In Shop Blog, Techniques

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Sometimes your woodworking improves like a slow and steady climb up a mountain. Sometimes, however, you get to ride the elevator.

When I first started woodworking, I used a carpenter’s pencil I sharpened with a knife. Then I traded up to a mechanical pencil, which never needed sharpening. Then one day I found my old X-Acto knife in my desk drawer. All through college I had worked as a production artist for a printing company, and I’d held onto my pica pole, a roll of 4-point adhesive tape and my beloved X-Acto.

This knife, I thought, might just be a mechanical pencil that never needed lead.

That day my woodworking skills took a much-needed lurch forward. Hand work, in particular, is much easier to manage with a knife line that never smudges, changes in thickness or is offset from the point you intended.

After a few years of woodworking with my X-Acto, I discovered spear-point, single bevel marking knives, such as the Blue Spruce knife shown in the photo above. Though some woodworkers would disagree, this form is ideal for marking joints for hand-cutting. The flat side rides the shape of the piece you want to mimic. The knife marks its location with zero offset.

But no one ever showed me how to use a marking knife. And sometimes it would follow the grain instead of the path I had set for it. Then one day, I realized what I was doing wrong. I was moving the knife too fast and with far too much pressure. Once I slowed down and took three light passes (in place of one heavy pass), my accuracy took another leap forward.

So slow down, and take it easy.

One final tip for those who have failing eyesight: Don’t throw away that mechanical pencil. If you need to add some makeup to a knife line, run that mechanical pencil down the knife line, then run an eraser over the pencil line. You’ll end up with a knife line filled with just enough lead to see it.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 8 comments
  • smartass sob

    Many years ago when I worked as a pattern-maker apprentice one of the first things I was taught was to do all layout with a knife and to fill in the knifed line with a knife-edged carpenter’s pencil. THEN I was expected to split the line when working. It was customary to work to one sixtyfourth inch tolerances or better. That one technique has stood me in very good stead all these years.

  • David Charlesworth


    Good stuff as usual!

    If you check the technique paragraph on page 14 of my first book, you will find another couple of subtle points which may help.

    The position of the flat side of the knife is very important to avoid heading off in the wrong direction or shaving chunks off the sides of your tails or steel layout tools…..

    This last disaster can be avoided if the heel of the cutting bevel is not lifted too far from the surface of the timber.

    best wishes,

  • Eric

    Great article! Thanks for the tips.

  • Andy

    OK, you pushed me over the edge. I’ve been getting along OK with .5mm mechanical pencils until now, but a marking knife is going towards the top of my Christmas list.
    (PS – My wife would like a application to join wivesagainstschwarz…)

  • andrew rutz

    another awesome tip, chris! thanks for helping… and i like the sense of
    humor! …so… that’s THREE times so far where a "light touch" seems to be
    warranted: 1) marking a line, 2) putting a burr on a card-scraper, and 3) starting a handsaw in its kerf. are there MORE ? 🙂 …the handsaw one really blew me away… cuz it all became so easy after that 🙂

  • Mike Lingenfelter

    You missed one other step in the layout education of a woodworker, and that is the ballpoint pen. It’s far superior than any pencil, but not as accurate as a marking knife. When I first say Rob Cosman use a pen to layout part of his dovetails, I said why didn’t I think of that! Now if I have to mark something out where I don’t use a marking knife, it a ballpoint pen for me.


  • The Village Carpenter

    Thanks for posting the tip, Chris. It’s helpful tips like that that make a difference in accuracy and help take woodworking skill up to the next level. I’ve always used a pencil with a bevel edge created by sandpaper, but I’ll buy a Blue Spruce marking knife. I’m always looking for a reason to buy a new tool, anyhow!

    Keep the tips coming, please. : )

  • Ethan

    Thanks for the tip, Chris!

    I love my Blue Spruce marking knife, but still feel I haven’t quite mastered it. I’ll try taking lighter passes and see if that doesn’t help me out on some of the woods with more prominent grain.

    My tip:
    When routing out for inlay in darker woods, I’ll mark the area with the marking knife and then use my artists’ white charcoal pencil to highlight the "keep" side of the line. That way I can sneak up to the cut line with the router quite easily.

    I use that same white charcoal pencil to highlight my marked line in darker woods as you suggested with the lead pencil above.



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