Layout Tools

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Layout Tools

Laying out you work properly and accurately is critical to fine woodworking.  This is important to insure that all of your pieces fit together and that similar pieces such as drawers and doors are the proper size and fit into their openings.  Never use a pencil for layout work, it is not accurate enough, you should use a scratch awl or striking knife or the pin in a marking gauge to make much more accurate layout marks.  These marks give you a positive mark to work to, if using a chisel to cut to the mark it gives you a place where the chisel will start and you can feel the chisel set into that mark.  You can use a sharp pencil to darken that score line if necessary to make it easier to see but you should rely on the score line rather than the vagaries of a pencil line.  Use a pencil to number pieces or for witness marks but don’t use it for layout.  The awl, knife or pin actually score and cut the top fibers of the wood, which minimizes chipping as the wood is being worked.


  1. Scratch Awl – I use this tool for layout and have several around the shop, a couple on the bench and one at the lathe.  I prefer the scratch awl because I use wooden layout tools and a knife can cut into the wood blades and ruin the efficacy of these wooden tools.  The handle must be angled away from the guide to insure that the line is marked in the correct place.  A thick straightedge can cause the awl to mark wide of the intended place if the awl handle is tipped in the wrong direction.  The awl is also handy for marking a precise hole for drilling. 


  1. Striking Knife – This tool is another that will make a fine score mark on the wood.  The blade of this knife is sharp but not razor sharp; it just needs to score the wood, which is a shallow cut.  These come in different shapes but the idea is to have a knife that is used just for layout work and is not intended to cut or carve.  It is not a good idea to use a real sharp knife as this can damage wooden layout tools or be dulled by metal.  It is relatively blunt so it will not cut deep into the wood.  A shallow cut will be easier to accomplish and will not tend to follow the grain.  You want to keep the cutting edge next to the edge to make the marks accurately.


  1. Ruler – Rulers are tools used to mark out distances, they are usually inscribed with inch marks with finer hash marks in between.  Numbered to make layout easier, these are used for marking out and should not be used as a straight edge.  The advantage of making your own ruler is that you can mark it in the direction you prefer, some like left to right others prefer right to left numbering sequence.  I make my own rulers from stable hardwoods and mark them with an inch long stamp.   I have a few smaller rulers made of brass, bone and ivory (the ivory being from old piano keys).  These are engraved with an engravers burin and the marks filled with black stain.  Using a magnifying glass I was able to accurately mark one of the small rulers with 32nd inch marks, a ruler I seldom use.  Marks at 1/8 inch are all I generally use, I can guess at a 16th inch and in most woodworking that is fine enough.  It is a good idea to use the same ruler on all layout work as different rulers are read differently.  I always double check my measurements and hear that old saw ‘measure twice and cut once’ going off in my head.  ‘I cut it twice and it is still too short’.  Do not use a ruler for a straight edge, use it as a ruler.


  1. Straight Edge – This tool is for marking straight lines that have been properly laid out with a ruler.  Made of stable wood that will take the wear of repeated use, it can be re-edged when necessary.  I have holes drilled in my straight edges and I keep them on a peg out of the way where the edge will not get dented or dinged, which will impair its accuracy.  When using a straight edge place it on the ‘money side’ and mark on the ‘waste side’ of the work.  Therefore if the awl or knife wanders away from the straight edge it is on the waste side that will be removed.  Notice the grain on the wood you are marking and be aware of where it will cause the mark to wander.  When marking long lines it is a good idea to clamp the straight edge to the work, freeing you to concentrate on marking rather than holding the straight edge in place.  If the grain pulls the awl or knife away from the straight edge as you mark in one direction, change directions and make your score mark from the other direction to insure a straight layout line.


  1. Square – Most of the squares I use are made of wood and there is a very good reason other than I can’t make metal squares is that they will not damage the work if you accidentally drop it on the surface.  Squares are made with a wider leg and a thinner tongue joined at a 90° angle.  You can check the accuracy of a square by placing the leg against the edge of a board and making a mark on the board along the tongue.  The leg is reversed to the other side of the line and held against the board; if it is square the lines will be the same.  Or you can do the math; the sum of the squares of the two sides is equal to the sum of the square of the hypotenuse side.  You can adjust inaccurate squares by sanding or scraping until the square is square.  Using a center punch and carefully placing punch marks at the juncture of the leg and tongue to straighten metal squares.  If you punch on the outside of the corner the metal will actually move and lessen the inside angle.  A punch on the inside will increase the inside angle.  Old metal squares will sometimes have these punch marks at their corners and these were used to square the square.  Another advantage of wooden squares is that they can be stood up on their wide leg with the tongue upright and used as a drilling guide and for other purposes.


  1. Triangles – While triangles are not a common tool in most woodworking shops it is handy for design and layout.  A 45° triangle has two corners at 45° and one at 90° and is handy for checking square inside corners and miters.  A 30/60 triangle has one corner at 30°, one at 60° and one at 90°.  If a certain angle is encountered frequently in your work, you can make a triangle to that particular angle.


  1. Protractor – The protractor is a semicircle of metal or wood marked with degree marks around its 180° circumference.  This is used in conjunction with a bevel gauge to transfer or determine angles other than 90°.  My protractor is made of quartersawn white oak for stability with an inlay of holly for the hash marks.  The marks on the holly are score marks to insure accuracy and I have numbered them in both directions to make reading the tool easier.  On the straight side of the protractor there is a small notch in the exact center on the edge to provide a reference mark from which angles are struck.


