Do you ever try to adjust the height of your table saw blade with a tape measure? Router bit height with ruler? I’m guessing you’ve used both of those methods, depending upon which is within reach at the moment; I certainly do. At least I used to, before our sponsor Rockler Woodworking and Hardware sent us their new Rockler Brass Setup Bars Master Set to evaluate. It’s nice to have the certainty they provide, eliminating possibility of misreading a ruler. Never heard of brass setup bars? If you’re a woodworker, cabinet maker or other hobbyist or pro that demands precision, you’ll wonder how you got along without them.
What the Heck are Rockler Brass Setup Bars and Why Should I Care?
Sorry, these bars aren’t going to serve you a beer. I know, I know; I’m as disappointed as you. But they will serve you up a big ole heady pitcher of accuracy if you’re building a bar (or any other woodworking project). Rockler’s setup bars are 2-1/2” long pieces of square brass rod, which are used to quickly and accurately set blade and bit heights, fence settings, determine stock thickness and more. The Precision Brass Setup Bars Master Set contains 11 bars, ranging from 1/8” thick to 3/4”, in increments of 1/16”. They can be combined to achieve larger sizes.
The first thing I noticed upon holding the package was a satisfying heft. They are solid rods, not hollow tubing. So that’s to be expected. The bars come in a durable plastic case and are snuggled gingerly – 6 on the left and 5 on the right – in dense foam, ensuring they won’t bang against each other or fall out. The storage case itself is a nice size but, frankly, I’d like it more if it were just a little bit taller. My issue is that the larger sized bars don’t have quite enough finger space between them. So when I try to remove one of the larger bars, the edges of the adjacent bars scrape away a little bit of my thumbnail and index fingernail.
Each bar is identified by size, with both fractions and thousandths of an inch etched into the brass. Because of the low contrast, however, the markings can be difficult to read at some angles. But really – like the compactness of the case – that is a somewhat petty issue, which doesn’t detract at all from the functionality of the set. The holder slots are clearly marked with high contrast ink so that you always know which bar you are grabbing from the case.
Just How Precise are These “Precision” Setup Bars?
According to the packaging, the Rockler brass setup bars are accurate to within 0.005” (5 thousandths of an inch) so I figured I’d test Rockler’s claim. At a room temperature of 73 °F, my dial calipers show that only one, the 5/8” bar, is exactly the “right size”. Actually, it’s perfect in one direction and 0.0005” (½ of one one-thousandth) larger in the other. That’s insanely more accurate than you’ll ever need for any woodworking project you’ll ever encounter. The other bars were all off by about 0.001 – 0.002”. The worst was off by almost 0.0035” in one direction, slightly less in the other.
Lest you take away the wrong message, I should point out that the accuracy claimed on the packaging is likely more precise than almost every piece of wood you’ve ever cut. And every bar in the set was – in a sense – more accurate than the stated claim. In other words, each bar was well within tolerance. Granted these might not be accurate enough for a machine shop. Since a couple thousandths is more precise than you’re going to get from virtually any woodworking tool, these setup bars are tantamount to perfection.
How to Use Rockler Brass Setup Bars
Cuts are usually set up by eye, with the aide of a ruler of some sort. But there’s often a better, more precise way: touch. Let’s explore some uses for these setup bars and how touch comes into play. Let’s say we use a router table to cut a dado. We want the dado to be 3/8” deep and to begin 5/8” from the edge of our workpiece. Place the 3/8” setup bar against the cutting edge of the router bit and raise or lower the bit until it looks close to the height of the bar. Gently rub your finger tip back and forth along the point where the cutter and bar meet. If the cutter is higher or lower than the height of the setup bar, even if it looks perfectly aligned, you will be able to feel it. Your sense of touch is remarkably sensitive to even very minute differences.
After adjusting the height of the bit, grab the 5/8” bar from the case and place it between the bit and the fence. Make sure the bar is contacting the outermost part of the cutting edge. Rotate the bit by hand as needed. Next, adjust the fence so that it just kisses the other side of the setup bar. Now we are set up to cut our dado exactly 3/8” deep and starting exactly 5/8” from the edge of the board. Quickly. Easily. Accurately.
To set up a table saw blade or dado stack, rotate the blade so that one of the teeth is pointing straight up (at the highest point of the blade’s arc). Set the appropriate bar – or combination of bars – right up against the side of that tooth and adjust to the blade height to match. Again, for the ultimate in accuracy, when such accuracy is called for, use your sense of touch. Be sure to rotate the blade a little to make sure that the tooth you chose is indeed at its highest position. Also, be sure to use the tallest side of the tooth, as many blades have teeth that are angled side-to-side in alternating directions to make cleaner shoulders on each side of the cut.
Stack multiple bars as needed to achieve custom heights.
Material Thickness and More
Setup bars also provide a surefire way of determining if a board has the edge thickness you want. This comes in especially handy when thickness planing. Simply place a bar on the edge of the board and feel how the thicknesses compare.
You can also use the Rockler brass setup bars to adjust your marking gauge to the perfect setting. Or to set your band saw fence for resawing to a specific dimension.
Perhaps you’re using a hand drill to bore a hole to a certain depth. A setup bar makes it easy to place a depth stop collar precisely where you want it.
What’s the Verdict on the Rockler Precision Brass Setup Bars?
Sure, this is the kind of product that’s hard to get wrong. Even so, Rockler’s brass setup bars are even more accurate than they claim (certainly plenty accurate for the intended purpose), they’re fairly priced (considering it’s the largest set I’m aware of), and are sure to find themselves right at home in any woodworking shop. For convenience and accuracy, I definitely recommend heading over to Rockler.com (link below) and adding the Precision Brass Setup Bars Master Set to your shopping cart. The more you use them the more uses you’ll discover. And the more you’ll appreciate having them in your arsenal.
A Quick Reminder About Safety
Remember to always handle power tools safely. When replacing or adjusting bits and blades, be certain that the tool cannot be accidentally powered on. The best prevention is unplugging the power cord from the wall or removing the battery pack, if it’s a battery powered tool. Woodwork safely my friends!
You can find the Rockler Precision Brass Setup Bars for around $60 at Rockler.com: