Monday, December 26, 2016

Didn't weigh down Santa's sleigh much this year

After a number of years, I have finally given in, thrown in the towel, surrendered, capitulated.  It's not that I ever doubted the consensus view that a high quality, small combination square is an essential tool for woodworkers, it was that I wasn't willing to pay the price of a really good one.

Two years ago, I thought I had outsmarted the marketplace.  I took my machinist's square to Sears and methodically went through their 6" combination squares until I found one that was exactly square.  I paid my $9 and went home, chortling to myself about what I clever fellow I am.  My smugness was crushed by experience for two reasons.  The blade was hard to read and it had a tendency to slip.  You had to be very careful or the measurement you thought you had set would become a different one.  This problem became more and more severe until this fall I couldn't secure the blade at all, both problems leading to highly irritating measurement errors.  Exasperated, I threw it away.

I decided to ask for a Starrett, choking as I did so.  They're $95.  For a 6" combination square!  Don't tell me to find a used one.  Tried that, couldn't.  I have no knowledge of what it takes to make a tool like this, but I really can't understand why they cost this much.  I think it may be not only that they are made in the US of very high quality materials but that there is a lot of hand work in the final machining of each square to achieve the level of accuracy they guarantee.  I definitely don't think this one will slip.  Starrett isn't the only manufacturer of high quality combination squares, but it is the one I am familiar with.

As bad as my Sears square was, it definitely taught me that a small combination square is an essential tool, one that would certainly make my short, short list. It's strength is its versatility.  It's the kind of tool that you almost want to carry around in your shop apron.

I have several other small squares.  I have the Veritas sliding square and it is better for some applications, particularly when you are making an "x" and "y" measurement at once.  I also have this Incra T-rule, very accurate but I almost never use it.  In the end, nothing beats a small combination square for all-around utility and accuracy.  I could easily live without the others.

I have one more small square that I couldn't live without, a 3" Starrett stainless steel machinist's square that I inherited from my father-in-law.  This little thing is so darn handy for doing things like checking an edge when I am jointing, checking my dovetails, etc.  I just looked and they cost $70 new.



  1. Funny what tools mean to one person but not another. I have a 12 and 6 inch Starrett that I hardly use at all. At one time they were my do it all tool and now I use the red Woodpecker squares almost exclusively.

  2. I really like my Starrett six inch square. It definitely is worth the price.

    I like the idea of Ralph's Woodpecker suggestion, only I think they are ugly. I'm afraid to try one for the fear that I might like it. 😀

  3. I have that 6" Incra T-rule and love it, though I only use it once in a while. I bit the bullet a couple years ago and bought a Starrett 12" combo square. It cost a lot, but it's great and I know I'll never need another (unless I drop it and step on it). But the funny thing is, I use a 4" machinist square for most of my edge checking and knife marking.

    1. I'm with you Matt. The Incra is a great rule but I don't use it that much. A very small machinist's square is really really nice to have. To me it is one of two small squares that are must have. I wouldn't have known that had I not inherited it from my father-in-law and then found myself reaching for it.

  4. I have a six inch Starrett I bought from an old machinist. Love it. It's the chromed rule, and combined with its age and much use is harder to read. But it's a great size. I've since bought the 12" too, largely on how impressed I am with the six inch and its accuracy after heavy machinist use for 30 years. You know what they say about buying good tools: buy once, cry once. You won't regret spending the extra money.