Essential measuring & marking tools

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7 Oct 2021
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For general DIY / old house renovation - and even more so for furniture making (mainly Peter Millard type projects using sheet materials - but later working on solid wood items as well) which are your favourite measuring tools (especially for checking squareness etc - as I think I've outgrown my old, not very accurate try square)?

Having not done any woodwork projects for a few decades, nowadays there seems to be a bewildering number of very nice looking (and expensive) new products for checking, measuring and marking. It would be great to hear what you good folks think are worthwhile investments.

Also do you have any comments on the cost versus quality ratio - and where the 'sweet spot' is to be found. Woodpeckers look like they've got an amazing range of tools - but the prices are a challenge for me right now. Are there useful and accurate alternatives at lower cost?

Many thanks for your help.
I like bahco combination squares more expensive ones are available as well as cheaper ones like wickes for general DIY work. (£5)

A mortice marking gauge. Marples see ok.

A marking knife / pencils
I like bahco combination squares more expensive ones are available as well as cheaper ones like wickes for general DIY work. (£5)

A mortice marking gauge. Marples see ok.

A marking knife / pencils
Thanks Jameshow.
Bahco have served me well in other activities (socket sets for car maintenance... and decent adjustable spanners). Good call.
Almost any square you come across will be good enough for your Stage 1 activities but moving on to Stage 2 - furniture making, you will want something which you can rely on and I would agree that Bahco is good place to start looking for cost effectiveness.
For measuring anything up to 6" my digital caliper is my go-to instrument. I'm not necessarily looking for accuracy but the large display makes it very easy to read. Reliability can be a problem on the cheaper ones; I'm on my 3rd one which is a Mitutoyo. They're so well known as top-of-the-range that they are much copied, so look out for the genuine article, A more cost effective one could be an iGaging from our friends at WWW. Make sure it has auto shut-off.
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Over the long term, nothing beats a hardened steel combination square for versatility and durability.
Mine is a moore and wright 12", that I've had for decades.
It will cost you most of £100 but I think it's worth it.
Here's why I like these - and the same from other quality makes like Mitutoyo who have maintained a decent standard vs moore and wright and starrett who are no longer as good as they were :

Hardened rule means that you can use tubular point pencils, knives, whatever without worrying about wear on the blade
Hardened, ground, with fine etched markings means that you can set the rule to maybe 1/4mm accuracy
Hardened rule means that the locking mechanism doesn't wear indents into the blade easily and even after years, the blade slides easily and can be positioned exactly where you want it, not where you most often use it.
A quality combination is made to metalworking shop standards, not woodworking, so you get a trustworthy square
The sliding rule is incredibly useful without ever measuring anything because you can set the length of the rule almost like using one of those gizmos for measuring the tread depth of a car tyre, lock the rule and then transfer a measurement just by marking along the end of the rule. This is super useful especially for marking several pieces or joints in a batch but you will only use a combination set this way if it slides smoothly and locks with complete reliability. Cheap ones generally don't, and I include the Bahco orange ones in the "cheap" category.
The sliding blade allows you to place the ground reference face of the square flat on the surface of a machine table with the blade standing upright. This gives a reference for setting a saw or bandsaw blade square to the table or squaring a fence.

I'd say that you need a few quality tools that you trust to check others and it is worth spending on these.

The two other measuring tools that I reach for a lot are much cheaper.
  • a quality 600mm pearl chrome finish steel rule with a sliding rules stop (the japanese ones from Axminster for example and the Veritas ruler stop)
  • a blue anodised "Empire" brand rafter square as a general purpose woodwork square. I like this specific version for three reasons. First is that the 90 degree edge is machined, not stamped or moulded in plastic. It's surprisingly accurate, more than good enough for furniture making never mind carpentry. Second is that it's light weight and being one piece there's no joint to become sloppy and lose accuracy. Third is that rafter squares lie flat on the wood without you holding them : exactly the way that ordinary wood and metalwork squares don't, This is a great characteristic.
12" combi square Rabone 2nd hand or Bahco if new.
A handful of trad squares (wood, brass, steel) of different sizes
5m Stanley tape.
Cheapo vernier callipers e.g Draper - 0.1mm is more than good enough for woodwork and easier to read than higher precision models.
Several pin marking gauges, 2 mortice gauges, one cutting gauge. - all wood 2nd hand, avoid the wheel type they are cr ap.
Pencils 2B, HB and 2H.
Scribe point of some description. Mine's an old dart without the feathers.
Several pairs of dividers different sizes.
Plumb bob in a board and 1m spirit level.
Chalk line.

