Canadian Woodworking

Laying out, measuring & testing tools - grandpa's tool kit Part 4


This is a very charming story about grandpa’s care and use of measuring instruments for wood. It takes place over a hundred years ago in an eastern Canadian fishing village: Barachois de Malbaie at the tip of the Gaspé Peninsula.


Here, the world’s largest northern forest, the majestic Boreal, converges with the St. Lawrence forest from the west. The white and black spruces, trembling aspens, white birches, and jack pines of the Boreal meet the eastern white pine, yellow birch, maple, and oak invaders from the west.

At the end of each day, with this abundant supply of wood just outside his shop, Grandpa would follow a daily ritual of sharpening all the cutting tools used that day, such as plane irons, chisels, and knives.

Grandpa had so many of these tools that he had a wooden chest just to store them. Each day the tools would be wiped down with a light oily rag and put back into place in his tool chest. Additionally, every month, as woodworkers had done for centuries, he would apply a light coating of linseed oil to all wooden tools.

A major part of his woodworking involved the use of laying out (marking out), measuring, and testing tools, many of which are now unfamiliar to modern woodworkers. Grandpa used a razor sharp striking iron, which is a combination scratch awl and marking knife. Any marking out would be done with this tool: scratch awl with the grain, and knife across the grain. The score mark would either part or sever the wood fibers, providing registration for both back saws and chisels.

Grandpa had many wooden gauges to assist in accurate laying out. He had three types: marking gauges to cut with the grain; an ancient cutting gauge made entirely out of mahogany, used to mark with the grain; and a well used beech mortise gauge with adjustable pins, set exactly to the width of a chisel for all mortise and tenon work. The fence of each gauge was set with small wooden wedges rather than the now more familiar thumb screws.

As in centuries past, Grandpa used shop-made straight edges or rules. Grandpa had a boxwood folding rule, store-bought from a general store in the distant metropolis of Chandler. Additionally technology was on his side and he proudly cherished metal 6″ and 12″ rules. Over his bench, as part of a large collection of story sticks (pre-determined measurements and other technical data laid out on strips of wood), Grandpa had a selection of shop-made wooden rules, which would take him up to the four foot point. From here he would use his folding rule, especially useful for internal measurements, as well as his metal rules.

Although he had no formal education, Grandpa was a whiz at shop mathematics and geometry. He could add up and subtract measurements with speedy accuracy based more on common sense and less on science. In his box of measurement tools he had an old brass geometry set made in England, complete with protractor and compass. He even had a shop-made set of French curves in white oak, again copied from an existing set. Often if he needed to scribe an arc, he would raid Granny’s kitchen, much to her disapproval, and bring back a particular tin mug or plate to give the exact radius needed.

The pride and joy of Grandpa’s measuring tools were his squares: a set of rosewood inlaid brass and spring metal try squares made in England. This set consisted of three squares (12″, 8″ and 4″). Unbeknownst to Granny, he had spent a week’s wages to acquire these important tools. Every evening he would wrap these in felt and carefully place them in a specially made box. Every month he would test all three squares for exact squareness.

There were many other squares: a set of carpenter’s squares ranging from a large rafter square to a 12” carpenter’s staircase stringer square; a shop-made sliding T-bevel used to transfer angles other than 90º; a wooden mitre gauge for 45’s; a set of specialized gauges for 22 1/2″ and 60º; and shop-made dovetail templates made from very stable three-year-old dry maple with a one-in-eight pitch for hardwood and a one-in-six pitch for softwood.

Grandpa also had a pair of trammel points, made especially for his wooden straight edges. These were fixed to the beam using small wedges, and were used to scribe large arcs for tabletops and rounded cornices. Finally Grandpa had a set of winding sticks, crucial to testing whether a board was free of winding, and therefore true.

In the dark, wintery evenings the storms were often raging. Outside grandpa’s shop the white spruces played with the savage Atlantic winds as if they had seen it all before. Grandpa paid the weather little mind. He was busy getting ready to plane and surface pine. The entire top tier of his tool chest was devoted to his wooden bench planes and consisted of long jointer and try planes, scrub and jack planes for dimensioning, and smoothing and coffin planes. The second tier housed his extensive collection of moulding planes. By the flickering light of the shop’s oil lantern he selected his bench plane of choice. The fragrance of pine resin filled the shop and the pot-belly stove crackled and spit as Grandpa set to work.

In the next article we will look at the complex process of preparing wood stock by hand.

Last modified: September 29, 2023

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