Let’s talk about marking gauges. These deceptively simple tools are an essential part of any woodworker’s (or metalworker’s) toolbox, but not everyone is familiar or comfortable with using them.
Also known as mortise gauges or scratch gauges, these small sliding tools have been used around the world for centuries. Nowadays modern wheel gauge designs are arguably the best marking gauges to buy, but in reality, you don’t need to spend a lot of money to get great results.
That is, as long as you know what to look for.
In this marking gauge guide, I’ll cover all the different types of marking gauges and what they’re best for, as well as how to use marking gauges.
Read also: 12 essential woodworking tools for beginners
If you’re not interested in any of that and just want to know which marking gauge to buy for woodworking, get one of the options below. They won’t let you down.
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Best wood marking gauges: Quick picks
Robert Larson combination gauge
- Great for beginners
- Covers wide variety of tasks
WoodRiver wheel marking gauge
- Attractive design
- Precise cuts
- Great hand feel
Crown 135 marking gauge
- Very inexpensive
- All-wood design
- Plastic thumbscrew
Table of contents
Best marking gauges for woodworking
You can scroll down a bit to learn more about each type of marking gauge to make a more informed decision, but I’ve picked out 6 options below that are the best options currently on the market.
1. Robert Larson 605-1250 combination gauge
✔️ Quality materials and construction
✔️ Perfect for beginners
❌ Plastic thumbscrew
❌ Pins may need sharpening
My top pick for the best woodworking marking gauge is this combination gauge from Robert Larson. It might not have all the bells and whistles of more expensive wheel gauges, but for the price it’s unbeatable.
It features a traditional beechwood design with brass plates and hardened pins. Since it’s a combination gauge, it has two pins on one side for marking mortise and tenon joints and one pin on the other for standard marking.
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This versatility makes it the ideal choice for woodworkers who don’t yet have a gauge. It will cover a wide variety of tasks as you improve your skills.
The only potential downside is the plastic thumbscrew, which might not fit the aesthetic craftsman are used to.
It will hold the stem just fine in normal work, but if it really bothers you I recommend replacing it with a nice brass threaded insert and thumbscrew.
2. WoodRiver wheel marking gauge
✔️ Quality materials
✔️ Attractive design
✔️ Great hand feel
✔️ Sharp, precise cuts
❌ Only one cutter
❌ Can roll off of workbench
Wheel gauges are the latest and greatest type of marking gauge to come out, and this model from the trusted American brand Woodcraft is a fantastic choice.
Like all of the best marking gauges, it holds its setting firmly and cuts a clean line. What sets this one apart is a touch of luxury.
It features a solid brass and stainless steel build, with a bubinga fence accent that feels amazing in the hand. Combined with its hefty weight, it’s an incredibly satisfying tool to use.
The stem features both imperial and metric measurements, making it a passable alternative to a depth gauge. I wouldn’t completely trust the accuracy of these measurements, but it can do in a pinch.
Like many wheel gauges, the fence is completely round so there’s a danger of it rolling off your workbench. Consider filing a flat on one edge to prevent this.
The cutting wheel can be sharpened, but eventually you will need to buy a replacement, which runs roughly $5. There are no replacement blades in the box.
3. Crown 135 marking gauge
✔️ Quality materials
✔️ Very inexpensive
✔️ Perfect for beginners
❌ Only one pin
❌ Plastic thumbscrew
Cheap tools often perform just as well as expensive ones, and this model from Crown is my pick for the best cheap wood marking gauge.
At roughly $10, anyone can afford it. There is nothing new or exciting about the design of this marking gauge, but it sure does get the job done.
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Despite the Spartan appearance, the beechwood construction will last for decades of use. The plastic thumbscrew is another utilitarian choice that won’t win any beauty contests.
But if your goal is to make beautiful furniture, who cares what your tools look like?
Grab this one if you need something cheap and cheerful, and save your money to buy more tools.
4. Veritas Dual Marking Gauge
✔️ Heirloom quality materials
✔️ Clean cuts
✔️ Hefty weight
❌ Can roll of workbench
❌ Difficult for beginners
Veritas is one of the most trusted names out there for hand tool woodworkers. The Canadian company’s tools are expensive, but they’re frequently amongst the best on the market.
The Veritas Dual Marking Gauge is no different, as it’s one of the best marking gauges you can buy. It’s a wheel gauge style marking gauge with two stems and cutters for marking mortise and tenon joints.
The hardened steel cutters cut wood rather than scratch it, leading to ultra-fine lines.
