Monday, December 24, 2012

Essential Tools for Newbies: Part VI - Marking and Measuring

What does this photo have to do with marking tools?  Nothing!  But I thought you would enjoy it and perhaps it would generate more traffic to this blog!
Quick summary:  Use whatever you want as long as it is not crap.

Long version:  Avoiding crappy marking and measuring tools is not hard, as long as you keep a few things in mind.

First, many (most if not all) of these tools can be easily made by yourself.  In fact, I plan on making some and posting the builds here early in 2013.

Second, almost any marking or measuring tool you buy at your local home center should be suspect.  Avoid these if at all possible.

If it is not possible, make sure you have a way to check their accuracy in the store before you buy.  You may be lucky, or the particular job you need it for may not require the level of accuracy of anything fancier.  In this case, go for it.

If you purchase/acquire/make your tools with care (just like any of the others), you will have tools which will serve you well for a long time.

Let's talk some specifics:

Marking gauge

You need one to do fine work.  More are always better, but let's wait to blow our money until we have finished our basic tool kit and have a couple projects under our belts.

Everyone I know who has a Tite-Mark rotary cutting gauge tells me that it is the best and if I used it I would have to buy one.  Therefore I have done what any sane person would do, I have avoided trying it out.  Rather than making a recommendation here, I will just let you know what it is that I use.

My marking tools

For the last several years I have gotten by with my Veritas Wheel Marking Gauge.  I am told that the Tite-Mark is vastly superior, but as I have stated, I haven't tried that one.  Mine is graduated in metric, which I can hardly see and never use.  The ungraduated one should serve you just fine for many years.

The micro-adjuster I think would be useful, but when I bought mine I thought I would save a bit and forgo it.  Had I the opportunity to do it over, I would probably get the micro adjuster, it is only another seven dollars.

My one complaint about this tool is if you are not careful to really tighten it down hard, it can slip and change settings at the most inconvenient of times.  The Old Ladies blog discusses the reasons for this and a possible fix.  I tried it by using a regular file to flatten one side of the beam a little (OK, basically I wound up just scuffing one side a bit), and it really helped.  I think using a power grinder or a Dremel tool or something of that nature may grind the hard steel a little better, such as are in the photos, but even what I did seemed to make a difference.

Veritas Marking Gauges

I also have just received a 35th anniversary special edition of this tool.  I have yet to use it enough to give a comprehensive review, but so far I think it is an improvement.  The rod is offset in the head, resulting in there being more real-estate on the gauge to register to your work.  It seems to feel very nice.  My guess is that this tool would benefit from the Old Ladies treatment from the previous paragraph.

I bought this tool on a recommendation from the Billy's Little Bench.  Click the link for his more extensive review.  The best part of this tool is it is less than thirty bucks.

If you want to upgrade to a Tite-Mark someday, that is OK, you can never have too many marking gauges. 

If you are just starting out, I would buy one of these gauges.   If you already have one, I would recommend making your own marking gauges.  I will be soon.


I think you should make one of these.  Don't pay any attention to the fact that I haven't yet.  An accurate square is absolutely essential for fine work.  You can find instructions in a number of places for making one.  A quick google search should get you started here.  A great tip I ran across once was when gluing up your square, us a CD jewel case to reference the 90 degree angle.  These household items tend to be very square.

I find myself using a 6" Starrett combination square more and more.  At first I wasn't all that impressed, but I am finding more uses for this tool every day.  If you have the money, you can be sure that the Starrett will be perfect and last a lifetime.

If you want to save a few bucks by buying vintage or a less expensive brand, check the accuracy first.  You may find that 9 out of 10 brand new tools may not be accurate enough for your work.

Marking Knife

Here I think you need to choose something that works for you and your style.  I think a marking knife at least needs to be flat on one side.  Double bevel marking knives are promoted by some, but I think for beginners it can be difficult to hold the bevel flat up close to the square to make accurate marks.  Try out a few before you blow your money.

My absolute favorite marking knife.

I use the Blue Spruce Small Marking Knife.  I love this tool.  For me, it is perfect.  Not only does it work perfectly for me, it looks awesome and makes me feel like I have at least one tool a gazzillionaire might also use.  My understanding is that Lee Valley's version is also quite good, and for around ten bucks you can't go too wrong.  Except that it has a plastic handle and you'll have a hard time justifying the Blue Spruce if you have one of these and it works.


There is innumerable uses for a pencil in the shop.  Those big rectangular carpenter's pencils are good for marking on rough stock or marking reference edges.  For anything finer you'll either need a mechanical pencil (the finer the better) or a regular wooden pencil that you make into a knife point on a piece of sandpaper (which I prefer).

Mark a line in pencil only if it is a rough cut.  Otherwise, mark your line with a knife or cutting gauge.

If you are too old to see the knife mark clearly, darken it by following this mark with a pencil.

So, that is about it for your basic toolkit.  Next up, we'll build a few things using only these tools.  I envision a kind of Hand-Tool "I Can Do That" series.

I do realize that this might be a bit unrealistic, but the tools covered in this series will give you a good place to start.  Chances are you will use all of these tools on almost every project you work on from now on, and we have also developed healthy tool-collecting habits.

Please leave a comment!

If you haven't read the earlier posts in this series, check them out:
  1. Introduction
  2. Sharpening
  3. Jack Plane 
  4. Hand Saws 
  5. Chisels


  1. I once installed some mouldings in a room, and I had one folding ruler 2 m long in the room and anopther one in my workshop, so I could measure and leave it there and then do the cutting in the workshop. The dirst time the moulding was aproximately 1 cm off. I reasoned that I had made a wrong mark. I tried again, and the same thing happened. Then I compared the two folding rulers, and over the 2 m length there was a difference of almost 12 mm.
    So I agree on that you should buy as accurate a system as you can afford.
    Otherwise just use the same tool for measuring, everything you need. Then all your measurements will be based on the same thing.

  2. I normally always use Hultafors folding rules, but this time I had been given a plastic folding rule by someopne. I normally never uses those, and I can't remember why I decided to test it..
    The plastic folding rule ended its life that day..
    Merry Christmas

  3. Hmmm what to say??? Measure once, cut twice. Wait....

    1. Haha! I cut that board three times, and it is still too short!

    2. Ha ha. At least it was some pretty cheap moulding, and I could use the short pieces other palces in the room. The onlything that was really damaged was my pride (and the plastic ruler).

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