Top 10 Layout Tools for a Small Shop

Assuming you already have a mechanical pencil, a tape measure and a 6" rule (you do, don’t you?), these 10 items will provide decades of accurate, flexible layout in a small shop setting.

By Rob Brown
Photos by Rob Brown

1. 48″ Metal Rule

For full-sized layout of furniture and casework, a long straightedge is crucial. Though long wood rules can be found, I prefer a metal one, as they tend to be straighter. Check for straightness before purchasing. They can be found in almost all hardware and specialty stores. If you see an 18″ one in the store, you might want to pick that up to, as they’re great for smaller measurements.

2. Carpenter’s Square

Also great for full-sized layout, a standard carpenter’s square can do so much more. In fact, when it comes to building construction, they can do things I don’t even understand. Again, make sure you check for square before purchasing.

3. Combination Square

As its name implies, a combo square has many uses. Marking and checking for right angles, 45° angles and lines a certain distance from an edge are its main functions. A scribing pin and level make this tool a versatile item to have around. I tend not to spend too much money on one of these tools, as when I want extreme accuracy I reach for a different tool.

4. 6″ Engineer’s Square

When checking for accurate right angles, this is my go-to tool. It’s especially useful for setting up machinery, although it also works wonders for marking or scribing perpendicular lines on workpieces.

5. Marking Gauge

Marking gauges are available in four basic versions – standard, dual, wheel and small – and are great for accurately and repeatedly marking out joinery. A dual marking gauge is especially helpful in marking mortise and tenon joints, as both faces of the joint can be marked at once. A wheel gauge tends to not follow the grain of the wood.

6. Sliding T-Bevel

This classic tool is used for marking and transferring angles in furniture-making and home improvement applications. Basic models are available, though I would recommend getting a model with a locking mechanism that’s flush with the cheeks of the body, making it a bit easier to use.

7. Marking Knife

In most instances I use a mechanical pencil to mark lines, but there are times when a marking knife is the only way to go. They’re very accurate, offer a positive physical location to position a chisel or other type of edge, and they can’t be sanded off, or otherwise removed, by mistake.

8. Blending Curve

If you work with curves, this tool is a necessity. It allows you to fine-tune the transition between curved and straight lines, as well as draw smooth curves joining three or more points. Although they come shorter, opt for a 36″ blending curve.

9. Compass

The ability to draw small circles or arcs comes in very handy during the design and layout process of wood- working projects. A compass that will not change its radius while in use is important, so don’t cheap out here. They can be found anywhere office supplies are found.

10. Trammel Points

While a compass will create smaller circles, a set of trammel points will help you draw circles and arcs of almost any other dimension. Some trammel points are very accurately machined, and have micro adjustment capabilities, though they can be very expensive. I’ve used a $12 set for the past decade with absolutely no issues. They fit on a small wood beam I made myself. I’ve made three beams of different length to ease usage.


What tools would you add to this list? A protractor? A French curve set? Add your thoughts to the comments section at the end of this article online.

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