It’s a beautiful tool, but it can be a bit more difficult to use for beginners. You have to make sure the bevels are facing the waste side of your cut, and reverse them when switching from mortise to tenon.
I wouldn’t recommend this one for absolute beginners, but if you’re an experienced woodworker who loves beautiful tools, odds are this Veritas marking gauge is already on your radar.
The smooth steel stems are also slightly prone to slipping, so you may want to pick up the separate shaft clamp as well.
5. Ebony combination gauges
✔️ Attractive design
✔️ Great for beginners
❌ Pins will need sharpening
❌ Limited aftermarket support
❌ Lacquer finish feels cheap
For years consumers have been warned against buying cheap tools made in China, but marking gauges are the exception to the rule.
This model is one of countless ebony combination gauges with the same design coming out of China, and I’m happy to report that they all work very well.
Read also: The definitive guide to Japanese pull saws
The standard combination gauge design has been around for centuries, and the only thing that makes this model unique is the low price and ebony material choice.
Note that there are identical models from countless brands on the web, and they’re all pretty much the same.
This is a great alternative to the Robert Larson model linked above for those looking for a different aesthetic. Still, I’d recommend stripping the lacquer finish and sanding a few rough edges.
Do this and you’ve got a great looking tool that will serve you well for decades.
6. Clarke Brothers Wheel Marking Gauge Kit
✔️ Attractive design
✔️ Roll stop fence
✔️ Micro adjuster
✔️ Clean cuts
✔️ Two additional cutters
❌ Not always beginner friendly
❌ Stem slightly loose
The final entry on our list of the best marking gauges is yet another wheel gauge, but this time at a much more affordable price.
The Clarke Brothers Wheel Marking Gauge kit includes an excellent single-wheel gauge and two replacement blades.
Despite the affordable price, the gauge itself has some excellent bonus features. There are two flats in the fence to prevent it from rolling, solving a problem that even expensive models suffer from.
It also has a micro-adjustment knob so it’s easy to get the perfect setting, even as a beginner.
You will still want to give the cutting ring a quick honing before use, but the two additional blades will cover daily use for a decade without further purchases.
However, this model is made with slightly less precision, meaning that the stem is a bit loose in the fence. Also, the thumbscrews and micro-adjustment knob can be clumsy for beginners.
Buy this marking gauge if you want to try out a wheel gauge but don’t want to spend a lot of money.
What is a marking gauge?
A marking gauge is a simple tool used to scribe one or two parallel lines onto a piece of wood (or sometimes, metal). These lines are used as a reference for other tasks, enabling precise cuts when resawing or tight-fitting joinery that will stand the test of time.
Traditional woodworking marking gauges have a large, flat piece of wood, called a fence or stock, that’s intersected by a long square rod, called a stem or beam.
Toward the end of the stem there will be a sharp pin (also called a spur) or knife protruding down that scores the surface of the wood. On top of the fence, there is a thumbscrew that locks the stem firmly in place.
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Marking gauges are commonly made of hardwood with brass inserts. They’re a relatively inexpensive addition to any toolbox, and many professionals and amateurs alike have two, three, or more models for different uses.
Some variants, such as mortise gauges, have two pins or knives that can be locked independently. This makes it easy to lay out mortise and tenon joints. You can use the same settings for both the mortises and tenons, ensuring a tight fit and cutting down significantly on measuring time.
Combination gauges are a nice middle ground between simple marking gauges and mortise gauges. They have two pins on one side for mortise and tenon joints, and one pin on the other for everything else. These are great for beginners and people with small workspaces and limited tool storage.
Panel gauges are another variant which have a much longer fence and stem. They’re used to mark larger pieces of wood like flooring, structural beams, or other large workpieces.
Wait, do I even need one?
If you plan to do any type of woodworking with hand tools, you absolutely need at least one marking gauge. Power tool-focused builders might be able to do without one, but it’s still a useful addition to just about any toolbox.
Plus, they’re just so cheap.
Sure, you can spend more than $120 on a super-precise digital marking gauge, but for woodworking, a simple $10 model is great to get you started.
For those looking to dive more deeply into working with hand tools, I’d recommend having at least two (and as many as five) marking gauges near your workbench. The bare minimum is one conventional marking gauge and one mortising gauge.
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Why? Because once you set a marking gauge to do a specific job for your piece, you’ll want to keep it that way until you finish. Constantly remeasuring and resetting your gauge not only kills the convenience of the tool, it also increases the likelihood of making a mistake.
If you don’t want to buy a new one, antique marking gauges can also work great with a little bit of tuning. However, they’ve become somewhat of a collector’s item in recent years, so they may be more difficult to come by depending on where you live.
