An English Layout Square (In the anarchist tradition)

Ever since laying my hands on The Anarchist’s Tool Chest and seeing that mysterious square emblazoned on the front in the form of an “A” I have been wanting to build one. But you know how that is, first I had to build this other thing, and then something else, and something else.

Well this week I finally got around to it and here it is:

The square is constructed from black walnut that I found in the “scrap” pile at a local business that reclaims lumber and makes hardwood flooring. In truth these boards actually were scraps. full of splits and pith and knots, not suitable for much else than to cut them down and build some tools out of them. A while back I built some winding sticks and a straightedge from the same haul, but a few boards were still hanging around and in my big shop makeover I found them and decided to make them useful or make them firewood.

I was able to cut out most of the knots and splits with a little care and found myself with 4 decent sized pieces that I straightened and squared to roughly 2 1/2″ x 1/2″ x 18″

What I was actually able to salvage was some pretty wood, so it was clear to me that this had some potential. I had to remove all of the tongue and groove as well as the grooving on the back.

As I wanted it to be as Schwarzian as possible I set out looking for a pattern, but kept coming up empty. There are articles on Popular Woodworking that all point to Sketch-Up files that no longer exist, but I was finally able to find a PDF of the original plans and went to work.

The plans said 21″ long for the legs and my stock was 18″ so I had to make some decisions. I didn’t really want something that big in the first place so I settled on just making the legs 18″ and adjusting the design to suit. It meant altering the decorative elements of the design in some ways, but from the pattern I was able to stay pretty close to the original proportions.

After committing to the size I roughed in the stop cuts for the decorative elements on the legs and ripped the waste away. I also made the half-lap joint as illustrated on this episode of The Woodwright’s Shop.

The main joint came out very nice off the saw (right) but I spent some extra time making it as perfect as possible.

From there I went to work on the decorative details of the piece. Against the advice given in the video I got out my coping saw for these.
A little cleanup with chisels, files and sandpaper and they came out looking half decent, so I crossed my fingers and glued the two legs together. 

The next bit seemed harrowing to me for some reason. I located and centered the cross member making use of all of it’s length and locating it with dividers. I clamped it up, marked the joints and went to work making sawdust.

These are first class cuts so I took the extra time to deepen the knife lines and chisel out a relief channel for the saw.

I also made stopping cuts in the waste area to make it easy to clean out the waste with a router plane.

Even with the stopping cuts the walnut gave me a run for my money and I had to take the time to stop and put a really keen edge on my router plane cutter.

(This is sort of an aside, but as much of a traditionalist as I am in some regards I can appreciate innovation when it makes my life easier, and this Veritas router plane is one of those innovations. The cutter comes apart and mounts to a little jig for sharpening allowing for excellent access. I cant say enough good things about this design.)

Anyway, I left a little extra length on either end of the cross member when I cut the other half of the lap joint and trimmed it with a carcass saw to flush it up. Not a bad fit if I do say so myself.

When I was finished with assembly I took extra time and care to flush all of the joints with my smoothing plane but because of some gnarly reversing grain I still had to do a little work with my card scraper and (gasp) even sandpaper.

Squaring the square is covered elsewhere on Chris Schwarz’s blog and on the Woodwright’s episode so I wont go into the process, but I will say that a freshly sharpened block plane went a long way in preserving my sanity.
It was a fun project, but still full of challenging lessons. For instance, I know how to make a half lap joint and even how to make one at an angle, but the scale and detail of the project taught me a great deal about taking care to do things accurately and beautifully and not just to hack out something structurally sound.

Anyway, after a few coats of tung oil left to dry overnight, I finished polishing it with Howard’s Feed-n-Wax (love this stuff!) and I am proud to say I am the happy new owner of a beautiful 18″ traditional English layout square.


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