In Shop Blog, Techniques

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One of my favorite tools is the “English Layout Square” I built for the December 2010 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine. Heck, I like it so much I put it on the cover of my book “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest,” built one on “The Woodwright’s Shop” and even had its shape engraved on the sidewall of my jack plane.

But is the English layout square a useful tool?

As Mike Dunbar at the Windsor Institute answers nearly every question: It depends….

If you build full-size casework, then yes. Put your metal framing square away and use this wooden one instead. This is the tool that lays out all your rough cuts on your stock when you are breaking down the wood to length.

It is the tool that squares off the final length of all your pieces before you cut them to finished length. It is the the tool that lays out the dados for the drawer blades. And when the case is knocked together, the English Square is the tool that helps you determine if your carcase is indeed square.

And at the risk of sounding like a Ronco commercial, that’s not all….

When paired with a string and a rock (or a washer or plumb bob), you create an effective and ancient level, called a “libella.” Never heard of a libella? Then maybe you weren’t reading the magazine in 2006 when we published plans for one by Sam Peterson.

According to Peterson, the libella helped build the pyramids in Egypt and appears over and again in the historical record. In fact, here’s an image of a weaver’s shop that Peter Follansbee sent me last week. Look up at the top right – libella.

And if you are still not convinced, check out this blog entry about a woodworking school in Rwanda that uses this square (from my plans, by the way) for a wide variety of tasks. It is, according to the teacher, “The most used tool in the school.”

Or travel to Australia, where Derek Cohen has added a fence to his English Square to make it easier to register against edges of boards (this is, by the way, a modification that is shown in A.J. Roubo’s 18th-century masterwork as well).

Plus, this square is much nicer to look at than a metal framing square – at least the modern framing squares.

So if you have three sticks of wood, this is a great one-day project that you will use for the rest of your life. And if you don’t have three sticks of wood, come visit the burn pile behind my house. I see about 200 English Squares in the rough piled up back there.

— Christopher Schwarz

P.S. One more link. Lots of people wonder how to square up this tool once they have made it. It’s easy. Here’s a video.

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Showing 7 comments
  • Joe "the Pro" Sainz

    Chris, Did you ever make that square out of the sassafras that I gave you at Jeff Miller’s shop? I’m hoping to see it show up one day in one of your posts. I mean c’mon, it’s not like you’re busy right? 😉

  • kpinvt

    Great story about Rwanda. Now I have an idea of a very good reason to collect user tools.

  • wessmith

    Wow. Derek Cohen has a great site, thanks Chris.

  • laugingjack

    So… you’ll just send me the wood?


  • John Cashman

    Thank you so much for the Rwandan woodworking link. That makes this post my all-time favorite. The next time someone complains to you about how their sharpening equipment is faulty, or inadequate, show them the picture of that Rwandan stone.

  • Bill Lattanzio

    Reminds me of an ancient rafter square, which is what I use simply because I’ve had one for years, and it works. But this is pretty cool I’ll admit.

  • skirincich

    I have always thought, that with an appropriately positioned metal hook, a very elegant clothes hanger could be made!

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