Your first purchases should be accurate measuring tools. If you plan to build furniture or cabinets and would rather not spend your time buying and re-cutting expensive materials, acquiring the best quality instruments within your reach is a priority.
Below is a discussion of the layout tools that I reach for most often, along with others that make only occasional appearances. Some of these items find themselves called for during restoration more often than during the making of new projects at the bench. If a tool is available in a selection of colors I usually opt for a brightly hued version, as these are more easily found amidst the shavings or seen from across the shop. I have not yet regretted having too many measuring tools
A Basic List:
Folding Rule or Measuring Tape
Awls (see bottom of page)
Four-inch double square: I lay out joinery and do basic machine set up with this tool. It is relatively well balanced and it fits easily in my apron pocket. I have a 6-inch combo square that I often reach for, its just a bit unwieldy. I also have 12, 16 and 24-inch Combination Squares, and I find that the larger they get, the more unwieldy they become. Not infrequently, I have made use of a Framing Square in restoration work and building jigs, not to mention jobs around the house. I keep a small Machinist’s Square next to my grinder for testing the relative squareness of irons during grinding as you wouldn’t want to use your adjustable square here, it’s sliding working parts could become easily contaminated with gritty waste from the abrasive process.
12′ Measuring Tape: I find larger tapes clumsy and I am seldom working on anything exceeding 12 feet in length. I have an old Lufkin that I prize and recently I found a Milwaukee that is quite comfortable in my hand. I actually keep about five tapes, one in each corner of the shop and one in the middle by the table saw since I easily misplace them. Why don’t I clip them on my belt or put them in my pocket? Good idea… A wooden Folding Rule is practical when measuring antiques or in a clients home; a rapidly retracting metal tape can mar surfaces, embarrassing you, irritating your client and creating work you won’t get paid to fix.
Rulers: 6, 12 and 24-inch are useful and I also have a very flexible and quite handy 18-inch Center-Finding Rule that I suppose I would exchange for all of them if I could only have one rule at the bench. An Architect’s Scale Rule is very handy during the design process, along with attendant drafting tools like squares and compasses. I find a pad of paper laid out with a grid pattern essential. These grids are usually 1/4 inch but I have found some (much more expensive) drafting pads with a 1/8th inch grid. An advantage to the higher end pads is that the sheets are quite thin and diaphanous should you need to do some tracing.
Straightedge: Don’t compromise on quality here; a truly accurate straightedge can help you diagnose problems at the bench, on your machines and hand tools; you may suppose that a good ruler would serve the same ends but they are usually not thick enough to remain straight. Along with the straightedge a set of Feeler Gauges is very useful.
Dial Caliper*: Quite useful reading both inside and outside diameters. Get a metal one; I have found that plastic models cannot withstand regular workshop use.
Compass: Useful for describing curved elements and during installations to scribe adjoining surfaces when trimming-to-fit. These range in quality so inspect the fit and finish. A pair of Dividers are a related tool and useful for laying out proportional relationships or delineating elements on spindle-turning. A pair of Trammel Points are only occasionally required to lay out large diameters or ovals, but damn handy to have when that time comes.
Cutting and Mortising Gauges: Useful for quickly laying out accurate lines parallel to to the edges of stock. The two are essentially identical in composition; a wooden head-stock that slides along the length of a wooden beam and is locked in place by a thumb screw. The beam of the body is sometimes inset with brass to prevent wear during use. The Mortising Gauge has a pair of adjustable sharpened pins for laying out mortises. The Cutting Gauge has single small blade for laying out. If a piece of stock needs only a small rabbet, I have used the Cutting Gauge to quickly layout and slice one along the edge of stock. I have (somehow) acquired about a half dozen Cutting Gauges over the years, so when I am working on a large project (like a Step-Back Cupboard) or a set of drawers I can set each for a specific mark and keep them set throughout the project, instead of re-setting a single gauge numerous times (which may lead to inaccuracy). The Panel Gauge is discussed below.
Sliding Bevel: When you need one, you need it. Somehow, I have acquired several over the years and their locking mechanisms are most inconvenient. I have one that locks from its lower end via a thumbscrew which is better, except that it does not lock as tightly as I’d like. The search continues.
A Good Pencil: Pretty obvious, right? I use a mechanical pencil for joinery and notes and also keep a number of conventional pencils around the shop for quick marking, they’re handier combined with a good gum eraser, in the unlikely event that your write something down in error. And of course a pencil sharpener is useful unless you enjoy carving them to shape. A few years back, I was lucky to have my nephew working with me at my shop for a summer; one of his tasks was to make sure a sharpened pencil was sitting on any horizontal surface in the shop…it was pure luxury. If I need to do any layout with a knife I reach for a Utility Knife with a cranked handle, as it truly lives up to its name. I have used a number of marking or striking knives from fancy to plain over the years and have abandoned all of them in favor of the humble utility knife.
Magnifying glass: finds most of its use in restoration projects, along with it’s close partner the Inspection Mirror. Useful for a number of tasks from identifying wood to inspecting tool edges.
Chalk Line: Sometimes you need to layout a long line to cut to, for example when ripping a large, long, rough plank on the bandsaw or by hand (if you’re feeling hardy).
Levels: You will need to level machinery or benches and may also wish to check the condition of the floor in a client’s home. I have accumulated several lengths over the years, all of them useful in their turn. A two-footer would be a good size to begin your own collection. I have a 6 foot long model that I relied upon quite a lot when I was setting up my latest shop.
Plumb-Bob: Useful in many of the situations where the Chalk Line and Level come into play. This can also be used to test the accuracy of your Level, and to lay out logs for hewing, should the need arise. It could happen.
Calculator: I like math as much as the next guy, but some days I just haven’t had enough coffee.
Moisture Meter: Monitor your stock and check out lumber before you purchase something bound to shrink a bit more than you had planned. I must admit that I do not have one of these and it would have saved me some trouble over the years. Lately, the use of salvaged or re-purposed lumber has become popular. If you choose to use this type of material to build fine furniture you will want to be able to check it’s moisture content as this may vary widely.
And then I remembered…
A few more items that are helpful. A large compass (I think that you may have been able to find these at art supply stores….but that was a while back) and a Panel Gauge. A Panel Gauge is essentially a marking/cutting gauge with a much longer beam that allows you to scribe a line across a wide panel. The head stock is modified as well, it is lengthened and rabbeted to give more bearing along a panel edge allowing you greater surface area from which to reference your mark.
The Awls included here are items that I frequently reach for, most often used to mark locations where you can accurately start a drill tip. They are also handy when installing hinges. You would not need two ( I have three) when you begin your woodworking adventure. I would opt for the longer one if I had to choose since I have found it the most versatile. So yeah, the Awls should have been right up at the top of this page, because there is much drilling in woodworking generally and in restoration particularly.
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