Shortly before he died my mentor, Maurice Fraser, gave me some boxes of tools, including a Starrett 400 6” Drafting Rule. I took the rule and stuck it in my pencil cup and largely ignored it for a while.
But over the years I found myself using the rule more and more. What sets this drafting rule apart from a regular rule is that one of its edges is chamfered so that you are really close to whatever you are marking or measuring. This style is a lot better when you’re drawing because there isn’t the typical distance between the paper and the thickness of the ruler. The rule did have a few flaws: it was thin and hard to pick up when drafting. And the black lines on tarnished steel were hard to read at a glance.
These features, both good and bad, must have been percolating in my head because I immediately thought of rules when we were sitting around thinking about tools we would like to make. I probably hankered to make rules with 19th century equipment, but without a plan for people scribing short lines all day this route really wasn’t feasible.
Starrett stopped making the 400 years ago. It would not shock me if the reason for this rule’s demise is that the beveled surface is hard to engrave. Currently Starrett photo-etches their lines on rules; a beveled surface is hard to attach a photomask to. Some companies laser etch. A beveled surface needs special treatment because the laser beam can only focus on one plane at a time.
I talked about this with Timothy Corbett, who was then working as our designer, who had three brainwaves. The first was doing the chamfer on both sides so that by pressing down on one edge the rule would lift up and be trivial to pick up. For a guy with no fingernails like me this was BIG. The second feature was angling the numbers so that they would be easy to read horizontally or vertically. If I remember correctly Tim got the idea from “Engineering Drawing” by Thomas French, a classic book on drafting originally published in 1911 and inprint for most of the 20th century. Angled numbers absolutely make the rule more useful because it makes the rule easy to read in all orientations on a page. Finally Tim decided to use a cove instead of a bevel. This made the gradations easier to read, being flatter at the edge, and way cooler looking. The cove introduced a lot of manufacturing problems that at the time we didn’t know how to solve so the project was shelved (actually it was drawered).
Then Tim went off to greener pastures and Kris took over the design and engineering chair, inheriting one of the prototypes, which sat in his pencil drawer. About a year later we were thinking about things to make and Kris suggested the rule because he found himself using it all the time. He liked the weight, the feel of the brass in hand, and the general layout of the numbers. Since I like end grads we thought about end grads for a bit. End graduations aren’t that useful for drafting but since a lot of what I do is measure something and then draw out the measurement, I find end grads handy and some of the early evaluators thought we should add them. So we did.
Kris had to solve a lot of manufacturing issues. I helped. I do have some decent ideas in the rule project but frankly mostly what I did was be the cheerleader - and paying for a lot of new manufacturing equipment. Nobody on the design or manufacturing team wanted to make a rule that was a compromise. The final product came out more expensive than we wanted it to but we are pretty proud of it.
So a long time later, after we learned how to engrave brass with a five thousands of a inch diameter milling cutter, clamp a bit of brass in a milling machine so that we would mill all the sides, and engrave the top without machining away the clamps, we had a rule we really liked.
Fun Fact: Depending on how the brass stock is cut from the sheet, if you mill one side of it, and flip it over, it warps. We had to solve that too. Does anyone know anyone who needs lots of 6” long bits of scrap 260 brass?
Another Fun Fact: We decided to use 260 naval brass instead of 360 easy to machine brass because the 260 has almost no lead in it and we figure for a ruler that’s being handled that’s a good idea.
We also had to figure out how to blacken the lines to make it easy to read. Which we did. One nice part about the brass is that as it tarnishes, it develops a patina that doesn’t mask the lines.
So we have some rules to sell. We are pretty proud of ourselves that we are making some of the best rules in the world, with deep easy to read engraved lines and numbers. And when I say “making some,” I really mean it. Strips of brass enter our shop in Brooklyn, magic and a million manufacturing processes later, a rule is popping into a protective plastic sleeve, barcoded, and put on the shelf. Production is slower than we would like, and we still have a lot to learn. We are making 6” rules with inch or inch and metric markings and a totally metric 150mm version.
Click here for more details, pictures, a little video, and to order your own Gramercy Tools Drafting Rule.
N.B. In a year with massive supply challenges and shortages everywhere, I am still tired of hearing metal suppliers laugh at me when I ask for a speedy delivery date.
N.B. "Rule" or "Ruler"? I need to do some research.
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I’m fortunate that Jim and Trish Bode referred me to you all!
Please maintain these levels of craft, of truly great humor and of your very apparent ability to find these amazing sweet spots.
Thanks to you all, and be well.
Ed Latson (Carpenter/Builder since 1973)
Congratulations on your perseverance and continuing hand tool innovation!
It was drilled into me 50 years ago, when I began my working life, that steel rules have the zero starting exactly on the end of the rule. Rulers on the other hand, have the zero indented from the end and are typically made from softer materials like wood and plastic. As the end corners of rulers become rounded thorough use, ruler fights in school, being dropped etc. the softer wooden rulers are still sort of usable for general measuring.
We are also so practiced to saying wood/plastic rulers in our early schooling years that we almost become hard wired to say rulers for any straight edge measuring tool. It was only in my late teens, when I was required to practice true accuracy in marking out. In learning my trade I was exposed to steel rules that had the origin/zero at the exact end of the rule. When taking a measurement on metal, a sharp scriber could be placed on a starting point and the rule slid up to it to for an exact zero origin. Rulers with the indented zero are obviously not designed for this degree of work or accuracy.
Next discussion, is it scribe or scriber?