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Marking Knives: Four Years Later
Copyright 2008. Originally appeared in the Fine Tool Journal

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In 2004 I purchased six spear-point marking knives to test them for a tool review in Woodworking Magazine.  After about six months of using the spear-point tools, I declared a winner, published the story and moved on to another project.

That’s the way these tales usually end.  You never hear about how the entire group of tools fares after the testing is done – after they’ve been sharpened 20 times, laid out another 100 joints and been loaned out to fellow woodworkers.

That, in my opinion, is probably the better story.  So here it is.

Six Knives for the Shop

I’ve always liked spear-point marking knives because you get both a left- and right-hand bevel on one tool.  This gives you great advantages when laying out dovetails because you can mark out all parts of the joint with one knife without sacrificing any accuracy.

Other single-bevel knives require two tools to do the same job.  Still others offer you a knife edge (like on a steak knife or pocket knife) instead of a bevel and flat face.  The knife-edge marking tools require you to twist the tool a tad when marking to the left or right.  That works most of the time, but not when marking dovetails with skinny pins.

The only disadvantage to the spear-point knives is that the very tip of the tool is fragile and it becomes rounded over with use.  At first, this annoyed me because I couldn’t reach all the way to the back of my dovetails. Then I realized that the so-called defect is really a red herring.  Marking all the way into the corner doesn’t do a dang bit to improve your dovetailing.

Here are the three other things to consider when you choose a spear-point knife:

  • Ergonomics: A marking knife must be comfortable in a variety of positions.  It must be balanced, lightweight and keep your fingertips away from the sharp edges.  You should be able to control the knife without a death grip.

  • Blade Angle: This is the angle of the spear point.  Larger angles (such as the 75° tip of the Chester Toolworks knife) make a better line when the tool is nearly upright to the work.  Smaller angles (such as the 50° tip of the Hock knives) cut better when pitched lower.  This is an important difference. Larger blade angles are better for marking dados and tenons using a square because you want to deeply score both the near and far corners of your work to make it easy to carry the line around the workpiece.  A larger blade angle cuts these corner marks without you having to radically angle your wrist.  I prefer the smaller-angle knives for dovetails, especially for transferring marks from the tail boards to the pin boards.  The lower blade angle allows you to exert pressure in the right place.

  • Blade Thickness: If you make (or plan to make) closely spaced dovetails and you make your tails first, this is an important feature.  Thin knives allow you to sneak into tight spaces between the tails to mark out the pins.  This benefit comes at a high price, however.  Thin knives are more difficult to sharpen because the cutting bevels are considerably smaller.

All six of the spear-point knives were made by individual toolmakers, with the exception of the Veritas knife from Lee Valley Tools (which has been discontinued). Each entry below contains my initial impressions and the ultimate fate of the tool.

Knight Toolworks   www.knight-toolworks.com

Price: $32.50

The Knight marking knife has a chunky handle that isn’t comfortable when held in a pencil-like fashion.  Specifically, I wish the thick back end of the knife were thinner, which would make it more comfortable for marking dovetails and make it look less like a prison weapon.

After a few months of use, I just couldn’t get comfortable
with the Knight Toolworks knife. After a few trial
separations, we finally parted.

The middling blade angle (60°) allowed it to cut well in upright or down-low positions, and the thick blade (.125”) made it an easy tool to sharpen (though it was impossible to navigate the knife into tight tail joints).  If the handle were thinner, this would be a good knife for marking out joints.

Our biggest disagreement: The blade was just too thick for dovetailing.

Toolmaker Steve Knight has always specialized in planes, but he’s dabbled in chisels and knives over the years.  And I think it shows in this tool.  This tool always languished at the bottom of my drawer and I decided it was the first one that had to go. 

I tried giving it to one of the other woodworkers in our shop, but the thing always ended up back in my drawer somehow.  Undeterred, we sold it to an employee at our publishing company during a bi-annual sale where we dispose of the projects we’ve built.  I haven’t seen it since, and I’m afraid I don’t miss it.


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