What are the Best Marking Tools for Finish Carpentry?


I have recently been building things in my shop again and am currently on a project that requires a lot of finesse work with smaller, odd pieces. I have a background in remodeling and construction so the tools that I usually use for marking are a 25’ Stanley tape measure and a Swanson Speed Square. However, these two items are meant more for framing and rough cuts rather than finish work. In other words, I would like to purchase a few precision marking tools for this purpose. Any recommendations would be appreciated.

In reading through some of these forum posts, I have seen that Starrett products are highly recommended but I am not sure I am ready to bite the bullet on those prices.

Precision in woodworking does not always require measuring down to thousandths of an inch or anything approaching that. Repeatability is often more important so that parts that need to be the exact same dimension truly are from the outset or can be fine-tuned and fitted to be so. While I like my vintage (mostly bought in the 1960’s and 1970’s) Starrett combination squares (one with a protractor head) that I keep hanging in the shop:

I’m reminded that a cheap drafting triangle (or T-Square) from an art supply store is precise enough for lots of marking tasks. The only issue with plastic triangles is that they can wear.

Learning how to precisely cut to a line or trim a joint with a plane until it fits perfectly can be just if not more important than the precision involved in creating that line. My collection of Starrett squares is more about convenience than it is about any real need – but that’s not to say I’d recommend a cheap combination square that slides stiffly or will not hold its setting well. Journeymen carpenters hundreds of years ago would build their own try squares and created fine furniture based on skill, apprenticeship training, mostly hand tools and plenty of time. Modern measuring tools do help with efficiency and the time aspects of woodworking.

Another aspect of how critical measuring and marking needs to be – are the joinery techniques that you select. Fitting traditional mortise and tenon joints requires a bit more effort than my recent use of a Domino machine and loose tenons. For some tasks – pocket-hole joinery – typically chosen by folks like Scott Phillips (America Woodshop TV series) may even be easier – because you are measuring and laying out butt-joints.

Regarding Starrett prices, you might take a look at Zoro compared to Amazon – and then wait on a Zoro 25% off sale.

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If you could elaborate more on the type of work you want to do. Your title says finish carpentry, but you talk about working on projects in the shop. Are you doing joinery? trimwork? cabinetry?

I can second fred’s recommendation of a decent combination square. It’s a pretty good all purpose tool that will serve you well in many applications. Although if the price of a really nice combo square has you hesitating, a moderately priced machinists square will serve you well too, plus it’s handy for squaring up miter saws, tables saws, etc.

You mentioned marking…do you mean something like a marking knife?

That’s just an example, you can spend as little or as much as you want on one, or even make your own. A marking knife gives you a much finer line and as a bonus when you are working on joinery a good guide for placing a chisel.

You don’t need a marking knife, a utility knife works in a pinch, but I find that the thin blade can wander on you sometimes.

A decent wheel marking gauge can be handy for repeatable markings and long parallel lines.

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I second the notion that to select tools - one needs to understand the application. Start with the basics then expand as you understand the limitations of what you have and the need/capabilities of more refined tools become apparent.

I too hesitated in recommending a plethora of tools. A Blue Spruce marking knife would be nice - but an Xacto knife or a fine lead mechanical pencil are much cheaper alternatives for marking - and can be good if you practice and refine your technique. I also hesitated recommending the tools from Woodpeckers and VERITAS - good but - might be thought of as pricey. Marking gauges are nice adjuncts for laying out mortises, rabbets and even centerlines - but nothing you can’t do with a combination square and pencil or marking knife once you learn how. Laying out circles and curves can be done with a pencil and string or an expensive beam compass - with many different alternatives in between. You van lay out an oval table top with a jig, or use a loop fo string, 2 nails and a pencil. With a little trigonometry and a ruler you can mark angles - or use something like my Starrett protractor head and blade. And so on.

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Thanks for the input fred. I am increasingly being convinced that I need to make jigs to aid in the repeatability of many pieces that require exact fitting. I am still learning quite a bit in regards of how to go about some of these tasks. I will look at some of those Starrett prices on Zoro, may be worth it to get just one good combination square.


