A Better Way to Scribe – Build a More Accurate Scribing Tool

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A carpenter is only as good as his scribing tool.

Scribing is an important part of any installation job and one that requires precision.  After being frustrated with inconsistent results from using a standard compass and pencil, I thought that I must be able to make a better scribing tool.  Read the following tips to complete the perfect scribe or learn how to make your own scribing tool.

The scribing tool must be accurate

A New Scribing Tool- A Better Way to Scribe

Sometimes building your own tool is the way. When it comes to scribing, this hand-built tool does a great job.

The device that I came up with is made from a few pieces of scrap maple and some brass fittings from the hardware store.  My shop-made scribing tool uses a short Sharpie marker that friction fits into a 3/8” diameter hole.  The broad face of the reference leg allows you to follow the wall, ceiling or floor and maintain the marker perpendicular to the reference surface.  That was one of the major shortcomings that I found with a standard compass as it tends to wander from perpendicular giving you inconsistent results.  My scribing tool also features two pivot points which gives you greater flexibility in adjusting it and allows you to offset the marking plane from the reference plane if need be.  The reason for using a marker rather than a pencil is twofold.  A marker never needs sharpening so it will always mark consistently unlike a pencil that changes as the lead wears down.  The second reason is that it is permanent and won’t rub off or smear like pencil will.

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Scribe on the tape

A New Scribing Tool - Scribing on Tape

I use green painters tape along where the scribe line will be marked.  Using tape prevents unwanted marks on the finished surface as well as giving a cleaner cut in some materials. The green color provides a good contrast with the red marker making it easier to see your cut line.  A scribe line that is barely visible is a hard thing to follow accurately with your saw.

Cut & tune the scribe line

A New Scribing Tool - Cut the Line

Cutting the scribe line with a back bevel makes it faster and easier to make any adjustments that are necessary after fitting the piece.  Staying to the waste side of the scribe line when cutting gives you some extra material to work with when fine-tuning the fit.  A block plane set for a fine cut makes short work of this.  Staying to the waste side of the scribe line also keeps your line intact so you can see where you are.  If you remove the line completely you no longer have any reference.  Once the piece has been fine-tuned, remove the masking tape and you have a clean, crisp scribe that is a perfect fit.

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Dan Pattison is the owner and operator of Fox Hollow Fine Woodworking. He specializes in custom cabinets, furniture, and interior trim work. Dan has 13 years experience as a woodworker…Read more

15 comments on “A Better Way to Scribe – Build a More Accurate Scribing Tool

  1. Robert Robillard

    Hey Dan,

    Welcome to the site. That is one really great looking scribe!

    I love you’re article and mostly agree with you but I don’t like the idea of the sharpie for a few reasons.

    First its permanent and there is a risk of it marking a surface. A pencil mark can be washed off if needed.

    Second the application of tape adds another time consuming step. [time is money]

    Third, if you need to plane to the scribed line and you hit the tape you end up with a gummy tape mess and possibly no line. I’m making the assumption that you’re trying to scribe to the the edge of the tape so you can work the material.

    Again I love the scribe but prefer the pencil. I think you should post a “how-to” on how to make the scribe – that would be a great post!!


    1. Dan Post author

      Thanks for the comments guys! Rob – those are all valid points. I’ll tell you why I find each one works best for me.

      Yes, the marker is permanent but I find that works to my advantage in certain situations especially when scribing back splashes. The belt sander generates dust at the line and when you wipe the dust off to see the line better I find that pencil will rub away and smear. I’m always very careful with the marker though knowing that it is permanent. If I didn’t use the tape I wouldn’t use a permanent marker because then I would be worried that some marker might remain. Also I find that the Sharpie takes less pressure to mark a dark line than most pencils do so you can concentrate on keeping pressure against the reference surface rather than on the marking point.

      Using tape does take time but not much. I find that the sharp line with lots of color contrast is worth it to me when making the cut, especially when working on wood with a dark stain which makes a pencil line very hard to see with no tape. I also save some time in not having to keep a compass pencil sharpened so you could say I use that time saved in applying the tape 🙂

      I haven’t found the tape a problem for making a gummy mess. The low-tack painters tape tends to have a thinner layer of adhesive than regular masking tape. I usually shoot to have my scribe line around the middle of the tape so roughly half of the tape gets cut away and the remaining tape (up to the scribe line) gets planed away when fine-tuning along with the wood. Now having said that you do have to have a nice sharp plane to cut the tape cleanly.

      I’ve done it both ways but I find in most situations this method works best for me anyway, giving more accurate results with less fuss.

  2. Chris Rodenius

    I use a ballpoint pen for the same reasons you use the marker. It never gets dull and leaves a consistent line size. I also use masking tape to protect the surface and to make the line more visible.

    I am not a fan of wide scribes though, I like that a thin scribe can follow every detail on the surface. I just have to rely on experience to make sure it is perpendicular

    1. Dan Post author

      That’s a good point Chris. There are certain conditions that wide scribing tools don’t work as well on in which case I would use a compass. An example of that would be a kitchen install that I did in an old farm house where the floor was as wavy as an old washboard. I find for most situations though where the reference surface just has gentle waves or curves in it the wider scribe provides plenty of detail.

  3. Brent Mills

    Dan I like your scribe as it holds well when in a working environment As soon as i saw your scribe I went to work and made one I use it with a fine point sharpie to mark board depth to a set depth on my portable band saw and with a fine Sharpie I can eliminate the mark with the blade kerf when I am dead on so I don’t even look like a rookie . I find my old Wood mizer really doesn’t have the ability to cut in repeat thickness for furniture quality board my clients want any other way

  4. Dan Post author

    I’m glad that you find it useful Brent. Did you make it exactly according to my plans or did you modify it? I would be great to see a photo of the one you made.

  5. Bill Buck

    Have you patented this yet? Because I will! Only kidding… sorta.
    About back cutting. Do you use skill saw? That’s how I learned way back. Not too many seem to know how fast it is.

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