How To Use A Ticking Stick – Reproduce Complex Contours With This Old Trick

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So you need to match a counter top to the chaotic contours of a nook with janky juts, crazy crannies and wildly out-of-whack corners, huh? Or maybe you’re building a project with mating irregular lines as an artistic choice. Either way, we feel your pain! You may be familiar with the use of a scribe for matching the contours of a wall. But when you introduce corners and other obstacles, it’s time for a ticking stick. We’ll show you how this simple homemade tool can quickly recreate more complex shapes than you can shake a stick at. A ticking stick, that is!

Don’t Be A Dipstick – Use A Tick Stick!

How To Use A Ticking Stick
A ticking stick was used to reproduce this jagged corner in mere minutes.

The “ticking stick” – also known as a “tick stick” – is a simple homemade tool used to copy contours in situations where you can’t easily trace the shape you want to reproduce and a contour gauge won’t cut the mustard. The “ticking” part of the name derives from making “tick marks”, or “ticking off” measurements. (Not to be confused with ticking off one’s significant other, which may have consequences far beyond measure.)

We don’t want to derail the topic, but it should mentioned that there exists a very similar layout tool often referred to as a “joggle stick”, “toggle stick” and “tickle stick” (We’re not joggling your tickle stick; those are real names.). That iteration is usually wedge shaped with numbered saw-toothed notches along one edge. The joggle stick is commonly used for larger fitments, like bay window benches and bulkheads in the curved hulls of boats.

Make A Ticking Stick – Dancing The Easiest Jig Ever

ticking stick sample
Top: This ticking stick has a curved tip for better access in some applications. Middle: This is a more traditional shape. Bottom: Ours were cut from 1-gallon paint stirs. Try a 5-gallon stir if you need a larger ticking stick.

The ticking stick is one of the simplest layout tools you could ever make. You can practically phone it in with no loss of performance. Size doesn’t matter, as long as it’s large enough to do the job. Shape doesn’t matter, as long as it has a point and you can unambiguously index it to its own silhouette. Really, all but the most sloppily made ticking stick can yield surprisingly accurate, more than good enough results.

Ticking Sticks shapes
Here are two examples of ticking stick shapes.

The crudest possible ticking stick may be a piece of pointed scrap material with a pencil mark on one edge (a basic “story pole”). But to avoid confusion later in the process, it’s best to have a distinct curve and a notch or two along one edge. We aren’t including a pattern because, frankly, you don’t need one!

Our tickers were made out of free paint stirs from the local home center. But you can use whatever flat, relatively ridged material you have on hand. Slightly wider may be preferred, but usually not necessary.

Create A Story Board – The Tick Stick Makes It Quick

There's "not square", then there's "un-square".
Even with a square for reference, the picture doesn’t quite convey how “un-square” this corner really is. But trust us; it’s bad.

Tick sticking is a 2-stage process. First, the stick is used to create what we’ll call a “story board”. Then, the story board and ticking stick are used together to reconstruct the original contours. To demonstrate how easy the technique really is, a friend let me use two of the craziest corners we could find in his store (an old enclosed pole barn).

Story board in place.
We’re recording our story board on a sheet of poster board taped to a foam board backer (to keep it flat). The whole setup is taped to a little table to keep things from moving around. Not every situation requires a full-fledged board meeting; just whatever works on a case by case basis.
Close enough to make our story board.
The board is positioned near the shape we want to copy. If you need it closer, it can be cut to roughly match the space. But as long as the ticking stick reaches the wall and still has its notch(es) on the board, you’re probably close enough.

Using Your Ticking Stick

How to use a ticking stick.
Place the point of the ticking stick against the wall then trace its outline onto your story board.

A good story board should capture all of the dips, bumps and direction changes you want to reproduce. Start at one end and work your way towards the other, documenting the location of each key point, or “landmark” (any point at which the line changes direction). Landmarks and other locations are documented by placing the point of your ticking stick against the wall and tracing the shape of the stick onto the story board.

Documenting each landmark.
So far we’ve established a couple points on the straight section and have come to the corner, our first real landmark.

Make a tracing every so often on the straightaways and at each landmark you encounter. Curves will require more frequent ticks to accurately reproduce. By now, you may be wondering how to know what direction the ticking stick should be angled. That’s easy: it literally does not matter!

Capture every change in direction.
This short width of trim has an offset in the middle. Here, I’m ticking off the point where that face changes direction.