What type of marking gauge should I buy?
There are three main types of marking gauges that we’ll talk about in this guide: conventional marking gauges, cutting gauges, and wheel marking gauges. For simplicity’s sake, I’m lumping mortise gauges and combination gauges in with tools that use the same cutting mechanism.
Find descriptions of the three below, and a more in-depth comparison of conventional pin-based marking gauges and cutting gauges further down in the page.
What is a conventional marking gauge?
Conventional marking gauges are the ones described above, using a pin to score the surface of your workpiece. They’re simple, cheap, long-lasting, and easy to find. A single combination marking gauge covers such a massive variety of joinery work for such a small investment that you have no excuse not to have one.
What is a cutting gauge?
A cutting gauge is another name for a marking gauge with a knife instead of a pin. These offer cleaner cuts and virtually eliminate tearout, but are typically more expensive and slightly more difficult to use. Mortising cutting gauges are also available.
What is a wheel marking gauge?
A wheel marking gauge is a newer design that uses a metal rod and ring. They feature a round cutting edge that leaves a finish similar to a cutting gauge. Wheel marking gauges tend to be more expensive but cut extremely clean lines, as the smooth metal glides effortlessly across just about any surface.
What’s better: Pins or knives?
The debate between marking gauges (pins) vs cutting gauges (knives) for joinery layout has been raging for centuries, but both are still common and both will get the job done. Here’s a quick rundown of the differences.
In the Western world, pins are the traditional choice and can be found on most antique marking gauges. They’re cheaper and easier to use than their knife-based peers, and can be sharpened with a standard file.
However, dragging a sharp pin across the grain of any species of wood will lead to some damage on the surface of the wood. Generally, this will be hidden in a finished piece, but on a visible joint it can be a pain to clean up with a smoothing plane or sanding.
This problem is largely solved by knife-based marking gauges, which cut into the wood. This gives a much cleaner finish and more precise marking lines, even in difficult grain patterns.
They’re also perfect for cuts of veneer and splitting other thin materials. Typically the knives are held in place by a wedge so they can be removed, sharpened, or replaced.
I’ve used both, and while knives do a better job cutting clean lines, there isn’t a major difference in daily use. Either one will work just fine for nearly any joinery, and which one is right for you will depend on your budget more than anything else.
Check out the comparison below to decide which one is right for you.
Advantages of pin- and knife-based marking gauges
- Easier to use
- Visible layout lines
- More precise
- Easier finishing
- Replaceable blades
- Great for cutting veneer
Modern marvel: The wheel marking gauge
Wheel marking gauges are a relatively new design that throw out the rulebook on how marking gauges work and look.
Instead of a wooden fence and stem, they feature a precision-crafted metal rod and ring. Instead of a pin or knife at the end of the stem, they feature a round cutting blade.
This gives a wheel marking gauge a number of advantages over traditional models:
First of all, there’s no need to tilt the device or force it forward to mark your piece. Since it’s smooth and rounded, you don’t need to tilt the cutter like you do with an old-school pin model.
Wheel gauges are also capable of cutting very precise lines, similar to cutting gauges. Typically they’re easy to adjust as well, and often have measurements printed on the stem (although you should still measure).
These conveniences come at a cost, however, as they tend to be much heavier than wooden models. The fence is also typically round, so there is a danger of it rolling off of your workbench if you’re not careful.
Plus, they’re generally more expensive.
Still, a wheel gauge is a great choice for those looking for a more modern take on marking gauges.
What’s so special about Japanese marking gauges?
Japanese marking gauges, or keshiki, are slightly different than their western counterparts. The basic shape and outcome is the same, but there are a few key elements that make them unique.
First of all, Japanese marking gauges are made entirely of wood, and virtually never feature brass inserts. The wooden body is longer and thinner, making it easier to gain purchase on the edge of your workpiece.
They also often use a wooden wedge to hold the stem in place (although thumb screws are also common). These are adjusted by light taps of a mallet, which can take a while to master.
Perhaps the most significant difference between Japanese marking gauges and western ones is that they never have pins. They exclusively use knives to cut, with a small knife held by a wedge in the stem. Mortising models with two knives typically have two independent stems, each with their own marking knives.
Another variant, called a kama-keshiki, features two blades at the end of metal rods. These metal rods run directly through the fence, removing the need for a wooden stem. This also means there’s nothing protruding past the cutting edge, making them great for working in small spaces.
