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
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.
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.
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
Using The MasterGage &
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
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" -
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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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