In early April, I took a trip to the headquarters of Starrett to learn more about the company that makes some of the best layout tools a woodworker can hope to own. Starrett also designs and manufacturers many other tools for different industries, and operates factories and distribution centers all over the world. But woodworkers are probably most familiar with Starrett straightedges, squares, calipers, micrometers and other layout tools.
Founded in 1880, Starrett is still headquartered in Athol, Massachusetts, a small town located in a remote part of central Massachusetts. The last 25 miles of my journey to Athol wound through dense forest, with no trace of development. I couldn’t help but wonder why a manufacturing company would choose such a remote location. My arrival at the massive, 1920’s-era factory provided the answer: access to Millers River, a major waterway that helped power the original factory, and still provides about one third of the plant’s electrical power.
I was lucky enough to get a top-to-bottom tour from longtime employee Scott Robinson. Though Scott’s current title is head of Tech Services/Quality Control, I learned from Rick Marble (Starrett’s General Sales Manager) that Scott has, at one time or other, performed just about every job function possible at the company. “If you needed a replacement part for any of the tools we make,” Rick explained, “it’s a safe bet that Scott could make it for you.”
The question that many woodworkers might ask about Starrett goes something like this: “What’s the difference between a Starrett combination square that costs $100 and a home center version I can buy for $15?”
My factory tour provided some interesting answers, all of them associated with precision, durability and ease of use. For starters, Starrett has an astonishingly vertical manufacturing process. Instead of ordering parts from outside suppliers, Starrett makes just about everything in house. As Scott explains: “We don’t want to worry that a gear or housing isn’t within the tolerances we’ve established. Building the parts ourselves gives us quality control we can’t count on with outside suppliers.”
OK, let’s get back to those two combination squares (It turns out that the company’s founder, L.S. Starrett, invented this tool back in 1877.) The fit and finish of a Starrett square isn’t just about appearance (although readable calibrations to 1/64” are truly impressive); the precise machining and polishing really make the moving parts operate more smoothly and lock more securely. As Scott took me from one work station to another, I saw how individual parts of different tools are processed and tested before they move on to another work station for assembly. Then the finished tool is tested at least two more times before it can be put into inventory or shipped.
There’s actually a specific work station for setting the small glass spirit level into the body of a Starrett combination square. I watched as a technician placed the perfectly machined, ductile iron body of the square on a level surface plate and inserted plaster of Paris into the round housing, followed by the glass vial. Then she used a steel stylus to move the vial into its final level position before locking it in place with a final dollup of plaster.
It’s not quick or easy to produce tools at this exceptional level of quality. But I’m sure glad to know that an American company is doing it. When I buy that Starrett combination square, I’m really going to appreciate the pride and workmanship that went into its creation. I’ll enjoy using it, and passing it on to the next generation of woodworkers.