Essential Tools at a Good Price

On the left is a “2nd” PEC square, on the right is a Starrett

For me, good projects come from good parts. Woodworkers will often work with material that isn’t quite square, isn’t quite the right size or isn’t in quite the right place. I’m at the precise and persnickety end of the spectrum, but that’s my way of making complex projects go together easily. Quality marking, measuring and layout tools are essential, and if you’re just starting to put your tool set together, this isn’t the place to scrimp. If you don’t know that the piece you just cut is square, and you don’t have the means to tell, you’re in for frustration. My grandfather was a tool and die maker, so I grew up with an appreciation for Starrett squares. My grandfather was also an immigrant from Scotland, so I also inherited a fair amount of what we call “frugality” in my family.

Machinist’s squares excel when you need to repeat layout marks.

In an upcoming story for 360 Woodworking I will be discussing all sorts of marking, measuring and layout tools. For several years I’ve been reading online about a source for good tools at good prices, the Harry J. Epstein Company of Kansas City, Missouri. In the interests of science I went online a couple of weeks ago and purchased both a 4″ and a 6″ double square. With shipping, I spent less than $40 and the tools arrived in a couple of days. In the photo above, the new square is on the left, and a Starrett I’ve had for 25 years or so is on the right. In the photo at right, I’m using the new square to mark a line 1/2″ from the end of the board. Before these tools were invented, most woodworkers used a marking gauge. Marking gauges are still useful, but an adjustable square is a lot more versatile.

The advantage of a double square is you can use it to gauge distances and check or mark for square.

You can do the same thing with a standard combination square that has one side of the stock angled at 45 degrees. But the combination square falls short, quite literally, if you need to check to see if a corner is square, or if you need to mark a line at a right angle after you’ve set it to gauge a short distance . The double square allows you to perform both tasks, so (in theory at least) you can do the same amount of work with fewer tools. If you’re laying out a complex project and have several increments that need to be marked on several pieces, it makes sense to have several adjustable squares available. Under that scenario you can leave different tools set at different distances. Size also comes into play, and the 4″ double square fits easily into a pocket.

EpsteinThe squares sold by Epstein are “seconds” manufactured by PEC in the United States. PEC makes quality tools, including some house brands. They don’t have the reputation of Starrett, Brown & Sharpe or Mitutoyo but they are respectable tools. These tools are cosmetic seconds or “blems” with some slight flaw in the appearance that doesn’t affect the functionality or accuracy of the tool.  If you’ve been getting by with a combination square that came from one of the big box stores, you’ll notice a huge improvement. If you’re used to machinist-quality, top of the line tools you’ll see that these aren’t quite as pretty or refined, but you’ll find that they adjust easily, hold their settings and are quite capable for day-in, day-out work. Here is a link to the Harry Epstein website, which is well worth investigating.

 — Bob Lang

The first “issue” of 360 WoodWorking” is on it’s way and will be available free of charge as our way of demonstrating our approach to woodworking media. Look for it in mid-December. If we’ve impressed you so far, and you’d like to go ahead and subscribe you can do that here. Your credit card won’t be charged until January 2015.

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3 thoughts on “Essential Tools at a Good Price

  1. A trip to Harry Epstein’s store in person is well worth the time. Lots of neat “junk”.

    1. That’s how I pictured it, and wished it were local.

  2. I have several machinist’s squares that I use. Most of them stay on my bench, on a tool rack next to the bench or in a tool drawer under the bench. I keep my PEC 4″ double square on my person, usually in my shirt pocket, and only reach for one of the others when the 4″ square just won’t do the job.

    For those used to the Starrett equivalent, if you like to separate the head from the rule and use them separately, the locking screw can fall out of the PEC head and get lost in the sawdust on the floor. The Starrett lock can only be separated from the head by intentionally disassembling it.

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