Mortise Gauges to Look For

Thursday 16th February 2017

I’ve worked on and off with marking gauges all my working life. New ones have come and gone with the generations and then, because an originator passed, a stepson or nephew took over, and the heart and the art was lost, we ended up with slop around the stem.

 

I have yet to receive one of these bought via eBay to be sloppy in the mortise and the have a perfect amount of margin that keeps them square to the work. I have also found that they are almost always in good condition too, with no wear noticeable wear to the pins.

Some more fanciful makes are nice and well made, look lovely but have a sort of exclusivity about them. Some are more sort of snobby, but they work fine. I could never afford them or justify the price but then again I don’t care for exclusivity anyway and that’s where fancy things often ends up. Anyway, I have acquired many of my preferred combination gauges to keep the school stocked and I thought a blog might help with the what I like about these. The standard model is an unpretentious blend made for the working man of the mid last century as the first offering range of what has become the combination gauge. It’s hard to believe that it didn’t happen a century earlier but that’s the reality of good ideas. Whereas several of these are stamped with a maker’s stamp, many of them were made by one producer and stamped as produced by a distributor with their name. That was common for Sheffield back then. It was cost effective. So instead of giving a maker’s name, rely on the picture above.

The mortise gauge on the left had only two pins, one fixed and the other adjustable, and so it was a mortise gauge.  Of course to the initiated it’s title tells you what it is, a mortise gauge, and that tells you it’s not a combination gauge at all. On the other hand, many gauges listed or described as mortise gauges are often combination gauges or not mortise gauges at all. In one sense any of the three can indeed be listed as simply marking gauge because that is what they do. That being so, it’s not technically wrong to call any of them marking gauges, but that’s not helpful in the early days as far as identification goes so it is best to adopt the nomenclature early on. A single pin gauge is a marking gauge, twin pin versions a mortise gauge and with the extra triple pin, 2 on one side, 1 on the other, a combination gauge.


The two I bought this week are a combination and a mortise gauge. I simply buffed over the existing shellac finish and added 2-3 coats of shellac.

I removed any sharp arises first and lightly sanded the parts. The one with two pins I upgraded by adding a pin. I generally keep combination-square scribe pins for this as I don’t use them in my work. These re the removable pins used for scoring lines in metal. They have lovely long points and the steel is hardened. Because we use these combination gauges in the school and have no need of the pins, they are readily available to me.  

To do this I snap off the length I need by bending back and forth with two pairs of pliers. I drill a small hole through from one face into the opposite ending in the slot, but behind the brass ‘T’ bar on the other side.
Then I remove the ‘T’ bar and send the pin point through the hole until it protrudes about 3/16” – 1/4”. The hole I bore is slightly undersized; just hair. I use a nail punch (US set) to set the pin flush so that it sits behind the stub of ‘T’ bar. Then I replace the ‘T’ bar and the gauge is good to go. I know it’s not technically upcycling, but it has the same uplifting feel.

15 comments on “Mortise Gauges to Look For

  1. HI Paul, Do you ever sell your finds to your distance learning students? Some of the tools you’ve posted, I’ve tried to find on eBay, or it her O’Lakes and have had mixed results.

    • No, generally not because of time constraints but we are not looking for more work an additional business either. We keep most of the restored tools for use to help everyone understand that woodworking works just as well with ordinary tools. I have always striven to avoid the kind of exclusivity and even snobbery I often see where people see users using very fancy equipment. The tools get used by me and those I work with and then students coming to classes too. Our research is ongoing too, so a tested tool gets worked over long periods at the workbench. Tool tests elsewhere are rarely if ever really validated by real ongoing work you see.

  2. Good Post Paul , I believe over the past six years I’ve bought maybe thirty or so mortise or combination gauges of all different makes . Some even are new ones and not one of them worked all that well and for different reasons. The heads were too large or the heads would slip during use , they were too heavy , the pins were too skinny like the Stanley # 71 or what ever that model is.
    Then I guess about two months ago I bought this one off of Ebay from the U.K. Identical to the one you show in the first picture on this post. It was plain as can be but it was new in the sense it had never been used. As I examined it carefully I couldn’t tell if it was home made or manufactured by some company soewhere. But what I can say is that it works as perfect as anyone I’ve ever used. I think I paid like $14.00 and the shipping cost $16.00 but for me it was worth every penny. So when I saw this post I was glad to see that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way about this particular combination gauge. Mine doesn’t have any stamps or manufacture marks on it anywhere so I have no idea where it came from. There wasn’t the slightest bit of bruising or nicks anywhere on it so that’s why I thought it was home made. It’s looks like European Beech but the brass fittings looks third world country made.
    I lived in Asia for several years as an adult so I’ve watched them make products like the brass hardware on this mortise gauge many times . Not particularly for a mortise gauge but you know what I mean it has there characteristics written all over it. One thing I like about this type is that you can set it with one hand by taping the beam on either end to move the head ever so slightly with the thumb screw slightly snug. . But even best of all it’s not clumsy in the hands when using it. Do you know where they are made? Just curious. Thanks for the post

  3. Be aware that to look for mortgage gauges or combination gauges on eBay now that Paul has highlighted them again will mean the prices asked for them on eBay will increase. Such is the “power” of Paul’s sage advice. Having been convinced of Paul’s advice regardingwoodworking tool choices, I have found it best to delay shopping for a while until demand drops again. You’ll generally pay less after the the ‘race’ to get what Paul recommends. Am I cynical or what?

  4. I have a combination gauge from woodcraft. I think it’s a Crown. I like it but it has a small brass circle either recessed or glued onto the fence when using the mortise pins. I want to remove it? Any thoughts? I’m worried that If I remove it the wood will chip out.

  5. Hey Paul,
    One thing I did notice on mine after I got to the shop today was that the smallest mortise I can make is 1/4″ . What would you do to make it mark say a 3/16″ mortise and or would you do anything at all. I suppose you would have to file off some of the ends where the two meet in the middle, Right?
    Thanks

  6. Two more useful options? The pencil gauge (remove the pin/ drill and clamp a pencil stub in place) and the marking gauge ( replace the pin with a sliver of sharpened steel) to use for deeper marks, e.g. moulding planes.

  7. I have used this style gauge and do not like them at all because of the need to make two adjustments at once. It is much better for the second pin and the head adjustment to be independent of one another.

  8. Hello Paul, I have noticed that the thumb screws on marking gauges frequently have a small notch on the top – does this have a purpose, or is it just decorative?

    cheers

  9. Not that you ever seem to run out of potential projects, but wouldn’t making a marking gauge be a fun little project to do.

    If you did away with the brass fittings, and use a wedge locking mechanism instead, it would only require some decent wood and a hardened steel pin.

    A project like that would fit right in with the home made frame saw, the wooden plane, the rabbet plane and other “Make your own tools” projects. A short one, two, or maybe three episodes.

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