By concentrating on precision, one arrives at technique, but by concentrating on technique one does not arrive at precision.Bruno Walter
In this post your humble servant would like to introduce an unusual marking gauge, the Vernier Sickle Marking Gauge by Matsui Precision.
This tool is made in Sanjo Japan located in snowy Niigata Prefecture, a small craftsman concern in the best Japanese “shokunin” tradition, that services a few niche markets including woodworking, unusual for a precision tool manufacturer. Your humble servant has used Matsui Precision’s layout tools for many years, and I have always been impressed with their quality, utility and value. This tool is entirely consistent with their other products in this regard.
This marking gauge has been on the market for some years now, and I have provided many of them to Beloved Customers upon request, but I have not written about them before or listed them in our pricelists. Why? Because, while we are happy to procure items requested by Beloved Customers, we don’t actively sell anything we haven’t used and tested and found worthy of our guarantee. I hadn’t tested this tool until recently because I already have too many marking gauges in my toolchest, and at first glance thought this one looked “gimmicky.”
What has changed, you ask? Until recently there were other good options available to our Beloved Customers, but those alternatives have evaporated like morning dew under the desert sun, prompting me to find alternatives. I was pleasantly surprised by this tool in every way possible.
This tool is a combination of a more-or-less standard “sickle” marking gauge, as they are called in Japan, in reference to the blade attached at 90° to the end of the beam, and a vernier caliper mechanism and scales but without the jaws. Instead of measuring the distances between jaws, the scales in this case measure the projection of the cutter from the face of the fence.
The location of the scales to the fence can be adjusted to “zero” the measurement when necessary to ensure accuracy. It’s a good design.
Challenges Inherent in the Sickle Marking Gauge
No tool is perfect, and no tool can handle all tasks, so it is important to understand a tool before purchasing it. Accordingly, I will speak candidly as one craftsman to another.
The most difficult aspects of making an efficient and pleasant to use “sickle” style marking gauge are summarized below:
- Fabricating the beam and fence so the beam moves into and out of the fence smoothly and without binding or sticking is a surprisingly difficult task;
- Designing and fabricating a locking mechanism that can be operated quickly and easily and that truly locks the beam solidly at the required setting is likewise a pain in the tuckus. Give it a try and you’ll see what I mean.
MP’s use of the metal and locking mechanism of a vernier caliper seems counter-intuitive to me, but in reality it is a clever and effective solution because the beam moves smoothly and absolutely free of wiggle and binding both when being adjusted and after being locked due to the excellent zero-slop, highly polished “ways” machined into the stainless steel body.
Most importantly, the lock is quick to use and rock solid, superior in this regard to any other marking gauge I have experienced. I acknowledge it looks like a gimmicky toy, but is a serious, highly useful, and excellent lifetime tool.
This marking gauge can be used exactly like an ordinary gauge, gauging distances by eyeball and trial and error, or measured directly from drawings, the workpiece, or tool blades.
When used like a traditional marking gauge the vernier scale built into this tool adds no special benefit, but neither does it diminish its effectiveness in the least. So if you don’t need a precision vernier scale, it’s easy to ignore. That’s what I do most of the time. But once I figured out how to use it, I found it very useful indeed.
The Vernier Scale
Let’s begin by considering the venerable vernier scale component of this tool, named after it’s inventor Pierre Vernier.
Instead of the standard direct-read single measured-value graduated scale typical of straightedge scales, the vernier scale is a subsidiary scale aligned with the main scale with, in this case, 10 divisions on the vernier scale equal in distance to 39 divisions on the main scale. An interpolated reading is obtained by observing which of the vernier scale graduations is coincident with a graduation on the main scale. The human eye has hyper-acuity (“kicks ass”) at perceiving the alignment of such small graduations, a skill that improves with practice, and the reason the vernier scale combination is so useful.
When a main scale and vernier scale are combined with a caliper, the result is the vernier caliper, a humble tool that has had far-reaching consequences in human progression.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting you must use precision machine tools to do excellent woodworking. I am merely introducing an adapted tool that performs extremely well as a traditional marking gauge, with the added benefit of the ability to measure very precisely in a way traditional marking gauges cannot. I have no doubt that this tool will help Beloved Customer do better work quicker.
About now Beloved Customer is perhaps wondering why the heck anyone would incorporate a vernier scale into a marking gauge. After all, high-precision measurements are seldom needed in most woodworking projects, and the marking gauge as it is used in woodworking is not a useful tool for comparative measurements anyway. So let us reason through this mystery.
