The Square Cross-references My Work – Boring?

For more information on the square, see our beginner site Common Woodworking.

The square doesn’t seem to do much and yet everything I do at the bench depends on the most undervalued tool I have. In this article I tell you that it has never been more than three feet from my hands in 50 years. I hope this interests you.

There’s an intenseness when the square is lifted from the workbench. Intervals of evaluation become ever critical to our emerging work and so every step we take is checked according to the square. My square remains an arm’s length or less from me. It never goes away and  of course I make few moves and no cuts without it. If it’s not there my work stops. Nothing I do starts or ends without it, so until its replaced back to nearby I search.

DSC_0009 I measure my own accuracy as diligently as I can and always within minutes of my previous test. The cuts start with a knifewall, a cross-grain cut from my knife running along the square. Judgement heightens all consideration when it’s placed to the work. Muscles close off an eye and the other adjusts contractions to align my sight. Muscles swell in flexed domes and each sinew draws the work tight to the square. It’s a quick check, accurate, exact. I forget my muscles as they lock in my upper body. Lower muscles flex to support this fixedness. Movement is slight, so slight. I lose nothing as align myself. My honesty is tested. Honesty to my work, myself and those who rely on my tests.

DSC_0124 From the square the chisel follows a cut line made by my knife Nothing is at all left to randomness. So too the plane parallels the invisible lines I draw by eye. An extension through which I cast my eye to for twist, cup and bow. I continue moving minute by minute moving between the plane and the square until I feel satisfied. Nothing goes unchecked but the risk lessens if my strokes are placed accurately. Of all the tools I own my Rabone Chesterman, the one I bought when I was 15 or 16, has never left my side. Imagine that after 50 full years being with me for 10 hours every day. There are not many of any one of you out there that can say such a thing. There will be some though. I look at the square from time to time. Somehow I forget it’s there, but when it’s missing I search and oh how I search. You may not feel what I feel when my square has slipped away for a few minutes. When it is missing, it’s never for longer than that.

I just thought you might be interested in how I feel about my Rabone Chesterman 12” combination square.


  1. This ode to your square is well deserved.

    Since you mentioned searching: Do you have any methods of placing/organizing your tools at the bench so things are always easily found? My bench becomes quickly covered with tools, and I am really trying to figure out the best method to keep things in order.

    Thanks for any advice,


  2. i think i feel your need .i learned the hard way at the beginning of woodworking master classes when i began with an inexpensive square which was square to begin with but eventually started to lie to me as i found out trying to join pieces together .i saved up and bought myself a starett combination square and treat it like a newborn . without doubt and i believe you said it yourself the square is the most important tool you will own.

  3. First the gouges. Now there will be a run on Rabone Chesterton measuring tools on EBay. 🙂

  4. Yes!

    a simple tool with an simple function and yet, indispensable! (Isn’t that a “life-lesson” for us)

    My “starret” combination square is nothing more than a tool; but it serves me well;

    so I look after it and maybe It will be used my entire live and hopefully my next generation.

    Thanks Paul for Being there.


    1. I have a Rabone tri-square that’s accurate and good for larger projects. That said, for the main part I have found them to be unreliable and always out of square. I am sure some are accurate, I just have found them to be out. Whether they are accurate from the start I don’t know, but I have half a dozen in a drawer that are no longer square. A Starrett is square for life. You will never need to replace it.

      1. Yes, this is what I’ve read that they are often out of square. I’ve noticed tri-squares seem to be recommended often in the hand tool woodworking press. But without the experience I couldn’t judge.

        I have a Starrett and you can just feel the quality. The combination square perhaps has superseded the tri-square. In terms of versatility, the combo square seems unbeatable, having a square, rule, miter, etc.

  5. This is so true! Of all the tools for woodworking I own, my Craftsman combination square is the oldest one that I still have. I’ve had it since I was 17 and I’ve never used the marking pin in the bottom of it. I was raised on the pencil. My dad has done more woodworking than me but I can’t ever remember my dad owning one. That’s very interesting. I’ve always used mine for everything from making stools, boxes, cutting shelves, doing trim on the house. And, since I’ve been watching you’re material here, I’ve purchased another with a scale that’s easier for me to see. And, I now keep one on my new bench and the other on the other side of the shop.

