7 Essential Marking Tools for the Shop

Marking accurately will help increase the quality of your project. Here are some marking tools that I find very helpful in the shop.
By: Dan Lipe
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One key to getting an accurate cut is to know whether to cut to the left, the right or down the center of the line. After all, a dull #2 pencil mark can be around 1/32 of an inch thick. For me, the easiest way to do this is to simply be consistent about where you mark your lines. (I like to mark my lines on the part that is going away, meaning that I will remove the pencil line as opposed to leaving the pencil line.)

Pencils and Pens

Obvious, right?! I have a whole bin of pens and pencils at my work bench. The classic #2 is my go-to, but there are cases where it just won’t do. For marking lines on walnut, I keep a white or yellow colored pencil around. When using drafting templates, I use a mechanical pencil with .5 lead (the templates are ove-rsized to compensate for the lead). I personally don’t care for carpenter’s pencils, as the mark they make is not accurate enough for my OCD, however the lines they make are easy to see and just fine for construction projects. I also find that a Sharpie marker is a great thing to keep handy for writing the species of wood on the end of the board and for writing on metal.

Marking Knife

I love my marking knife. It does two distinct things: It makes a razor-clean line across the wood that can’t be erased, and it severs the wood fibers so that there is a super clean cut. You don’t necessarily need a marking knife per se. A hobby knife, utility knife, or even a pocket knife can do the same job. I simply find the wood handle on my marking knife to be more pleasing to my hands, and the beveled blade to be preferred for the task at hand. (Safety note: You can do some serious damage to your hands with these bad boys, so PAY ATTENTION to what you are doing).

Wheel Marking Gauge

Usually composed of a steel rod, an adjustable fence and a cutting wheel, this marking gauge is an amazing tool for repeating a distance. There are several different models of the marking gauge (you get what you pay for IMHO). The cutting wheel makes a clean line by severing the wood fibers. Mine is the basic model with one thumb screw. It can be set to the width of a board or a specific measurement, and is most useful in scribing a line on multiple faces of a board.

Marking Gauge

Also known as a cutting gauge or a mortising gauge, this marking gauge is essential for laying out mortise and tenon joints. It’s often made of wood and equipped with 2 points, making it a cinch to make lines that are not only parallel, but the exact width of the chisel you are going to be using.

Scratch Awl

What I find the scratch awl great for is marking the place where I am about to drill. Finding a pencil point while at the drill press (or with drill in hand) can be a bit tough. Marking that point with an awl makes the spot easier to find. Combine that with a brad point bit, and you will quickly find your holes to be in just the right spot. I also find that the scratch awl will double as a marking knife in a pinch (in fact, most adjustable squares have a built-in scratch awl just for the purpose of striking a line).


Just like in high school geometry, the compass can be used for making circles, diving angles and marking distances. I don’t find myself reaching for it often, but when I need it, I need it.


The compass’s unleaded cousin, I reach for my dividers when I have a repeating distance to mark (this pair does have a place for a pencil). The metal points let me make a permanent mark where I can come back later and strike a line with my marking knife. This is especially handy when laying out dovetail joints.

Some Final Notes

As with any tools, you get what you pay for. The best advice I have read is “buy the best tool you can afford.” None of the tools pictured here are the top end of the tool spectrum. They all do the job, but each certainly has some things that I don’t love about them. With the wheel marking gauge, sometimes I accidentally hit the wheel and loose my set-up. And the dividers — there are much more elegant designs available (these are bargain basement models). At the end of the day, each of these guys helps me do what I enjoy doing and that is the important part!

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