Melencolia Square, Part 3: Construction

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When I look at the moulded grip of one of these now-uncommon squares, several thoughts surface again and again.

1. The moulded stock looks like an offcut. Could it be a section of bannister?
2. I’ve never seen a bannister that looks like those moulded shapes.
3. It looks like two pieces of crown moulding glued together.
4. But there is no joint seam shown in the drawings. The stock looks like one piece.
5. Moulding both sides of the stock would be inconvenient from a workholding perspective.
6. Perhaps I’ll mould one piece and glue up the stock from two pieces of moulding.

Then I go back to No. 1 and repeat a few times until I get to No. 7. (Shut up and have a beer, son.) So for the first four of my Melencolia squares, I made the stock from one 6’ length of moulding that I planed up with hollows and rounds (Nos. 5, 12 and 14 to be exact). Then I cut a rabbet on the back of the moulding and chopped up the moulding into 4”-long pieces.

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(Yes, I know there are other ways to do this that might be better. But I wanted to be able to tune each rabbet to fit its blade before assembly.)

Then I glued up the stock with hide glue. Easy.

The next batch of squares will be more Germanic and the stock will be from one piece. I have some nice superchunks of sapele left over from Roorkee chairs.

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When I look at the blade of the square, here is my thought progression.

1. Was the decoration perhaps useful?
2. Remember the nib on handsaws.
3. Could the decoration serve some purpose for layout?
4. Remember the decorative shaped toe on Dutch saws.
5. Could the steps on the blade represent different common widths used in the shop?
6. Nobody asks why men have nipples do they? They just do.
7. Could the curves on the Swedish one be useful like a French curve in drafting?
8. Nipples aren’t really all that decorative, are they.

So my guess is the decorations are decorative, and make for a decorative effect. But feel free to plug away with your own theories.

I made the blade 3/8” thick because I didn’t want to plane down the maple any more than necessary. The next batch will use 1/4”-thick blades. I merely glued the blades into the stocks. There is no evidence of pinning in the Melencolia square, though Moxon and Holme say it is both glued and pinned in the similar miter square.

So I’ll add some pins in the next batch.

Next up, a detour into the world of workshop signage and its connection to the square. Plus, a version that has an intriguing metal part.

— Christopher Schwarz

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About Chris Schwarz

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
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20 Responses to Melencolia Square, Part 3: Construction

  1. Jason says:

    With all those profiles and curves on every available facet, I’m wondering if it’s not a tool for laying out common profiles and curves?

  2. I love it and would prefer it to a regular square for almost all furniture work. What you really need is a “darn near” perfect square line across a wide board that you’ve just jointed. You either pick up your big, ungainly 12″ square or this elegant little guy which hangs handy but out of the way. Snug his big-enough fence against your clean jointed face, make your mark, cut to length, plane smooth or whatever from there. It’s brilliant. Thanks Christopher, I’ll make one of these for sure.

  3. John Vernier says:

    I like it! One function that the decoration definitely serves: it lets you know which edge is the carefully ‘trued’ edge, and which one definitely is not, thus only one edge needs to be checked and maintained for accuracy.

    • LostArtPress says:

      John,

      You are exactly correct. Many straightedges (even modern ones) have one edge that is shaped so that you always know which edge is true.

      The second “real” reason for the decoration, which I’ll discuss later, is the same reason smoothing planes are coffin-shaped. Exposing end grain along the entire width of the blade helps the blade stay true through seasonal humidity changes.

  4. mcdara says:

    Now that I get a sense of scale, I can think of uses for this. I wonder why it faded in use? Hand tool vs. power tool?

  5. The square’s molding does indeed look very like a section from a bannister. However, it might be worth sectioning a Barrister or two, for comparison purposes.

    • tsstahl says:

      I can sympathize with hating lawyers, but I have to draw the line at sacrificing a couple for investigatory woodworking. ;)

      * rim shot *

  6. toolnut says:

    In looking over the past three posts, I have a goofy ass theory about the blade, what if they made one for each project and it acted as a story stick for that particular project? The steps in the blade had me wondering. In part 1, someone suggested the stepped blade could be used for repeatable marking. Ok, i originally thought, it was just a way to lighten the blade but that would make sense. In part two however, the color pic with the ornate blade and with what looks like molding profiles in the blade, had me think maybe it’s more, maybe it’s a story stick. Why go through all that trouble of shaping the blade unless it had a purpose? By making one for each project, you could repeat the project. Again it was the pic of an actual square that got me thinking.
    Jason’s question above, made me think I wasn’t completely wackadoodle so I thought I’d post.
    Feel free to pick it apart, you asked for theories.

    As for the drawings not showing a joint seam, I’m not sure i’d put too much faith in relying on the artist’s accuracy.

    • JW says:

      That’s an interesting notion, and building the square story stick to that level if finish would make sense for durability in a production environment.

  7. Sean Hughto says:

    Seems to me that the blade shape could be useful to mark off things like standard tenon lengths as you are marking out door and window rails, for example. Or maybe to mark some standard widths for ripping. Without tape measures, it would be nice to have a handy gauge for this kind of stuff.

  8. gman3555 says:

    What would be interesting is to find one one of these in the wild. Trace the owner and compare it to his known work to see if the blade shapes show up in the work. It may be a chicken and egg issue. We are lazy, admit it, you’ve marked a radius with an empty coffee can or whatever else was handy. I bet these guy did the same. They decorated their squares with curves and shapes and, when the need arose, used them to layout elements of their projects. I wonder how many recent projects out there have radius elements that perfectly match a Titebond glue bottle?

  9. smbarnha says:

    How do you get a clean cut on moulded stock, Chris? It seems like it would be tough to knife and chisel a groove. Assuming you cut it by hand, do you just use the miter box and clean up by shooting it with a plane? Then it seems like blowout could be a problem. Maybe it’s not that big of a deal, but I haven’t had to do it before.

    They look great, by the way. What did you do with the rest of the moulding?

  10. I am thinking the modern analog to this is the combination square.

  11. The unknown nature of this square makes for a great mystery. It is possible it was constructed with random offcuts, drawn as it was observed in 1514, and recreated in detail 500 years later by a hand tool nut. It’s a great reproduction – even if we don’t know why it was.

  12. wadeholloway says:

    I guess the blades could be made to just about any length a person wanted, but how long did you make these?

  13. The hollow in the handle could be used as a place for the thumb to press the square firmly to the work while the fingers press the blade flat against the work you are marking.

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