Use these setout essentials for your DIY projects to get precise and professional results
Read our essential guide to measuring and marking tools
Accurate measuring and marking is a cornerstone of successful DIY, so you ‘measure twice and cut once’.
‘I’m never without a good tape measure and my combination square,’ says Handyman contributor Gun Arvidssen.
Knowing the best way to use the right tools makes setting out easier, faster and more accurate.
In addition to the all-rounders like spirit levels and chalklines that get a lot of action, there are also more specialised tools.
‘Nothing beats a project where all the pieces fit together exactly the way they should,’ says Gun.
On your marks
Setout tools are designed to suit the scale and shape of the items they are used to measure or mark.
MEASURING TOOLS are used to determine the dimensions of objects and to help show where one should be relative to another.
Certain types, like measuring tapes, use a simple graduated scale, while other tools, such as calipers, rely on direct contact.
MARKING TOOLS can also have a measuring component, but their chief purpose is to allow you to set out measurements for cutting, drilling, levelling and fastening.
Some feature a point or blade that directly scribes or punches whatever is being marked, while others, such as a compass, act as a physical guide for a pencil.
For most builds, from a bookcase to a pergola, quality tools are crucial for working out lengths and angles. Even a small miscalculation can make a major difference in the finished job and result in a waste of time and materials.
Retractable measuring tape
For detailed measuring in the workshop, and basic building and construction work, use a standard 5 or 8m tape measure.
The case stores a springloaded metal blade with a hook on the end, so measuring is a one-person job.
Some tapes feature a magnetised hook, and a finger brake for safety.
For basic building and construction work, use a standard 5 or 8m tape measure
This tool is essential for accurate measuring in the workshop.
In addition to drawing straight lines, the tough steel edge provides a guide for a cutting with a utility knife or scribing with an awl.
It’s available in 150, 300, 600 and 1000mm lengths with both metric and imperial graduations.
This tool is essential for accurate measuring in the workshop
Use an open-reel tape for big measuring jobs like landscaping, fencing and house exteriors.
Made of non-conducting fibreglass with minimal stretch for greater accuracy, the tape is retracted by winding a crank.
The open reel is also easy to clean after use on muddy worksites.
Use an open-reel tape for big measuring jobs like landscaping, fencing and house exteriors
Used for measuring any small space or items like fasteners or threads, this precision instrument can also show internal or external diameters.
Available in analogue or digital form, a Vernier caliper has a pair of fixed jaws and a pair of sliding jaws that move along a graduated scale to show the measurement.
Used for measuring any small space or items like fasteners or threads
Laser distance measurers send a laser beam up to 50m away. When it hits a flat surface, the optical pulse reflects back to the tool, which displays the distance.
Ideal for room measuring, with linear distance, area and volume calculations available. Some models are accurate to within +/-1.5mm and can also perform Pythagorean calculations.
Laser distance measurers send a laser beam up to 50m away
Also called a carpenter’s rule, this tool folds into quarters and extends to 1000mm. Available in both metric and imperial versions, it can have either a square or bevelled edge.
Folding rules are particularly useful for vertical setouts, and any time a rigid rule up to 1000mm in length is required.
Also called a carpenter’s rule, this tool folds into quarters and extends to 1000mm
Angle meters are compact replacements for bulky levels or adjustable triangles used when measuring vertical angles.
Use an angle meter to measure and set the rise, angle or pitch of ceilings, roofing or rafters. Simply place the tool on a surface and read the dial to find the angle.
Angle meters are compact replacements for bulky levels or adjustable triangles used when measuring vertical angles
Similar to the trundle wheels we used in primary school, modern measuring wheels have a built-in counter to keep track of the distance covered when measuring fence lines and large property areas.
Select one with a large wheel for greater accuracy over rough terrain. Simply push the wheel along for a distance reading with a tolerance of about 5mm per metre.
Measuring wheels have a built-in counter to keep track of the distance covered when measuring fence lines and large property areas
Protractors let you accurately set and transfer bevels and angles.
Made from plastic or metal, protractors are usually semicircular with two sets of graduations from 0º to 180º in opposite directions.
Use a combination protractor and saw guide to accurately and easily cut angles between 15º and 75º.
Protractors let you accurately set and transfer bevels and angles
Three common measurers
Choose the tool that is designed to suit the scale of what you are measuring. For split-millimetre accuracy, use a Vernier caliper, a standard tape measure for medium-size objects, and a laser measurer for reliable readings up to 50m.
For outer measurements, close the larger jaws of the caliper around the object, lock the clamp screw, then read the display or graduations. Use the small jaws for internal measurements. To check depth, use the probe that extends from the end of the scale as the jaws open.
