In Chris Schwarz Blog, Marking and Measuring

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My grandfather’s folding rule reads from right to left, while my tape measure reads from left to right. I never thought much about it, though I always did like using my folding rule when measuring the distance between the table saw’s rip fence and the blade because of this characteristic.

Then last week a reader pointed out that a new folding ruler from Holland reads from left to right , like a modern tape measure. Argh. It was a mystery that only a tool collector could unravel.

So I picked up a copy of “A Sourcebook for Rule Collectors” (Astragal Press) by Philip E. Stanley. What a delightful geek-fest. I have been consuming the thing all evening. (I even got a little chicken piccata on the cover, which explains its lemony-fresh smell.)

If you are even mildly interested in the history of measurement, this 286-page book will delight you. Not only does the book cover the different kinds of rules (carriagemaker’s rules, gear rules, glazier’s rules), it also discusses in detail how they were made. (It’s a very involved process.) And there are interesting articles on the origin of historical measurement systems, including the European units of length before the metric system.

But does the book have the answer to the question? An article by Kenneth D. Roberts in the book has this to say:

“A peculiar difference between American and English folding rules is that the former read from right to left; whereas the latter read from left to right. No known authoritative explanation has yet to be found to account for this difference. It is suggested that it was simply a matter of custom, similar to driving on different sides of the road.”

Another writer in the book notes that some English rules read from right to left.

So really, this is one for Leonard Nimoy to figure out.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 6 comments
  • Christopher Schwarz

    John,

    Oh you would be hard pressed to plumb the depths of my geekiness.

    As to folding rules: I have no idea what else is out there that is newly made. I have a number of amazing old rules that are just stunning and put the Holland-made one to shame. If you need model numbers, ping me offline.

    Chris

  • John Leko

    Wow! I am really taken aback by the Nimoy reference. I thought that I was the only one that used it! 🙂

    Is the Sybren rule the only modernly manufactured folding rule ("folding" rule as opposed to "zig-zag" rule) still in existence?

  • Greg

    My folding rule reads from left to right on one side and when I flip it over it reads from right to left. I guess this is for ambidextrous woodworkers. I recently bought a Starrett folding rule and it reads the same direction on both sides which is not at all convenient.

  • R Weza

    I have never understood why tape measures or rulers are from left to right. I always use mine upside down and mark with my right hand. Maybe I need a left hand ruler/tape and then the numbers would be correct.

  • Chris F

    Lee Valley has a number of different tapes that read right-to-left. I like the 10′ cabinetmaker’s tape. Mine is dead-on when checked against a steel rule.

  • Adam Knox

    I think it is Lie or Veritas that points this out too. They claim that all of the normal tape measures are made for left handers, and have thus released a type for right handers. This assumption runs off of using the tape measure with your non-dominant hand, and marking the wood with your dominant.

    Makes sense to me..

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