The Square Deal: Get the right angle on equipping your workshop with these important layout tools

By: Tim Snyder

Achieving perfect angles is a common pursuit in woodworking—especially 90° angles. But there’s no such thing as the perfect layout tool to check for square. That’s because the square relationships that occur in woodworking are surprisingly variable. One moment you’re squaring a bandsaw’s blade to its table; the next, you’re squaring a line across a full sheet of plywood or testing the corners of a frame-and-panel assembly. Handling these layout, assembly, and alignment tasks with accuracy and efficiency has spawned an amazing variety of tools. The selection featured here is far from complete, but there’s a good chance you’ll find a tool or two that deserves to be added to your arsenal.
Having a good selection of squares is only part of the square deal. It’s also important to store these tools correctly—so that they’re protected but easily accessible. Jim Downing designed and built the beautiful case shown here.

A. Starrett 4" double square ($84.50)
Here’s a pocket-sized square that gets plenty of use because of its accuracy and easy adjustability. Unlike cheap versions, this one is calibrated down to 64ths of an inch.

B. Starrett protractor head ($122.99)
When combined with a Starrett steel rule, this tool provides exceptional precision for measuring and transferring angles. The built-in level adds even more functionality.

C. Marking knife ($25.99)
This Swiss-made, double-bevel knife is designed for precise marking in either direction.

D. Mechanical pencils ($7.00 - $10.00)
These marvelous markers never need sharpening and always lay down a uniform line. Office supply stores stock .05, .07, and .09 lead sizes.

E. 6" steel rules (steel rule $31.99; hook rule $33.99)
A 6" rule is perfect for your pocket. Starrett’s “plain” steel rule features quick-reading 32nds and 64ths, plus decimal equivalents along the opposite scale. The hooked version is also graduated to 64ths, and has a reversible hook to make measurements quickly and precisely. You may not need both, but it’s smart to have at least one.

F. Shinwa combination square ($31.00)
The Japanese version of the combo square doesn’t have an adjustable rule like its Western counterpart, but it’s still a rugged, reliable performer for setting saw blades and doing layout work involving 90° and 45° angles.
G. FastCap 25' tape measure ($12.25)
The high-contrast scale is easy to read, and the erasable notepad means you don’t have to memorize measurements.

H. BORA 8" multi-angle square ($35.00)
This nicely made tool does what its name suggests, locking into 7 commonly used angles in addition to 90°. When folded flat, the BORA is small enough to carry in a pocket or tool belt.

I. 6" Incra professional T-rule ($26.59)
Paired with a 0.5mm lead mechanical pencil, this funny-looking rule enables you to mark lines parallel to an edge with amazing precision. The secret lies in the hundreds of tiny holes that correspond to distances calibrated to 64ths of an inch.

J. Engineer’s squares (4" square $24.99;magnetized micro square $23.00)
Here are the tools to reach for when squaring a blade or fence to a table surface. FastCap’s micro square is especially useful because its magnetized base holds the square firmly in place on a cast-iron top.

K. Starrett combination squares (12" $108.99; 6" $97.50)
This tool comes closest to being an all-purpose square for workshop use. While you can get by with a single 12" combo square, a 6" model is much easier to use for small-scale tasks. Laroy Starrett invented the combination square in 1877, and Starrett still makes the best combination square available today—thanks to excellent machining and exceptional quality control.

L. Starrett tempered steel rafter square ($14.50)
More commonly referred to as a framing square, this big square is your go-to tool for squaring case assemblies, doors and other large items. If you need to step out of the shop and put on your carpentry cap, the “rafter square” label comes into play. Tables printed on the square enable you to lay out rafters of any size, pitch or type. Laying out stair stringers is another common carpentry use.

M. Woodpeckers 600mm T-square ($114.99)
Grab this aluminum square when you need to divide a sheet of plywood into smaller panels. Thanks to precisely machined 1mm holes drilled every 1⁄16", you’ll have no trouble marking parallel lines precisely across a broad area.

N. Triangle squares (small $7.00; large $18.00)
Since Albert Swanson invented the Speed Square® in 1925, many versions of this trusty tool have come to market. Plastic and aluminum models are equally indestructible. These squares make quick work of checking right and 45° angles. Calibrations make it possible to lay out other angles too. As a bonus, these thick-bodied squares will guide the edge of a circular saw for straight cuts.

O. Starrett try square ($20.00)
This tool is ruggedly made, with a stainless steel blade. Angled edges enable you to lay out 45° angles.

P. Folding rule ($8.28)
It’s not a square, but it sure fits nicely in this tool collection. This Swedish-made Kikkerland rule extends to 78". It’s compact and finely constructed.