Use a Vernier caliper for split-millimetre accuracy
The movement of the hook on the end of a tape measure is a deliberate design feature. It pulls out a little to allow for its own thickness when taking an external measurement.
When an internal measurement is taken, the hook pushes in by the same amount to ensure precision.
The movement of the hook on the end of a tape measure is a deliberate design feature
Position the tool so that its back is flush with one end of what you want to measure. Aim the laser beam so that it hits an object at the other end.
If there’s no wall or similar limit at the far end, attach a sticky note to aim the laser at instead, then press the button to display the distance.
Position the tool so that its back is flush with one end of what you want to measure
Many DIY jobs involve laying out angles and curves as well as straight lines for which you need specialised marking tools and gauges. Start with combination tools that have several uses, then build up your kit with more specialised tools.
A specialised version of the more basic carpenter’s or builder’s square, the framing square has tables and formulas imprinted on it for making quick calculations.
These make it fast and easy to work out area, volume, valley and common rafter set points.
It is also an extremely handy tool for setting out perpendicular lines on paving and landscaping projects.
Made from tempered steel, usually with a high-visibility powdercoat finish, it is tough and durable to cope with demanding worksite conditions.
The framing square has tables and formulas imprinted on it for making quick calculations
A try square is used to set out cut lines at 90º angles and check that adjoining surfaces or planed timber is square. Most also have the stock machined at a 45º angle and a blade with metric and/or imperial graduations for use as a rule.
A try square is used to set out cut lines at 90º angles and check that adjoining surfaces or planed timber is square
The combination square is a great all-rounder that incorporates the key functions of several other measuring and marking tools.
Featuring a stock that slides along a lockable blade, use it as a try square, spirit level, and for marking 45º mitres. It can even be used as a butt gauge and to mark a line parallel to an edge.
The combination square is a great all-rounder that incorporates the key functions of several other measuring and marking tools
This adjustable gauge is used for setting and transferring angles.
It consists of a simple timber or plastic stock and a pivoting metal blade that can be locked at any angle with a wing nut or knurled knob.
The end of the blade is angled at 45º for use on mitred corners.
Set the angle from an existing workpiece or use a protractor.
This adjustable gauge is used for setting and transferring angles
A multipurpose square that can be used as a protractor, bevel and saw guide, this tool is ideal for making repetitive cuts. It also features jack, hip and valley scales for various roofing applications.
A multipurpose square that can be used as a protractor, bevel and saw guide
This simple tool is used to draw arcs and circles. On small projects, use an ordinary school compass, but for larger projects, use a large DIY compass or trammel.
Simply insert a pencil, set the desired radius between the pivot point and the pencil tip, then swing the tool over the surface to complete a circle or arc as required.
This simple tool is used to draw arcs and circles
To make small holes for starting nails, drill bits and screws, you can’t go past this nifty tool.
It can also be used to scribe very fine cut lines or layout lines, and for making holes in tough materials such as leather.
The blade is hardened and tempered to ensure the tip stays sharp and the handle is made from timber or plastic.
To make small holes for starting nails, drill bits and screws, you can’t go past this nifty tool
This tool has a spring-operated percussion mechanism, so there is no need to hit it with a hammer.
Grasp the tool in one hand and push down firmly where you want to locate the mark. This compresses and triggers the spring to punch a dimple in timber or metal surfaces.
It’s perfect for repetitive jobs like locating hole centres before drilling for adjustable shelf pins.
This tool has a spring-operated percussion mechanism, so there is no need to hit it with a hammer
Similar to a marking gauge in style and function, this tool scribes double lines on the ends of timber for laying out mortises.
Simply lock the gauge’s fence at the exact measurement and set the mortise width, then hold the face of the fence against the edge of the timber and draw the pins across it to complete the setout.
Similar to a marking gauge in style and function, this tool scribes double lines on the ends of timber for laying out mortises
At the heart of this tool is a series of transparent vials containing coloured liquid. There is a bubble of air in each vial and a pair of lines to show when it is precisely centred.
A spirit level normally has at least two vials. One bubble is centred when the tool is exactly vertical, or plumb, and the other bubble shows when it is exactly horizontal, or level.
There is often a third vial set to show a 45º slant, or one that can be adjusted to a range of angles.
A torpedo level is short and robust, while a line level has a single lightweight vial with hooks that can be hung on a stringline.
A post level has perpendicular vials mounted on a right-angled bracket to show when a post is plumb in both directions.
At the heart of this tool is a series of transparent vials containing coloured liquid
Believed to have been first used in ancient Egypt, chalklines are simple and practical tools for marking straight lines easily over long distances or irregular surfaces.
