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Marking - Knife vs. Pen vs. Pencil vs. Brush vs. Crayon!

Choosing a Marking Tool

Marking the work is done in a large number of ways. For carpentry and woodworking the most common tools are the pencil, the knife, the crayon and the brush. But which is best?

The Construction Pencil

The pencil is probably one of the oldest marking devices. Rub some carbon from a burnt stick on the work and you are good to go. Things have progressed from there. The first thing was to enclose the graphite in wood so it won't smear on your hands and break. The second thing was to make it flat so it will make an even line when you draw near your square or straight-edge. The result is the traditional carpenters pencil:


Pencils are great because they don't smear and are erasable. They have the disadvantage of changing shape as you use them, so sharpening is essential. Being flat they don't fit in a regular pencil sharpener, so they invented wierd sharpeners for flat pencils (hasn't anyone heard of a knife?) and eventually arrived at mechanical carpenter's pencils. These haven't been that popular because they have been expensive, but it seems like the new "Striker" pencil which is made of ABS plastic is ready to change this. It is pretty cheap and if placed in a bin near the cash register I think a lot of people will just pick one up. I don't have one yet so I can't comment on how well it works. (anyone want to send me one to test?)


The Marking Knife

The knife is probably tied with the pencil for age. A sharp chip of rock is as common as a stick. Knives are considerably more precise than pencils because the line made by a knife is much thinner and knives don't change shape as you use them. Because of this, a marking knife is much better for fine woodworking than a pencil. Marking knives have either one or two edges. Two edges allow you to use them on either side of your straight-edge. An example is this one from Chester Toolworks:


Knives lose to pencils out in the wild though. The sharp point is something you don't want to tuck behind your ear or stick in a pocket. On top of that, you can't mark down measurements with one and unless the light is good you can't see the mark they make. While the specialized marking knives are beautiful, I find that a chisel from the toolbelt or the ubiquitous utility knife is more practical - the retractable blade is very helpful and you can use it to sharpen your pencils! Surely you have one of these around:


The Brush

Brush? Yes, traditional Japanese woodworking relies on a brush and black ink to do marking and layout. The brush (called a sumi sashi) is a piece of bamboo with the end feathered with a series of fine cuts. It is stiff and straight and draws a nice thin line. More accurate than a pencil line, More visible than a knife cut.


The only drawback is the ink... Try sticking this in your pocket, or erasing it. This is a tool for those who do it right the first time. Like the carpenters pencil, modern technology has improved this tool a bit, there are now refillable sumi sashi which are more like a felt pen than a piece of bamboo. This makes it more attractive for many users.

The Lumber Crayon

The lumber crayon is just a thick hard crayon. Its advantage is that it marks easily on rough surfaces and makes big visible marks. It is commonly called a "keel", which appears to be an old Scottish word refering to:

“A variety of red ochreous iron-ore used for marking sheep, stone, timber, etc.; ruddle. Also, the red mark made with this on sheep, etc.” - source Oxford English Dictionary

Most lumber crayons nowadays are yellow or blue. The reason being that red (made from the above mentioned iron oxide) leaves a more permanent stain. Crayons are crude and the wide mark they make rules them out from furniture making, but they beat the pencil and knife for marking stone and making notes on rough lumber. Mine have all disappeared or I'd put up a picture of one. I can offer a picture of a sort of a hybrid. This is a graphite "crayon", a piece of graphite like from a pencil, in the shape of a crayon. It is able to make thick black pencil marks. I'm not sure if this is the best or the worst of both worlds.



You really need a few of these, not all of them, but most. And add a black sharpie on top of that. If you are doing timber framing I'd spring for a felt-tipped sumi-sashi (available from The Japan Woodworker) and give it a try. For fine woodworking you might want to reward yourself with a nice marking knife to help get you in the mood. Steve Knight offers the Chester marking knife on his website: Knight Toolworks. The others should be available locally.

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  • Comments (2)


    Thanks for the nice write up. If anyone would like more info you can vistit our website @ www.striker1.com or email me at dan@striker1.com.


    We carry lumber crayons in 24 colors and 5 hardness temperature grades! Great for any marking surface. Specifically manufactured for Grade Mark Readers, chop saws, and any UV scanning systems.

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