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This almost lost layout tool is surprisingly accurate and useful.
An astonishing number of woodworking tools and furniture shapes have been lost over time. Some for the better (the motorized hat saw?) And others for no apparent reason.
Much of my research on early woodworking consists of examining old texts, paintings and drawings. Before the industrial revolution, almost everything was made of wood and almost all the work had to do with the material. So paintings are a rich source of information.
Several years ago, a fellow researcher named Jeff Burks told me to take a close look at Albrecht Dürer’s famous 1514 engraving of Melbrolia I and my life has never been the same. This German engraving contains many interesting things for woodworking, including a first row, a now disappeared closure called “closing nail” and a fantastic square to try.
After locating the square in “Melencolia I”, Burks and I found similar images in dozens of paintings, drawings and sculptures across Europe, from Sweden to Romania. The shape appears a lot in the 16th century and disappears in favor of other shapes, including the right-angle test square that we use today.
The Square Details
I had to build a Melencolia square. After resizing its size from a variety of sources, I ended up with a square with a 15 ″ long blade and a butt with a bearing surface of about 4 ″. It might seem like an odd combination of sizes, but I assure you it’s just what you want.
The 4 “bearing surface offers the same potential accuracy as a Starrett combo square. The 15” long blade makes it ideal for working on houses. And the wooden construction makes it light and easy to make.
The stock, or the handle, is modeled. Perhaps the craftsmen made these squares with cutouts of moldings, rails for chairs or railings. We do not know. The blade is usually tapered with decorative shapes. Perhaps these shapes helped the layout of the work, perhaps they looked beautiful or perhaps they helped to keep the square true by exposing the fine grain to the atmosphere.
Here’s how I made mine (and I’ve done about 20 in the past two years).
Stick some molding
I made the handles modeled in two different ways. I grooved and modeled a solid piece of calcium, and I made the handle from two pieces of wood that are lined and shaped. I prefer the second method, although it may not be authentic.
The molding profile I used is adapted from several sources, including “Melencolia I.” It is a double inlet with fillet and bead. I made the molding using hollow and round tops on a long maple stick. So I cut a 3/16Cricket “-deep x 1” -wide at the bottom of the molding.
I cut the molding into 4 “lengths and glued two to produce a handle with a 3/8“-Wide x 1” -deep groove for the blade.
“Melencolia” Try Square Cut List
No. Material Dimensions (inches) Material
t w l
❏ 2 Handle the pieces 3/4 4 4 Maple
❏ 1 blade 3/8 41/4 15 maple
The blade is 3/8“-Square maple maple with straight grain. The blade is slightly wider (41/4“) Compared to the stock it is long (4”). The extra width makes it easy to align the square (this was a feature we found in Romanian squares).
The exact shape of the blade is irrelevant, although beloved steps are common. The hole at the end is a convenient hole for hanging and gives an animistic touch to the square.
I glued the blade in football. After the glue dried, I traced the square like any other shop square. I prefer to align the blade rather than cut the handle. If you align the handle, you need to align two surfaces instead of one. This leads to error.
In the end, I finished the square with a home-made mixture of equal parts of paint, mineral alcohol and boiled flaxseed oil, my favorite finish for shop projects.
This square has traveled all over the world with me – and I have used it on all projects since I built it, from the removal of raw materials to Dad’s pose to the confirmation of the squaring of a glue. It is more agile than a framing square and reclines on the job so you can concentrate on drawing a perfect line with a pencil or knife.
Our ancestors were smart when it came to woodworking, and Melencolia square is more proof that fixing old paintings can reward your work in the shop.
Plan: Download a SketchUp model of this project from our 3D warehouse.