Tool Review: Contour Gauge

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A contour gauge makes it easier to copy curved lines.

A contour gauge makes it easier to copy curved lines.

Transferring molding profiles to paper or cutting flat material—such as flooring or siding—around curved surfaces can be a challenge if you don’t have the proper tools to accurately transfer the curves to the material you’re cutting. Cardboard templates can provide a pretty decent approximation, but if you find yourself making them often, you might consider purchasing a tool designed to transfer curves and irregular shapes: the contour gauge. Reminiscent of a hair comb, the tool—also known as a profile comb—features a row of long, thin, moveable teeth and a perpendicular housing that holds them in place as they take an impression of the surface.

How To Use It

To use the gauge, start by first pressing the teeth against a flat surface until all of the ends are in line. Next, press the comb against a molded surface—each tooth will contact a small area and move relative to the next tooth, which adjusts to the adjacent point. The tip of each tooth then defines a point, creating a static wave of pins around the curves, in the form of a traceable line. The tracing will be a bit choppy (because your pencil contacts the tip of each wire), but it’s easy to smooth out.

Profile combs do have limitations, particularly where absolute accuracy is needed—for instance, if you’re making a wood or plaster molding that has to match the original exactly. The comb will provide you with a great starting point, but a certain amount of refinement will almost always be necessary. However, if you’re just looking to replicate the general look of a molding, they’re perfect.

What To Look For

Contour gauges and profile combs come in two types: metal and plastic. The metal comb employs a row of what are essentially stiff metal wires. Because they’re generally smaller in diameter than the teeth of plastic combs, there are more points per inch pressing on the material for a potentially more accurate tracing. The downside is that metal wires are more susceptible to bending, which can make the gauge much less useful. And because the metal wires are simply “pinched” in a metal housing, if one is accidentally dislodged (say, by bouncing around in a drawer or tool pouch), it’s usually followed by the loss of more and more wires in rapid succession.

The needles of plastic profile combs, on the other hand, are locked in by their shape, so they can’t escape. Plastic combs tend to be quite durable, and are available in a variety of lengths. Although they’re not capable of producing as fine a tracing as metal combs, they’re quite adequate for the vast majority of profile tracings.

The Bottom Line

If your restoration projects will have you cutting around a lot of corners and curves, this tool will make your life much easier. If your budget allows, pick up a couple of lengths to make sure you can handle any size molding or contour.