straight edge and will also double as another measuring device.
Folding rules are also good, especially the slide for measuring depths of rabbets and dados.
Calipers are good for checking gauges…..

But I am a professional, so I need to be accurate most of the time and have the tools for the job, as a hobbyist just get what you need as you need it

-- The mark of a good carpenter is not how few mistakes he makes, but rather how well he fixes them.

View bobasaurus's profile


2587 posts in 2608 days

#2 posted 07-30-2013 06:05 AM

I’d say a small square should be first on your list. You can buy used if you get a good brand, but do not go too cheap here… it needs to be as accurate as possible or errors will accumulate in your work. Check squareness by holding it against a very straight side of a bench/table and drawing a line, then flipping the square and drawing another line. If the lines diverge, it’s not square. You can use it for laying out crosscuts, center finding, wrapping lines around boards, tool setup, checking squareness of edges before glue-up, etc. I have a starrett 4” double square that’s probably the most-used tool in my shop. Incra makes some good squares, too (I like their t-squares especially).

A good straightedge is another handy device, though a known flat surface works equally well when checking for warps/etc.

-- Allen, Colorado

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Rick M.

7732 posts in 1804 days

#3 posted 07-30-2013 06:54 AM

A machinist square and combination square are both very handy. I have a variety of straightedge rulers, just pick one you like and don’t switch back and forth on the same project.


View NoLongerHere's profile


893 posts in 2100 days

#4 posted 07-30-2013 11:59 AM

the top of the line aluminum framing square.

a miter square. Check out the Crown made of rosewood.

a scratch awl.

a 2 ft. and 4 ft. straight edge clamp – for cutting perfectly straight plywood cuts

a 6” combo square. I strongly recommend coughing up the bucks and buy a Starrett. You won’t be sorry.

an aluminum three sided architect’s scale ruler. treat it like fine glass. one ding and it’s ruined.

a 12” aluminum speed square for straight edge guiding cuts on big 2×8 – 12” lumber.

a homemade straight edge guide 3/4” maple plywood, 6” wide by 8 ft. long for ripping 8 ft. plywood

a 12” compass for drawing large circles. Check out the black Groz. no rust.

laser level for plumb and level lines I have two, one shoots a level line 360 degrees. The other shoots a plumb line and two level horizontal lines at 180 degrees. very handy for tile work, hanging cabinets or framing a basement.

so…. when are we going on this spending spree?

View Buckethead's profile


3140 posts in 1293 days

#5 posted 07-30-2013 12:33 PM

I’ll agree that a combination square purchase should be considered an investment. (Don’t waste money on cheaper ones)

I currently own two inexpensive models which serve excellently as ballast in the bottom of the toolbox. My only complaint about them is that they are utterly useless as squares. (Other than that, they are okay. One never knows when one might need to have something to throw at a band of marauders.)

-- Support woodworking hand models. Buy me a sawstop.

View bondogaposis's profile


3972 posts in 1775 days

#6 posted 07-30-2013 12:55 PM

A 12” steel rule and 4” Starrett double square. These are absolute essentials in my shop.

-- Bondo Gaposis

View PurpLev's profile


8523 posts in 3072 days

#7 posted 07-30-2013 01:16 PM

One of the tools that sees constant use in my shop more than any other tool is my double square and combination square (6” , and 12” less often). While I agree that a good combination square is a good investment long term, I also found that they other than comfort and smoothness of machining, they are not any more accurate than lower cost alternatives (not all alternatives – you still have to find a good one).

I have these (one of the reviews compares the high cost Starrett to a low cost Empire square which I found to be just as accurate albeit not as smooth action):

Other than that, I use a straight edge once in a while when setting up machines. and that’s about it – yes, I have calipers, but rarely use them – and not really when setting up machines. I just use the combination squares and straight edge for that.

-- ㊍ When in doubt - There is no doubt - Go the safer route.

View oldnovice's profile


5656 posts in 2792 days

#8 posted 07-30-2013 04:33 PM

One little hint; when working on a project use the same measurement tool throughout as minute differences from tape to ruler to combo square may add up.

I also like a hook rule ruler!

Also, some of the long aluminum rulers have divisions that are 1/16” wide and are almost useless in woodworking. A good story stick can replace long aluminum rulers and provide you with more accuracy.

-- "I never met a board I didn't like!"

View BusterBrown's profile


24 posts in 1239 days

#9 posted 07-30-2013 10:16 PM

Thanks! This is great information. Those Starretts really do seem like investments – eBay prices are hardly distinguishable from Amazon. I’m going to pick up one of the 6” Empire combination squares. My workspace is in transition and things are hitting the ground at an alarming frequency. I won’t feel too bad if I damage a $10 tool.

For straight edges, I’m looking at Garrett Wade but am open to suggestions – especially those with no or free shipping. I don’t mean to sound like a complete cheapskate but there’s always something else to buy.

Finally, a total newbie question: what does a double square do that a combination square cannot? It seems like many woodworkers have both or several in their shop and I figure there must be a reason for it.

View PurpLev's profile


8523 posts in 3072 days

#10 posted 07-31-2013 01:56 AM

if you go for the Empire combination square – get the “Pro” line – they are made to higher tolerances, and have a better finish on them for not a whole lot more $.

For the straight edge – it’s a good idea to get a good reliable one as cheaper ones aren’t as flat as you might think, or are easily bent. garrett wade are good (last I checked, they were on backorder), LV aluminum ones are good as well.

as for your question – it’s in reverse… should bed ‘what does a combination square do that a double square cannot?” (answer = measure 45 degree angles / miters). a double square is a more ‘simple’ tool, so usually cheaper than a combination square. also it has a smaller form since it’s head is narrower so its more portable, fits into pockets better/etc. I use the double square 80% of the time and the combination square the other 20% just cause it’s easier to carry the double in most cases – and I don’t have to check for miters all that often (but when I do it’s priceless)

-- ㊍ When in doubt - There is no doubt - Go the safer route.

View 8iowa's profile


1540 posts in 3185 days

#11 posted 07-31-2013 02:26 AM

I have both the 6” and 18” Empire Pro line combination squares and use them a lot for general woodworking tasks. However, for machine set-up and alignment, I have a 12” Starrett combination square and the Starrett 24” rule that can be used in the combination square or as a precision straightedge.

The Wixey digital angle gauge is very useful for alignment purposes, as is a dial indicator. These two measuring tools can get you down to just a few thousanths of an inch, or precise to one or two tenths of a degree.

-- "Heaven is North of the Bridge"

View Rick M.'s profile

Rick M.

7732 posts in 1804 days

#12 posted 07-31-2013 03:25 AM

A drywall t-square is handy at times especially if you get one that is close to square, only good for rough measurements though.


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