The Speed Square is arguably one of the most useful tools when it comes to building. Originally designed to be used in framing homes, and sometimes referred to as a rafter square, it facilitates layout operations. It features markings that help speed up repetitive common procedures when framing walls or cutting rafters. Though it was originally developed by the Swanson Tool Company, there are dozens of companies making similar rafter squares now. However, Swanson’s Speed Squares are typically packed with more features than others.

If you get the Speed Square Pro, as I did, it comes with Swanson’s Blue Book, which contains instructions and explanations of the geometry, calculation, and layout of virtually any rafter configuration. If you’re not a builder by trade, framing every day, it’s a fantastic resource. Aside from framing though, the Speed Square sees use on just about every woodworking project I do—it’s one of my most-used tools. Build sheds, shelves, firewood racks, picnic tables, Adirondack chairs, work benches, saw horses. You name it, and a Speed Square will be useful making it.

While some folks find all the markings on the Speed Square a little intimidating at first, they’re not difficult to understand once you see how they’re used. Below, we’ll explain the tool’s eight most common uses.

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Marking Right Angles

marking a 90 degree cut
Bradley Ford

Marking Any Angle

demonstrating the pivot point on a speed square

Serving as a Saw Guide

using a speed square as a saw guide
By holding the lip of the speed square against the bottom edge and pressing down on the top, you can use it as a saw guide to get perfectly straight cuts. You can also flip it around to cut at a 45-degree angle or rotate it on the pivot point to cut at any angle.
Bradley Ford

Squaring Up Joints

checking square with a speed square
The flat base of the Speed Square makes it easy for you to check that studs or joints are square.
Bradley Ford

Marking a Line Parallel to an Edge

scribe notches on a speed square

Laying Out Top and Bottom Plates for a Wall

marking studs at 16inches on center

Laying Out Plumb Cuts on Ridge and Tail of Rafters

marking a rafter plumb cut
Plumb cuts are the angled cuts on rafters where they meet the ridge beam, and sometimes on the tail that overhangs the exterior wall. They’re called plumb cuts because when the rafter is installed the face of the cut will be perpendicular to level (straight up and down). You mark plumb cut lines by turning the square on the pivot point, and lining up the “common” number with the edge of the rafter. These numbers represent the pitch of the roof, which will be referred to as “X” on 12, with “X” being the number of inches the roof rises over 12 horizontal inches. (This is also known as “rise” over “run.”) A 45-degree angle would be 12 on 12. Here I’m using the 6, for a 6 on 12 pitch.
Bradley Ford

Marking Birdsmouth Cuts on Rafters

marking a plumb cut on a rafter

That’s just a sampling of what you can do with Swanson’s Speed Square. For more complex configurations, check out the brand’s Blue Book I mentioned.