Lee Valley Tools Woodworking Newsletter
Vol. 1, Issue 3
March 2007
Working By Eye

With the advent of affordable digital measuring equipment and machinist-quality dial calipers, it's easy to forget one of your most precise, compact and inexpensive measuring tools: your eye.

Your eyes can sense plumb, level and right angles with accuracy that may startle you the first time you try it. The only real trick to learn – as with all things relating to measurement – is to look in the right place.

When it comes to working with hand tools, the right place to look is in the reflective working surface of the tool, such as the blade of a saw, or the back of a chisel. The reflection of your layout lines and the edges of your workpiece can tell you if you are holding the tool square to an edge, if your tool is tipped left or right and if your cut is progressing as you planned.

With handsaws and backsaws, the reflection in the sawplate can help you cut square crosscuts, plumb rips and angled dovetails. Here’s how to do it:

Mark your cut-line on your work and place the saw on the waste side of the line. Make sure you have the board's true edge (the edge that has been jointed straight) facing you. Now look at the reflection of your work in the sawplate. Pay attention to the reflection of your true edge. Swivel the saw clockwise and counterclockwise. Tip the top of the saw left and right. When the reflection of the true edge appears to be in line with the actual true edge, your saw is positioned to make a perfect 90° crosscut that is straight down through the board. (If you don't believe it, check your sawplate against an accurate try square.)

The sawplate out of true.
The saw isn't true: Notice the reflection
of the true edge isn't in line with the
actual true edge.
  The sawplate true to the true edge.
The saw is true: The reflection of the true edge and the actual true edge
are in line.

You can use the reflection as a guide during almost any saw cut. By paying attention to it, you will immediately see when you are straying from your cut-line or listing left or right. This works when crosscutting boards of any width, or when ripping tenon cheeks – it can even lend a hand in cutting dovetails. Even though the reflection won't tell if you are cutting the correct dovetail slope, it will tell if your cut is square across the board, which is more critical than the exact slope.

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