Also do you have any comments on the cost versus quality ratio - and where the 'sweet spot' is to be found. ...
If in doubt buy the cheapest. The more you pay the smaller the added value, if any.
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You might want to start looking at making some of these tools yourself. PaskMakes scrapwood challenge has some nice ideas for example. Making thing square can be as simple as marking a 345 triangle on a piece of man made stock and tuning in your hand made tools that way.
In recent years I have picked up on a couple of items that I have added to my go to tools for marking/setting out and measuring, the first of which was a set of Japanese carpenters squares 150mm, 300mm & 500mm these came from Workshop Heaven Japanese squares, not cheap mind, but are the main things I use now, the other piece is the BMI tape tape, superb tape when setting out linear measurements on stock, taking inside dimension again a go too tool for me.
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rabone chesterman are very good, get an old one, it's just as accurate as my starrett and much cheaper, got mine off ebay for cheap.
You need decent squares to ensure 90° and for assembly, decent rules for some measurements but for me I keep measurements to the minimum and where possible transfer a distance using a rule with a stop or the Woodpecker / Veritas bar gauges.
Another vote for bahco combination squares.

For marking lines I use cheapo chinese digital calipers from Aldi (from memory, about £7 or so). Set them to the right depth, then just scribe a line with the point, while the other point runs along the edge.
I always get a lot of flak from just about anyone who ever sees me doing it, and it seems to be taboo in every trade imaginable, but it has worked for me very well for nearly 10 years now, so it can't be that bad, right? Be prepared that most people will cringe when you tell them about it.
I wouldn't do this to a quality engineering-grade tool.
A sliding bevel, I prefer the ones that have the lock mechanism at the end like Shinwa and Bahco, then you can use them in every direction without the wingnut getting in the way.
I like my wheel marking guage, others seem to hate them, try a few out see what you prefer.
A sliding square is very useful but I also like a fixed engineers square for more workshop stuff but the one square I really use most in the workshop is a Veritas flat steel plate square, its just nice to use and read.
I like the incra squares and rulers (protractor too) with the tiny holes for a 0.5mm lead pencil as well for really critical dimensions.
A tape with metric only and printed both sides, like the advent vice versa available from toostation or axminster, Stanley ones are harder to find in the UK without inches on.
A pica dry pencil, not a tracer or an Ox tools one or any other similar looking one, the reason is that the way the pica ones fit in the holster is perfect, the Tracer one drives me crazy so it just stays in the scribe at all times. The tracer scribe is a good tool also and very handy.
A good level or five (different sizes because you never have the right size for some reason), and (not or) a cross line laser.

Twas asked about gernal reno measurement tools

Most responses tend to relate to bench work items, but for reno work

Of course a good name tape measure...

A good framing square and at least a couple of levels....2', 4' to start, but check them by proving them (youtube can show you how to do that)

Although I am an oldtools kinda guy, I find a laser distance measure to be a "time-saver" godsend. EG: ou can measure a room for flooring in seconds. Look for accuracy in specs, 1/16 " is typical, but don't assume it.

And so is the laser square, but again look at specs for accuracy, and don't drop em, they are not generally repairable) Great for tile and other flooring layout

Any laser level with a bubble (and they can be really cheap) is to be avoided

Plumb-bob has already been mentioned and it's gonna be cheap and only relies on gravity for accuracy, but again the laser plumb-bob become the time-saver

Those electronic gadgets were somewhat expensive when I bought mine, but prices have dropped, and three's more competition nowadays.

and my last suggestion is a "story stick" made with
You'll get the idea. With small pieces of scrap you can easily see how to fabricate on of these
Many applications for this and cheap!
I have a really simple set up and seem to cope OK. a tape is my main measure tbh. I've got steel rulers but don't use em really. 6 inch rule I have in my ruler pocket. mainly for setting fences or cutters mm only relieves th visual confusion. decent combination squares work superbly for wood work on Many many levels. laser level three line over any spirit level. these work ( if accurate) and with a few tricks can provide perfect levelling.
calipers aren't an essential for most work. they can be unreliable and annoying as well.
I have just bought a Bahco 150mm (six inch) combination square for little more than a tenner and pleasantly surprised with it’s accuracy on both the inside and outside 90 degree corners. The level bubble is very slightly off but cant see me using that anyway.
I also have a small engineers square, a Marples try square and an ancient but accurate roofing square.
As well as a quality tape measure, my 300mm and 450mm steel rules get a lot of use.
For anything other than 90degrees I use a Trend digital angle rule.

I have found plastic set squares are also good 90 degree references.
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