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Using Measuring Tools for Woodwork Projects

You have decided that you want to do a project on your own, after picking one from this list, but you need help in choosing and using measuring tools effectively. This can be overwhelming but don't let an empty tool box discourage you from woodworking. The bare necessities that you would use for measuring is your tape measure, squares and compass or wing dividers. You can get these tools for reasonable prices at any hardware store or for practically nothing at a flea market or garage sale.

However, before you start any project, there is something else to consider before using the measuring tools. You need to lay it out first, when building a project of your own design, you'll need to draw up a detailed set of plans and figure a list of materials (be sure to account for stock types and sizes of available materials). Then your first working step would be measuring and marking materials where you will cut or shape them.

Basic Measuring Tools and Marking Methods

The most important factor in getting a project off on the right foot is careful measuring. For instance, tight-fitting joinery for your bookshelves or cabinets, will demand measuring and cutting to within proper measurements. For rough measuring, you can use a wooden yardstick or ruler; for more precise work, use a metal tape measure, a metal yardstick or a square's blade. Whenever possible during construction, use one material to transfer measurements to another. No matter what measuring tools you are using, you should measure twice and cut only once.

When shopping for your tape measure can buy a compact, flexible steel tape one at a low cost. How do you choose one? Pick a tape container that measures exactly 2" or 3" along its base to make measuring between two surfaces easy. The tape's end hook should be loosely riveted so that it will slide the distance of its own thickness, adjusting that thickness for precise "inside" and "outside" measurements.

If you buy a tape that automatically recoils into its case, check to see if it can be locked in an extended position. (When using a recoiling tape, push the last few inches into the case, saving the end hook from slamming against the case.)

The squares are also an important measuring tool that you will be needed, the blade of a combination or framing square excels for making precise, short measurements; the versatility of these multiple-use tools offers several bonuses. If you don't own a combination square, strongly consider buying one. It could be one of your most-used tools.

A simple, stiff schoolroom compass works for limited measuring jobs and draws circles or arcs. Wing dividers are more precise but cost more (they have a knurled screw that holds the legs in place). Use these measuring tools to transfer small measurements or to step off equal marks.

Marking your lines accurately

Laying out most projects will require drawing lines - some straight, some curved, some at a particular angle. The first measuring tool needed for this is a pointed scribe or a good sharp pencil. A scribe marks a more precise line, but the scratch it leaves cannot be erased as can a pencil line. Some of the following tools may be helpful for guiding your pencil or scribe in drawing straight, curved or angled lines.

Straight lines

Any straight tool can help you draw straight lines: a square, a level or a yardstick. A yardstick is especially handy for long lines, but only if it is straight and has a hard edge. Sight down its length to make sure it isn't slightly warped or curved. Although many paint stores give yardsticks away, it's wise to buy the more accurate metal ones.

Curved lines

To get good curved lines (easiest by a scroll saw), either wing dividers or a compass measuring tools can draw arcs or small circles. They also duplicate irregularities of one surface, like a wall or to another surface like a board that must fit flush. For drawing large-radius circles or curves, tack one end of a yardstick to the material.


The versatile combination square aids in marking several types of lines: a precise right angle ninety degrees, a miter (45 degrees) or a straight line. A sliding T-bevel will duplicate any angle.

For some projects, sophisticated measuring tools are necessary, the better the tools for woodworking, easier the work. If you lack a particular tool but would rather not spend the money to buy it, perhaps you can borrow or lease it from a local tool rental. If you need a costly tool for only a limited time, it's worthwhile to rent it.

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