Ditch the tape measure
Relying too heavily on a tape measure can actually make your projects more inaccurate. Go ahead. Mark 1″ with a tape and pencil. Do it again. And again. It doesn’t matter how steady your hand is; there will be a slight variation among the marks. Throughout the building process of a project, the influence of these little inaccuracies grow and grow. To stay ahead of this inaccuracy creep, the best practice is to grab physical representations of dimensions. If you are going to be inaccurate, at least be consistent. Here are some tools that will help:
Marking gauge: The tool for making mortise-and-tenon joinery. Set the tenon length on the gauge and mark it on all the necessary workpieces. Next, mark the depth of the shoulders; and then, the cheeks. As long as you are steady with the backsaw, all your tenons will be the same.
Combination square: The combination square can almost sit in for a marking gauge. Set the square to repeat a particular length and mark off from the end of the ruler. Or, set the square to gauge the depth of a mortise. If you insert, say, 1″ of ruler into a mortise and the adjustable straightedge sits flush with the workpiece end, you have your depth.
Chisel: Need a 3/4″-wide mortise? Easy. Grab a 3/4″-wide chisel. Done.
Story stick: When you want consistent spacing between fence boards, make a story stick, a piece of board that is as long as the width of the gap you need. Actually, cut two—one for spacing the fence board at the top stringer and one at the bottom. Get a friend to hold the story sticks against an affixed board while you attach the next one.
Your truck: This trick comes to us from our technical editor, Steve Maxwell. When you are cutting long lengths of 2×4, you can set your mitre saw and stand the right distance from your truck, using your vehicle as a stop block. Use this technique only if your truck is a true work vehicle; otherwise, you might scratch your trophy.
Folding ruler: A proper folding ruler has a slide-out rule in its first leaf. Within a box, fold out just enough leaves and slide out the rule, for a physical representation of that dimension.