Review By Dean Bielanowski  MasterGage Website - http://www.mastergage.com


MasterGage Classic & MasterPlate

Review

By Dean Bielanowski

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Reviewed May 2010

Surf any woodworking forum online and the subject of machine setup and accuracy will most certainly be found, and debated in great detail. Some woodworkers have an obsession it would seem with ensuring their tools and machinery are set up with such tight tolerances to accuracy that you would think they were machining metal parts for a NASA space station! Wood is a little more forgiving than metal when it comes to ultra-accuracy, however, having properly set up tools and machinery does make woodworking much simpler and does produce a far better end result. No woodworker I know enjoys having to fill a mitred gap with wood putty or fill uneven panel glue up lines because their saw or machinery was not accurately tuned to begin with.

To achieve tight fitting wood joints or to ensure our machines are cutting at the correct angles, we need to first properly set them up to be accurate, and then check them regularly to ensure they remain accurate. Naturally, this could be done with a simple square (assuming it is accurate itself) or a bevel gauge or digital bevel box. But for some, these tools do not provide enough accuracy to be a reliable gauge to align and set machinery up for accuracy.

So in my quest to find some of the best tools out on the market, I came across the MasterGage. It promises to delivery super accurate machine setup across many different types of cutting tools, including the table saw, miter saw and radial arm saw, among others. I grabbed a MasterGage Classic kit, waited for it to arrive in the mail, and then when it did, set it to work fine tuning my woodworking machinery.

What's In The Box?
The MasterGage Classic (MC) comes shipped in double walled ridgid carry plastic carry case. Inside, the various components of the MC are safely stored in protective foam, each having its place cut into the foam layer for a snug fit. As you can imagine with precision tools, shipping damage is a real possibility, and any damage could render the product useless. Apparently the normal boxed shipping option also has the tools shipped in molded foam for extra protection of components.

Inside you will find the components that form the MasterGage. First is the MasterGage "body". This part is constructed from aircraft grade aluminum extrusion for strength and durability. Aircraft grade aluminum is the bees knees for quality woodworking tools it would seem. Readers may recall the Dowelmax (our favorite doweling jig) is also crafted from aircraft grade aluminum and it is still rock solid now after many years of use. The MC Classic body is also anodized with a black non-glare finish which adds even more durability and the non-glare finish allows the laser etched scales (with white finish) to be easily visible at all angles, with the black/white contrast further adding to reading ease. There are three sets of scales. The fraction scale measures from 0 to 3 inches with both 1/16" and 1/32" division markings. The decimal scale also measures from 0 to 3 inches, however, its divisions are marked in decimal .02 inch divisions. The Metric Millimeter scale ranges from 0 to 8 centimeters and offers both 1 millimeter and 0.5 millimeter division references.

All sides of the body are ground flat and parallel to each other. Claimed accuracy is 0.001 inches, which is nothing to be sneezed at! The body offers T-shape slots on the top and bottom. A magnetic accessory can be purchased from MasterGage to fit into these slots to allow for certain measurements to be made more easily. We didn't receive this so we will not comment any further on that.

One one side of the body is a 1/16" thick stainless steel bar that is fixed at precisely 90 degrees to the top or bottom edges. This is called the "knife edge". It protrudes out from the body by about 1/8" and is designed to fit between teeth on a saw blade and rest up against the body of a saw blade to allow for the most accurate measurement possible.

You will also notice two stainless steel guide rods set into the MC body. These allow the level arm component to slide up and down the body, square to the measure scales, and ensure the level arm remains square when secured to the body to make a measurement. The level arm is used to mount the included dial indicator, or included precision rods to measure depth.

