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 a fine abrasive. Any errors of flatness tend to wear off with this abrasion, since the only stable, mutually conjugate surface shape is a plane.
Surface plates must be calibrated on a regular basis to ensure that chipping, warping or wear has not occurred. A common problem with surface plates are specific areas or a section that is frequently used by another tool (such as a height gage) that will cause wear to a specific point resulting in an uneven surface and reduced overall accuracy to the plate. Tools and workpieces may also cause damage when dropped on the surface plate or when material chips have not been removed. This will result in erroneous measurements and can only be fixed by resurfacing the plate.
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 where as 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, and will not rust.
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 fallout 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, gage 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, 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.
Frequently Asked Questions. L.S. Starrett Company. Retrieved on 2007-02-15..
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