Chris Schwarz's Blog

Stealing the Carpenter’s Magic Device

In every craft, there is a magic device that acolytes must learn to manipulate and master.

In joinery, I think dividers (aka the compass) are our totemistic thingy. In journalism, you have to learn the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act). And in traditional carpentry, you need to master the steel square.

I suck at using the steel square. I have a chart in my shop that helps me use it to set angles in 1° increments between 0° and 45°. I swing it around my shop like a big try square. And I use it to find 90° in space at times.

But those three functions are about less than one-half of one percent of the things the steel square can do for the carpenter and joiner.

This week, I’m trying to pick up a few more tricks from this simple tool as I develop a class for the Woodworking in America Conference in Pasadena, Calif., this weekend. My demonstration will show how to build a sawbench with compound-angle legs in less than an hour.

Because of the wacky geometry in this project, I knew that I needed to probe the steel square a little deeper. It can solve and help scribe compound angles with ease. And I also knew that I needed to mash up the traditional carpentry designs for sawhorses and the woodworking designs for sawbenches to develop a new animal.

I think I’ve succeeded. But you’ll have to come to Pasadena to find out.

Bring tomatoes in case I fail.

— Christopher Schwarz


Check out more of Chris’s work in his set of books on workbench building.

3 thoughts on “Stealing the Carpenter’s Magic Device

  1. nathanael_beal

    Sadly, when I spent time on a framing crew in CA in 2002-2004, I was the only young person on the crew that was willing to spend any time learning the art of the framing square. All my fellow crew members that were around my age thought it a waste of time over the “Speed Square”. I think it is a shame that knowledge like this is being lost.

    1. willcon

      Have you ever tried to keep a framing square in your bags? Doesn’t work! Speed squares are great. You HAVE to use framing squares for stairs though.

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