The most important tools in the shop

Ask a couple of old wood butchers what they believe are the most important tools in the shop and it’s very likely that you will be witness to a debate about the benefits of table saws and bandsaws.  In a world with electricity, both of these essential tools are usually found in most shops.  In a world that relies on elbow grease, the choice would likely be somewhat different.  But I’d be willing to bet that a discussion of panel saws and bench planes would be underway, in short order.

When I’m asked what tools are really essential to my pursuits, my choices might be a bit of a surprise.

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Don’t get the idea that there is some secret message from the Freemasons Lodge embedded here.  The simple truth of the matter is that with these three tools, you can measure anything.

For many craftspeople, learning and maintaining the skill of accurate measuring gets overlooked.  Computer programs and full-size drawings provide us with information that allows us to build high quality pieces without being bothered by measurement and calculation.  But for the craftsperson who would copy pieces for which there is no “pre-measured” information available or would seek to modify an existing design, the skill of measuring is essential.  For those that would be better woodworkers, measurement is a “gateway” skill.  And because it is a “skill”, it must be practiced, just like turning or cutting dovetails.

Coupling you measuring skill with a thorough knowledge of practical geometry will “raise your game” more quickly than anything you can buy in the woodworkers store.

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6 Comments on “The most important tools in the shop”


  1. The compass and square I think I understand. What place does a plumb bob have in a cabinetmaker’s shop? I think it’s better used in carpentry work then say in making a chest of drawers.

    • D.B. Laney Says:

      If your practice is all square casework, you will likely never have need for the plumb line. Much of my work has been architectural (panel work and staircases). While engaged in that practice, you’ll need the line. If you’re in a shop that does any work that is not square, such as chairs or non-traditional furniture; or if you’re in a situation that requires you to calculate rise and run, sighting or resultant angles, you’ll quickly realize that all of these functions are based on common plumb or level lines. Ergo, something as simple as a piece of string and a “sinker” can be very useful. Now, if you’ve got a coordinate measuring machine and you are absolutely positive that your power source will never be interupted, the plumb line is not essential. I guess it really comes down to how any of us approach our craft.

      • Brian Loucks Says:

        Where was this post a couple weeks ago when I was struggling with a non-traditional table leg calculation. My long untouched plumb bob shall now be dusted off and put to its proper use. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Ken Lomas Says:

    You have piqued my curiosity and confirmed my suspicions…
    however, you have left me wanting the obvious…
    How does one begin the mastering of these 3 fundamental tools without a mentoring master?

    Simply stated where does one start with the:

    1. Square?
    2. Divider?
    and…
    3. Plumb bob?

    in acquiring the knowledge needed to throw away our tape measure?

    Wanting more…

    Ken Lomas

    • D.B. Laney Says:

      We’re really talking about classic geometry. It’s something that gets in your blood and you wind up studying and being fascinated by it throughout your life. If you’re up to reading Pythagoras and Euclid, you’ll be well on your way. But in the short term, just about any trade book (those books aimed at “the trades” as opposed to those written for the hobbyist) published before World War II, will have sections dealing with practical geometry. Follow this link to a reading list that you might find helpful.

  3. JMAW Works Says:

    I might agree about the plumb bob, but perhaps it’s really the string that is the essential bit of that tool?

    Also I might refine the point slightly. It’s not really “measuring” which implies usage of standard units, it’s “layout” I think you mean for precision work.


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