Surface plate

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A 250 mm x 250 mm surface plate
Surface plate bottom.jpg

A surface plate is a solid, flat plate used as the main horizontal reference plane for precision inspection, marking out (layout), and tooling setup.[1] The surface plate is often used as the baseline for all measurements to a workpiece, therefore one primary surface is finished extremely flat with accuracy up to 0.00001 in or 250 nm for a grade AA or AAA plate. Surface plates are a very common tool in the manufacturing industry and are often permanently attached to robotic-type inspection devices such as a coordinate-measuring machine. Plates are typically square or rectangular. One current British Standard includes specifications for plates from 160 mm × 100 mm to 2500 mm × 1600 mm.

Accuracy and grade[edit]

There are varying grades used to describe the accuracy of some metrology equipment such as: AA, A, B and Workshop grade. While workshop grade is the least accurate, the plates are often held to a high degree of flatness.

Surface plates must be calibrated regularly to ensure that chipping, warping or wear has not occurred. A common problem with surface plates is wear to particular areas, such as that caused by the frequent use of a tool in one place (such as a height gauge), that causes an uneven surface and reduced overall accuracy to the plate. Tools and workpieces may also cause damage when dropped on the surface plate. Also, damage can be caused when swarf and other debris has not been removed. This will result in erroneous measurements. Damage to the plate can only be corrected by resurfacing.


The importance of the high-precision surface plate was first recognised by Henry Maudslay around 1800. He originated the systems of scraping a cast-iron plate to flatness, rubbing marking blue between pairs of plates to highlight imperfections, and of working plates in sets of three to guarantee flatness by avoiding matching concave and convex pairs.[2]

Unlike most instruments of mechanical precision, surface plates do not derive their precision from more precise standards. Instead they originate precision by application of the principle of "automatic generation of gages". In this process, three approximately flat surfaces are progressively refined to precise flatness by manual rubbing against each other in pairs with coloring matter in between then hand scraping off the high points. Any errors of flatness are removed by this scraping, since the only stable, mutually conjugate surface shape is a plane. Joseph Whitworth, who had been an apprentice with Maudslay, described this process to the British Association in 1840 in his paper The Mode of Producing a True Plane as he related during his chairman's address in 1856 at the inaugural meeting of the British Institute of Mechanical Engineers in Glasgow.[3] Whitworth, born in 1803, worked as an apprentice for Maudslay from 1825 but had left by the time he started his own business in 1833. His 1840 paper, and this past work for Maudslay, has led to some writers claiming Whitworth as the originator of the surface plate scraping technique, not Maudslay.[4]

Plate material[edit]


Before the Second World War, metal was the standard material used for surface plates, however, the war efforts of various countries put a strain on the availability of metal. A monument and metal shop owner (Wallace Herman) in Dayton, Ohio, along with his inventive employee Donald V. Porter, started using granite in place of metal for his surface plates. Today most surface plates continue to be made of black granite, more accurately referred to as black diabase, with the more wear-resistant surface plates being made of quartz-bearing granite. The quartz content of these granite surface plates increases the wear resistance of the plate as quartz is a harder stone. Black granite is dominantly used in machine bases, granite accessories, and custom applications for its superior stiffness, excellent vibration dampening, and improved machinability. Quartz-bearing granite (usually pink, white, or grey) is often made thicker than black granite to provide equal load-bearing capabilities of the types of material used for surface plates as it is not as stiff as black granite.

Damage to a granite surface plate will usually result in a chip but does not affect the accuracy of the overall plane. Even though chipped, another flat surface can still make contact with the undamaged portion of a chipped surface plate whereas damage to a cast-iron plate often raises the surrounding material above the working plane causing inspected objects to no longer sit parallel to the surface plate.

Granite is also inherently stable, non-magnetic, has excellent vibration damping characteristics, and will not rust.

On 3 August 1961, Federal Specification GGG-P-463B was issued to provide requirements in United States customary units for igneous rock (granite) surface plates for use in precision locating layout, and inspection work. It encompassed new certification, recertification in the field, and recertification after resurfacing. GGG-P-463B was later revised and reissued on 12 September 1973 as GGG-P-463C, which provided common language and terms of classification for surface plate manufacturing and commerce. On 15 June 1977 an amendment was issued to the federal specification in order to include requirements in metric units.