How to Use the Vernier Scale
Being of exceptionally high intelligence and possessing superior skills at creative adaption, no doubt Beloved Customer will find many unique ways to use this tool, but for reference purposes I will be so bold as to describe a few ways I have found it especially effective so far. Please laugh at the fool, with all of Beloved Customer’s usual awe-inspiring refinement of course, but please refrain from tossing eggs.
Architectural and woodworking drawings have dimensions to describe the locations of pre-manufactured items of hardware such as mounting/connecting screws, handles, knobs, catches, hinges, and brackets. These dimensions are typically listed in X-Y directions measured from edges of the workpiece, for instance from the finished edge of a drawer or door. At least one such dimension is usually within 150mm from an edge.
Let’s say we are installing a barrel cabinet hinge with the pin projecting past the edge of the cabinet’s face. This same condition exists when installing knife hinges or European-style cabinet hinges too, of course. One way to mark the edge of the hinge’s leaf on the cabinet door is to carefully position and clamp the actual hinge on the cabinet door, or a piece of scrap wood, and mark the perimeter with a marking knife or utility knife. We can then set our marking gauge to these marks to layout the other hinges. This technique works very well, but it can be time-consuming and it obviously ignores the dimensions listed on the drawing.
Another technique is to measure the width of leaf with a steel scale, subtract the projection of the hinge pin, and use this same scale to adjust the blade of a marking gauge the right distance. This works well, but it’s a bit uncertain since there is a limit to how precisely and quickly we can set the gauge’s cutter using a steel scale.
However, using the Matsui Vernier Sickle Marking Gauge, we have another option at our fingertips. Namely, we can use the vernier scale built into the tool to easily, quickly and with tremendous reliability set the gauge’s cutter to the precise dimension listed in the drawing. Of course, this assumes that the actual dimension of the hinge is consistent with the drawings, a detail a wise craftsman will confirm for himself. In any case, once a final distance from the edge has been determined, one will have already measured, with great accuracy (and without additional steps or the use of additional tools) the location of the far edge of hinge leaf for all subsequent cabinet doors. Most importantly, one can then annotate the drawing, or make a note, of this distance for future reference. This is a professional approach.
Of course, just like any traditional marking gauge, it can be used to directly measure the width of the hinge’s leaf (the sickle-style marking gauge is much easier than the other types of marking gauges at this task), but the Matsui marking gauge actually yields a value one can record, compare, and reuse saving time while improving precision.
Other uses for this tool include precisely laying out the offset from an edge of not only hinges, but handles, pulls, catches and even molding profiles with great repeatability, especially when working from dimensioned drawings.
Matsui Precision manufactures the stainless steel parts of this tool in-house, and subs out the laminated ebony and white oak fence. This tool is difficult to obtain because the demand is high and the supply of the wooden components is limited.
The beam and its small blade are made of stainless steel, but in two pieces laminated together. The integral spear-pointed cutter is hardened to hold an edge and is hollow-ground on its outside face for ease of sharpening. It is also slightly skewed in relation to the beam to produce forces when in use that pull the fence into the edge of the workpiece, an important detail in a tool like this.
The entire beam, with its cutter, can be easily removed for sharpening by loosening the lock screw and pulling it out of its ways.
The cutter is big enough and sharp enough that the tool can be used for slitting, cutting and even splitting materials such as wood, leather, cardboard, etc. Please be aware, however, that this tool is not primarily a splitting/slitting gauge and that such work always tends to wear grooves into the wooden fence. The typical fix in the case of dedicated splitting/slitting gauges is to embed brass wear strips into the face of the fence, or to laminate a piece of hard, slick high-pressure plastic laminate (regular plastic laminate is too soft) to the fence.
Right now this tool is available only with a metric scale, but since Mr. Matsui engraves his graduations in-house, a version with imperial (inch) scales is entirely possible depending on the order size. Please let me know if you are interested.
Matsui makes this tool in two lengths: 100mm (4″) and 150mm (6″). The main scale reads in millimeters (25.4mm/inch) and the vernier scale reads 1/20mm which makes accurate measurements of 0.05mm (0.002″) possible; Much more accurate than a steel square and Mark-1 Eyeball combination alone.
If you have never used a Japanese sickle marking gauge before I promise you will get a big grin the first time you use this one. This is the highest-quality example currently commercially available in Japan, and probably even the world.
Links to Articles About Other Matsui Precision Tools:
- Matsui Precision Squares
- Matsui Precision Notched Straightedge
- Matsui Precision Vernier Sickle Marking Gauge
If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below.
Please share your insights and comments with everyone by using the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. If I lie may the lines made by all my marking gauges wander like drunk.