Like Japanese hand saws, these marking gauges are designed to cut on the pull stroke. In practical terms, this means that the knife is slightly tapered towards the user.
Read also: Japanese saws: The definitive guide to Japanese pull saws
They can be difficult to find in the US and Europe, but they aren’t particularly expensive. The most basic type with a single blade, called a suji-keshiki, can be found for around $10-20.
Metal-beamed kama-keshiki are more expensive, but still cheaper than some high-end western wheel marking gauges.
Ultimately, while they make great collection pieces and give great results, there’s no reason to favor a Japanese marking gauge over a western one. Personal preference will play a big part here, but don’t expect any miracles either way.
Can I use the same gauges for metalworking?
If you’re looking to use a marking gauge on metal, you’re going to need a dedicated metalworking marking gauge. The standard pins and cutters found in woodworking models might work on soft metals like aluminum, but they will struggle to scratch normal steel. Plus, they will deteriorate much faster.
As for metalworking gauges, there aren’t too many options on the market. They tend to be much more precise with a hardened steel cutter. They’re also significantly more expensive.
Still, you can use a metalworking gauge for the occasional woodworking. This option is one of the best metalworking marking gauges you can get without dipping into extremely expensive professional-grade tools and machinery.
If you’re looking for something cheaper, check out this option that comes in at less than $20.
How do you use a marking gauge?
Using a woodworking marking gauge is simple, but can take a lot of practice to master.
The first step is always setting the gauge. Your exact setting will depend on what you’re doing: measurements before thickness planing, laying out dovetails, or countless other tasks.
Regardless of the specifics, all you need to do is hold the marking gauge against the reference surface, move the pin or cutter to where it needs to be, and tighten your thumb screw or slide in the wedge.
Getting your setting exactly right can be tedious, but it’s worth spending time redoing until it’s perfect. You know the old adage: Measure twice, cut once!
Mortising gauges are a bit more tricky to set up. Before you lock the stem you’ll want to set the second sliding pin. For mortises, you’ll usually set it to the width of the chisel (or bit) you plan on using. Don’t bother getting a tape measure, set it directly off the width of the tool itself.
Once set, all that’s left is to scribe your lines. Hold the fence securely against the reference surface and slowly move the pin across the surface of the wood. It may help to angle the gauge slightly in the direction you’re pushing so there’s less resistance.
Having a sharp wood marking gauge will help, but the real trick is having a steady hand and being patient. These layout lines will set the foundation for the rest of your joinery, so making a mistake now will lead to disaster in the end!
Hopefully this brief primer on how to use a marking gauge can help you get started, but there really is no alternative to practice. Grab your gauge and get to work!
How do you sharpen a marking gauge?
Wood marking gauges are re-markably reliable tools (I’m sorry), but you will still need to sharpen them from time to time. All three types of cutting edges — pins, knives, and wheel cutters — will lose their edges with repeated use.
Let’s start with how to sharpen marking gauge pins, which are by far the easiest to maintain.
How to sharpen marking gauge pins
Whether you bought one of the best marking gauges recommended above or have an antique, you’ll want to sharpen the pins before using it on any major projects.
Fortunately, this is a quick and easy task that only requires a small set of files and a little elbow grease. You don’t even need to take the marking gauge apart!
The most basic sharpening just consists of gently filing the pins with an appropriately sized file. Do not file the pin on all sides. Only file it on the side closest to the stock and the side furthest from the stock.
Why? Because this way the pin will be shaped more like a cutting gauge, and produce cleaner layout lines for your joinery. Don’t sharpen them too much, though, or they won’t hold their edge for very long.
If you have a sizeable collection of marking gauges and want to dedicate them to specific tasks, you should try sharpening them to be completely flat on one side. This way, one wall of your scribed lines will be perpendicular to the surface, producing even cleaner results that approach those of a cutting gauge.
For mortise gauges, the best setup is with the pins filed at mirrored angles. However, this also means you’ll need two separate mortise gauges for marking mortises and marking tenons. You can see why woodworkers tend to have so many!
Replacing marking gauge pins
Eventually, your marking gauge pins will be beyond repair and in need of replacing. This is easiest with simple marking gauges where the pin sticks out both sides. Simply tap the pin gently with a hammer and pull it out with pliers.
As for the replacement pins, any piece of thin steel needle or nail will work, but sharpened piece of heavy piano wire makes a fantastic DIY alternative. Just snip off a short piece and sharpen it with a file or grinding stone.
