Better Than a Pencil

One of the things that can overwhelm a beginning woodworker is the sheer number of choices to make about the simplest things. It doesn’t help that there is always someone waiting to tell you that there is a better, faster, easier, or morally superior way to do it. That improved method usually involves a new tool or three. If you don’t get a handle on the principles behind the methods, you can get off track, spend all your money and never accomplish anything. You need some real experience to have the knowledge to make good decisions. When I laid out the Gottshall block in pencil, I covered some things about getting lines in the right places. Before we cut anything, let’s make sure those lines are useful to us.

You will even find someone (like me) willing to discuss the fine points of pencils. On the left is a good old #2 wood pencil. It’s okay if you just sharpened it, but it gets wider and blunter every time you use it. Good for filling in the circles on the SAT; not so good for precise layout work. To the right of that is a BIC .5mm mechanical pencil. It’s a step up, but not the best tool available. You can go to extremes and get a jazzy drafting pencil. I got over that phase and use the BIC. It’s cheap, I won’t get upset if I lose one and I can get a new one right around the corner. If I get the pastel colored ones my teenaged son won’t steal them to do his calculus homework.

Take another look at the photo, and you’ll notice that some of the lines are much crisper and easier to see. Those started as pencil lines, but I went over them with a knife. Am I spending all this time on layout work because I’m afraid to pick up a saw, or is there a good reason for this extra step? Being able to see the lines is a real plus, and cut lines won’t rub off or smear. Pencil lines are temporary things; knife lines are for real. This is one of the reasons to use a pencil first.

You don’t have to make a big investment to give this a try. If you don’t have an X-Acto knife, you can get one at your local office supply or hobby store for less than $5. Using it is much like using a pencil (but you don’t want to park it behind your ear). Hold the edge of your square in place and tilt the blade of the knife so that the bevel is straight up and down against the edge.

The X-Acto knife works, but it’s a bit delicate. You may need to go over the lines several times to make a good incision. I’ve been using a chip-carving knife for quite a while. The cutting edge is beveled so I need to tilt the blade to keep it against the straightedge, but I can bear down and cut deep if I want to, and I can get the pointy end into a tight space. If you want to try this approach, it will cost you less than $20. The specific brand isn’t important; just look for a similar size and shape.

If you’re the kind of woodworker who has to have the best right away, Dave Jeske of Blue Spruce Toolworks is your man. For $50, you can have a great marking knife. The blade is just the right shape, the handle will be from some beautiful wood and it will fit your hand. The blade has a flat back, so it’s easier to keep upright and against the straightedge.

The second advantage of using the knife is that you can stick the blade in a mark you made on one face, then slide the straightedge up to the knife to mark an adjacent face. If you struggle with getting lines to line up on all four sides of a piece of wood, there’s a 50-50 chance that this will solve your problem. The odds approach 100 percent if you read the last post on this topic, and got yourself a good square.

Here is good reason No. 3 for using a knife. I haven’t started to make a saw cut yet. I simply laid the blade down in the knife mark. When I push forward, the teeth will follow in the track, and I’ll be off to a good start to making a nice quality cut by hand. I still need to avoid leaning the blade side to side to keep the cut vertical, but the knife mark will ensure that the edge that shows is square and right on the money.


Working with a piece this small would be difficult and dangerous with power tools. You could spend a lot of time devising a way to hold this piece and make precise cuts with your table saw or router. One of my great leaps forward as a woodworker was when I realized that I could make nice, precise  cuts with hand tools. One of the keys to being able to do that is providing a nice line to start on. After that, it’s mostly practice. If you can cut to a line, you can cut to any line , and that will give you the ability to make anything.

Next time we’ll consider “What’s Even Better Than a Knife.”

- Robert W. Lang

3 thoughts on “Better Than a Pencil

  1. Mike Holden

    Bob,
    Will you please address the method given in the instructions for this block on how to do the inside curve.
    Per the instructions: "To cut the inside curve, saw on the waste side with a coping saw. Trim to the line with a chisel, using the beveled side of the chisel."
    I am afraid that I cannot picture how this is done.
    Thanks,
    Mike

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