If you're framing out a deck and something's off by 1/4", you can still make it work. But if you're creating a small box with dovetailed corners and something's off by 1/32", that can be a disaster. That's why folks who do the latter type of work often using marking knives rather than pencils to mark their cuts. A crisp knife-line is way more accurate than a blobby graphite smudge, and you can even use an inexpensive Zona knife like this one.
Zona is the company that used to produce knives for X-Acto, before X-Acto moved to China. Enter a caption (optional)
These knife-lines, or scribe lines, are invisible to you when you're sitting in your History of Furniture Design class and they're showing you the handmade wooden furniture from the 20th Century and earlier. You can't make them out in the slides. But go to a museum and look at the furniture up close, and you'll see them. Sharply-knifed lines that extend beyond what was sawed or chiseled away.
Woodworker Charles H. Hayward said that in the old days (19th Century), one tried to not have excess scribe lines, but by the time he apprenticed (c. 1910) more lines were left in. These days, some modern-day woodworkers even intentionally leave them in because they feel they confer a handmade aesthetic.
But maybe you want the accuracy of a marking knife in your own pieces, but you don't want to leave visible scribe lines. They can catch finish and leave an ugly, visible line behind that you don't want. One thing you can do is to plane them out after you've done your sawing or chiseling. But another thing you can do, which a lot of folks miss out on, is to use a properly unsharpened awl.
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If your awl is slightly (and I mean just slightly) dull, it will make a nice precise dent in the wood. It won't catch grain and wander, and it will be shallow enough to easily remove. Yet it will still be deep and sharp enough for you to start chiseling from.
Here's another tip. Whether you use a knife or awl, a shallow scribe line can be hard to see. Running a sharp pencil in the line (hold the pencil at a low angle) will make it easier to see. For a finer line, erase the pencil line by going back and forth over the line with an eraser. A tiny bit of lead will still remain in the scribe line so you can see it.
Here are six lines we made for comparison:
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1 - An awl line.
2 - A line cut with a brand-new, extremely sharp X-Acto-style blade.
3 - X-Acto-style blade enhanced with pencil.
4 - Awl line enhanced with pencil.
5 - Awl line enhanced with pencil, with excess erased.
6 - X-Acto-style blade enhanced with pencil, with excess erased.
I'm not sure the picture does the lines justice, but on the actual piece of wood all of them are clean and easy to see, particularly the penciled ones. The knife lines are fine, but go a little deeper and you'll have to take care with that depth of mark.
The same concept of the awl--that a slightly dull pin won't catch the grain quite so much--should be used to make a mortise or marking gauge behave.
If you do buy an awl, marking knife or inexpensive Zona, you don't have to buy one of the (handsome! affordable!) ones that we sell, but if you do it'll help us keep the lights on. Either way I hope the information above will be useful to you.
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