Better Than a Knife

When you work with power tools, machine set up is everything. The quality of your joinery, and your entire project is based on your level of accuracy at that stage. With hand tools, layout is everything. You can’t depend on your table saw’s fence to make certain that every cut is the same, so how can you be sure of consistency? The best way is to gauge your measurements whenever you can. Set a measuring device to the distance you want, and leave it set to make all the marks you need at that distance. I did that in the last post with the adjustable square, and I have a few so that I can leave them set for different distances as I work.
A marking gauge takes that concept one step further. One tool will set the distance and mark the cutting line. There are several styles and configurations, some wooden ones have metal points, and some have flat blades. Like adjustable squares, you will eventually want/need/have more than one. The one in the picture is a Tite-Mark made by Glen-Drake Toolworks. I try not to recommend particular brands or tools unless there is a compelling difference within a group. As with the Starrett square, the Tite-Mark stands out from the crowd, and you won’t regret buying one. You may find another gauge that looks like this for a lot less, but don’t be fooled.

When the gauge is set, it will mark a nice clean line as you push the brass stock against an edge of a board and pull the tool toward you. This works a lot faster than using a knife and a square, and when you turn a corner to mark all the way around a board, the marks will meet and be consistent. You can set the tool directly, from the edge of a mortise for example, and use that setting to mark your tenon. The distances will be the same, and that is far more important (and far easier to achieve) than measuring something two or three times.

The cutter on the end has a triangular profile. The line on the left was cut with a knife. The cut on the right has a straight side and an angled side. This is the rabbet on the end of the block, and the straight cut from the marking gauge is actually the edge of the joint that will show when all is said and done. My joint already has a nice clean edge, and I have barely started to make it yet. If I can do the rest of the work without goofing up that edge, everything will be fine, the part that shows in the end is done.

You can get the same effect by carefully making a slice along a knife line with a sharp chisel held at an angle. You don’t need to go very deep, you only want to establish a wider and deeper channel for your saw or chisel when you get to the next step. The shape of the channel, as well as the larger size helps to get the first saw cut headed in the right direction.

There is less material on the angled side, so when you push the saw to get it started it will meet less resistance toward the angle, and it will easily hug the straight side as the cut goes deeper. The most important part of sawing accurately by hand is getting the first stroke right. After that, gravity and momentum help to keep the cut on track. When your skills increase, you’ll be able to get a line started straight without this, but when you’re new (or the cut is important) this is a big help.

Next time, we’ll start sawing.

–Robert W. Lang

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3 thoughts on “Better Than a Knife

  1. John Kuszewski

    Hi Bob,

    What exactly makes the Tite-Mark’s performance better than, say, Lee Valley’s wheel marking gauge? Does it just come down to the nice blade?

  2. Bob Lang

    It happens, but it isn’t particularly dangerous. If I really want to stop at a corner, it’s easy to see where the edge of the wheel intersects the surface of the wood. The fact that the scribed line is not quite as deep for a fraction of an inch doesn’t bother me. The rest of the cut is sufficient as a guide for tools to follow.

  3. Rob

    Hi Bob,
    That’s a handy looking gauge but with a wheel cutter is there a danger of scoring further than intended?
    To cut the full length of the line to an even depth requires that the centre of the wheel reaches the point above the end of the line, and that means the arc of the wheel goes beyond that point – scoring wood not intended to be cut.

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