May 272016

Starrett tools have been known for their high level of precision and quality American-made tools since 1878. It is easy to look at their tools and wonder what makes them worth the price, and the answer to that question lies in the remarkable level of precision as well as the long life of these tools. Plan to hand your Starrett tools down to the next generation!

Starrett precision squares start square and accurate and stay that way, even after years of use. The graduations are precision machine marked – not stamped or printed on. They won’t wear off or become hard to read. The blade can be installed in the head in four orientations – so all four scales can be used in every application. In short, they’re just better than other combination squares.


The Double Squares come in 4″ and 6″ versions. Marc Spagnuolo has recommended the 4″ version as an “always-in-the-apron” favorite.


The Combination Squares are available in 4″, 6″, 12″ and 24″ as well as 150mm and 300mm sizes. While the 4″ and 6″ and 150mm models come only in the standard cast iron head with black wrinkle finish, the 12″ and 300mm sizes offer the option a set that includes a center head and a protractor head, a fitted case, a hardened steel square head and a gloss black finish. You can also purchase an additional 24″ blade to fit the 12″ square head to get more layout use out of your 12″ Combination Square.


And of course the 24″ Combination Square is excellent for your larger projects, such as working with giant redwoods.

The clamping mechanism that holds the rule to the square body is one of the really special aspects of the Starrett squares. On cheaper rules, this mechanism is not milled precisely and that lack of precision causes less-than-smooth operation, including difficulties inserting the blade into the head, sliding it back and forth, locking it down and releasing it. The ruler in a Starrett square always slides smoothly in and out but also locks down square.


Take a look at Matt Cremona’s tour of the Starrett squares to learn more about these precision tools.

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May 252016

blog1I found a bench plane at a local antique store that caused visions depicting craftsmen effortlessly shaving paper thin curls with every stroke. In the real world, my experience with hand planes is limited to using a small block plane to make things worse. In my hands, a plane skitters, and chatters, tends to grab grain and rip out chunks of wood. But my father taught me that every fellow needs a plane to “shave a little off” – make things fit – like doors, and lids, and chair legs – just stuff that needs a bit of fitting. So I keep a small block plane, a gift from him, and I have learned to find creative ways of avoiding it.

The Stanley No.4 I found for 40 dollars was old and battered with scars on the loose wooden handles and a fine patina on the exposed metal. I bought it. Whatever. It can always sit on the shelf next to the chisels I use to sharpen pencils, a nod to skilled craftsmen across the decades and a tribute to the woodworking arts residing beyond my grasp.

I am sharing my experience because it was a process that left me facing in a different direction than expected, seeing my tools, my time, and my labors from a different perspective. I learned techniques, but I also learned what I can only describe as truths. I find truths to be the landmarks that guide our choices and ultimately our satisfaction. They are what we use to build techniques.

Truth Number 1: Tools ready to be sold are not always ready to be used and there is a huge difference between the two

Watching video after video of “how to set up your plane,” I learned about using sandpaper on a flat surface to true the sole, how to adjust the frog and lever cap, and how to position the chip breaker. I cut a pattern of thin stock to take the wobble out of the tote. These are techniques and as I applied them I found my attention drawn to the machining marks on the surface of my scroll saw. Would it be easier to use if the surface was slick and waxed? Could I more accurately cut along the line if there was less friction from the table? Yep! Tried it – proved it – truth. I ‘m still amazed by how much a little work to true and dress a tool can improve the way it works and compound your possibilities.

Truth Number 2: Knife-sharp won’t do it

All the googalizing to set up the plane led to sharpening the iron and I quickly discovered there are as many ways to sharpen a plane iron as there are people who claim to be experts on it. There are many techniques. The truth here lies in what we consider sharp and that a sharp tool makes the whole difference in how we use it and what we consider limitations.

I’ve always taken pride in my ability to put an edge on a knife. My father taught me. Few things bring a smile like the look on a friends face when I pass them my knife to use. They go, “Wow! This is sharp!” I shrug it off with “Meh…. it’ll do”. The truth I learned, is that “wow sharp” is not quite optimal for wood working. I learned that sharp for wood working lies way past dry shaving hair on your arm – it’s out there where you move slowly, carefully…. partly to preserve the edge and partly because it’s downright dangerous if you get sloppy. I think of it as scary sharp, and it completely changes how you use edged tools and the things you value most in your tool box.

