8 Essential Measurement Tools for Your Shop

If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: “Measure Twice, Cut Once.” The important takeaway is that the more accurate you measure and mark, the better the final results. Here are a few tools to help get you there.

My Workhorse, The Combination Square

The Combination Square is one of my most frequently used tools.
(Photos by Jason Kisner)

The tools you have at hand will be influenced by what you are doing and making. I mostly fix things and make some furnishings for the house and yard out of wood. I realize that there are many more tools and exponentially more uses then I have outlined here. I invite you to add your favorite measuring tools and their uses in the comments below.

Ruler

The ruler is the most common of household measuring tools, and my shop has a variety from 6″ to 3′. Some are plastic and some are metal. My favorite is my pica ruler left over from my design school days. So, what is a pica? The short answer is 1/6 of an inch. The ruler I use the most has little hooks on the end, making it great for measure lengths. The short of it is that a simple ruler comes in handy.

Combination Square

My Workhorse, The Combination Square

The Combination Square is one of my most frequently used tools.
(Photo by Jason Kisner)

The number one workhorse in my shop, the tool that gets used in just about everything I do, is my combination square. It’s fabulous for marking cuts, right angles, and 45°s, and it can be set to a specific length for repeatable measuring. It’s there when I am setting my table saw fence and the depth of my router. Mine has a level on it as well. If you can tell me what to do with that feature, I’d love to know.

Engineer’s Square

Perfectly Square with an Engineer's Square

Used mostly for machine set-up, my Engineer’s Square is super accurate.
(Photo by Jason Kisner)

I have to admit that I am a big fan of accuracy, almost to a fault. The engineer’s square is the ideal tool for supreme accuracy in measuring 90° angles. I don’t really use it for marking cuts much, but really for measuring the accuracy of the cut once it’s been made. Its primary use is checking and setting up my machines. It is probably the most accurate right-angle in a 6-block radius.

Speed Square

Speed Square

I use my speed square mostly as a fence for a circular saw.
(Photo by Jason Kisner)

They come in all sizes and a variety of materials, but I prefer the metal ones to plastic ones. You can even make a speed square out of wood. Mine gets the most play when 2 x 4s are involved, as it makes a great 90° guide for a circular saw. I don’t really use mine when making furnishings, mostly because I have more accurate measuring tools.

Watch this short video with “Rescue Renovation” host and licensed contractor Kayleen McCabe to see how to use a speed square:

Steel Square

I remember my dad having one of these when I was a kid. I have two. Admittedly, I’m not really sure what to do with either one. I don’t really do a lot of construction-type projects, and I prefer my combination square for laying out and marking cuts.

Folding Rule

Papa's Folding Rule with Brass Extension

The brass extension is most useful feature of the Folding Rule.
(Photo by Jason Kisner)

To be perfectly honest, you probably don’t need one of these. It takes up a lot of space. It’s kind of a pain to fold and unfold. A tape measure is faster for measuring lengths. The one redeeming quality, however, is the sliding brass insert (not all have one), which is fantastic at measuring depths of holes and assorted difficult measuring tasks.

Tape Measure

A Common 25' Tape Measure<br>Photo By Jason Kisner

Who doesn’t have one of these? I have 2. I think both of mine are 25′, which works for me. The biggest think I have to measure is a room in my home. They come in all varieties and lengths from 10′ to 300′ or more. Regardless of the length, spend the few extra bucks and get a decent one.

Calipers

Measure tThickness With A Caliper

See how hard this is to read? Get a dial or digital caliper.
(Photo by Jason Kisner)

My calipers are exclusively used for measuring the thickness of the lumber. Believe it or not, those 1 x 4s you bought may or may not be ¾ of an inch thick. I have them range anywhere from ⅝” to ⅞”. It may not be important that you boards are exactly ¾ of an inch thick, but instead that they are of equal thickness, whatever that may be.

Calipers come in a few different configurations: sliding, dial, and digital. The one here is a sliding caliper. Do yourself a favor and get a digital or a dial caliper. This one is very hard to read, but it’s what I’ve got and it does the job.

In the near future, I’m going to write a little about marking, which is the sibling of measuring. In it, we’ll talk a bit about using some of these tools and a fews others to get better results.

Extra credit:

Don’t measure if you don’t have to. Yeah, that’s right. Don’t measure if you don’t have to. If you need a board to fit into a specific space, simply hold it up and make your mark right on the board. Cut out the middle man.

2 Responses

  1. Jim Roberts says:

    Do you ever do drywall by yourself? Check out this new simple drywall tool that lets a do it yourselfer screw in the drywall hands free! It is amazing! See it at hangersedge.com

  2. Cody says:

    The level on a combination square is designed for you to remove the handle and have a level all in one tool. Not extremely accurate, but gets the job done in a pinch.

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About Dan Lipe 

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I’m a Senior Interaction Designer, focused on creating compelling and intuitive user experiences. During my 15+ years in the design field, I’ve worked in print, corporate identity and digital media ...

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