Although GGG-P-463C was used extensively in American industry since its publication, the government did not issue any new revisions to keep up with advancements within industry. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) decided to form a committee to revise the federal specification in accordance with modern technologies. Most notably, a more complete glossary was added with currently accepted definitions, and a new format was used that should be more familiar to current users of the Standard. ASME also recognized the need for updates to incorporate modern concepts such as traceability and measurement uncertainty that have undergone considerable development since 1973. In June 2013, ASME replaced Fed Spec GGG-P-463C with the American National Standard (ANS) ASME B89.3.7 – 2013 Granite Surface Plates.[5] Iso standard defines ISO8512-2 for granite surface plates, but it seems the current in use is still dating back 1990.[6]

Cast iron[edit]

A cast-iron surface plate

Prior to World War II, almost all surface plates were made from ribbed cast iron with the ribbing used to increase stiffness without incurring the weight of solid construction. The cast iron was aged to reduce stress in the metal in an effort to decrease the likelihood of the plate twisting or warping over time.

Cast-iron surface plates are now frequently used on production floors as a tool for lapping granite surface plates to achieve certain grades of accuracy. The metal allows itself to be impregnated with the lapping media over a large flat surface.

Despite a fall in popularity among machine shops, cast iron remains the most popular material for surface masters (different usage from a surface plate) among laboratory metrologists, machine builders, gauge makers, and other high-accuracy industries that have a requirement for gauging flatness. Cast iron that has been properly cast is more dimensionally and geometrically stable over time than granite or ceramics,[citation needed] is more easily worked to a higher grade of flatness, and provides a better bearing surface to assist the creation of other master standards. These specialized surface plates are produced in sets of three, by the company that will be using them, so the plates may be regularly verified and refined without the need to send the plates out for external rework. Despite the very stable structure, cast iron remains unsuitable even in high tolerance production applications for use as a normal surface plate due to thermal expansion encountered with regular use as an inspection tool. The nature and use of a surface master, by contrast, already necessitates expensive measures to control temperature regardless of material choice, and cast iron becomes preferable.

Cast iron unlike granite has also very uniform optical properties, and unlike glass or ceramic material very small light penetration depth which makes it a favorable material for certain optical applications.[7]


Glass is an alternative material and was used during World War II when material and manufacturing capacity were in short supply. Glass can be suitably ground and has the benefit that it chips rather than raising a burr, which is a problem when using cast iron.


The surface plate is used in conjunction with accessories such as a square, straight edge, gauge blocks, sine bar, sine plate, dial indicator, parallels, angle plate, height gauge, etc.

Making of a surface plate[edit]

The making of a surface plate using Whitworth-three plate method.

Whitworth's method involves using the plates of the same size and shape. The only way for this method to work is using square or circle plates of same size and shape. The reason for this is because of twist especially if it is made of cast iron.

You have to think of an unfinished flat surface as an uneven hilly yard. There are dips, valleys, and holes. You make the yard flat by taking a shovel and removing the high spots until it is all flattened out. You might even fill in the dips and holes while you are at it too.

Hand scraping a surface plate kind of works the same way but instead of filling anything in, you are only removing the high points found using the blue dye after the surface plates have been rubbed and rotated together with the blue dye on it.

Whitworth-three plate method involves using three unfinished surface plates that are the same size and shape. Let's call these surface plates A, B, and C.

You start with surface plate A and surface plate B make sure that all sides have no burrs on them and that it is clean. You can even use your hand to feel for anything and if so clean it off and deburr it before proceeding. Take surface plate B or A but only one of them and use blue dye with a dye spotting tool and rub the plate down with it until its completely and nicely coated on the unfinished surface of that plate. Take the other uncoated plate and make sure there is no burrs or dirt, then put the uncoated surface plate on to the coated blue dye surface plate make sure to only softly put it on the coated plate. Rub the two plates together a couple of times to ensure the coated surface plate makes contact with the uncoated surface plate and highlights the high points of the uncoated surface plate. softly and slowly take off the surface plate with the high points highlighted with blue dye. Use a hand scraper and scrape the high points highlighted with blue dye. Repeat the process until the scraped surface plate has a uniformed surface highlighted with blue dye.

Now surface plate A matches surface plate B.

Do this same process with surface plate B and surface plate C.

Then do the same process with surface plate A and C.

Then you will have three surface plates of the same accuracy and flatness.

Calibration of a surface plates[edit]


  1. ^ Parker, Dana T. Building Victory: Aircraft Manufacturing in the Los Angeles Area in World War II, p. 82, Cypress, CA, 2013. ISBN 978-0-9897906-0-4.
  2. ^ Rolt (1965), pp. 87–88.
  3. ^ Whitworth, Joseph (April 1856). "The Institute of mechanical Engineers in Glasgow: Chairman's address". Practical Mechanics Journal. 2. 1: 173–175. Retrieved 26 October 2011. 
  4. ^ Rolt (1965), p. 113.
  5. ^ B89.3.7 Granite Surface Plates.
  6. ^ ISO8512-2 Granite Surface Plates standard has been reviewed and then confirmed in 2012.
  7. ^

Further reading[edit]

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