  1. Bevel Gauge – The bevel gauge is like a square except the tongue is adjustable and can be secured at any angle.  The gauge can be placed over an angled piece whose angle is not known, secured and checked against the protractor to determine an angle.  The gauge can be set with the leg against the bottom of the protractor and the tongue moved to the desired angle and secured.  This angle can then be transferred to the work.  For the wide leg, I always use a stable hardwood such as mahogany and for the tongue I use a smooth hardwood such as beech or maple.  The tongue is thin and folds up into a slot cut into the leg.  The two pieces are secured with a small carriage bolt with a washer and wing nut.  The square shank of the carriage bolt prevents it from turning in the hole and the washer and wing nut are tightened to squeeze the tongue between the two sides of the leg and holds it in place. 


  1. Traveler – The traveler is a tool for making measurements of or layout for circular shaped objects such as wagon wheels, barrels, tabletops, etc.  It can also be used to measure lengths longer than your ruler.  It is simply a wheel held in a handle.  The wheel has a known circumference of a particular length with an index mark on the edge.  Every time the wheel goes around one time a certain length is measured.  For instance an 8-inch diameter wheel would mark a distance of?  Remember back to school when you thought you wouldn’t use this math stuff?  Need a refresher course: circumference is equal to twice pi times the radius, (C=2πr) with π being 3.1415926536.  An 8-inch diameter traveler would measure out 25.132 inches.  A wheel a little bigger than 7 ½” will proscribe a length of 24”, a more handy measurement.  Blacksmiths will use travelers made of iron for use on hot metal such as wagon tires, for woodwork a wooden traveler is easy to make and easier on the woodwork.  I have made them of cherry, beech and maple with hickory or ash handles.  The edge of the wheel should be uniform with no sharp edges but it shouldn’t be too smooth.  A slightly rough edge will grip the surface better and not slip, also a little rosin on the edge can help with traction.


10.French Curve – This is a tool that has one or more sweeping curved surfaces and the part of the tool that has the appropriate curved portion is used for making a smooth layout mark.   Most French curves are too small for anything other that design and intricate small layouts such as carving.  A popular curve is the large Ram’s Horn used by coach makers to layout the sweeping curves on carriages and wagons and is handy for larger curved lines.  You are not limited by the curves on these tools; you can use just a portion of a curve, and then reposition the tool to change the arc or direction of the curve.


  1. Plumbs – these tools are used to determine if something is vertical.  Traditional plumbs are weights or plumbs (from the Latin plumbum for lead {Pb}) of lead or other heavy metal like iron or brass with a point on the end and a knob or hole for attaching the string.  The plumb bob with a string can be used by itself but most plumbs used in woodworking and cabinet shops had wooden frames to make them easier to use.  The wooden frame should be of a stable wood such as mahogany, cherry, maple or beech.  From 1 to 4 feet long the frame is just a piece of wood with parallel sides with a slot cut for the string and a hole for the plumb to swing freely.  An index mark on the framework or on a plate placed in the center under the plumb indicates that the plumb is perfectly vertical when the tip of the plumb is aligned with the mark on the frame.  Also called a plumb stick.


  1. Levels – are tools to determine if something is horizontal.  Similar to the plumb it has a perpendicular leg that is placed on the surface being leveled.  The bob will indicate when the tool is level by pointing directly to the index mark.  Other early versions of the modern levels called spirit levels for the alcohol and water in the glass vials set in wooden frameworks.  The alcohol keeps the water from freezing.  The vial has a bubble of air trapped on the inside, the vial is secured in the wooden body and when the bubble is in the center of the vial, the tool is perfectly level.  Small marks are sometimes etched on the vial to determine if the bubble is centered.  Others have plates surrounding and protecting the glass have those marks.  Models of this tool will have covers that slide over the vial to protect it from damage.  Affectionately referred to as ‘whiskey sticks’.  ‘A half a bubble off’ can mean more than out of level.


  1. Chalk Line – is merely a string that has been rubbed with chalk.  Also called a ‘snap line’, the string is pulled taught, held against the work on the proper marks and the string is ‘snapped’ to leave a chalk residue mark in a straight line.  Grasping the string between the thumb and index finger and lifting the string straight up from the surface a couple of inches and releasing, when it snaps the chalk onto the work.  Simple wooden reels and a lump of chalk are all that are necessary.


  1. Patterns – Not only are these handy to have for repeating a certain form, they look great hanging around the shop walls and are valuable selling tools by being able to show the customer the exact shape of a table leg, chair splat or cresting rail.  Patterns should be made of stable wood and are usually thinner than the actual pieces that are copied.  Thin patterns are easier to use, take up less space and if slightly warped can be pushed flat for the actual layout work.  For wide repeated patterns, for economy can be made in half and reversed to produce the other side.  Turning patterns can be made with detail cut in one side and used to take measurements from a centerline.  I join the pieces with small rabbit joints and sometimes double dovetail keys for both strength and decoration.  After all these are hanging on the wall so why not make them look good?  A Story Pole is a changeable pattern, usually made of a light colored and lightweight piece of wood.  Its length is determined by what is being built.  Long ones are tall enough to layout a house with marks on its length of window height, door height, ceiling height and other critical measurements.  They are usually one story tall.  Smaller ones used in cabinet or chair shops are marked with bottom, top, shelf and drawer locations or seat height, slat location and cresting rail height to insure all parts are milled the same.  For new jobs the old marks are removed and new ones are laid out.  Any questions about measurements are all there on the story pole.  They tell the whole story.


Laying out your work should be a deliberate and accurate action; this is going to determine how your work will fit and look.  Take the time to accurately measure, carefully locate the correct position, place and secure the tools and precisely mark your work.  The extra time it takes to make sure your lay out is done properly will save you time and materials instead of making them again.  ‘Why is there never enough time to do it right, but always enough time to do it over?’