Marking Gauges: A Developing Design and a Growing Collection

It all started so innocently.  I was just starting out working wood, and as a poor student, I could afford to buy one marking gauge.  I decided to get a marking/mortise gauge made by Crown, which still serves me well.  However, I found that I frequently wanted to leave the mortise gauge set to a certain measurement for the duration of the project, which meant that I really needed more than one.  At the same time, I had started reading the Woodwright book series by Roy Underhill, and on pages 100-103 in The Woodwright’s Companion, I found descriptions and pictures of simple marking gauges that used a wedge to lock the fence in place.  I soon decided to try making my own.

My first efforts were pretty crude, but I ended up with two functional gauges.

The one on the left is poplar, and the one on the right is oak.  The pins are just finish nails sharpened with a file.  I learned a lot building these two gauges, and it was my first attempt at making my own tools.  I used both for some time, until I became dissatisfied with the way they felt in my hands.

I liked my poplar gauge especially because of the wide fence, which offered superior registration against the edge of the workpiece, unlike my manufactured gauge, whose fence just seemed to be a little too narrow at the bottom to register satisfactorily.  I began thinking about what kind of fence would (a) provide a wide surface area on the fence, and (b) be comfortable to hold in use.  It dawned on me that I wanted something like the profile of a bell: wide on the bottom and narrower on the top.

I went to the kitchen and pulled out the cookie cutters, among which was a bell shape.  I traced it out, and it seemed right.  Another marking gauge was in the works.

I had picked up a piece of sweet gum wood with some interesting color, and I decided to use it for this project. Here is the finished gauge, along with the cookie cutter it was based on.

Marking Gauge

Cutting Gauge

I was happy with my new gauge, but I couple years later I decided to try making a cutting gauge, since my pin-gauges didn’t work well across the grain.  I still had some of the sweet gum left over, so I thought I would make a matched set.

It didn’t turn out to be an exact match, since I used a slightly different shape on the fence, though the bell-shape remained constant.  I have found this shape to be especially helpful when I am beginning at the end of a board, or am using the gauge on a thin workpiece.  (More details on the construction of that gauge are available in a post I wrote here.)

I toyed with several different ideas for the cutter.  I wanted a simple mechanism with a minimum of purchased parts.  I ended up making a wedged dowel with a thick Exacto knife blade in it.  (Originally the knife blade would rotate in the hole, so I used a coping saw to cut a very short kerf into each side of the hole, and switched to a wider blade, and that holds the blade in place.)  I especially like the thick, curved Exacto blades, which are hard to find sometimes, but worth the effort.

But was I satisfied with my growing fleet of gauges?  I seldom found myself running out, but I built a panel gauge from some mesquite and pine, with a knife on one end and a pencil on the other.  I found that the fences on my sweet gum gauges were beginning to show a lot of wear.  The soft wood had been ideal for my early foray into tool making, but I knew that I needed to start using harder wood if I wanted my tools to last.  when I happened to get my hands on some maple and a box of small, exotic offcuts, and I decided to try laminating two different woods for the fence.

Marking Gauges

I made another marking gauge from some soft maple scraps, but I used some macassar ebony as a face for the fence.  (I quickly learned that macassar ebony makes me sneeze, so it’s not a wood I will continue to use.)  It held up much better than my sweet gum gauge, and I really liked the color contrast too.  The soft wood on the arm allows the wedge to grab the arm and hold it tight, while the harder wood on the fence stands up to wear.  Now I was getting somewhere.

Soon after, I built a small version for my daughter out of maple and purpleheart.  The fence is smaller than any gauge I have used, only 2″ wide at the bottom, and narrower at the top.  I built it for small hands, but the more I handled it, the more I liked it.  I may have to build one for myself eventually.

Marking Gauges – Cherry and Pecan

Now I have the opportunity to build some gauges for other people, so I decided to use some cherry offcuts from a recent project, combined with some pecan for facing the fences.

Notice the grain orientation on the larger ones.  On my previous gauges, the wedge mechanism required me to run the grain of the fence vertically, so as to avoid splitting the fence if I pushed the wedge too tight.  The problem is that repeated use eventually wears horizontal scratch patterns into the fence.

However, with my laminated fences, I thought I could get away with orienting the grain in two different directions.  So the bulk of the fence (the cherry) through which the wedge passes is still oriented vertically, but the harder face (the pecan) is oriented horizontally.  Is this a wood-movement disaster waiting to happen?  It could be.  But I’ve taken some precautions.  Both woods are quarter-sawn, which makes for less movement.  And the fences are a maximum of 3″ wide, so I don’t anticipate problems.  Only one gave me problems with checking, and that was due to my using wood that hadn’t properly dried yet.  I filled the cracks with epoxy, and that has been the last of my problems with these gauges.

Am I done making gauges?  No, probably not.  I still have some ideas I want to try, and I may start making them to order if I get any requests.  I don’t need another marking gauge, really.  But they’re just so much fun that I can’t seem to stop making them!

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6 Responses to Marking Gauges: A Developing Design and a Growing Collection

  1. Steve Massie says:

    Steve,

    I received your marking gauges and what a beautiful job you did on making them. these are well made and very comfortable to hold. Also your wood choice and your finish is excellent. Looking to use these for many, many years and pass down to my kids.

    Thank You so and enjoy your blogs !

    Steve

  2. I’m so glad you like them, Steve. They are a joy to make, and I appreciate your being one of my beta-testers. I’m currently working on a different, and more traditional way to wedge the blade on the cutting gauge.

    By the way, for anyone interesting in making a cutting gauge of his or her own, I highly recommend the Exacto #10 or #22 blades, shown here: http://www.xacto.com/Catalog/Knives/Blades

    Their rounded profiles are much more sturdy than traditional Exacto blades, and they slice very well across the grain.

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