miter squares then & now

In the post about turning stiles for my joined stools, I mentioned and illustrated using a miter square for marking the centers of the stock. Miter squares are as simple as a try square, only instead of marking lines at 90-degrees to an edge, they usually are designed to mark a line at 45-degrees to an edge.

I know of two descriptions from the seventeenth century for this tool, the first is from Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises (1678-83) :

 

Joseph Moxon layout tools, including the mitre square
Joseph Moxon layout tools, including the mitre square

“18 of the Miter Square.  And  its Use.

 

The Miter Square marked E, [PF: it’s really marked “R”]  hath (as the Square ) an Handle marked a, one Inch thick  and three Inches broad and a Tongue marked b, of about the same breadth: The Handle and the Tongue (as the Square) have both their Sides parallel to their own Sides. The Han­dle (as the Square) hath in the middle of its narrowest Side a Mortess in it, of an equal depth, the whole length of the Handle: Into this Mortess is fitted one end of the Tongue, but the end of the Handle is first Beveld off to make an An­gle of 45 Degrees with its inside.  This Tongue is (as the Square) Pin’d and Glewed into the Mortess of the Handle.

 

It is used for striking a Miter-line, as the Square is to strike a Square-line, by applying the inside of the Handle to the outside of the Quarter, or Batten, you are to work upon; and then by strik­ing a Line by the side of the Tongue: For that Line shall be a Miter-line. And if upon two Bat­tens you strike two such Lines, and Saw and Pare them just off in the Lines, when the flats of those two sawn ends are applied to one another, the out and inside of the Battens, will form them­selves into the Figure of a Square. Thus Picture Frames, and Looking Glass-Frames are commonly made…”

 

 The other source that Alexander & I have relied upon a great deal is Randle Holme’s Adademy of Armory & Blazon (1688). Holme illustrates two versions of the miter square, one like Moxon’s;

 

Holme miter square #138
Holme miter square #138

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

a Miter square, of a contrary form to the following, mentioned chap. 9 numb. 17  It hath an Handle (or top part) an Inch thick, and three broad, with a Tongue of the same breadth, and for length 5, 6, or more inches, according to the breadth of the Work: it is to be Glewed into the Handle by a Mortess and Pinned.

 

 

 

 His second illustration is a different version of the miter square, but his description still follows Moxon’s quite closely:

 

Miter Square, Randle Holme 1688
Randle Holme, miter square, 1688

 Book III, Chapter 9, Section 1b, #17:

“a Miter square. This Square hath also an Handle and a Tongue, as that mentioned numb.15. whose use is to strike either Square or Miter Lines according as you apply the ends of it to the out-sides of the Quarter or Batten you are to work upon; By the help of this, Miter or Bevil Lines are Cut or Sawed so exact, that two being joined together it will make an Angle; thus square Frames for Pictures, Looking Glasses, and such like are comonly made. ”

I have a few in my shop. the one I use most is the shop-made one, slightly smaller than Moxon’s or Holme’s.

shop-made miter square
shop-made miter square

 

I have a modern version like one of Randle Holme’s, that scribes four different angles, but I have hardly used it.

miter square w/ 4 angles
miter square w/ 4 angles

Another place where these tools are applicable, in addition to marking the centers of square turning stock, is the mitered bridle joint, sometimes seen on seventeenth-century cupboard doors from England. Here’s a few views of a sample joint:

mitered bridle joint apart
mitered bridle joint apart

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

mitered bridle joint open
mitered bridle joint open
mitered bridle joint assembled
mitered bridle joint assembled
Two more things. I saw a post about these tools yesterday,  – the site/post is: http://dans-woodshop.blogspot.com/2009/03/old-shop-made-bevel-gauge.html . He calls it a bevel gauge, I know it as a miter gauge. The one he illustrates is a nice tool. I found it through www.unpluggedshop.com/ – When I have time, I look at a bunch of sites through there…but most of the readers here probably already know it.
JA shaved chair
JA shaved chair
If you have read my blog more than once or twice, you’ve noticed a presence from Jennie (John) Alexander. Well, JA has updated the website www.greenwoodworking.com and anyone with an inkling might go see what’s what over there. There are a great many green woodworkers today who got their start either directly or indirectly because of what Alexander did over 30 years ago with the book Make a Chair from a Tree. Now, based on JA’s website, I better get to work…

4 thoughts on “miter squares then & now

  1. Peter – Thanks for the great information! I am struck by the similarity of the tool I posted about and the one in the second illustration from Holme. Even the moulding on the handle looks very similar. Then again, maybe this is a much more common tool than I suppose – it’s the only one I have ever seen – but in Alaska that’s not really saying much…

  2. Thank you Peter (and Jennie)
    Now it makes sense – and I can begin to make the picture frame with mitred bridle joints knowing what I should be doing.

  3. Peter: This looks to be an exceptionaly strong joint. Do we see it being used much in furniture construction? As the wood dryed out, did the joint loosen or become tighter, like a m/t joint would have. My guess would be it would be a (tug of war match). What’s your thoughts?

  4. Joel

    I only occasionally see this joint in 17th-century furniture from England. Usually cupboard doors, which are not very large at all. It is a strong joint, but no stronger than a standard drawbored mortise & tenon. Weaker, I’d guess. The mitered one has to be made from pretty dry stock I think. It too is drawbored. I’ll dig out some pictures of it on period pieces when I get a chance.

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