The Woodworker's Journal eZine reader who submitted the question below put his finger on a common woodworking phenomenon: As your skill increases, your projects become more complex and demand more accuracy. How do you keep up? Most beginning woodworkers start off with a few inexpensive measuring tools that just won't meet the demands of projects that call for precise measurements and near-perfect angle cuts. Below, Ellis Wallentine, Michael Dresdner and Woodworker's Journal Editor Rob Johnstone offer some expert advice on tools and techniques for attaining new levels of woodworking accuracy.
Q. I'm not really a beginner when it comes to woodworking, but I'm no expert either. Somewhere in between. As my woodworking projects become more complex, I'm finding that proper tool alignment is becoming much more important. I know how to align my tools, but my problem is finding or having a measuring device that I can trust to be exactly accurate. My speed square and my framing square are at odds with each other slightly when it comes to a true 90-degree setting. And I have an adjustable protractor that gives a slightly different answer than the other devices. So, in my mind, I can't trust any of them.
The project I'm working on now calls for 12 cuts at 30 degrees each. Thus, when all edges are joined, it will form a circle or a wheel. If those cuts are not exactly 30 degrees, I'm going to end up with a gap. Even a simple miter joint won't fit properly if the angles aren't exact. I need to be able to accurately measure and set angles of 90, 45, 30, 22.5, 15 degrees or anything in between. Is there a measuring device on the market that will accomplish this task?
A. Ellis Walentine: "My advice is to work empirically. In other words, make all your test cuts at one setting in scraps, and adjust the setting if necessary. Do this until everything fits perfectly, then cut the good wood. If you drive yourself crazy trying to lay out the angle perfectly, you're still going to have to set your machine to cut to that angle, which is another trial-and-error procedure. If you do a lot of the same angle cuts, it wouldn't hurt to cook up an adjustable jig for those cuts."
A. Michael Dresdner: "Yes, there are most certainly quality measuring tools on the market that are accurate enough to accomplish your task. I have both Bridge City and Starret angle measuring tools that are highly accurate, and these are by no means the only companies who hold to high standards. By the way, here is an area where you are quite unlikely to find a cheap tool that is accurate."
A. Rob Johnstone: " There are a few after market products that could help you get the settings that you need ... but the cut that you are attempting is a tough one. Among many others, Pacific Rack and Machine has several angle and depth setting devices which may help you out. Rockler has an ultra accurate miter gauge and Incra has an integrated system for accurate machining. You are correct in your assertion that you need to properly tune up and align your tools before you attempt working to such exact criteria. Good luck, and remember: in woodworking it is never a mistake unless you can't fix it!"
From the Woodworker's Journal eZine 2003 archives
Precision woodworking projects will always involve a certain amount of machinery fine tuning and test cutting. But, as Rob mentioned, Rockler has a few tools that can help you spend more time making cuts and less time getting set up. You'll find a host of precision jigs, miter gauges and fence systems right here on the Rockler website that will take the guesswork out of table saw settings, for example. The Rockler exclusive Sure-Loc Miter Gauge is one of the most popular options - its patented interlocking teeth lock in angle settings with dead-on precision every time you use it. The Original Incra Jig is a favorite for router tables. For less than a hundred bucks you can get set up with the full package and treat yourself to router table accuracy and repeatability that you may not even have known was possible.
Of course, it helps to have a few decent measuring tools around the shop, and a square that's actually square. You'll find everything you need from, trusted manufacturers like Starrett, Incra and Crown in Rockler's hand tools category. And if you want a little help getting set up with a basic kit of precision marking and measuring tools, Rockler's article Marking and Measuring Tool Basics will take you through the fundamentals and offer you our picks for the top ten measuring tools that every woodworker should own.