Now for the tricky part. Do not use a drill bit or hammer to insert your new pin. Instead, tighten the pin directly into your drill and use that as a drill bit (drill from corner to corner of the stem for best results). When the pin is protruding enough from the other side, release it from your drill. The pin will now be friction-held in place and ready to use in your next project.
How to sharpen cutting gauges
Sharpening the small blades of a cutting gauge can be difficult, but it will be a necessity if you plan to use it regularly for years on end. If you are a hand tool woodworker odds are you already have sharpening stones or plates that will get the job done.
The first step is to remove the wedge of the cutting gauge, which can be done by gently pushing the bottom of the wedge next to the blade. Be careful not to drop the blade when the wedge comes free, or you’ll probably have to spend extra time sharpening.
Now you’re ready to sharpen the blade. This is largely the same as sharpening chisels, but it can be quite difficult to keep ahold of it due to its small size. Do your best to work your way up to your finest stones, sharpening until you feel a burr on the back, then flattening the back and changing stones.
Finish the blade on a strop, just like you would a chisel or any other blade, then test it on a piece of scrap wood. If you can cut consistently smooth, clean lines when cutting in both directions (or one direction if your blade isn’t V shaped), you’re ready to put everything back together.
Slide the blade back into your cutting gauge, making sure the bevel points in the right direction. The wood will bruise slightly on the side of the bevel, and if it’s reversed there’s really no advantage over a pin-based model.
Generally a cutting gauge’s blade bevel should face towards the stock, but it could be reversed depending on your specific use case. Inlays, for example, may warrant having two separate cutting gauges — one in each direction.
Now you can gently work the wedge alongside the blade. Give it a gentle tap with a small hammer or mallet. If you’ve sharpened well and have a high-quality cutting gauge, you shouldn’t have to sharpen it again for a long time.
How to sharpen wheel gauges
When it comes to wheel gauges, it can be difficult to sharpen them due to just how small they are. One false move once they’re unscrewed and they could disappear never to be seen again!
The best way to sharpen a wheel gauge is to remove the blade and rub it bezel-up on your sharpening stones. If you’re having trouble gripping it, try holding it down with a simple pencil eraser.
Eventually your wheel gauge cutter will be beyond repair and you’ll have to buy a replacement. These typically run about $5-10 and are easy to find online.
That said, don’t rush out to buy replacement blades as soon as the edge starts to break. Even a dull wheel gauge will mark your pieces just fine due to the small size of the ring. You might not get as clean of an edge as a cutting gauge, but it should at least be comparable to pins.
Can I make my own marking gauge?
Absolutely! Although marking gauges are inexpensive to buy, making your own tools is a great way to gain a deeper understanding of your craft.
In fact, it’s one of the best tool making projects for beginning woodworkers. It can be built with just a few tools using scrap wood that you have lying around the workshop.
There are any number of designs you can emulate, but the easiest to get you started is a square piece of flat wood for the stock and a large dowel for the stem. Simply drill a hole directly through the stock and use a nail or other sharp steel rod as the pin.
To hold the dowel in place, you can either make a simple wedge out of another scrape of wood or spend a little money on some basic hardware. These simple threaded inserts combined with a nice brass thumb screw will keep the stem held firm and elevate the look of your homemade marking gauge.
Whatever you decide to do, make sure you put your own flare on it. Shape the fence to match your hand. Put the wedge or thumb screw where it won’t interfere with your work. You’ll have a better idea of what you want the more you use it, which will probably lead you to make a second or third marking gauge until you make one that’s just right.
If you’re looking for more inspiration, I’ve linked a few of my favorite YouTube builds for marking gauges below.
- Stumpy Nubs: 3 Easy to Make Homemade Woodworking Marking Gauges (Mortise/Cutting)
- I Build It: Making A Marking Gauge
- Rex Krueger: Make your own marking gauge for FREE!
- JSK-koubou: Ruler Marking Gauge
What’s the difference between a marking gauge and a mortise gauge?
Generally speaking, a marking gauge contains a single pin, while a mortise gauge has two. However, the term marking gauge can encompass both types of layout tools.
What’s the difference between a marking gauge and a cutting gauge?
A marking gauge typically uses a pin to score the wood’s surface, while a cutting gauge uses a knife. However, the term marking gauge can encompass both types of layout tools.
Can a marking gauge be used for mortises?
A marking gauge can technically be used for mortises by changing the measurements, but it’s best to use a mortise gauge or combination gauge. In a pinch, you can even use two separate marking gauges for each side of the mortise.
That’s it for this exhaustive guide to woodworking marking gauges! Hopefully you’re now equipped with the knowledge you need to buy or make your very own marking gauge and start layout out joinery!