Years ago I worked with a professional woodworker who built all his own tools, used the least-expensive machines available and turned out work that was undeniably world class.
He scoffed at buying clamps (he made his own). He invented precision tools when he needed them. And he could make inlay tools from shop garbage.
And yet this self-proclaimed cheapskate carried a Bridge City Tool Works TS-2 try square with him everywhere in the shop. It looked nothing like the ones you see on eBay, with their factory boxes and certificates of authenticity. His was almost black from daily use.
One day I worked up the courage to ask him about his try square. Didn’t he think it was at odds with his day-to-day parsimonious philosophy?
“Precision,” he said, “has to start somewhere.”
And that was the end of it – but it did make me think.
Like many woodworkers, I had bought one of the attractive, but notoriously inaccurate, Crown Tools squares at a woodworking show. I had filed its blued blade to near-precision. I had stripped off the smeared-on surface finish, sanded it down and waxed it. And still, it could not hold a candle to the TS-2.
So I bought a TS-2 after much tribulation. You see, Bridge City made thousands and thousands of these squares at the beginning of the history of the company, but now owner John Economaki focuses his energy on a small set of new products. Many of the tools that company has made during the last three decades are discontinued or manufactured infrequently.
I don’t blame Economaki for changing the way his company does business. I’ve known him for about seven years, and he has a restless and creative mind that is suited to exploring new territory – not making the same widget over and over again.
But still, precision has to start somewhere. And so I started looking on eBay until I found a TS-2 that only a user could love. It was unboxed. No certificate of authenticity. Well-used – on its way to becoming black. But it’s dead-nuts square.
And so this TS-2 became the gold standard of squareness in my shop. I have other squares, of course. I have two wooden squares that require occasional calibration. I have a Starrett 12” combination square, but you cannot trust it unless it is fully locked down, and its precision is inversely proportional to how far its blade is extended. And I have a framing square – no explanation required.
When I need to be certain an assembly is square. That an angle is right and not wrong. That my jointer fence and crosscut sled are doing their jobs. I use the TS-2.
You don’t have to haunt eBay like I did. And you don’t have to have a TS-2. Here are some other options in prices from $6 to $3,800:
• Australian Accuracy. We have two other square makers – both Australian – who make woodworking try squares that are perfect and beautiful – in the tradition of my TS-2. Chris Vesper in Somerville makes squares that definitely fit the bill. You can buy them in all-metal or with wood infilled in the handle. His squares have a retractable tab in the stock that makes them convenient to use on the edges of boards. Colen Clenton has long made precision try squares. His squares have an adjustment mechanism that allows them to be re-calibrated if dropped.
• Engineer’s Squares. Or you can buy steel engineer’s squares. But good ones cost even more than the above woodworking try squares and their all-steel construction leaves me cold. And I promise you this: You get what you pay for with engineer’s squares. Starrett quality costs Starrett dollars.
• Alternative Materials. If you want dead-on accuracy and don’t want to pay much money, get a plastic 90° triangle from a store that caters to artists or architects. Heck you can even find these at the grocery. The plastic triangles are accurate and inexpensive, though they are fragile and easily damaged – as are aluminum squares.
No matter where you find it, I think every shop can benefit from an unassailable square. And if you trust it, use it and obey it, you’ll find difficult tasks (fitting doors and drawers in particular) easier and easier.
— Christopher Schwarz
Hey, you can make your own TS-2, just like Bridge City. Popular Woodworking Magazine published a fantastic article in 2011 by John Economaki on how to make this try square using woodworking equipment in a home shop. You can download the issue from ShopWoodworking for just $5.99. Click here for details.