The magnetic miter slot cradle bar facilitates use of the tool's miter slot to hold the MasterGage. It's design is interesting, but practical. It is made from Delrin, which is a space-age polymer with low friction characteristics so it slides easily up and down miter slots in machinery tables. It is designed to fit 3/4" wide x 3/8" deep slots, which is the most common slot size used. It is actually milled slightly undersize to accommodate any variances in slot width, and with two rare earth magnets on one side of the cradle bar, it will ride evenly along one wall in the miter slot, so you choose the reference edge of the slot you wish to use and have the cradle bar ride against that edge for measurement.

As mentioned above, the kit comes with a dial indicator, which is an important and very useful tool for measuring runout or parallelism of two surfaces. The dial indicator has a travel of 0.25 inches, meaning it can measure a variance of up to 0.25 inches. It's scale offers divisions of 0.001 inches (1/1000 of an inch). It has a rotating bezel and adjustment to easily "zero out" the gauge as required. The

How Accurate Does It Need To Be?
This is a good question, and one that can have many answers. The basic answer would be to answer the question with a question... How accurate do you WANT it to be? Everyone is different and we all have ideas on how accurate a machine must be or needs to be, or should be... The MasterGage printed manual does offer some good advice on this question... They say it is dependant on the quality of your tools or machine to begin with (some machines may never be able to be 0.001" aligned for example) but they recommend getting it as accurately aligned as possible without spending 3 days on doing so! Basically, this means to be reasonable with your expectations of your machine or tools and set them up as accurately as possible (whatever measurement that may end up being) in a process that can be done in maybe 10-20 minutes.

MasterPlate
Now is a good time to introduce the MasterPlate, which is another tool from MasterGage Corp. The MasterPlate is a 3/8" thick toolmakers steel plate measuring 6" x 10" which has been precision ground to within two thousands of an inch across its surfaces (0.002"). It is made to use as a replacement for your saw blade for setup and alignment. Saw blades themselves are not the best to use as alignment or setup devices because their blade bodies may not be overly flat and this alone will introduce error into measurement and poorer accuracy. Also, blades have teeth that can get in the way, whereas the MasterPlate has none. It does have two 5/8" holes milled into the plate for vertical or horizontal mounting on your table saw arbor. You can also purchase a version with 30mm holes if that is what size arbor your table saw uses. The MasterPlate has a clear anodized finish and is definitely worth grabbing if you are serious about setting up your table saw or miter saw for ultimate accuracy. Bear in mind though that actual cut accuracy will only be as good as the quality of the blade installed on the machine, but at least with the MasterPlate you can have the actual blade arbor and tables etc as best aligned to each other as possible.

Using The MasterGage & MasterPlate
The MasterGage classic can be used to set up and align many types of workshop machines. For example, it can be used on the Table saw, (with sliding panels too), Radial Arm saw, Miter/Chop saw, Drill Press, Band saw, Jointer, Planer, Router/Router Table, Shaper, Disk Sander, Drum Sander, Horizontal mortiser and more. Obviously some of these tools can benefit, or should I say utilize, the MasterGage more than others, but nonetheless, I used it on all my machines to check alignment at least once, and use it regularly on the table saw, miter saw, drill press and jointer. I will demonstrate its use here on the first three machines in that list; table saw, miter saw and drill press.

On The Table Saw
I own a Taiwanese made 10" heavy duty cabinet saw. I have had it for about 6 years now and I believe it is one of the best cabinet saws on the market for the money. It came with a Biesemeyer style front locking fence and has run flawlessly so far, touch wood! Up until receiving the MasterGage, alignment of table, blade and fence was always done with a good square and some other alignment tricks which do work quite well, so I was interested to check it out again with the MasterGage and see how well it really was aligned, as well as to test arbor runout, which I hadn't really done before. There were no obvious signs of arbor runout in the past however so I was expecting a pretty good result in that department.


The MasterPlate secured to the saw arbor

First step is to check table flatness. I have done this previously and it came up pretty well. At present there is a bit of surface discoloration from some minor surface rust from last summer but apart from that it is in good shape regarding flatness. The manual describes a good process of checking the table for flatness using a good steel straight edge and talcum powder! Nonetheless I skipped this step as I already am aware of my particular table's degree of flatness.

