By Matt Kenney
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From the lumberyard to glue up, they’re always needed
As a professional furniture, I own a great many tools, and I own all sorts, from classic hand tools (numerous hand planes) and power tools (circular saw) to hulking and brutish machinery (a 12 in. Oliver 166 jointer). Some, like my tablesaw, I use every day. Others, like my scrub plane, sit forgotten in a cabinet collecting dust because I simply don’t have reason to use them. After years and years of making furniture, I know exactly which ones are irreplaceable in my workflow, and which ones I could easily do without. I also know, without question, that the most important and indispensable ones are my layout tools. Without layout tools, there is no furniture (at least not quality furniture).
For me, a layout tool is any tool that I use to measure, mark, or locate. So, I am talking about tape measures, rules, combination squares, try squares, sliding bevel gauges, depth gauges, marking gauges, pencils, and knives (even though I rarely use a marking knife), and story sticks. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some type of layout tool or two, but you get my meaning.
Layout tools are used at every stage of furniture making, except finishing (perhaps): from lumber selection to assembly. I always have a tape with me at the lumberyard, and a pencil to mark where specific parts will come from in a board. The tape and a speed or combination square help me rough out parts before milling. I use squares to ensure that my jointer fence is 90º to the tables and to check the thickness of parts as I plane them. Rules and bevel and depth gauges are used when setting up machinery and power tools. And, of course, layout tools are essential when laying out joinery. A tape measure or rule allows me to check that my assemblies are square by measuring the diagonals.
There are less obvious uses for layout tools, too, like using a rule to check that a surface remains flat and straight as you smooth it with a plane, or a combination square to locate a pull on a door or drawer front.
At the moment, I cannot think of any individual step that I take when making a piece of furniture that does not involve a layout tool, even if it’s just a pencil.
When I travel to teach, the only tools that are guaranteed to go along with me are my layout tools. I can get by without my hand planes, chisels, and saws, but I’m out of sorts if I don’t have my squares, rules, tapes, and pencils with me. There is a way in which I think through them, and I’m disoriented in the shop without them. And it would not be the same to use another person’s layout tools. That might sound a bit strange, but layout tools are quite personal and intimate. I think that’s because of how critical they are at every step and that they are always in your hand. They become an extension of your body and your mind.
One last point: I strongly believe that your layout tools should be the absolute highest quality you can afford. Fortunately, it’s not too hard to find quality squares, tapes, rules, pencils, etc. However, I adamantly believe there is one and only one combination square worth buying: a Starrett. They are somewhat pricey, but in my experience, no other combination square comes close to a Starrett. Even my tiny vintage 6 in. combination square is a Starrett. (You can see it in the photo up top. It’s on the left, just above the Lie-Nielsen No. 4.)
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