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My minimalist tool list – the square

Which tools do you really need?

Some of you have asked about the tools you should buy to get going. I will try cover them over the next few days.

I am not really a minimalist when it comes to hand tools and because there is no one size fits all tool I can expand this later. In providing this list I prefer providing a minimalist beginners start up set of tools. As such, I introduce the tools one by one to cover them properly

These are the tools I suggest. Some of them, the spokeshave, the plane, the scrapers and the saws, all demand sharpness. They also demand setting up and continued adjustment, setting changes and such like that. These are all iterant tasks we artisans must not only resign ourselves to, but grow to enjoy and even love them. This is given fully in the book and DVDs in different ways.

I will begin with the tool I consider most important to our work.  The one tool that governs all others and the tool I cannot function without. This tool is likely to be the most undervalued and least admired. It cuts nothing, smooths nothing yet all cuts and surfaces are proved by it. The simplest square seems to do almost nothing yet by its function we guarantee the success of every joint we develop and every meeting line between these joints.

The square

If you haven’t really noticed there is more information about most other woodworking tools than squares. I can’t recall many conversations about these seemingly unimportant tools, which I think to be quite strange. I can talk about squares all day long, as much as I can about planes and saws, without squares we could hardly function. They rule just about all tools used in woodworking. In my experience no one really talks about the humblest of all tools, the square.

Almost all other tools woodworkers use cut wood in some way, but there are some tools that seem to do less than the ones that shave, pare, chop or saw wood. Two tools fall outside this range, the square and the tape or rule. They may seem perhaps to many the least interesting of tools, but, though seemingly uninteresting when compared to other tools, the square is in its very essence ruler of all, for from the square all the other tools take their reference.

I own many squares of different types and sizes. This tool is not merely a handy tool but absolutely essential to my work. I have made it a policy not to allow any square in my workshop that is not dead square. Any deviation from this renders the whole of my work inaccurate.

Three years ago I designed two highly intricate pieces for the Permanent Collection of the White House. They stand on either side of the entryway doors at the end of the Cabinet Room. These two pieces perfectly mirror one another as every single facet was book-matched. Each facet mirrors the opposite of the other piece by virtue that every section of wood came from sequentially cut boards that gave me book-matched pieces to create with. Because the components were so critically fitted one to the other, before work began I checked every man’s square against my own to make certain one man’s work didn’t compromise another’s.


12” Engineer Combination Squares

Of the squares I use and have used, the engineers Combination Square is the one I find the most practical and reliable.

One of the most finely engineered is the Starrett combination square made in the USA. It’s dead accurate, compactly designed and easy to use. Because of its proportions and shape it allows my hands to squeeze the wood and the square tightly together as I mark or cut the layout lines with a pencil and knife. It suits almost all hand sizes and, regardless of physical strengths, is very comfortable to use too.

Combination squares are fully adjustable so that the blade or beam slides along the stock making it convenient to use for different applications. Combination squares comprise both square and 45-degree aspects to the stock, enabling the square to be used for mitred work and a series of other geometrical configurations used in layout and manufacture.

There are several good makers of combination squares, however some makers known for making higher quality squares also make a lesser range of combination squares using lower grade materials and less exacting manufacturing standards. At first these squares are indeed square, but through prolonged use component parts wear and lose their exactness. A well-made and cared for combination square should last for a lifetime and these squares are more expensive than all others. They are made from highly developed metals that make the best quality squares with many of the parts made from hardened steel to ensure the accuracy and longevity of the square.

Because we use steel bladed knives against the blade of the square it’s important that the blade (or beam) of the square must have a hardened steel blade sufficiently hard enough to resist wear.

Try Square

I have try squares of different types and sizes and enjoy using them on some of my work; I especially like the large ones for reasons I give below. These Rabone Squares from the 1930-1950s handles most of my needs and whereas the combination square is the most used of all, I use this type for the internal corners of frames and boxes or squaring lines across panels and sheets of materials like plywood. The older Rabones and Rabone Chestermans were engineering toolmakers of high reputation. That has changed through the years and the standards once set have sadly diminished. That said, they hold their prices on eBay but can still be bought as an alternative to new. All steel models like the one here are quite heavy to use and are indeed more clunky, but on larger component parts and projects they give the heft and size I need so I like ti have them around fro that.

There are of course many lovely squares of old the like of which is rarely matched by most of today’s toolmakers, but some do make fine squares even now. Ebony, black as coal, inset with bright brass curves through which steel pins rivet the stock to the beam (or blade) of the square has a beauty only ebony has. It’s unfortunate such squares seldom remain square even though no moving parts give way to wear and such. But they can be trued and restored to accuracy by removing the wear plate along the inside edge of the stock if present and reworking the wooden stock below or filing the beam with a  sharp10” single-cut mill file. Patience brings perfection!

Try squares are useful in varying sizes for checking squareness inside workpieces under construction, where the combination square is possibly too big, or indeed too small. By too big I mean the 12”beam is too long to fit inside; by too small I mean that the stock of the square is too short and doesn’t give the same accuracy I get with a longer stock. These are all variables of course and you can buy 6” combination squares for smaller areas of work.

Large Try Squares

Large squares transfer lines on large panels more accurately than small squares. Where necessary I use a craftsman made square made from mahogany. It’s a finely made, lovely square with pristinely cut dovetailed corner where the beam joins to the stock as shown. The square I use for sheet materials like plywood is 4’ long on the beam and 3’ on the stock. The one shown is a scaled down model 2’ long by 18”, which is a good and practical size for most of my larger work.


  1. Dan Anderson says:

    Any opinions on whether or not an expensive Starett combo square is truly necessary for the average beginner? I would love to own one but the price is steep.

    • Its such good quality you should evaluate it in diminishing costs. If you anticipate dead on accuracy for ten years then that’s £10 a year or 20pence a week. If its fifty years then that’s 4pence a week. Accuracy and quality are well worth it.

      • Isaac says:

        I bought a Starrett combination square and payed extra for the forged head which is supposed to stay perfectly accurate pretty much forever. I don’t know what I would do without it. It cost me $113 but I have never regretted this excellent purchase. I was using the Pinnacle combination square from Woodcraft which cost $40, but when it started to have problems I decided it was time to by a square for life.

  2. Andrew says:

    Is a good Starrett combination square ever going to go out of square? Or will it still need to be trued up every once in a while? I would definitely buy one if it was guaranteed to be square for the life of the tool!

  3. Peter says:

    I fully agree. The most use tool in my workshop after my tape measure.
    I recently collected up all my squares ie 2 builders squares, 2 try ‘s, 1 combination & a framing square. None were dead square, the builders squares being the worst – out by a good margin. I’ve always had to adjust for error by rotating 180 degrees & meaning the two marks, but what a pain.

  4. Michael says:

    I bought the cheapish 150mm Starrett Student model. It is thing of joy just to hold in the hand and I have to say it is one of my very favourite tools. So much so that when I accidentally knocked it off my router table onto the concrete floor today my heart sank. Now worry has set in and I will have to see if it has been knocked out of square or indeed if the beam has been twisted. With my eyesight, that will be no mean feat. It took the force on one corner of the beam so if you buy one, remember where you set it down last!

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