Next is to check the runout of the arbor and arbor/blade flange. This is where the MasterGage is used along with the level arm and dial indicator. With it set up on the saw (see photos) and the dial indicator arm engaged on the flat part of the arbor near the flange, the arbor is rotated by hand while watching the dial indicator's gauge for variation. As expected, runout on my saw was less than 0.001". That put a smile on my face as fixing bad runout on a table saw is not an easy process and can involve new parts in many instances. An angle change of the dial indicator and setting the saw bevel angle to 45 degrees allowed me to test arbor flange runout. Again the runout was no more than 0.001" - great!


Testing for runout on the saw arbor

Another check I hadn't done before was to check for bearing wear. With the MC set up and locked in the miter slot and the dial indicator with round tip touching the top part of the secured blade, the blade is grasped (carefully!) and rocked side to side and a measurement taken on the dial indicator. This test bearing wear and acceptable figures will vary greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer. I have no clue what is acceptable for my machine, nor could I find any such figure on the manufacturer's webpage.

Next the rip fence gets squared to the table top using the knife edge on the MasterGage Classic. Find where the adjustments are for your saw fence to make any required changes here to get everything squared up.


Squaring fence face to saw table

Next we need to check and adjust the fence so that its face is parallel to the miter slot. Here the magnetic miter slot cradle bar is used along with the dial indicator. Set the dial indicator to just touch the fence, and ensure the fence is in its locked position (Biesemeyer fences do not square themselves up until they are locked down). Slide the MC along the miter slot while watching the gauge on the dial indicator. You are aiming for no movement... however, many experts advise to have the back end of the fence slightly further away from the blade than the front edge to help avoid kickback and burning of material. In this case, a few thousands of a inch at the back end is actually desirable... To set this with the dial indicator, you will have to zero it at the back end of the fence and draw it toward the front to measure the angle change.


Checking fence and miter slot are parallel to each other

The miter gauge can now be squared to the blade by placing the MC on its back and using the knife edge to run against the blade body (or the MasterPlate if that is being used). Adjust the pointer on the miter gauge to zero if needed and any locking adjustment on the gauge too. If you use multiple miter gauges, be sure to set each one in the miter slot and adjust them at this stage while you have everything in the right configuration for adjustment.


Squaring miter gauge to the blade, or in this case, the MasterPlate

Now you can check the parallelism of the miter slot and the blade by using the miter slot cradle bar attached to the MC and the dial indicator running along the blade body. Move it from front to back and check for error. Adjust the blade angle (or table on cabinet saws) to align the blade parallel to the miter slot. Note that your fence alignment to the blade may again have to be checked if changes are made in this step as fence rails are often tied into/secured to the table top.


Checking blade is running parallel to miter slot

Now raise the saw blade up to its full height and check the blade is at 90 degrees to the table top. Make any adjustments to bevel angle pointers or zero stop screws as necessary.


Squaring blade (or MasterPlate) to saw table top

If your saw has an integrated splitter/riving knife, you can go ahead and align that to the blade as well using the MasterGage. On my saw I use the MicroJig Splitters and these are aligned using their own custom installation method.

Next you can check for tracking accuracy on both height adjustment and bevel angle ranges. To check accuracy for height adjustment, set the MC up with dial indicator so it is touching the blade or MasterPlate. Now raise or lower the blade and check for any change in the dial indicator reading. Ideally you would see no change at all, but there will likely be some change, even if very small on most saws with respect to squareness of the blade to the table as the saw is raised or lowered. Check your table saw if there are any methods of adjustment available to remedy this alignment issue.