Well, I remodel houses all the way from studs to finish work as a job right now but in the applications I was intending were furniture/cabinet making in my shop. So, “finish carpentry” may not be the appropriate term for the applications I was intending. The project I am currently working on is a collapsible desktop easel for my sister and some of the leg pieces are proving to be slightly finicky as I had to mark quite a few spots for notches and holes for dowels to go through and rest. The reason I said marking tool is because I was having a difficult time getting exact marks down where I wanted them with just my speed square. As I think about it more now though, I realize I should have conjured up a jig or two to do some of the notches and drilling.

I will definitely make an investment in a good combination square or machinist’s square in the near future and possibly look at getting a wheel marking gauge. I have already seen some applications in which I could use the wheel marking gauge.

Thanks for your input!


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Re making a cut line:

Marking knives make an ultra-thin, indelible line. When handsawing lumber, the cut actually guides one row of teeth on the saw.

My favorite marking knife is, believe it or not, those cheap snap-off knives you can get at Home Depot. They are light and thin, they are quick to deploy, and the blade lock is quick and reasonably secure. They are comfortable in the hand. The blades are thin so the cut mark is deep. They are sharpened along the long edge, so if you drop one, it won’t stab through your foot (and they are too light to do that anyway.) They are always sharp (you can sharpen them if you wish.) The only downside is that the blade can rust if if gets wet, or if the room is humid.

That and a reasonably good combination square can do a lot. You might want a T-bevel for odd angles. A bar gauge is handy too. You can make one out of wood; you can get the hardware from Lee Veritas.

This is not a marking tool, but a centering drill bit helps you place holes precisely and repeatably when using a jig.

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Never seen this use:

  1. Set the limits for stopped router-table cuts


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Thanks for the link @fred, I learned a few new tricks from it!

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Seconding Fred, for furniture making and cabinetry I use a quality combination square by Moore and Wright (Starret Quality) with a snap off blade utility knife, xacto or just a stanley knife to mark the line. The hardened steel, fine ground combination square is both accurate and durable.


Thanks @Alick!

After reading these responses, I will definitely be picking up a solid combination square. Another big takeaway was the use of some sort of marking knife. I have historically used just a regular No. 2 pencil which can vary in marking depending on how sharp it is. I really like the idea of one of those snap off blade knives and will be picking one up again on my next visit to Lowe’s or Home Depot. Wheel marking gauges also intrigued me but I don’t have a direct need for one at the moment.

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Use a knife and square to mark all round and define a surface. Hand plane down to the line with a fine set plane. As you reach the knife mark, the thinnest shavings around the edge tell you exactly where you are :slight_smile: Machining is far faster but it’s very satisfying to get hand work right and a finish straight off the blade is so much finer than something sanded. If you find that you enjoy it, think about trying a Japanese style pull cut saw. They have ground teeth and as the earlier contributor said, you can put one side of the teeth right into your knife cut and saw with real precision.


Just like with a pencil - marking with a knife can be finessed to give you not only accuracy but repeatability.
A knife blade has a small but finite thickness and can be single bevel (right or left) or double bevel. How you hold your knife can impact how far away from the combination square blade your mark will be. Ideally you want any offset to be minimized - but also the same from piece to piece if you are marking multiple pieces that are meant to be exactly the same dimension. Ideally you also want the knife to cleanly slice through the wood grain - not split or meander with the grain if you are marking in the direction of the grain. Some marking gauges use a knife blade, others a sharpened point and others a wheel. There are gauges that double-up on the points or wheels - so you can mark 2 sides of a mortise or tenon at once. There are even double bladed knives (mostly use fro cutting veneer strips) Each style has its fine points,

Here are some discussions:

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Paul Sellers has excellent practical articles and viewpoints about marking knives and other marking methods. Here is a good one, search his website for more. https://paulsellers.com/2012/07/more-about-your-joinery-knife/

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@Alick I hope to one day get more into hand work but for the projects I have at hand, I will stick to more machining. I don’t have many of the right hand tools for the job.

@fred & @gafortiby I would have never thought that there were so many different types of marking knives! I read all of those articles and I definitely learned a lot. For now, I think break-off blade knife from a box store will suffice for the projects I have at hand. I bought a cheap (~$10) Empire combination square recently and started using it on the two projects I am working on and it has made a world of a difference. The biggest thing I have learned is to mark in a consistent, repeatable manner, which I am currently using the combination square and a mechanical pencil to do.

Thanks for the tips, I have already learned a few things that I am using in the shop!

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