The spool is loaded with bright chalk, coating a thin nylon cord. The cord is stretched taut across the surface to be marked then snapped against it, transferring the chalk.
A hand crank is used to wind the line back into the spool.
Chalklines are simple and practical tools for marking straight lines easily over long distances or irregular surfaces
A laser level projects a horizontal and often also a vertical beam of coherent light onto a wall, floor or ceiling, and usually incorporates a self-levelling feature that ensures the lines are exactly plumb and level.
Great for interior jobs such as tiling and showing stud positions on walls, a laser level really comes into its own for major construction or landscaping projects.
If an optional receiver is also used, the beam can be effective over distances up to 50m. Laser levels are often sold with a tripod.
A laser level projects a horizontal and often also a vertical beam of coherent light onto a wall, floor or ceiling
Some versions of this tool are designed to show the exact width and position of studs and other objects behind plasterboard, while others can identify the specific properties of what they are sensing.
Their readings are usually displayed on an LCD screen, and indicate whether there is metal or AC current at a given location in the wall, showing the position of plumbing or live electrical cables.
Some versions of this tool are designed to show the exact width and position of studs and other objects behind plasterboard
With a backlit screen that features a low-battery indicator, it’s unlikely you’ll have to use the analogue vials that are usually included on this tool.
Digital levels can show the angle at which they are tilted to 0.1º, and beep when they are exactly vertical, horizontal, or at 45º.
The screen flips automatically when the tool is upside down, and the magnetised edges allow hands-free use on metal surfaces.
With a backlit screen that features a low-battery indicator, it’s unlikely you’ll have to use the analogue vials that are usually included on this tool
Using a marking gauge
Like a slightly simpler version of a mortise gauge, a marking gauge scribes a single line parallel to the edge of a timber workpiece. This can be used to locate dowel holes or biscuit slots, or to show cutting depth for half-lap joints.
Step 1. Set the distance
Slide the gauge’s stock to the required marking distance along the beam, which often features a graduated scale. If the marking gauge does not have an integrated scale, set the distance using a steel rule, then tighten the locking nut.
Step 2. Mark across the end grain
Grasp the marking gauge with your fingers around the stock and hold the stock against the timber. Cut the line into the timber fibres, working from both edges to meet in the middle. The cut line may curve as the stock rolls off the board face if you work in one direction only.
Step 3. Scribe the long grain
Secure the workpiece in a vice or portable workbench. Hold the stock of the gauge against the face of the timber and pull the gauge along to scribe the line on the long grain. Make a few gentle passes rather than one heavy one, to avoid slipping and damaging the surface.
The most common task a combination square is used for is to mark square cut lines on timber and other materials, but it’s a versatile toolbox all-rounder that can also be used for a wide range of applications around the home or workshop.
Marking an offset
Use this tool to mark screw positions a set distance from an edge, or to offset a castor slightly from a corner. Extend the blade the required distance from the stock, then lock it by tightening the knurled nut. Position the square on each edge of the corner to draw intersecting marks along the end of the blade.
Use this tool to mark screw positions a set distance from an edge
Hanging a picture
Even though it’s no substitute for a spirit level when precisely plumbing doorjambs or levelling pavers, the bubble vial in a combination square is handy for jobs such as hanging pictures or putting up shadow boxes.
Its compact size makes it less unwieldy to use one-handed than a full-size level, but it will still show plumb and level with accuracy.
The bubble vial in a combination square is handy for jobs such as hanging pictures or putting up shadow boxes
Squaring a line
To mark a square line, hold the stock of the combination square against the face of the timber and rule along the blade. You can also mark 45º mitre cuts using the angled back of the stock.
TIP For accurate cuts with a handsaw, continue the cut line down the edge of the workpiece.
To mark a square line, hold the stock of the combination square against the face of the timber and rule along the blade
Marking dowel centres
Designed with only a single, specialised task in mind, dowel centres are about as simple as a marking tool can get, but they are still the most reliable and convenient way of transferring hole positions for perfect dowel joints.
Step 1. Drill the end holes
Use a brad point bit to bore the dowel holes in the end grain first. The bit is more likely to move slightly off the mark when drilling into end grain, so the matching face holes can be located to correct for this.
Step 2. Position the dowel centres
Clamp the workpiece and position the dowel centres in the holes, then bring the second workpiece into alignment.
TIP Clamping a stop block against the edge of the workpiece makes it easier to align the pieces.
Step 3. Drill the matching holes
With the second piece against the stop block and the edges flush, push down firmly to mark the locations of the corresponding dowel holes in the face of the second piece. Use a brad point bit to drill the holes.