In Shop Blog, Techniques

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Years ago I worked with a professional woodworker who built all his own tools, used the least-expensive machines available and turned out work that was undeniably world class.

He scoffed at buying clamps (he made his own). He invented precision tools when he needed them. And he could make inlay tools from shop garbage.

And yet this self-proclaimed cheapskate carried a Bridge City Tool Works TS-2 try square with him everywhere in the shop. It looked nothing like the ones you see on eBay, with their factory boxes and certificates of authenticity. His was almost black from daily use.

One day I worked up the courage to ask him about his try square. Didn’t he think it was at odds with his day-to-day parsimonious philosophy?

“Precision,” he said, “has to start somewhere.”

And that was the end of it – but it did make me think.

Like many woodworkers, I had bought one of the attractive, but notoriously inaccurate, Crown Tools squares at a woodworking show. I had filed its blued blade to near-precision. I had stripped off the smeared-on surface finish, sanded it down and waxed it. And still, it could not hold a candle to the TS-2.

So I bought a TS-2 after much tribulation. You see, Bridge City made thousands and thousands of these squares at the beginning of the history of the company, but now owner John Economaki focuses his energy on a small set of new products. Many of the tools that company has made during the last three decades are discontinued or manufactured infrequently.

I don’t blame Economaki for changing the way his company does business. I’ve known him for about seven years, and he has a restless and creative mind that is suited to exploring new territory – not making the same widget over and over again.

But still, precision has to start somewhere. And so I started looking on eBay until I found a TS-2 that only a user could love. It was unboxed. No certificate of authenticity. Well-used – on its way to becoming black. But it’s dead-nuts square.

And so this TS-2 became the gold standard of squareness in my shop. I have other squares, of course. I have two wooden squares that require occasional calibration. I have a Starrett 12” combination square, but you cannot trust it unless it is fully locked down, and its precision is inversely proportional to how far its blade is extended. And I have a framing square – no explanation required.

When I need to be certain an assembly is square. That an angle is right and not wrong. That my jointer fence and crosscut sled are doing their jobs. I use the TS-2.

You don’t have to haunt eBay like I did. And you don’t have to have a TS-2. Here are some other options in prices from $6 to $3,800:

• Australian Accuracy. We have two other square makers – both Australian – who make woodworking try squares that are perfect and beautiful – in the tradition of my TS-2. Chris Vesper in Somerville makes squares that definitely fit the bill. You can buy them in all-metal or with wood infilled in the handle. His squares have a retractable tab in the stock that makes them convenient to use on the edges of boards. Colen Clenton has long made precision try squares. His squares have an adjustment mechanism that allows them to be re-calibrated if dropped.

• Engineer’s Squares. Or you can buy steel engineer’s squares. But good ones cost even more than the above woodworking try squares and their all-steel construction leaves me cold. And I promise you this: You get what you pay for with engineer’s squares. Starrett quality costs Starrett dollars.

• Alternative Materials. If you want dead-on accuracy and don’t want to pay much money, get a plastic 90° triangle from a store that caters to artists or architects. Heck you can even find these at the grocery. The plastic triangles are accurate and inexpensive, though they are fragile and easily damaged – as are aluminum squares.

No matter where you find it, I think every shop can benefit from an unassailable square. And if you trust it, use it and obey it, you’ll find difficult tasks (fitting doors and drawers in particular) easier and easier.

— Christopher Schwarz

Hey, you can make your own TS-2, just like Bridge City. Popular Woodworking Magazine published a fantastic article in 2011 by John Economaki on how to make this try square using woodworking equipment in a home shop. You can download the issue from ShopWoodworking for just $5.99. Click here for details.

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Showing 25 comments
  • Tim P

    “Accuracy has to start somewhere”. I remember my epiphany on this. I was watching a blacksmith work.

    He was heating and bending rod into a triangle about 4 feet long and 16 inches at the apex. He said he was making a level. I figured, this I have to see. As I watched he brought the iron together, heated, hammered, and repeated until he had it welded. I then watched as he heated the apex and used a steel awl to drive a hole through the iron. He then inserted a brass rod and hammered the end rivet style. With the rod bent 90 degrees it hung from the apex and had a small, thin plumb bob attached.

