One of the best recommendations I’ve ever received in the world of hand tools came from a power-tool user who has 660-volt three-phase pumping through his veins.
It’s 1996, and I’m a newly minted managing editor at Popular Woodworking. David Thiel, then an associate editor at the magazine, has been assigned to give me a tour of the workshop and check me out on the machines.
I’ve been woodworking on my back porch seriously for a few years and am comfortable on a table saw, radial-arm saw and a band saw, but I’ve never seen a drum sander, spray booth or shaper. I know I came off like a hayseed because I was dumbfounded by the sheer volume of cast iron and steel now at my disposal.
At the end of the tour, David showed me his work area and made a generous offer: Until I got set up in the shop I could use any of the hand tools hanging in his tool cabinets above his bench.
Several weeks later I’m in the shop building my first serious project for the magazine (an Arts & Crafts project from the Byrdcliffe Colony) and I need a combination square to mark out some joinery before I cut it on the table saw. I snatch one of the squares above his bench and go to work.
That was a Friday afternoon. I remember that because I was compelled to drive up to our local tool supplier Saturday morning to buy my own L.S. Starrett 12″ combination square. I didn’t care what the price was. I didn’t care how far I had to drive across town with a squealing 1-year-old in the back seat to get it. I just knew that after an afternoon of working with David’s square that I had to have one for myself.
After a few more weeks I bought a 6″ version for $25 at a local antiques market.
During the last 12 years, I’ve had a variety of marking and measuring tools try to shake that Starrett from my toolbox. The magazine’s staff tested all the squares on the market in the late 1990s and somehow the General version ended up on my bench. It’s a nice square, and on the outside would appear to be every bit as good as the Starrett, but something is missing. The blade in the Starrett just moves a bit more sweetly and the engraved markings are just a bit crisper.
As I got more into traditional hand work, I considered trading in my Starrett for a traditional try square (perhaps a wooden one). After all, combination squares were built originally for machinists, not woodworkers. But after dabbling with the old-Testament gear, I fled back into the arms of Starrett. It’s just too darn perfect and useful.
I keep the 6″ version tucked into my shop apron and use it for laying out and measuring joinery. The 12″ one hangs above my bench and comes into play any time I need to keep two measurements locked in (which is typical) or the joinery is beyond the range of the 6″ tool.
It’s almost impossible to overstate my affection for this tool. If I had a family crest, I’d put it on there. If I’m buried with one tool, this will probably be the one I ask my wife to tuck into the pocket of my last suit.
But I probably won’t want to be buried with this square. Instead, I plan to hang it on the wall of my shop in plain view in the hopes that one of my children will pick the thing up when they need a tool for a quick measurement. Perhaps the same bolt of lightning will strike them.
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