Truth Number 3: Hand tool time warp

I’m a product of the machine age, I respect them as leverage to multiply our efficiencies. Machines are good and while I have deep respect for hand tools and the craftsmen who master them, I won’t hide my preference for a thickness planer over a bench plane for thinning stock. Much of my life has been consumed with finding a better, more efficient, more accurate way to do things – the technique, layout, order of operation – sometimes the tool. The truth I found nestled between hand tools and power tools is the measure of time. What does it really mean to feel “this is taking too long, there’s gotta be a better way…” Most of my mistakes happen in that seam where my mind is trying to find a faster solution.

The truth is that it is not impatience, it is not that hand tools are slower – they simply require me to embrace a different measure of time. Think of the time to crosscut four-quarter maple with a hand saw compared to a powered miter saw. How about the time to correct if you cut too long or not quite square? “Measure twice, cut once” has a different meaning in “hand tool time” because it takes so much more effort to correct mistakes with hand tools. I find my sketching and planning is much more thorough, I’m much more precise with my square, and I keep my tools much sharper because correcting mistakes has a different meaning on this different time scale. I’m even more careful with the wood, where and how I set pieces aside because it’s not just wood, it’s an investment of my best work, my steadiest strokes. The payoff is my patience and attention span is on the slower scale as well as my sense of accomplishment.

Truth Number 4: Simple satisfaction

I’ve always enjoyed making – building things. I find joy in the sense of accomplishment – the evolutionary nature of “why don’t I just make one” is a big deal to me. This plane and the journey it started has shifted that a bit. With the slower time scale of hand tools, I’ve discovered simple satisfaction in the “doing” instead of the completing. I actually find pleasure in a scary sharp chisel. I mean, building things is great, but now the process is filled with thousands of tiny moments of tools doing exactly what I want. Maybe I’m a simpleton, but I really appreciate the way a well trued and sharp tool works and the building thing, the objective goal, has become the bonus at the end of the process. A pass of the plane will make me smile, and the next one will again, and the next.

blog2This antique store bargain dates to the 1930’s, the internet dating thingy calls it a type 15 and the sweetheart logo on the iron agrees. All that combines to make the plane an interesting conversation piece, a trophy of sorts, but to me there’s a different meaning. Its age is representative of the craftsman who held it, used it. The iron is ground in a way to draw up the corners of the bevel, just slightly, like a shallow smile. This grind is intentional, not to gouge, but to smooth, to prevent the edges of the iron from leaving tracks in the wood and convinces me that over several generations, someone used this tool for more than shaving a little off to make it fit.

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May 192016
Interview with a Wood Worker

I’ve always loved those man-on-the street interviews in the newspaper where they ask what’s your favorite meal? and what’s your favorite movie? kind of questions. I thought I would do one of those for this blog. The first concern was who to interview, and so for convenience sake, I decided to interview me. Reduces the burden […]

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May 132016
A Solution to the Run Away Planer

After 70+ years of joyful working with wood, I thought I had seen most everything, but several weeks ago, something new happened. I had just moved my entire shop to a new location. The move took over a month, and when I arranged everything again, I naturally was very excited to be back into making sawdust. During the […]

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May 092016
Tormek T-­7 Tip for Using the Leather Honing Wheel

Repetition and practice are often all that are needed to bring about an improved outcome with just about any task. This includes pushing a lawnmower (my kids get better at it with each passing summer), swinging a golf club or tennis racquet, or paring & sawing right to your marked line. Practice and experience, along with a little sheer […]

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May 032016
POLL: Do you ever get into the Zen of hand sanding?

In this month’s Tips column we talk about a project made from some really old pine. How old? At least 100 years. One problem that arose was swirls in the wood after sanding. Dust extractor suction turned down? Check! Not pressing down on the sander? Check! Email to Steven Johnson, The Down to Earth Woodworker, for […]

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May 022016
Tips from Sticks in the Mud – May 2016 Tip #2 - Reusing Sanding Disks

No Southern-fried Southern boy wants to be called a Yankee, but we share the characteristics of shrewdness and thrift. Thus, each month we include a money-saving tip. It’s OK if you call me “cheap.” When I first got my Festool Sander, an ETS 125, followed several months later by a 5″ Rotex RO 125 FEQ, […]

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