Back in November 2014 I wrote about the 4″ marking gauge Jeff Hamilton made for me. Since then that marking gauge has been in constant use in my workshop, and no project has crossed my bench in that time without my Hamilton marking gauge touching it.
As my workshop activities continue to include more furniture making, I’ve discovered a need for tools which were not particularly necessary as a luthier. In particular, for marking large panels to dimension, a panel gauge went quickly from a luxury item to an essential tool. There are a couple of tool manufacturers offering panel gauges, as well as the option to devise a homebrew solution. But the little 4″ Hamilton marking gauge nestling in the top tray of my Anarchist’s Tool Chest kept calling to me, and in the end placing an order for the Hamilton Panel Gauge was a very easy decision.
That was in Octover 2015, and the gauge itself arrived in mid-December – Jeff makes all panel gauges to order so there is a short wait time involved. Having lived with the gauge on my workbench for the past couple of months, it is fair to say that the tool is entirely worth the wait.
First, the essential stats. The Hamilton Panel Gauge has a 28″ beam, which to my knowledge makes it the longest commercially available panel gauge. The beam is square on three sides, while the bottom edge of the bean has a gentle convex radius which matches the mortise through the gauge head. As standard the gauge comes in beautifully figured curly maple, alth0ugh a range of other timbers are available on request. At one end of the gauge is a thumbnail shaped cutter, which will be familiar to anyone who has used one of Jeff’s other marking gauges, while the other end has a hole for holding a pencil – perfect for making out rough stock. The pencil is secured by way of a knurled brass thumbscrew at the end of the gauge beam.
The gauge head is 8″ wide and has a 1/2″ wide step for riding on the edge of the work piece, both edges of which are protected by brass wear strips. A further brass wear strip can be found at the end of the beam with the cutter. On top of the head is a large knurled brass thumbscrew which operates the locking mechanism to fix the head in position. It is this locking mechanism which really sets the Hamilton Panel Gauge apart from other manufacturers’ offerings, or indeed any homebrew gauges. Most gauges fix the head in position with some sort of bolt which cinches down on the beam. This works initially, but as the beam wears the clamping force will be lost until the beam waggles loosely like a dislocated arm. Which is obviously no good. Jeff’s solution is for the locking mechanism to apply pressure both downwards and sideways, which when combined with the radius on the underside of the beam secures the beam in a corner of the head mortise. The result is a panel gauge which will lock securely after many years of use.
The satin finish on the gauge allows the wood figure to really pop, and gives a wonderfully tactile experience when handling the gauge. The fit and finish are exactly what I expected from my previous experience of buying from Jeff; the brass is fitted perfectly, and all sharp cornes have been knocked off the beam and head. This is an undeniably pretty tool, but how well does it work in practice?
In short, perfectly. The beam is perfectly fitted to the mortise, and slides through the head smoothly. The brass knob locks the head authoritatively, and the head remains locked solid. The cutter has sliced through all the timber species I’ve been able to throw at it, leaving a true and straight line without wandering to follow difficult patches of grain. This is definitely a marking tool I can trust to give me accurate layout lines. Yes, this might be the most expensive panel gauge on the market, but it is worth evey penny. Jeff calls each customer who places an order for a panel gauge personally, to thank them and to discuss their order. It’s a small gesture, but is shows the commitment this fine tool maker has to making reliable and beautiful tools.