Tools in ‘The Anarchist’s Tool Chest:’ Part 3, Marking & Measuring


I have a terrible weakness for marking and measuring tools. Even though most of my work eschews hitting a particular number, I am a sucker for squares, knives and marking gauges. Let’s start with squares.

I have three Starrett combination squares. Two have been with me for 20 years. The third is a new acquisition. My 12” Starrett square was probably the first quality tool I bought when I was hired by Popular Woodworking Magazine. I was terrified by the price at the time – about $65 – but I was hooked after using a fellow employee’s Starrett square.

I also have a 6” Starrett combination square I bought at a flea market for $20 (Cincinnati is awash in machinist tools).

This year I bought a 24” Starrett combination square with the oversized H8 head. It was my reward to myself for finishing “The Anarchist’s Design Book.” With this square and its 24”-long blade I was able to retire my framing square and trade up in accuracy. I would never call this a “must-have” tool. But I’ve always wanted one.

Despite the above, I’m not much of a spokeman for Starrett. The quality of the new stuff seems to be falling lately. I hope it’s temporary.

I also have two squares from Chris Vesper. I have his 7” try square and his fantastic double square (with all the accessory blades). The 7” try square is the ultimate arbiter of squareness in the shop. The double square measures things in places that no other square can go.

Marking Knives
I have two marking knives. A Blue Spruce Toolworks knife that is the only tool in my chest that I did not purchase. It was a gift from a reader in Arkansas who was dying and asked me to have it. The handle is some fantastic burl and the blade is, of course, the high quality you expect from Dave Jeske at Blue Spruce.

My other marking knife is a Veritas with a black plastic handle. Despite the plastic handle, it’s an excellent knife and is the tool I use when I am working out of town. I love how it won’t roll off my bench.

Marking Gauges
I have four Tite-Mark gauges. I wish had four more. Don’t buy imitators or from people who ripped off Kevin Drake’s work. Your gauge lines will go astray and you’ll get a gypsy curse to boot (and then Marta will have to remove it).

Dividers and Compasses
I have two pairs of small dividers from Starrett. One is vintage; one is new. The new one is not in the same league as the vintage one. I also own two Starrett compasses – one new and one vintage. The quality hasn’t slipped on these. These compasses allow you to swap the pencil for a second point, and so they serve me well for large layout chores.

Sliding Bevel Gauges
I have two of them, a 7” and 4”, both from Chris Vesper. Before I could afford Vesper’s work, I was a sucker for the Stanley No. 18 butt-locking gauge.

I use a variety of mechanical pencils and lead holders for rough marking of the material. I also use the fine-lead pencils to accentuate knife lines so I can see them.

Trammels & Odd Bits
I finally gave up my grandfather’s Japanese trammels and picked up the Veritas ones. I have wooden shop-made winding sticks, a straightedge and pinch rods stashed in the front chamber of my chest next to my saws. Somewhere in there is also a plastic protractor.

For marking dovetails, I have the Sterling Saddle-Tail. Love it.

And Tape Measures
I can’t imagine working without a tape measure on my belt. And I get the funniest looks when I walk into the local hardware store with it. It’s a 12’ Stanley Powerlock – the kind with the metal case. Contractors look at me like I’m wearing a dress or a dominatrix outfit. In our hardware store it’s 50’ or go home.

I also have a few Lufkins floating around that I use when I go to the lumberyard or need to get a rough measurement. But for measuring anything “for keeps,” I use the Stanley. Every tape measure is a little different and a little off from its brothers and sisters.

Next up: Chisels and such.

— Christopher Schwarz

Part 1 of this series on handplanes can be found here.
Part 2 on saws is here.
Part 2-1/2 on frame saws is here.

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19 Responses to Tools in ‘The Anarchist’s Tool Chest:’ Part 3, Marking & Measuring

  1. Don’t you use wooden squares? Or aren’t they in your chest? I was just contemplating to make one of these 😉

    • My wooden squares are too big for the chest. I have a Melancholia square hanging above my bench and a large A-square in the window above my jointer.

  2. Funny how carpenters/contractors equate tape length to work load.

  3. Derek Long says:

    A 20″ or longer blade for a square does come in handy. The brand new Starrett ones are pricey, but you can pick up factory seconds for pennies on the dollar. I got a 20″ blade on Ebay for around $20 if I remember correctly, and the only defect is the etching is a little faded on one spot. That’s definitely an option for those of us that want a nice long blade for some work but don’t want to shell out the bucks for new.

  4. Eric R says:

    My local hardware store got in a bucket full of Stanley 6′ Fatmax measuring tapes.
    I bought one, and after using it, I came back and bought 5 more.
    The only drawback is no belt clip, but it is so small I can easily put it in my pocket.

    And, I know Starrett is the king of all combo squares, but my Craftsman (NOT Empire) does the same job for 1/5th the price.)

    Really enjoying this series Chris.

    central Florida

  5. I’m liking this update series as it puts a different spin on ATC. Much of that book is about paring down to the bare essentials on many levels. But as time goes on, it’s ok to indulge here and there on many levels. Good stuff Chris.

  6. lukeebear says:

    Do you keep a panel gauge in your chest or do you leave that outside like the wooden squares??

  7. Morgan Reed says:

    After taking a class with Bill Anderson at Roy Underhill’s shop, I fell in love with the Bridge City MG-3 Marking Gage. They have gotten insanely expensive, but I was able to get one that was a “blem” for a decent price.

  8. Brad Davis says:

    What do you notice about the changes in the starrett combo’s?

  9. Brad Davis says:

    What can you notice between the old and new starrett combos?

    • On the combination squares: fit and finish. On the dividers they are using different components or a different material in the mechanism that controls how far open the points are. And fit and finish.

      • A few years back Starrett quietly outsourced to the Pacific Rim some items, of which the combo squares were one. They were/are ID’d by lack of “made in…..” on the tool. I picked up a 24″ blade of this type and it is perfectly fine, indistquinisable from the US made tools.

        However, the machinist/precision tool marketplace did not like the Starrett move and the company returned to domestic manufacture. Evidently cost saving measures must have been employed, in spite of the premium price Starett brings because of their name. When Starrett returned to this country, the imported remaining stock somehow made it to Ebay, and similar disposal outlets. But as I mentioned, I found the blade I picked up, the equal of earlier US made blades.

  10. disneytodd says:

    Do you find that the H8 head improves the accuracy that much on the 24″ blade as I have only the 24″blade and a 12″ starrett that works with it. I am highly curious to find out if you think the H8 head is worth all them pennies??? So far since I have added my 24″ blade O have found that I use it more than I thought I would.

    • disneytodd says:

      So sorry right after I posted I re read the catolog and saw that the h8 blade is 1 1/2″ so It won’t work with the blade. Sorry I have foot in mouth condition.

  11. karlfife says:

    I see that you don’t have a 10″ bevel gauge. I notice that 10″ is one of only two sizes that Veritas makes, and is one of three sizes that Chris Vesper makes. Is it a less useful size in your work?

    Chris Vesper told me to ask you about the ten-incher. I’m Kidding, though Chris does appear to make several 10″ versions, including a unique lightweight aluminum version. I know you hate talking about vesper gauges, but I’m curious if you find your 7″ too small at times.

    • For the work I do, 7″ is plenty. I actually use the smaller one more than the larger.

      The short blade allows me to get the bevel closer to the bit when boring compound angles without the chuck of the brace ramming into the blade.

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