Testing accuracy of blade lift mechanism

The accuracy of the tilt (trunnion) mechanism can also be checked with the MC, although it is best down with the MasterPlate as you may not get enough travel over the body of a normal saw blade for accurate measurement, particularly at the larger bevel angle settings. By measuring across the blade body (front to back) at various angles through the tilt range (manual recommends every 15 degrees) you can check the tilt mechanisms accuracy. This may or may not be able to be easily changed or corrected if there is error, depending on your table saw type and design

.
Testing tilt mechanism accuracy

With everything properly aligned using the above procedures with the MC, you can now install a blade and use the MC to check for any runout on the blade itself. Having completed all the steps previously to align the saw itself, it isolates the blade as the cause of any further runout experienced while turning the installed blade by hand. Go ahead and test out a few different blades. You might be surprised which have more runout than others!


Testing actual blade runout now that everything is all aligned.
This Infinity Tools combo blade is one of the best in terms of flatness and minimal runout.

Another every day use for the MC is setting blade height above the table. Using the level arm secured (but not fully tightened to the MC) you can lock it at a height needed according to the scales on the MC, then raise the blade until the top of the tooth at the apex of the blade lightly touched the bottom of the level arm set at the required height. Your blade is now set to that height, easy!


Using the MasterGage and level arm to set blade height quickly and easily.

So my table saw, pre-MasterGage alignment was not too bad in the end, but I couldn't have tested it with such accuracy in some sections of the procedures without the MasterGage and its associated dial indicator. I had to make a few minor adjustments here and there, particularly with miter slot alignment to the blade, and now the saw is fully tuned for accuracy and there are now one or two blades that will be spending more time on the shelf or used for rough cutting lumber because of their newly discovered excessive runout (lack of flatness)...

On The Miter Saw
The miter saw is another tool I use very frequently, especially with my home reno and all the trim work that it requires on an ongoing basis. Previously I had just used a good quality Incra square for setup, and a bevel box for setting angles and believed this to work well, so I was interested to see if the  MasterGage could offer anything further in the set up or accuracy checking process.

Because my miter saw (the Bosch 3912) has a 1" arbor, I couldn't use the MasterPlate for any alignment or checks on this tool.

First we set the saw blade square to the fence by using the back side of the MC sitting on the table surface and top edge against the fence and check the blade alignment with the knife edge. Alignment was spot on so no change necessary here. I use my Incra Guaranteed Square for miter saw setup and there was no real difference between the two in use in this part. Note that I have a sub-fence attached to my miter saw that you can see in the photos.


Checking miter saw sub-fence is square to blade, and it is!

Second we can check the blade for runout. This uses the MC with dial indicator attached. I can't do this with my normal square. I always suspected my miter saw, being a 12" model with a 12" blade suffered from a little flex under load (not uncommon for the larger 12" blades) and I was right.. While there is some marginal runout on the blade, there appears to be more than that in error when cutting thick hardwoods on the miter saw. The blade is flexing under load much more than the measured runout using the MC.


Testing blade runout. This Freud Diablo blade exhibits very little!

We can also check that the blade is set at a 90 degree angle to the table, and zero our bevel scale appropriately. It is no easily possible to use the MC for checking bevel accuracy on a miter saw.


Squaring blade to table top

By placing the MasterGage a little higher off the table, removing the blade and lowering the saw head right down, it is also possible to test arbor runout and flange flatness on the miter saw, although you may have to remove the blade guar assembly for better access.

That is about the limit of possibility on the miter saw for the MasterGage. Here a digital bevel box comes into its own for measuring bevel settings accurately (within 0.1 of a degree), but nonetheless, the MC has some value, but I would say not a whole lot more than what can be achieved with a good quality square in this case and perhaps even a digital angle gauge for checking saw table miter angle settings.

On The Drill Press
The drill press is a tool that can be difficult to set up and check without the use of specialized tools. The MC kit can indeed go a long way to checking your drill press for accuracy, and correcting it for maximum accuracy and performance. In the kit you will find a bag containing a stainless steel, 1/2" diameter precision rod included for this very purpose. With the precision rod chucked up in the drill press chuck jaws, you can firstly check and align the drill press table so it is square with the spindle, using the MC's knife edge for verification.


