Woodworking for Beginners Part 18

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This is a section from A Beginners Guide to Woodworking: Helping New Woodworkers Make Better Projects, which is available on Amazon. Over the next couple months, you will be able to read the entire book, and I hope that you like it enough to get tour own copy. Enjoy.

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Measuring and Marking Tools

woodworking-for-beginners-part-18There are certain tools that are made for laying out your projects, and taking measurements. In most woodworking stores, these are referred to as measuring and marking tools.

While you do not need a huge array of these, there are special tools available that allow you to make accurate marks, and measure your pieces well in order to create parts that fit.

Over time, you will find the measuring and marking tools that you prefer to use, and you will naturally reach for them when needed.

Some people really gravitate towards a nice square, while others like a marking gauge. I really like using my dial caliper for my measuring, and always seem to find a use for it.

No matter how you measure, and how you accomplish your layouts, just be sure that you are using tools that you are comfortable with, and that are very accurate.

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The following are a set of measuring tools, as well as some layout tools. They are not everything in the tool world of course, but they are a good start for the majority of projects.

Start with the basic tools that are needed for your particular project, and then you can branch out as you need more. If you spend a couple extra dollars on your measuring tools, you can get something that is higher quality, and will last longer.

You don’t need to buy the super expensive versions, but the very bottom shelf versions are sometimes just not as accurate.

The Tape Measure

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For construction style work, and for building things from plywood and 2x4s, the tape measure is the go to form of measuring.

A tape measure is a rolled up measuring device that fits inside a housing, which is most of the time about the size of your fist.

The end of the tape is pulled from the housing, exposing the measuring surface, and the device is laid across your piece. You mark the measurement on the board, and the tape rolls back into the housing for safe keeping.

Some tape measures are better than others, so look for one that is long enough, and big enough that the blade does not collapse under its own weight when a couple feet are extended.

The bigger name tape measures offer wider tapes, beefier housings, and locks that help keep the tape extended for longer periods of time.

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The best tapes from name brands also measure better and are more accurate than really inexpensive tapes. Also, a better tape will come out of the housing better, and feed back inside with less fuss. These tapes are meant to be used a lot, and can last a very long time if you take care of it.

If you are making a lot of projects where longer measurements are needed, a tape measure is perfect.

You can quickly and easily place your marks, on bigger boards and longer pieces of wood, and this will get you through the measuring phase much faster than trying to do the same layout with a less purpose made device.

For construction style work, and for building things from plywood and 2x4s, the tape measure is the go to form of measuring. A tape measure is a rolled up measuring device that fits inside a housing, which is most of the time about the size of your fist.

The end of the tape is pulled from the housing, exposing the measuring surface, and the device is laid across your piece. You mark the measurement on the board, and the tape rolls back into the housing for safe keeping.

Some tape measures are better than others, so look for one that is long enough, and big enough that the blade does not collapse under its own weight when a couple feet are extended. The bigger name tape measures offer wider tapes, beefier housings, and locks that help keep the tape extended for longer periods of time.

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The best tapes from name brands also measure better and are more accurate than really inexpensive tapes. Also, a better tape will come out of the housing better, and feed back inside with less fuss.

These tapes are meant to be used a lot, and can last a very long time if you take care of it.

If you are making a lot of projects where longer measurements are needed, a tape measure is perfect. You can quickly and easily place your marks, on bigger boards and longer pieces of wood, and this will get you through the measuring phase much faster than trying to do the same layout with a less purpose made device.

The Square

A square is an L shaped tool that allows you to draw straight lines, measure up to a couple feet on some models, and is at a fixed 90 degree angle. These are made from flat metal in the most basic versions, and are a layout tool for making marks on your project.

You can find different tools that are also squares, and they will give you more options in some cases like marking out 45 degree angles as well as 90 degree angles.
Squares are useful in laying out your designs, but they are also useful in assembly.

When you are about to fire some nails into a leg to attach it to a frame, it’s pretty important to know that the leg is at 90 degrees.

You can’t eyeball this as well as you think, so using a square helps you easily set the leg in place before firing the nails. Once a couple nails are in place, you can remove the square and finish the job without worrying.

A square is also useful for marking out lines of an equal distance from the edge of a board. Simply use the square in a couple places near the ends of the board to make a couple marks.

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Then, use a long ruler or straight edge to connect those marks. In this way, you use the square to find the depth, and you then create a long line with the straight edge.

Pick up at least a simple flat square in a size that is appropriate for what you are making. You will find a lot of reasons to use it.

The Short Ruler

One of the most useful tool in the shop is a short ruler, about six inches long. If you make smaller projects, and you need to connect a bunch of points that are pretty close to each other, the short ruler is nice to have.

Any flat ruler can serve as the short ruler, and you can find a nice metal version with a slide on combination square attachment and get a double use tool for the same amount of money.

When you want to use it as a square, simply attach the stock and you can use the same tool as a square. When you need the flat ruler, remove the stock and you have your short ruler.

For smaller layouts, a lot of times a big ruler is not very much fun to work with. It can be cumbersome, too long, heavy, and hard to get into place. Instead of fighting the ruler to get it in position, just use the short ruler and you will have a much easier time moving it around.

I really like the short ruler for finding the centers of things. Most of the time, since I am boring, I place my dowels in the centers of my stocks, and I use the center of my pieces for much of my reference measurements.

A small ruler is great for finding the middles, because it’s easy to read, and you can hold it on top of a handle without much effort.

A short ruler is a nice tool to have in the shop, because a lot of times you only need to measure and mark something that is small, and it’s not the job for a tape measure.

