Melencolia Square, Part 6: From the Grave

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One of the earliest images of a try square that I know of is a carpenter from the tomb of Rekhmire in Egypt, a New Kingdom official from the 18th dynasty (1543-1292 BC). The image shows a carpenter in a traditional (plaid flannel) loincloth using a straightedge on a piece of work. On the floor is a miter square, a form that remained unchanged until the 18th century.

And on the wall is a try square that looks darn modern. It looks nothing like a Melencolia I square.

Many of the hand tools we use today are descended in some way from Egyptian tools that later made their way to Asia and Europe – via Greece and Italy. But as far as I can tell, the Melencolia square emerged sometime after the Egyptians and then disappeared. We woodworkers reverted back to the Egyptian-style try square for some reason.

After making at least a dozen of these Melencolia-style squares, I can assure you that I’ll be keeping the form alive – at least in Kentucky. They are simple, compact and easy to use.

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Today I made a pair of squares that are the last in this series. I must get on with building furniture that puts food on the table. These last two squares are the improved “Romanian” form of the Melencolia I square. The improvement is that the blade is a bit wider than the stock, making them easier to true up.

Both of the squares I made today were slightly out of true, and it was indeed much easier to bring them into line because the blade was wider. If you make one of these squares, I recommend this modification.

As a final note, thanks to Jeff Burks for his research and for pointing out these squares to me in the first place. Without his keen eye, I’d have never noticed them.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Chris Schwarz

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
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11 Responses to Melencolia Square, Part 6: From the Grave

  1. mctoons555 says:

    Hi Chris,
    As I’ve read through this series of posts about this square one thing has been nagging at me and this entry finally brought it to the forefront. It seems to me that the try square form has a big advantage over this melancholia square in that the longer stock on the try square provides more leverage for minimizing any accidental deflection of the blade as you mark or scribe along it. I think that would be an advantage when you are trying to work efficiently. It seems like that might also be a motivation for the batwing versions of the square as that configuration provides a longer stock, providing more leverage. Maybe that is why the try square is the predominant form. Just my two cents. Anyway, I’ve enjoyed the series of posts and the thought they have provoked. Thanks.

    Jim

    • LostArtPress says:

      Jim,

      These squares have as much bearing surface (and sometimes more) as a combination square. So I don’t want to knock it for its short stock. Most woodworkers I know use a combination square instead of a try square.

      If you use the square properly, it’s almost impossible to deflect when scribing. I press the stock to the edge and then transfer my pressure to the blade. So the marking process is more akin to using a straightedge.

      So I’m inclined to think there are other reasons it faded away. Perhaps it has more to do with how sometimes functions handled by several tools were sometimes collapsed into one tool. For example, the jointer and try plane functions are now both handled by what we call a jointer plane.

      Anyway, it’s all speculation.

  2. Roger says:

    “The mage shows a carpenter in a traditional (plaid flannel) loincloth”
    Norm is older than I thought.

  3. Sean Hughto says:

    Having held it and used it, what tasks does this tool do better than a try square? My guess would be: most try squares are not much bigger than 7-8″ (I know you can buy or make much bigger ones) and so melencolia is handy for marking square cross cuts on wide boards or panels. But can melencolia “try” (check) the square and straight of the cut and shot end? Can it do speed square tricks? Basically, I’m really curious to hear about using the square and what tricks and tasks it can do better than other stuff and where it is less useful?

    • LostArtPress says:

      Make one and you can decide for yourself! They take little time to construct.

      • Sean Hughto says:

        I may. Another potential use I can imagine is using it sort of like a panel gauge to mark wide stock for ripping just by holding a pencil or knife in place along the back of the blade while running the end along the side of the board to be ripped.

  4. John Vernier says:

    Here’s a link to an Egyptian square in the Los Angeles County Museum:

    http://collections.lacma.org/node/245206

    (New Kingdom, c.1550-1070 BC, wood, 5 1/2 x 7 in)
    Since it has no flange, it is less convenient than modern try squares or the melancolia square for marking perpendiculars. I wonder if the “modern” try square borrowed this feature from the earlier German/Dutch form.

  5. theindigowoodworker says:

    Does this square work best if the stock is held on the opposite side of the board so you’re pulling the stock into the board instead of pushing it up against the board? It looks like the molding treatment on the stock would make a decent finger grip for doing it that way.

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