Woodworking Project Layout and Layout Tools

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We asked Make: contributor Len Cullum to contribute some pieces on understanding basic tools and techniques. Here, he explains the tools used for laying out woodworking projects. — Gareth

Accurate layout work is the critical first step to a successful project. Without precise, repeatable marks, it is very difficult to get everything to come together at the end. So for this piece, I will go over some of the basic tools for measuring, marking, and transferring lines. My big three (actually four) tools for almost all of the work I do are the tape measure, a high quality 12″ combination square, and a .005 drafting pen. I also use a 4″ combination square for smaller work.

The three most common measuring devices you’re likely to find in a wood shop are the tape measure, folding rule, and steel rule. All three have their good and bad points. But as with all tools, find the one(s) that fit your style and make the most sense to you and the way you work.

The tape measure with its spring-steel blade rolled up into a small box is fast and can measure distances that would require a massive folding rule. On the down side, the little hook at the end of the tape can introduce inaccuracy. When new, the hook slides on rivets just enough to adjust for the thickness of the hooks metal. When measuring to the inside of something, the hook is pressed in; when on the outside, the hook is pulled out keeping the measurements accurate. This works great for a while, but over time, the holes and rivets can wear and get bigger, or worse. Far more common, the hook can be bent when the tape measure is dropped. To remedy this, most woodworkers “burn an inch.” This is where you ignore the hook and start all of your measurements from the one inch mark. This works well and gives accurate results, as long as you remember to subtract one inch from your result. Trust me, no one who uses this method hasn’t had a moment of dread after discovering something (or worse, multiple things) didn’t fit to the tune of one extra inch. So stay awake out there. When choosing a tape measure, consider the type of work you are doing. If you primarily work with material shorter than twelve feet, don’t buy a twenty five foot tape. Those last thirteen feet will never see daylight and the extra mass is heavy and cumbersome.

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