As long as the point is in the right place and the stick is on the story board, you can angle it any direction you’d like. You may choose varying angles to help avoid any possible confusion later on (especially in areas of tighter clustering). But it genuinely does not matter.

Using the ticking stick.
If you look closely, you can see that we’ve marked the location of the next corner. And now the ticking stick is positioned to capture the one after that.
Getting to the point - tick sticking.
Moving along, we reach the outside corner.
Second mark with the hook pointed stick.
There is an inset here, so we switched to the ticking stick with a hooked point, allowing for more accurate positioning. You may also notice the (mostly unnecessary) change to a red pen. That was for quick visual reference that this is the other ticking stick.

A Road Map To Nowhere? – Controlled Chaos

Tick stick story board.
Don’t be fooled by the apparent disarray. This is a precision map of the road to success.

Your story board will now be a disastrous cluster-f. Congratulations; you’ve done it right! No really; a rat’s nest of wayward lines is absolutely normal. With your story board and trusty ticking stick in hand, you can confidently reconstruct the original shape – even off site – knowing that when you return for the install the part is going to fit the space, first time every time. (At most, you may need to tweak a small spot with a file or sander.)

Making the complex appear even more complex!
Here’s another, even more complex corner story boarded with the ticking stick.

Remember when we said that it doesn’t really matter how you angle your ticking stick, as long as you poke the point in all of the special places? (Enough with the chuckles. We’re trying to have a serious conversation here!) Well, that means the same set of contours can yield a virtually infinite variety of completely different story boards, all of which will translate back to the exact same original contours!

Now Tick That Stick In Reverse – Translating Your Story Board

Check the positioning of your story board.
Lay your story board on the material to be cut. For demonstration purposes, we’re using white foam board. Check that the ticking stick’s point always lands on the project material.

Reproducing the original contour is just a matter of reverse engineering your story board. Lay it on the material you want to cut. Align the ticking stick with all of the traced outlines to make sure the point never extends beyond the edge of the material.

That's bad, m'kay?
Here, the stick reaches past the edge of the material; that’s bad, m’kay? Reposition the story board so that every traced position puts the stick’s point within the bounds of your material.

When your story board is where you want it, tape or otherwise hold it as still as possible. Any movement will spoil the final result.

Translating your story board with the ticking stick.
With the story board in place, carefully position the ticking stick in each of its silhouettes and put a dot everywhere the point indicates.
Connecting the tick stick dots
Finally, connect the dots to recreate the original contours!
The magic of tick sticking.
Order out of chaos! See how the seemingly random tick stick marks allow us to derive the original shape?

The Moment Of Truth – Tick Sticking It To The Man (Or, You Know, Your Project)

Cutting to shape.
With our story board out of the way, we cut out the resulting shape. Nothing is square. Nothing is parallel. Yet this will perfectly fit the corner; you’ll see!

Ticking sticks are traditionally one-off items. But they don’t have to be. If you have access to a CNC machine, consider churning out a handful of the same pattern. Distribute them to every crew member, use one as a back scratcher, keep one in each work vehicle, several in the shop and so on. That way everyone on the team has the same point of reference and you never suffer the painful prick of a missing tick stick.

First time every time!
Never a moment of doubt!
How to use a ticking stick.
And that first corner? Oh yeah… it too is a perfect match.

Crack-a-lackin’ On The Ol’ Tick Stick

In case it’s not obvious, ticking sticks aren’t limited to copying the horizontal contours of walls and corners. They can be used to recreate just about any 2-dimensional shape. For example, to patch an odd shaped drywall cutout or make some other out-of-square panel to fill a unique space. With a little creativity, you’ll find the technique can be adapted to a wide variety of projects.

So, what do we think of ticking sticks? Well, as renowned philosopher and cereal aficionado, Tony The Tiger famously pontificated: “They’re Gr-r-reat!”. Not trying to sugar coat the topic, but we’re pretty sure the first time you use one you’ll agree with the bandana-ed mascot just as much as we do.

Photo of author

About Steve

Steve made his first woodworking project at age 9 (in 1982) and whittled his first wooden chain at 18. He was also a consumer electronics repair tech and shop owner for a little over 20 years, until his impending obsolescence became impossible to ignore. Since then, Steve has focused passionately on manipulating his wood... in his workshop. Don't judge him.

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