Saturday, 26 January 2013

The medieval toolchest: the marking gauge or skantyllion

The marking gauge is a very useful tool in woodworking, which is used to scratch a parallel line spaced from a fixed margin. A gauge consists of four elements: a wooden block (the fence) with a hole in centre, a square stem which slides though the hole in the fence. At one end of the stem is a pin or knife point inserted for marking. And finally, a wedge with which the sliding stem can be fixed to a set length. Also gauges having two sliding stems exist; these are known as mortise gauges.

A mortise gauge with two sliding stems is found on the right side of the workbench. 
Image 'Der Schreiner' from the Standebuch by Jost Amman. Woodcut 1568.

We do know that the medieval woodworker used the gauge, but no surviving examples exist, nor any images of gauges before 1500. However, a book illumination by Jean Bourdichon at the end of the 15th century shows an unclear tool. It could be interpreted as a mallet, but with some imagination this could also be a marking gauge. Perhaps this is only wishful thinking from me … The title page of the book ‘The childhood of Jesus’ by Hieronymus Wierix (1550), however, shows a clear example of a gauge lying on the workbench, although the position of the wedge is not visible. From the same period is a surviving example from the Mary Rose wreck. The gauge is made of ash, while the wedge is of oak. Here the wedge goes parallel with the sliding stick.

The last tool on the wall on the right could be interpreted as a gauge. 
Jean Bourdichon 'Les quatre états de la société - L'artisan ou le travail', end of the 15th century.

A gauge can be seen lying on the workbench. 
Title page of the Childhood of Jesus by Hieronymous Wierix, 16th century.

As mentioned above, written sources mention the gauge in which it is known as the ‘scantillion’ pr ‘skantyllion’. Roy Underhill quotes in the Woodwright’s workbook a sentence from 1300: ‘And do we well and make a tower. With square and scantillion so even, that he may reache higher than heaven’. The scantillion also appears in the 'Debate of the Carpenters tools', an anonymous fifteenth century rhyme (Bodleian Library, Ashmole 61; reproduced in the Woodwright’s workbook):

Sof, ser, seyd the skantyllion, (Soft, sir, said the scantillion)
I trow your thrift be wele ny done; (I think your luck be nearly done)
Euer to crewel thou arte in word; (Ever so cruel thou art in word)
And yet thou arte not worth a tord! (and yet thou art not worth a turd!)
For all the gode that thou gete myght, (for all the good that thou get might)
He wyll spend it on a nyght. (He will spend it in one night)

The gauge from the Mary Rose wreck, line drawing and photo. Images from the book 'Before the mast: life and death aboard the Mary Rose by Julie Gardiner, Michael J. Allen and Mary Anne Alburger. The length of the stem is 216 mm long and circa 20 mm square with holes for a scribing pin at the ends. The fence measures 107 x 71 mm. On the stem are X-markings at  1 1/16 inch (30 mm) and 2 inch (52 mm) indicating common measurement settings. There are also two parallel lines scribes at the side of the pin holes, which may be used to locate the spot to place a replacement pin. According to the authors the gauge was for right handed use.

Our toolchest holds one home-made and several antique marking gauges, of which two are shown. The antique one is made of ash, like the Mary Rose gauge, the other is made of walnut. The ash one has the wedge going parallel through the block. The pin (a new added forged nail) has been whetted to a single sided knife edge. The walnut gauge is made by us (using an article from Fine woodworking magazine) with a wedge parallel to the sliding stick. The pin for this one is whetted to a point.

The antique marking gauge: Stem length 29.5 cm, 17 mm square, 
fence 7.5 x 7 x 2 cm, wedge length 11.6 cm.

Like a sided axe, the pin is whetted with a bevel on one side only.  

The stem and fence fixed with the wedge.

The walnut marking gauge: stem 30.3 cm, 2 cm square;
 fence 8 x 7 x3.5 cm; wedge length 10.3 cm.

The wedge of the marking gauge parallel with the stem.


  1. Hehe, I have a few of these that came with my grandfathers tool chest.
    They haven't changes in 400 years.

  2. I've got one of these it even has a bend in it, what age would mine be please?

  3. Antique ones are likely 19th or 20th century. They do not cost much.