In Shop Blog, Techniques

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If you want to sell something to a woodworker, the easy way is to start by selling him on the idea that he can’t possibly do it himself. If you can accomplish that, then you have someone ready and willing to buy yet another jig to make joinery simple or publication that reveals the secrets to cutting dovetails. In truth, there isn’t much to woodworking beyond cutting stuff to a line and cleaning up surfaces you’ve cut. When I tell myself “I can’t possibly do that” a warning signal goes off, and I look for the reason why.

That alarm went off a couple months ago when we were planning the next issue of Woodworking Magazine. My assignment was to build and write about shop made layout tools, specifically wooden try squares. There was a day when this was the tool of choice, and many pieces that we consider classics today were marked for length and checked for square with two sticks. My brain was telling me I couldn’t possibly make a square of wood as accurate or reliable as my machinist’s squares, but another part of me had to ask “Why not?”

My grandfather was a tool and die maker, not a woodworker. He was proud of his skills and loved to show me his tools and how they worked. He had a cool workbench down in his basement where he kept a bottle of Scotch hidden from my grandmother. When I was five or six he asked me which I thought was thinner; a piece of paper or a hair on my head, then proceeded to show me with his micrometer. When I was nine he chewed me out for using an adjustable wrench on my bicycle when the correct size wrench was readily available. And he explained to me how the adjustable square invented by Leroy Starrett was one of the things that made modern life possible, and quite possibly the best tool ever.

Part of my reluctance to make a square from wood is my dependence on my Starrett squares. Granddad didn’t lie to me, and I think cabinetmaker’s were smart to adopt this tool from another trade. But machinist’s tools aren’t perfect, and from time to time, I’ve had to take a file to my Starretts to bring them back in line. So, I figured that if I could make two pieces of metal square to each other, the chances were pretty good that I could do the same with two pieces of wood.

As I set to work, I remembered a conversation I had with my father that changed the way I think about woodworking. He wasn’t a woodworker either, but he asked me the right question at the right time. I was trying to inlay a thin strip of holly in a piece of walnut and was struggling with getting the thickness just right. I was ready to give up, cut the walnut in two and glue the pieces back together with the holly in between. When I told my dad I thought that was a reasonable solution he asked “if you call yourself a cabinetmaker, shouldn’t you be able to make a piece of wood exactly the size you need?”

To make a wooden square, you need two pieces of wood that have nice straight edges. Then you put them together at a 90Ã?° angle. If the parts are off a little at the end, you make a fine adjustment. It’s not that big a deal. It’s what woodworkers do after they’ve cut to a line and cleaned up the surfaces. When you read the article in the magazine, you’ll see that I made more than one square. I started having fun with them and made a bunch. For me a great project is one that ends with the desire to do it all again.

, Robert W. Lang, senior editor

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Showing 8 comments
  • Eric

    Doug, it’s called innovation! ;^)

  • Doug

    It looks like you shorted yourself on the example shown. Shouldn’t the long edge of the blade be on the outside as presented by Moxon?

  • Ron P

    A couple weeks ago I was looking at back issues and came upon the try square article Adam Cherubini wrote. In about 3 hours I had completed a try square out of wenge and an unidentified light hardwood (maybe apple) a friend had given me. I pinned the corner with five brass pins.
    The square turned out great and against my Starrett, it is perfectly square – for now. I encourage everyone to give it a try!

  • Take Alberts

    It was the august 2006 issue.

  • Chris C

    By the way, Adam Cherubini covers this topic in detail in
    a back issue of Popular Woodworking. Maybe a year or so ago,
    but I don’t remember exactly. He details the whole process. It
    was an enjoyable read even if you don’t build a square as he


  • Bill Taggart

    Last time I was down in Colonial Williamsburg, I saw that the guys in the Hay shop had several wooden squares, which they had built. I asked Mack Headley about them and he said yes, the guys each made their own squares. They were period correct.

    Lots of excellent furniture was made using such tools.

  • Mike T.

    Mr. Lang,

    Great post and there’s some fantastic advice for us young novices out here. I love your work and own 3 of your books and always read your columns with great interest.

    My question about wooden try-squares though is, isn’t the biggest concern not getting the 2 pieces square to one another but actually keeping them square? I would think that movement of the wood with temperature and humidity would cause the square to go out fairly frequently.

    Thanks again.
    Mike T.

  • JC

    for me, the issue always seems to come back to the idea of finding a "known" stright edge. it seems that even thing that I purchase that would have a known straight edge can be a little off.

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