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    You Can't Mark and Measure Without the Proper Tools

    Learn how to dial-in your measuring and marking for better-built furniture projects

    When most folks start to experiment with woodworking, they use whatever simple tools they have at hand; perhpas a circular saw to cut stock, a handlheld drill for dowel joinery, and a jigsaw for cutting curves. All of this is well and good but I feel it is all-too-common for novice woodworkers to forget about one of the single-most important aspects of quality woodworking: marking and measuring.

    Have you ever tried to lay out a mortise-and-tenon joint with a common 16-ft tape measure? Have you marked for a square crosscut on a piece of lumber by measuring in from one end on along the top and bottom edges of the board, then connecting the dots only to find that your line was anything but straight? Then you know exactly what I’m talking about. Marking and measuring tools should be appropriately sized for the scale of the work you intend to produce. But there’s more: you can’t expect to accurately lay out precision joinery with a $12 combination square that isn’t square, a pencil that isn’t close to razor sharp, or a wooden ruler swiped from your child’s pencil case.


    Measuring and Marking: A Basic Toolkit

    Below, you'll find my most often-used tools for measuring and marking. In fact, the tools shown are straight outta my tool bag.

    Woodworking rulers A high-quality 12-in. metal ruler is great for general measuring and marking. A good quality ruler will be tough, accurately marked, and will last forever. I also use a 6-in. ruler. A smaller ruler is great for marking and measuring joinery. Thelittle guys also tend to have a short measurement scale on their ends as well. This is a great feature for setting the bit height on a router table. You can lay the entire long end of the ruler down on your table and use the short end to measure height up from the tabletop (albeit in small increments).
    Starrett combination square This is an invaluable tool to have at-the-ready. Not only can you use it to strike perfectly straight and square lines, you can slide the ruler along the head in order to set the tool up to make precise marks and measurements when laying out joinery. What’s more, you can also use a square like this to set up machinery. A square set on a tablesaw’s top and slid right up to the blade will allow you to dial in a saw blade that is perfectly square to its table.
    Lee Valley 4-in. square This is essentially the pint-sized version of the conventional 12-in. combo square. A smaller 4-in. model is great for laying out joinery because it’s easier to wield and move around in your hands while using a pencil. Remember what I said about “scale” in my opening paragraph? This is a perfect example. Why grab a large 12-in. square to layout a 3/8-in. x 2-in. mortise in a leg blank that is 2-in. square? It’s overkill!
    Engineer's square An engineer’s square isn’t adjustable and it doesn’t take measurements. However, these tools are manufactured to be absolutely dead-on straight and square. For this reason, they’re nice to have around for two basic procedures: squaring up blade-to-table on a tablesaw, and the striking of lines that are at a perfect 90-degrees to the reference surface you’re marking off of.
    Flatback tape measure Ever notice how a conventional tape measure is cupped? They’re manufactured this way for use on construction sites, where it’s quite common to extend the tape over several feet, maintaining rigidity so you can stand in one spot and hook the tape over a target that’s out of reach. This functionality isn’t necessary in a workshop. These handy Flatback tapes omit the cup and have measurements that are actually written out beside each hash mark: 1/16, 1/8, 1/4, etc.
    Mechanical pencils for woodworking Furniture requires precise marks that are thin and sharp. Fat, blobby pencil marks lead to imprecise cuts. For this reason, I tend to use mechanical pencils with fine leads – say around .05. I’ve also been known to put a point on a conventional #2 pencil in a sharpener, and follow up with some sanding of the business end. This leaves you with one very sharp pencil! Great for marking out joinery and other stuff!


    You've Got Your Tools--Now What?

    Now that you’ve armed yourself with some measuring and marking tools of decent quality, let’s discuss a two of the finer points of marking when it comes to life in the workshop.

    Gang Marking
    Accuracy and Speed-All in One

    Gang marking is the marking of multiple work-pieces at once. Lets say you had four table aprons (the pieces that connect all four legs on a table), each of which required a mark exactly 12-in. in from the ends for one reason or another. You could go along measuring and marking for each of the four cuts one-at-a-time, but try as you might, those four marks would never be located in exactly the same location on each apron.

    A better approach would be to stack all four pieces together, make sure their ends are all in perfect alignment, and use a square to strike a line down all four aprons at once. You’re killing four birds with one stone!

    Reference Surfaces
    The idea of using "reference surfaces" is critical when marking for any kind of joinery--be it simple dowel or biscuit joints, or the more advanced mortise-and-tenon. You should be referencing your measuring tools off the same exterior or "show" faces whenever you make a mark. As an example, let's say you want to join a table apron to a leg using a mortise-and-tenon joint. You want your aprons to be set back from the exterior face of the legs by 1/4-in. so that they aren't flush with one another. When using a square and pencil to layout for your joinery, you always want to reference your combination square against the exterior faces from which those aprons will be set back. Your outside, show faces have now become your "reference surfaces" for all the marks you may need to make.

    Reference surface also become critical when using biscuit joints to join tabletop pieces together. You always want to have the base of the biscuit jointer registering off the same reference surface to ensure your pieces line up flush with one another.

    Notice how I've marked the outside face of this table leg with a red crayon? I do this on all my outside surfaces so that I can quickly identify which surfaces to reference my square off of when marking out for joinery (right).




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    Ken Morton writes:

    One important tool missing from the list is the Marking Knife. This will greatly increase the accuracy of laying out compared to a pencil. The marked line can be made more visible by rubbing in colored chalk.

    Tom Reichle writes:

    I always enjoy information on getting and maintaining accurcy in marking and cutting. The purchase of good quality measuring devices is of great importance.

    There are a couple of thing that I have found over the years that can help in the accurcy. One is the use of the same measuring item while making something. I have about 15 different tape measures and I had a certain belief that they all should all measure the same. Well shame on me,  After checking almost all of them, when checked out to about three feet were different .I have found that using the same tape when making a project helps greatly in the accurcy of the item.

    The second thing is that the manufactures of tape measures feel that the tapes we need all need to be 12 feet or more. Yes, there are some pocket tapes of four or five feet, but are very inaccurate. It would be nice if there was a pocked tape of four, five or six feet that we could use conveniently when make wood projects.

    Thanks again for great articles. I also believe in measure twice cut once.

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    Thanks for the tips Ed.

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