The Long Ruler

For bigger projects, a long flat ruler is a great tool, and you can get them in a number of lengths depending on the layouts that you are doing. Having a three foot and a five to six foot version is very helpful, especially for times when you are making something a little larger than normal.

Long rulers are great for connecting measurement points that are far away from each other. Sometimes, you have to mark out a line that is longer than your ruler, and it can be kind of odd making several ruler length lines and trying to connect them all really well so it looks like one line.

The accuracy can suffer a bit, mostly because it’s now a much more involved process than when you have a long ruler.

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The long ruler is a perfect companion for the short ruler, because you can use them each for the times when they are the best choice. A long ruler will probably not get the same kind of action that a shorter ruler will get, but the times that you need the bigger ruler are well worth getting one for the shop.

Finally, a long ruler helps if you are into designing things in full size. Some makers still draw out full sized plans, though this can be time consuming.

A method of making longer straight lines, and connecting these full size drawings is important. This kind of ruler makes the job easy, and you can be assured that your full size print will be very accurate.

The Dial Caliper

This is one of my favorite measuring and marking tools, and something that you will find a lot of uses for once you have one in the shop. A dial caliper is a sliding metal device with metal jaws, and a dial indicator that compliments the scale marked on the side of the tool.

As you open the jaws, the dial needle spins, and you use the markings on the body as well as the dial to determine the measurement.

These come in a number of different scales, and they do metric, english, and fractional measurements. If you are very comfortable with a certain system, pick out a caliper that you already understand.

If you are brand new to it all, then I recommend a metric if that is how the majority of your measurements will be expressed, or a decimal (1/1000th) caliper if you are more comfortable with the American system of measurement.

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Being an American, I use a dial caliper that reads to 1/1000 of an inch. You will have to convert the reading to a fraction, or to the closest fraction, but over time you will remember the most common decimal equivalents.

The advantage to measuring this finely is that you can better choose things like drills and dowels. You can also know exactly how big something is, so you can shape or form it to the exact size you want rather than a size you have available in your kit or set. Start using a dial caliper to measure small things, and you will never stop.

The Compass

A circle is one of the most difficult shapes to draw freehand, so having a good compass will really help you make your curved lines well. A compass is far more than just a circle making tool though, and you will end up using it for something entirely different.

You will rarely have to draw circles over and over on your project, unless you are inlaying something round, or you just like cutting out circles. What you will do a lot of is draw curves and radius corners. This is where having a compass can be really useful.

It’s difficult to draw in a radius by hand, especially one that needs to be accurate. If you are drawing several on paper from different angles, you are really going to have a hard time because your attacking point while drawing will be different every time.

Instead, use a compass, which is a set of arms that are attached at one end with a hinge. There is a point on one side and a pencil on the other. You adjust the compass to the desired radius, and then spin it about the point while the pencil does the marking.

To use this tool to mark out a radius on a corner, just measure back from the corner to where you want the center of your circle to be. Then. drop the point of the compass on that measurement.

Pivot the arm so that the pencil touches one of the sides, and draw a radius all the way until the pencil reaches the other side around the corner. Now you have a perfect radius.

The Marking Knife

Most woodworkers use a pencil to mark their lines for cutting boards to length. Since the pencil has width to it, you have to mark a certain way in order to not accidentally cut the board too long or too short.

Though there are pencils that are really thin, one of the best ways to get an extremely thin line is to use a marking knife.

A marking knife is a small tool with a flat metal blade with one edge beveled, and it’s also angled to a point. The handle is made from wood, and the tool comes in a right handed and left handed version.

The angle of the bevel is how you know what version you are getting, and that’s so you can ride the flat side of the blade against your square, and you can see the beveled edge make the cut.

The point of a marking knife is to score the wood so you know where to cut. You do not need to go very deep, because that’s the job of the saw. All you need to do is make a mark on the board so that you can see it.

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In order to make the mark, you will need to measure to the location and put a single point that you can see later on. Then, you align a square on the edge of the board and the mark, and use the knife to complete the score across the board.

If you are marking in order to make a miter cut, and you can see a tiny mark, as long as you can line up the blade well, you will not need to complete the whole line in order to make a successful cut.

The Marking Gauge

A marking gauge is a staple in older joinery, and it used by dovetail makers, and woodworkers that make mortise and tenon joints. These come in a couple configurations, but the most common is a scoring knife on a wooden beam with a sliding stock.

You slide the stock up and down the beam to adjust the measurement.

Once you have your measurement adjusted on the marking gauge, you then slide the stock along the side of the board while the scoring knife or wheel is touching the face. The scoring part does its job and makes a fine line on the piece.

You can set up a marking gauge one time and make many marks on a board or series of boards nearly effortlessly. Since the tool only has to be set to that measurement one time, you only need to focus on getting that right one time. After that, you just keep the stock against the board and slide along.

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Marking gauges are not super expensive, but you will know you bought a tool. If you are into an older method of marking your projects, you will enjoy working with a marking gauge.

If you do change your measurements really often though, and you don’t have anything that you repeat over and over again, sometimes adjusting the tool can add time to the build. For most people that use the tool though, they are so comfortable that they can switch from measurement to measurement quickly and easily.

Part 18 – Wrap Up

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I hope you liked Part 18 of A Beginners Guide to Woodworking: Helping New Woodworkers Make Better Projects. As you can see, this is a different kind of beginner woodworking book, and I encourage you to get a copy for yourself so you have it all in one place. 

Happy building.

Continue to Part 19 of A Beginners Guide to Woodworking Here!

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  • More than 20 Years Woodworking Experience
  • 7 Woodworking Books Available on Amazon
  • Over 1 Million Words Published About Woodworking
  • Bachelor of Arts Degree from Arizona State University
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