Tool Ergonomics . . . Don’t settle for Less

I bought my first square, a combination square, in 1965, 90 or so years after Laroy S Starrett invented the tool for engineering machinists. My combination square was made by Rabone Chesterman here in England. I still have it, use it daily, and it is still fully working and accurate despite its daily use of around 17,000 days. I doubt you know many hand tool woodworkers who have used this tool, with a knife running along the blade edges several times every hour, as much as this. You would think after this length of time in daily use the blade (rule) would be well under 1″ wide, but it is measured as shown in the photo and it’s the same from one end to the other. Actually, I have two measuring the same. If you do know others with that much time in their square, they will be the rarity, as I am.

Back in the 1970s and 80s, I began collecting more tools and especially the vintage ones. I liked the looks of them and especially seeing those made with ebony and rosewood as the main wood, brass wear edges and insets. I think in the early production of such fine tools, throughout the Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian eras, a 200-year span of prime tool making from the early 1700-1900s for woodworkers, they were exceptionally made works of art made by highly skilled artisans. The makers however could not wholly cater to the realities these tools would need to cope with living in different regions of the country and then the world too. Taking a tool from one region to another resulted in the perpetual expansion and contraction of the wood; the wooden parts changed considerably compared to the rigid metal parts attached to them. Inevitably, where the wood was constrained, the wood split or sometimes sloughed off the metal. Most squares had small gaps between the wear plates and the wood. Having collected so many, I never came across any wood and steel square with brass trimmings, etc that still gave the accuracy a square needed, or, being a little more tolerant, square enough. When is a square not a square? When it’s out of square.

The remedial work to fix an out-of-square square can be done, of course. It’s not difficult but it is no small thing to do and there are no guarantees that the work will last. On old stocks, that’s the wooden stock of the square, not items for sale, the wood will indeed be constantly expanding and contracting according to atmospheric changes. I think that the preference for ebony and rosewood, oily, dense-grained woods, was that they would be assumed to be more stable and less absorbing of atmospheric moisture, etc and so less prone to moisture intake. I am so sure initially that that was true, but over long-term exposure, any wood will expand and contract. It is, of course, the ends of the wooden stocks, on the end grain, that will always initially expand more than the midsections. This then compromises the parallelity of the stocks that register against the wood being trued and squared, or the shoulder lines established with the knife, etc. When humidity fluctuates markedly or is particularly high, the metal wear edge will be moved away from the wood and rarely does it go back fully without help.

I own a set of old Rabone squares I have shown in the past. These are all accurate and needed no correction despite their age. Though quite clunky, they are good squares to have and you can buy them still at good prices on eBay. Do I use them? Not much, no. I will use the larger ones for larger work, checking internal corners, running a straightedge against the beam and such, to extend the length as necessary, but for the day-to-day, the combination square covers all the bases.

What is the distinction that makes the combination square such a preferred tool? The accuracy is of course critical, but then it’s the practical use of it as I go from task to task. Even with the cast iron stock (head), the square is well balanced in the hand and just lightweight enough for good practice. The blade can be slipped to a variety of positions for convenience. This is especially practical in inside, enclosed and tighter places; spaces for such things as cabinet door hanging, checking internal corners, aligning drawer runners and so on can be especially demanding and wide wooden stocks and fixed blades to squares can be too rigid and inflexible. Of course, the convenience of having a 45º registration element in the same one tool was a gamechanger of a design as well. We use this almost as much as the square. Remember though, you get what you pay for. The cheaper aluminium heads never stay square even if they arrive square at the start. You need the cast iron, hardened head with the hardened steel rule for a lifetime tool.