With the 1/2" precision rod chucked up, I tested squareness of spindle to the table,
and it was spot on. No adjustment necessary
!

You can check spindle runout by using the MC and dial indicator in conjunction with the 1/2" precision rod. If you happen to notice your drill bits not spinning true down near their tips, you could be suffering from excessive runout on the spindle. Ensure the precision rod is properly secured in the drill chuck first and that all chuck jaws are engaged equally. If spindle runout is minimal you could be suffering from bearing runout. By moving the tip of the precision rod side to side while engaged with the dial indicator, you can check for any amount of bearing runout. Again, acceptable levels can vary between drill press manufacturers, but the less the better, obviously!


Testing spindle runout and bearing movement. Spindle runout was in the order of 0.010".
Not terribly bad for a drill press in the scheme of things I guess.

If you complete those three checks successfully with good results, you have yourself a very good drill press that will drill accurately. Be aware also that inferior quality drill bits can, and often do have less than straight shanks which gives the impression of runout, but by checking with the precision rod, you eliminate that possibility.

The MC can be used to check or set drill bit cutting depth, as well as to measure the diameter of a drill bit, but personally I find the depth gauge on the drill press lowering handles easier, and for checking drill bit diameter, I just look on the drill bit shaft for marking, or for smaller bits I just use a digital caliper which makes light work of the task. the MC can do both of these if you do not have other means for performing the task, but in my opinion, it is more troublesome than other methods.

Conclusion
Please bear in mind that there are many other uses for the MC kit. A notable one is checking your router is sitting perpendicular to the router table surface when mounted in a router table configuration. I was surprised to find mine was not on one of my router tables. I guess without the MC kit I probably would not had bothered checking!

The MC kit itself is very useful on the table saw and is perhaps the best tool available for squaring up that machine. I have not found a better or more accurate method or tool to perform those tests to date. If you are serious about tool or machine accuracy, then the MasterGage and MasterPlate are well worth the investment. If you are happy to just be "close enough" then you still might need the MasterGage to get you there. If you are happy to be "in the ballpark" with your accuracy, then stick with your current measurement and alignment methods, but expect woodworking joinery or cuts to be only "in the ballpark" in terms of accuracy and fit, and perhaps remember to stock up on some wood filler or putty when you are at the hardware store next!

Of course there is the issue of cost, and at US$259 for the MasterGage Classic kit, accuracy does come at a price. With the MasterPlate retailing at US$49, the combination will set you back over US$300 which means careful consideration of your needs, and perhaps your budget is warranted. Now, I can't tell you whether or not you can afford the MasterGage kit, but what I can tell you is that if you can indeed scrape the money together for one, then it will be money well spent. The MC and MasterPlate will last a lifetime with proper care and will have your machines as finely tuned for accuracy as they can possibly get, and if you are planning on owning and using those machines for many years, or perhaps a lifetime, ensuring their accuracy for US$300 over that lifetime suddenly does not seem like too much of an investment, and money well spent. In addition, the manufacturer offers a lifetime guarantee on the product, warranting its accuracy, workmanship and offer replacement for defective components.

My advice is, that if you can afford it, go for it. You will not be sorry. If the price tag is way out of your league, at least grab yourself a good quality square and tune your tools for as best accuracy as your measuring tools and skill allows. A well tuned and aligned tool is worth much more than its price tag.

Kudos to MasterGage Corp for delivering a product that truly works, and works well, and does everything it claims it can do. My tight fitting wood joints certainly thank you for it... I am sure the wood filler/putty manufacturers do not, however!

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For more information on the MasterGage, check out the manufacturer's website at www.mastergage.com

MasterGage Photos
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The MasterGage Classic Body


Measurements in three different scales


The "Knife Edge" on the right side of the MC body


The level arm attached to the body


The included dial indicator is of good quality


MasterGage Classic with level arm and dial indicator attached, ready to take measurements!

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