    Then the impressive part. Two assistants took it over to a long water trough. They set the ends down on two jack devices. They then began with one saying “turned” at which point he turned the screw one turn and the other would say “caught” when he had caught up. About a half inch from the water the leader started saying “touched” and turning his screw only a quarter turn. They reached a point where the leader was saying “pushed” as was turning the screw about a 16th of a turn. He final said “made” and his helper bumped his screw and said “made”.

    At that point the length of the rod was in contact with the surface of the water and you could see that it was so close it had pushed the water down without breaking through the surface tension. The master black smith then took a small file and marked the center of the rod directly below the plumb bob.

    Gravity…it gets no more accurate than that.

  • esincox

    Move over, bacon. It’s time for something meatier!

  • rrehart

    I use an Incra Guaranteed Square ( and love it. I’ve measured it six ways from Sunday and it is hyper-accurate. I have the Starrett Combo as well, but really only use it for angles that are not 45 or 90.

  • Budgieman

    It seems a strange thing to say about something as simple as a square, but the Colen Clenton square is AWESOME. I’ve had mine for about 4 years now.
    The adjustability is quick and simple, and just works. It was definitely the selling point for me as a tool I know I will never need to replace.

  • docghines

    If you follow, they have one time tools including a very well done all-aluminum try-square in several different sizes. I love mine.

  • Buildinggeek

    My late Uncle was a machinist for Starrett for many years. It wasn’t until much later in my life that I understood how his general fussiness and unwillingness to let anything get out of place probably made him a valuable employee to a company like that.
    But for all that he was a good Yankee farmer. The only Starrett tool he owned was an 18″ rule that I expect came as a prize or reward from the company. He did do some really good work with his Montgomery Ward hand saw and his Craftsman plane.

  • Mostly Square

    Some things are best unknown.

    I have some expensive tools but by far my favourite is the badly beaten 7 1/2″ square my grandfather brought to Canada when he emigrated from England in the early 1900’s. The steel tongue is badly blackened and pitted from year’s of neglect in my widow grandmother’s damp basement.

    I’ve used it a thousand times, but I have honestly never checked it for square. Purposefully. It works fine for most of the things I build. I don’t want to know its degree of inaccuracy because I may then want to stop using it. Aside from a few mementos it’s the only connection I have to my grandfather, who died years before I was born. Just holding it and walking around my shop brings a kind of peace and inspiration I won’t ever get from any other tool.

  • RobJ


    I’m sure you are as aware as the rest of us of the existence of the so-called “Schwarz Effect” 🙂 , but HOLY CRAP! Just for the heck of it, I went to eB@y after reading this post yesterday. Though it’s not on my list of immediate needs, having a TS-2 in my tool chest someday would be great.

    I checked the history of “sold” TS-2’s, and over the past few months they have averaged about $60. There are only 2 of them listed right now, and since your blog both have been bid up to well over $100.

    You have great power Obi-Wan Schwarz. If I thought you could be turned to the dark side, I would offer a generous commission if you would blog about the items I have for sale. Alas, I know you are incorruptible.


  • bko

    I have a TS-2 and bunch of other early Bridge City Squares and I truly appreciate them. The 45 deg and 22 1/2 deg Joint Maker squares have saved my bacon a whole bunch of times. But, my TS-2 is out of square by a lot right now. I don’t know how it happened but it will take some time to fix.

    Bridge City also used to recommend “Flitz” metal polish and I don’t think that has been a friend to my square all these years later. There is a funny build-up in the screw-heads and crevices and I wish now that I had just let it patinate all those years ago.

    I also have the large Bridge City “adjustable” square (AS-14) with the little set screws to re-square it. It’s the one I use the most on case pieces. It also has the little “tongue” on the wood side so it can be held easily on the edge of a panel.

    For smaller work and machine setup, I LOVE my Starrett machinist squares–particularly the 3″ die maker’s square that can double as a marking gauge of sorts.

    But, the squares I use the most are the ones I have made in my shop out of brass and rosewood or ebony. I have a 4″ square I made that I keep in my apron pocket. I have made a bunch of little 2″ brass and ebony squares that are great for checking edges and working on smaller boxes etc. for use and as gifts.

  • rwlasita

    I’m building my own and I am using teak.

  • Eric R

    My old squares love me, and I love them.
    Who the hell needs one ten thousand of an inch accuracy.
    That’s just plain nuts.

  • BridgeCityMike

    I love the dark rich brown that the TS-2 becomes when it is truly utilized and enjoyed. On occasion, I have had to clean the patina off for some customers who “want the shiny back”. I know that it takes years of blotchy fingerprinted brass to get the even rich patina naturally so it really hurts to clean it off!

