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Measuring - Rules Built for Speed

07/03/2019

Measuring - Rules Built for Speed 1
Measuring is one of woodworking's most basic tasks. The right approach to measurement makes it easier, less prone to error, and faster. In the 1908 Hammacher Schlemmer catalog (details below), the store (now known for player pianos and various lifestyle products but those days a hard-core hardware store) offered 30 different folding rules -- plus a large selection of Zig Zag Rules (35). The C. 1930 Tyzack Catalog (also below) contains 75 different permutations of folding rules spread out over a page and a half, and an additional couple of pages of various Zig Zag Rules and steel tapes. Two foot and four foot folding rules lost their hold in the US long before they did in England.

I have always been fascinated by the diversity of scales, from little folding one-footers in ivory that really weren't meant for any real use to one hundred foot surveyor's tape lines.

The boxwood two foot rule, invented in the 17th century, was the first standard tool available on the measuring market. Just about every 19th and early 20th century cabinetmaker would have carried one in a long thin pocket sewn into the side of a pants let. In "The Joiner and Cabinetmaker," it's a big deal when Thomas buys his own folding rule: his first purchase, worthy of getting a pocket added to his pants. It's actually pretty convenient. Aside from a carcass length and overall height, very few bits of nineteenth century furniture were longer than 24".

In the US, zig zag rules replaced the folding kind. There are many more carpenters and framers around than furniture makers, so this development makes sense. I personally have never liked zig zag rules because they don't sit flat.

By the early 20th century, spring-loaded steel tape measures were on the market. I have one somewhere. It has a tendency to snap back at me and I don't like it. But these rules evolved into the modern tape measure. And like the old rules, they are available in a wide range of length and markings.

Fun Fact 1: The steel clip on the end of every quality tape is loose according to the thickness of the steel clip. This way when you measure inside or outside dimensions, you are always accurate.

Fun Fact 2: It's typical for woodworkers in a shop working on the same project at the same time to routinely check their tapes against each other. Many factors can cause discrepancies. Clips can bend; different brands might be subtly different and react differently to temperature. It just pays to know that everyone is measuring the same thing.

In the picture above, we have a group of boxwood four fold folding rules. The large one on the outside is a folding meter stick. Then comes a late 20th century model with a level and protractor built in. Then a regular four fold two footer that was the bog standard usual measuring tool of the working cabinetmaker. On top of the Hammecher Schlemmer catalog is a small zig zag rule I had lying about and a one foot, four fold ivory rule that I have written about previously.

In front of all of this is a pullout Master Rule MFG Co. Interlox rule that was made in a factory on the site of what is now the United Nations. All the way in the front is an early advertising tape measure that you pull out and stuff back in.

Finally we have two Fastcap Tape measures. We just started carrying FastCap because so many people would come to the store asking for them. What sets FastCap apart is that like the early folding rules they come in a huge array of markings and lengths. They also have built in pencil sharpeners which is pretty clever! The two I have show are the super-popular Lefty Righty, in which one side of the rule, regardless of whether you open to the left or right, is readable right-side-up, and the Flatback Story Pole tape measure, which has a blank section you can write on for taking and saving your own markings. Both versions also come in regular, with a curve left to right in the tape as we are used to so it stands out straight (top one), and a flatback version without the curve, which flops around but sits flat on the work. Everyone wants something different.

If you look closely at the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog, it is open to the "Blind Man's Rule" made with extra large numbers for people like me. Below are the folding rule pages from the Tyzack Catalog.

H&S 1908 - Early Zig Zag Rules
H&S 1908 - Early Zig Zag Rules

H&S 1908 - Boxwood Rules
H&S 1908 - Boxwood Rules

H&S 1908 - Blind Man's Rule
H&S 1908 - Blind Man's Rule

Tyzack Catalog C. 1930 - Folding rules
Tyzack Catalog C. 1930 - Folding rules

Tyzack Catalog C. 1930 - More folding rules
Tyzack Catalog C. 1930 - More folding rules

Tyzack Catalog C. 1930 - Even more folding rules
Tyzack Catalog C. 1930 - Even more folding rules

Tyzack Catalog C. 1930 - Early Zig-Zag rule and middle left - early spring loaded steel tape
Tyzack Catalog C. 1930 - Early Zig-Zag rule and middle left - early spring loaded steel tape
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By the way, if you are interested in the history of rules, especially folding rules, I highly recommend the "The Rule Book - Measuring for the Trades" by Jane Rees and Mark Rees. It's an awesome book.





Join the conversation
07/03/2019 Alan R Garner
Great info. Educational.
When I click on the link to The Rule Book ... and then click on the image to "enlarge" the book, it does not enlarge (as is all to typical of many websites). Also, the same size image that does pop up, has left and right arrows that do nothing. Is the link incomplete? Is there more following the arrows?
Again, thanks for your blogs. I refer many people to your website.
Alan,
You are correct. It is a bug. There is only a cover image for that book, but the arrows should not appear. Not sure yet why it doesn't expand.
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