Must-Have Measuring Tools

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This article is from Issue 41 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Measurements you can count on

While good measuring tools don’t guarantee quality work, quality work is impossible without them. Your shop should contain squares, rules, and tapes that are intuitive to use, easy to read, and rugged enough to maintain accuracy even after years of use.

Here’s a short list of tools needed to complete most any furniture project and to make precision machine setups. Considering the low cost of some of the items, you might buy a few spares to ensure that the right tool is within easy reach. On the other hand, you should buy the best you can afford. An inaccurate ruler or square is never a bargain.

Starrett 12" Combination Square, #06R12, $109.99

Combination square

Place a quality square at the top of your list. You’ll use it to the set a saw blade height and to adjust blade angles to 45° or 90°. The adjustable blade allows you check the depth of mortises, grooves, or offset parts. Also, the blade can serve as a ruler or straightedge.

Combination squares range in size from 4" to 36", but a 12" blade proves the most versatile. A quality square features a blade that’s divided into fine measurements–64ths if possible. To ensure that the blade reads well and stays that way, select one with a satin finish and etched, not applied, delineations.

6" Hook Rule, #128292, $15.99

6" flat or hook rule

A pocket-sized rule is convenient for tasks where larger rules prove cumbersome. They excel at tool setup when adjusting fences or blade heights, when laying out joinery–like tenons or dovetails–and as a straightedge guide for marking or scribing layout lines on workpieces.

A 6" flat rule is more versatile, but some prefer a 6" hook rule, because it catches the edges or ends of stock for easy reference. Just make sure the hook is removable–otherwise it can get in the way on certain tasks. To work as it should, markings should start and end flush to the rule’s end. As with combination squares, opt for a satin finished blade.

36" Shop Rule, #129212, $77.99

24" or 36" shop rule

A longer, stable, and reliable rule will come in handy for a variety of larger jobs. It’s also good for laying cutlines or shelf pin holes on panels. In a pinch it can double as a straightedge and can be used on edge for checking the flatness of boards and assemblies at glue-up.

Lufkin 6' Folding Rule, The Home Depot, #184098, $15.97

Folding rule

A 6' folding rule with a sliding brass insert is indispensible for taking interior measurements, as when comparing the length of opposing diagonals to square an assembly. Unfold the rule so it’s a little short of full length, place it in the inside corner of a carcase, and then slide out the insert. The rigidity of a folding rule also enables it to lay flat, making it easier to transfer and mark out lengths precisely.

Stanley 25' Fat Max Tape, The Home Depot, #655095, $19.97

Tape rule

A 12' tape measure, or rule is suitable for most furniture projects, but if you do carpentry work, opt for a 16- or 25-footer. Whatever the length, look for a wider blade–11⁄4" or so–to maximize the length it can extend unsupported.

Keep in mind that the hook on the end of the tape is designed with some play for inside and outside measurements and can become bent from use. For precise measurements, use this tip: line up the tape on the 1" mark and subtract an inch from the overall measurement.

Adhesive-backed Tape Measure, #402120 (R to L), #402121 (L to R), $13.99

Self-stick tape measure

Attaching a self-stick tape to an edge can transform a simple jig into a precision instrument. Tapes also can be affixed to workbenches, mitersaws, fences, and lathe beds to save time spent searching for a ruler. Note that tapes read from right to left, or left to right; choose the one that best matches the task at hand.  

Special-Service Tape Rules

In addition to your standard tape rule, you might want to add one or more of these special-service models to your measuring arsenal. Flatback tapes are easier to maneuver on curved surfaces and lay flat on panels, for easier, more accurate marking. For imperial and metric measurements, consider a tape with markings of both types. For those who prefer to work without numbers, story pole tapes offer a 1⁄4"-wide blank space for jotting down notes and tick marks.

A center point tape might seem like an extravagance (who can’t divide by two?), but it saves time and second guesses. A split-scale blade shows overall length and center measurement, enabling you to measure and mark your centerline in a single step.


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