There is a mass-made marking gauge that has always impressed me and I have written about it or mentioned it in different places at different times. This marking gauge was carefully thought through as a clever design to take the ordinary and make it extraordinary. It was designed specifically to fit the hand in both a comfortable and practical way and for both left or right-handed use. Most other gauges work well enough but taking a design further is always a good thing to do and I like the idea of improving a design. In general, marking gauges seem to have stymied in design for a century with zero improvements. Many traditional designs seem to have been well accepted when better designs should or could have replaced them. We woodworkers went along with the status quo and ended up adapting first and so, by this, fully adopting them. That said, we woodworkers have no excuse. We can make our own gauges and refine any design to our personal preferences. This being a most truly ergonomic version, I decided I could take the fundamentals and make additional changes to create the ultimate from the penultimate version. That is, seeing the earlier design as almost having arrived, take it on to the last level. The great thing is that just about any woodworker with a few basic hand skills can make this one using some very basic hand tools, basic skills and a spare afternoon. With no machines needed, it makes it a most pleasing and peaceful experience. After I had made the initial prototype I started to make some basic changes according to some experimentation. As I felt for different angles I saw some changes were worth sacrificing the convenience of working at 90º and then 45º. I found I could turn making a couple of them around in about an hour and that the quality I could achieve far surpassed the bought ones sold in the 1960s on up. The steps in making my version means that anyone can indeed own half a dozen for the cost of some basic beech scraps, though other woods will be well suited too. My offcuts came from my January prototype chair design at the beginning of the year. If you do choose to make your own it will be an unbreakable lifetime tool and most likely, unless there’s fire, theft or loss, you just might never need to buy another marking gauge in your life.

The great advantage comfort brings to any hand tool is the true fit and functionality it brings to the hand. Many tools claim ‘ergonomic design’ on the plastic packaging and I have often thought that many modern versions lack the very quality they claim but you can’t do anything to counter the false claim when it does not fit. Being able to wrap the thumb and forefinger around the stock of a marking gauge makes the gauge one with the hand and enables the user to rotate the hand and present the pin to the wood at the optimal angle felt for in that particular piece of wood, be that long grain, across grain, on end grain or whatever. The fact that the pin trails, is always clearly visible to the user, can go tight into any internal corner and can be pushed or pulled and still seen makes this gauge superior to most in my view.

The greatest logic in catty-cornering the square hole receiving the stem to the pressure screw may not be obvious at first glance. This feature is vastly superior to the hole paralleling the square sides of conventional marking gauges because the physical dynamic allows very direct pressure to press the beam into a 90º corner. Once locked with even the slightest pressure from the thumbscrew the beam is totally bedrocked immovably in place. With two registration faces guaranteeing square rigidity and two faces of full frictional support rather than one alone the gauge can be used with remarkable, inflexible rigidity.

Through teaching and training students over the years, I saw how most if not all found handling the basic marking gauge awkward. Mostly. this was because they didn’t know how much pressure to apply and what direction to apply the pressure to the tool. Without exception, the students simply exerted way too much force to press the gauge point/s hard down into the wood with the pin/s perpendicular to the wood. They wanted dead-obvious lines in the wood without realising the more they pressed, the deeper the pin/s went and the deeper the pin/s enter the wood fibres the wider the line/s became. Of course, they lost the actual point somewhere down deeper in the fibres of the wood. The desired finer trace line would be the very tip of the point and not the full width of the pin. Inevitably, the pin would also follow the grain of the wood no matter how much bull-dogging they applied to the tool and this all resulted in inaccurate marking. Getting the heavy muscled to lighten up was an issue as was getting the lighter built to be less aggressive. Inevitably, by the end of a week’s course, they got it, but I wish that I had had my gauge from the get-go. Life would have been easier for everyone and that is the reason for this article

Well-used, vintage marking gauges, including all marking gauge types such as mortise gauges and combination gauges, have the one bottom corner worn away by use because the gauge is indeed always offered at an angle so as to try to ‘trail‘ the pin so as to help the gauge operate more smoothly and also to see the pin on the wood. Angling the gauge is always highly restricted with new gauges because the hard corners are not broken or worn in. Inevitably this corner digs into the wood being worked. Angling also improves the sightline on the pin/s, etc but still, you are restricted on new gages and to wear them in we are talking a few years unless you file them down so why not just make your own version? On my gauge, there is no jarring corner to remove and there never will be because the pin is installed at an angle rather than square-to.

It’s at this point that we should consider simply making our own marking gauges, ones that truly fit us and our daily work. In my looking I saw that the angles of presentation on gauges with a worn down corner, the well-used and deeply worn ones, I could see what a better angle might be. It was the ones with the corners removed by wear that worked the best, changing from square to angled to 120º or 60º, depending on which side of the edges you work from, gives completely flexible optioning to your presentation.

I finally concluded my own shape for the gauge, the angle of presentation of the pin and then too several internal workings that improve functionality and longevity all the more. Currently, it’s a video in the making. I am keeping the final version under wraps until then. You will love this when it’s done!

15 thoughts on “Tool Ergonomics . . . Don’t settle for Less”

  1. Exciting indeed! The rule / scale is a nice visual reference for when the gentle tap-tap-on-the-workbench adjustment is needed.

