Marking and Measuring – the Importance of Visual Alignment

TimManneyAlignA toolmaker I met at WIA, Tim Manney, showed me something interesting that got me thinking again about visual alignment. Tim makes a tapered reamer for chairmaking. It’s a unique tool that serves a single purpose – accurately reaming the holes for chair spindles, which is complicated due to the compound angles involved. In the picture at left, you can get a sense of how that’s done. As you’re cranking the tool you are also eyeing the bead on the tip to see how it aligns with a pencil line on the workpiece (extended up with a standing square).

I’ve been paying more attention to visual alignment lately in my own woodworking. It’s not hard at all, and the payoff is big.

One of the reasons I never paid much attention to it before is that I am cursed with what’s known in shooting as cross-dominance, which means I am right-handed but not right-eyed – my left eye has more acuity and it’s the one my brain registers on by default. At the target range this causes me to miss a lot of targets, and yet I haven’t taken the time to fully fix the problem. Like with all challenges, it can be easier to just get by than to retrain yourself.

But in woodworking, visual alignment is much easier, including for those of us with cross-dominance. Alignment is just a matter of remembering to get your head and body into a position from which you can see a cut or ruler line properly. As long as I remember to do it, my cuts are more accurate and I actually feel safer, too.

Jeff Miller’s “Foundations of Better Woodworking” is one good source that I have used on this topic. Jeff has these tips:

1. For proper body alignment, which is the basis for all accurate cuts and efficient woodworking, just choose any sport or activity you’re already good at. Put your body in that same good, athletic position and pick up the tool you’re using. Work as much as you can with your lower body, especially when handplaning, which liberates your arms to guide the tool more effectively.

VisualAlignment2. For proper visual alignment, first figure out which of your eyes is dominant. The picture of Jeff Miller and David Thiel at left shows you one way to do that. Simply point at an object across the room, then close one eye. Are you looking directly at the object, in line with your pointer finger? If so, the open eye is your dominant eye. If not, then obviously your dominant eye is the other one.

At that point, it’s just a matter of remembering to use this knowledge in your woodworking. Sometimes we get in a hurry to complete a task. It’s more important to be accurate and enjoy what you’re doing.

Buy a copy of “Foundations of Better Woodworking” in our store.

Dan Farnbach

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Dan Farnbach

About Dan Farnbach

Dan apprenticed and worked in two professional shops during the years after college. But sweeping shop floors only goes so far toward learning woodworking. These days Dan is online editor for Popular Woodworking, and is learning new skills every day. He divides his time between Boston and Maine.

5 thoughts on “Marking and Measuring – the Importance of Visual Alignment

  1. Christopher Hawkins

    Excellent post. I’m cross dominant as well, but hadn’t heard the term or understood the implications. Now I know why I can shoot more accurately with a scoped rifle than with open sights. (That’s my story & I’m sticking to it.)

    Quoting from Dan’s email on this topic “”Foundations of Better Woodworking” is being offered at a special Halloween discount right now. Enter code SPOOKY20 at checkout!” This is an excellent book that allows one to more fully connect the body with the work in ways which improve accuracy and ergonomics.

  2. Bart

    Dan,
    When I was in basic training for the army, they would have the people that were right handed but left eye dominant put a patch on there left eye and wear it 24hrs a day for 2-3 weeks. This will strengthen and train your right eye to be dominant. You will look like a pirate for awhile but how cool is that

  3. TheBrez

    Easy fix for the cross-eye dominance at the range, learn to shoot whatever handed your dominant eye is. If you’re left handed and right eye dominant, shoot right handed, or vice-versa. If it makes you feel any better, cross-eye dominant people are supposed to be better batters in baseball due to the dominant eye being closer to the ball. Not sure what to try to help with the woodworking aspect of it though, I’m cross-dominant, but my woodworking isn’t high enough level to have been affected by it yet.

  4. willarda

    Elia Bizzarri, a local (NC) chair maker who apprenticed with Curtis Buchanan (and still does his turnings for out-of-workshop workshops) (www.handtoolwoodworking.com) has been making those reamers in exactly that format for about 10 years and sells them widely. I believe Peter Galbert also advertises Elia’s reamers, tapered rounders and tenon cutters (all handmade in a traditional style).

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