16 inch combination square

While I have been working on things, you wouldn’t necessarily know it to look at this site.  One project is waiting on parts, one is stalled while I make a design decision,and one is stalled pending me figuring out what is wrong with a circuit.

The desk is coming along but has hit the point where you realize that your careful measurements and plans ran afoul of your ability and materials.  The below tool is one of my proudest acquisitions:


This is a Craftsman 16″ combination square.  It’s a 90″ square, 45″ try angle, 16″ steel ruler, level, and has a scribe tucked into the “grip” below the level.  It is a metalworker’s tool (as indicated by the scribe) that is useful to woodworkers.  For some reason, I consider this to be a very “grownup” tool.  My father has one, and it was never used for measuring by we children.  Wooden freebie rulers from local political campaigns and hardware stores were for the kids.  (I don’t know who the town supervisor is of my hometown, but I’ll forever remember the name of the politician who gave out that ruler, probably 20 years ago.)  In hindsight, dad was probably worried about us damaging the level or losing the ruler.  It is well made, tough, and the ruler, being steel, has square, undented ends, unlike the aforementioned wooden rulers.

In any case, I was happy when I finally purchased one several years ago.  It sits well in the hand, a product of many decades of product evolution.  Amazingly, it is still available for less than $20. I am astonished at the level of precision available for this price.  I am not a machinist; I do not require thousandths of an inch tolerance and do not know if this square provides it (I doubt it).  The level of finish offered in a tool that today costs as much as a pretty good steak would make it suitable for those at the highest point of their profession a few generations ago.  I had a discussion with a friend a while ago, and we realized that possession of an inexpensive modern micrometer, available today for $10 or so, would be worth a small fortune 150 years ago.  (Note: my 1902 Sears catalog does not seem to  have the pages that would contain precision instruments.  More’s the pity.)

I hear the response, “And?  Many new things would have been impressive long ago.”  I suppose, that when I look at this square, I see the history of the tool: wooden blocks, then carefully chosen and put together wood squares, made of hard wood, which you can’t get wet, then brass, rough iron, heavy and subject to temperature variations and tarnish, steel, and finally this aluminum tool.  While I am impressed by currently new technologies, I have a similar well of fascination for the amount of power that can be found in the average suburban basement.  Metallurgy, machining technologies, theoretical science, engineering, and the simple evolution of use all come together in an inexpensive item, available to just about everyone.  Thinking further on it, the ability to measure accurately figures in no small role in these developments, as well.  The more tool power available to the individual, the more development we can have, I think.

There is, however, a temptation posed by this square.  No matter how precisely you measure when woodworking, something will not fit.  The drill bit wanders a little, or is shunted a little aside by a knot, or you put it in at 93 degrees instead of 90.  The wood is sniped a bit at the end.  The jigsaw blade cut just off the perpendicular.  The plane caught on something.  You made all of your measurements from a slightly crooked reference.  Skill and good tool maintenance can help avoid most of these, but error adds up when measuring and fitting.  The owner of Sippican Cottage Furniture explains it better than I could here, but the gist of it is:  use the actual workpiece involved as the reference whenever possible.  Use the same reference for all of the same parts.  That way you only have one step to mess up, instead of chaining errors together.  The precision offered by the combination square made you think you could work  the wood like you could the paper on which you did your design work.

The above comments may or may not be an explanation of the issues I am having with my desk project.

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