    I wonder how difficult a similar mortise gauge would be. My bargain Harbor Freight model is definitely not the most comfortable tool to use.

  2. Thanks Paul. It is fun to make ones own tools. I try and do a few a year and have the components in house for several more. I think it was on Instagram you had a picture recently that showed a small ploughed groove on a corner. I was curious at the time what this was for. Now I know; it’s for the upcoming marking gauge. Looking forward to it.

  3. Half a thou under 1″. Very impressive. I’m slightly curious if you took the same beam and put it under a warm light and or in a refrigerator and measured how much it would change. I’m guessing half a thou would be well within the tolerances of metal expansion/contraction due to temp changes. Either way, your point is well made, you aren’t wearing away the beam with the knife.

    1. Look closer, Joe. I think you’ll find that it’s four-and-a-half thou’ under the inch. Still pretty impressive for a tool that’s had so much use over its lifetime!

  4. Doug Irish Scottsdale AZ

    An aside about wood movement in tools over time. In 1957 I entered college hoping to become an engineer and had to buy one of those fancy slide rules. It was a beautiful thing with many scales on it. Made of bamboo I believe with a nice enamel or plastic surface. A “log-log decitrix” (sp?) to be exact.

    I never made the grade as an engineer and had to settle for law. But I kept that beautiful “slip stick” in its leather holster. I’m now long since retired and loving learning woodworking.
    A couple years ago I decided to have a look at my slide rule. Every wooden part had actually turned to dust.

    1. That reminded me of an old drawknife I found in a timber framed carriage house of my wife’s great great grandfather. He was a woodwright or cabinetmaker…whatever he worked with wood his whole life. That darned drawknife made GLASSY smooth surfaces like a good plane. Then the handle snapped off and it was no more.

      I’ve never found a modern drawknife that was so comfortable to the hand or tuned to make GLASSY surfaces since.

  5. Paul,

    Very much looking forward to making my own marking gauge from your ultimate plans/video.

    Would be interested in mortising version as well!

    Best of heath and a quick, total recovery from C-flu.
    Rick

  6. I made the router plane from your kit and it immediately became my go-to router. Excited to see the marking gauge you have designed!

  7. Kenneth Lerman

    Thank you for your usual thoughtful post.

    Looking at your first picture, I see what looks like a cheap digital caliper. In the US, they cost about $15-$20, but that’s more money than they are worth. In my experience, the battery life is abysmal. I have three or four of them, so I can always find one, but the one I find always has a dead battery.

    I’ve replaced them with a Mitutoyo digital caliper. Aside from being coolant proof, it looks and functions pretty much the same as the cheap ones. They claim the battery is good for a year under normal usage, but I really can’t tell since I’m on my first battery. At over $150, it isn’t cheap, but it’s well worth the price.

    Regards,

    Ken

    1. Ken, I cannot, cannot agree with anything you have said. I have two or three of the lesser makes and have had them for years and test them regularly to my expensive model and they have no problems. The batteries are usually good for a year or two too. People should do what they can afford; even a cheapo witll give good enough reading to see discrpancies. Were I an engineer relying on such a tool minute by minute I would buy into it.

      1. FWIW I have found the same as Paul – i.e. the cheap ones I have perform accurately – as regularly calibrated against an expensive one I have access to. We may just have been lucky, but from anecdotal experience I can confirm that good, cheap ones are definitely out there. Regarding the battery – a strange quirk is that most digital calipers I’ve come across (at any price) don’t seem to have an ‘auto-off’ feature – and so it’s very easy to drain the battery by forgetting to turn it off. This seems like a very avoidable irritant in this day and age.

  8. Matt Evans-Koch

    Paul,
    You certainly know how to prime the pump of anticipation. You have shown just enough of the marking gauge to peak everyone’s interest, yet not enough for anyone interested in making their own tools to pass on the opportunity to follow the build of what appears to be a comfortable, functional and lovely tool for their bench.
    I, and I am sure many others, will no doubt be scanning all of your sources of teaching fine woodworking to be sure we do not miss project.
    Thank you as always for your dedication to sharing your wonderful knowledge.

    1. It has never been my intention to tease everyone by as you say, “prime the pump of anticipation.” I believe people follow from choice anyway if what you offer is authentic without razmataz. The danger, in this case, was giving out dribs and drabs rather than the whole which I had not concluded. I try to bring people on the journey so that they know I am always in the saddle working on wood in some way or other.

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