    Not to burst your bubble Chris, but the TS-2 do go out of square occasionally. I am not really certain why, I think it probably depends on the dryness of the wood that is used and climate that the square has lived in over the years. Re-squaring is tedious, but definitely do-able.

    We did develop the Adjustable Square series of squares with set screws so that the user can re-calibrate themselves.

    General Manager at Bridge City Tool Works

  • d2c

    Another good choice are precision squares offered from Traditional Woodworker, 8″ $77.95, from their website:

    “You are unlikely to find more precise squares than these as they have been machined to German DIN Standard 875/2 and have a guaranteed tolerance of less than 0.0001″ per inch (one ten thousand of an inch) over the entire length of the blade. The base measures 5-1/8″ x 1-3/16″. The Stainless Steel Precision Square is machined for accuracy on both the inside and outside edges. The clever design of these squares allow them to lay steady on the work piece as well as to stand up when calibrating shop equipment. A great choice if you value extreme accuracy and the convenience of stainless steel. Made in Germany.”

  • pmac

    I haven’t checked, but I have a hunch that you just made all of ebay TS-2 sellers very happy.

  • Jason

    The Starrett linked in the article has a 36″ blade and a 20″ stock, and is accurate over its entire length to 0.0001 inches. And yes, that decimal placement is correct.

    Comparing any of the fine squares in the article to that Starrett is like comparing a Porsche 911 Turbo to a Bugatti Veyron. The comparison becomes even more absurd when one considers the above squares will be doing the vehicular equivalent of fetching groceries. Any or either of the above will get the job done, but the same job can be done just as well for far less with no perceptible degradation of the ultimate outcome.

    I love nice tools that are made correctly, and even more so when they’re pleasing to look at, but it’s good to keep things in perspective at times. These type tools simply aren’t required for good woodworking, but just the same I’m glad there are people like John and Chris who strive for precision and elegance in the things they make. Considering that I own quite a few of their wares, I’m fairly certain my wife feels differently.

  • HughReeves

    I just made the TS-2 from the article linked above and am really happy with the results. Definitely recommend reading the article a few times before trying. I recommend anyone trying to make there own to take all of the tips/suggestions in the article as gospel. Got some tools I needed and most of my brass off and the remaining brass stock that amazon didn’t carry from McMaster-Carr. Rosewood was free scrap chunk from a friend who used my shop to make some rosewood stools.

    So people have some idea what it took for for at least one random other person to do this project, here were my costs (bought 12/2012):

    – 360 Brass Rectangular Bar – 1/8″ Height, 1-1/2″ Width, 36″ Length = $10.83
    – 360 Brass Square Bar – 1/4″ Thickness, 36″ Length = $15.64
    – 360 Brass Round Rod – 0.1875″ Diameter, 36″ Length = $11.15
    – Ultra-Machinable Brass (Alloy 360), 1/16″ Thick, 1″ Width, 6′ Length 1 = $20.52
    – Screw for Wood, Phillips, Brass, No. 4, 3/8″ x 1 Pack of 100 = $4.95
    – Carbon Steel Tight-Tolerance Rod, 1/8″ Diameter, 6′ Length 1 = $4.71

    Tools I Didn’t Own:
    – 5-Inch Automatic Center Punch = $7.19
    – Craftsman 8-Ounce Ball Pein Hammer = $16.49
    – General Tools 5/8-Inch 1/4-Inch Shank Countersink = $6.65 (should have gotten a chatter-free one, single flute)

    Shipping charges were:
    – McMaster-Carr = $17.00
    – Amazon = $8.09
    Total Cost: $115.13

    This bought me enough brass to make at least 2 more large squares if I so choose. You may be able to save some money buying shorter lengths. Since precision has to start somewhere, I used my starrett as my reference when setting the blade. In the article he had a machinist’s square to use. Would you recommend to people planning on trying to make their own to get a machinist square? Definitely a worthwhile and rewarding project. Just don’t try to rush any step or I promise you will wish you hadn’t. Good luck.

    Links to the products above:

  • HA

    Had an opportunity to visit Chris Vesper’s shop in December when I traveled to Australia for my daughter’s wedding. When he pulled out a tri-square, I knew that I needed to get it! It is a beautiful tool!

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