  6. Paul,

    If your square is true and you use the proper registration edges to knifewall a cut around all 4 sides but they don’t line up from front to back what does this indicate? I know you always check that they line up but yours always do…sometimes mine don’t and I’m wondering if it’s one of the faces being out of square. Also if you’re working on a project and you encounter this problem what do you do to address it?
    Thanks Paul.

    For those who haven’t, check out the masterclass series as it’s amazing what’s available for roughly $0.50 US a day! Or just check out the free registration which also offers a great deal (Pun intended).



    1. The number 1 question is are you registering the square against the same two faces every time. If you are, then it should come out dead on the corner provided then that your square is in fact dead square. A twisted board can also throw the square off, so check that the board and edge of the board is not twisted by using winding sticks. If you are not registering against the same two faces, it can still be OK provided both opposite faces are truly parallel one to the other.

  7. It is rather difficult to find an accurate square. I’ve got a number of them for different tasks and only one that I bought 15 years ago is really strict. It was from some machinery plant. The combination square I own had to be sanded at one side a little bit to make it perfect. The same was done to a Japan square to eliminate the tolerance they declared.
    I think you are never to trust a square until you have checked it yourself.

    1. You may well be right, Misha. Not sure where you are but there are some squares that will always be square here in the UK and the US and some other countries too. I have never come across a Starrett square that was out of square and never heard of one that way either. Brown & Sharp, Rabone Chesterman and a couple of others sprint to mind.

      1. Dear Mr. Teacher Paul!

        A few days ago I got the square you were talking about. And I am really happy I followed your advice. It is very well built and proved to be exact. The square from the machinery plant and this one coincide in 90 degree angle.

        I have already bought some of the tools (you mention in your posts) but skills and knowledge HAVE NOT.

        Best regards,

  8. I’m more interested in the process rather than the brands. How do you check a square for square when you’ve bought it? Do you attempt to correct a wayward square? How do you go about it? Can a combination square be regularly maintained and fettled? So many questions…..

    1. The brand names are important. Starrett is a lifetime square that will remain square throughout a lifetime of use if cared for properly. It comes out of the box and is certified square. In my bool, I don’t think that I have the equipment that would test it better than their guarantee of accuracy. Other combination squares, cheapos, often come square but go out of square after a short time. These are the ones to watch. Had I the need to buy another square I would but a Starrett and not worry again.
      To test a square for square it’s ideal to test it against a Starrett or other high quality square. If that’s not possible you must find or create as perfect a straight edge as you can. This is not difficult if you have a the right plane and a good hand using it. Here is a how-to I posted some time back that will guide you. A combination square that needs any more maintenance than light oil is probably not worth having and if it can be fettled I question the hardness of the components which are hardened to resist wear.

  9. I couldn’t agree with Paul more. I’ve written on here before and I will say it again, and again, and again. I love my Starrett combination square because of its quality and accuracy. I have the 12-inch, the 6-inch, and the 4-inch double-sided models and love them all. I’ve never tried the brand that Paul speaks of, but Since Paul recommends and I’m sure it’s first class. I can however, personally recommend Starrett. Sure, it’s expensive and not a purchase that most people can make lightly, but sometimes you really do get what you pay for! I think a good combination square is the perfect embodiment of that old saying. When EVERYTHING you do starts with accurate layout, it’s entirely worth the money. Achieving this level of accuracy was not possible for me until I invested in this particular instrument. And boy, am I glad I did. To my fellow woodworkers and craftsmen who have not yet found the truth in Paul’s statement, I say, save up, find a good, sturdy, accurate square, and buy it. A combination square truly is THE MOST IMPORTANT TOOL and one of those tools that you can easily justify the cost of by knowing that investment in this tool is an investment in your long-term excellence. I promise you will not regret it and you’ll quickly come to value it as the indispensable tool that it is. Despite all your years of practice you will never be able to achieve the accuracy did you cancel with a good combination square.

    1. CORRECTION: That lasting should have read, “Despite all your years of practice you will never be able to achieve true accuracy until you have a good combination square.” My apologies for the error.

  10. I am so grateful for your blog article.Really thank you! Fantastic. eeeaedcfcbea

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