In Chris Schwarz Blog, Marking and Measuring

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Several readers have encouraged me to take a look at the OXO 16″ folding ruler, which is an inexpensive aluminum recreation of the classic 19th-century folding ruler.

I picked one up at Staples for $6.99 and have been fiddling with it to determine if it’s the second coming or just a second-string tool for the shop.

If you’re not familiar with the OXO brand, it’s a company that specializes in household tools for the kitchen, garden, bath and office that generally feel soft and pleasant to grip. As an enthusiastic cook, I swear by the OXO vegetable peeler, but I detest the company’s kitchen shears, which don’t seem to cut much of anything as near as I can tell.

The folding ruler is an interesting piece of work. In some ways, it’s a faithful interpretation of the folding ruler that every woodworker once used. The two arms of the ruler swivel on a round hinge; when closed, the arms are held in alignment by a small steel pin. So far, so sweet.

Also good: When you open up the ruler, its hinge tightens up, nearly locking the two arms in the open position. The ruler is substantially straight (don’t go checking handplane soles with it, however), and draws a nice straight line when open.

More cleverness: The round hinge is marked in 15Ã?° increments from 0Ã?° to 180Ã?°. I wouldn’t set my table saw with the tool, but it could work like a bevel gauge in a pinch. And I also like the fact that there is a hole bored through the hinge, which makes it easy to hang the tool on a nail.

The markings are accurate and fairly crisp, but be aware that it’s no Starrett. One face is marked in imperial (16ths, with 1/32s in the first inch), and marked in metric on the other.

I do have some misgivings about the tool for the shop, however. The markings aren’t etched on the aluminum. They’re merely printed on and are easy to scratch away (yes, I tried). Also, the profile of the ruler isn’t ideal for marking your work. The ruler tapers in thickness on the edge marked with its scale. If you want to actually mark your work with this ruler, you have to rock the ruler forward. Awkward. Speaking of marking, use a pencil when you mark with this tool. The aluminum is easy to slice with a marking knife.

And finally, while I love the hole through the circular hinge, I wonder how long it will hold tight. Loose hinges are a real problem with traditional folding rulers. However, with an old-school ruler, the fix is simple: You just peen the rivet that connects the rulers arms. If the OXO’s hinge gets loose, I’m not sure there is a way to fix it.

Truth is, I know I’m asking a lot of this tool. It was built for the office, not the workshop. And it’s $6.99. If you pick one up at Staples the next time you’re buying paperclips, remember the Clint Eastwood line: “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

– Christopher Schwarz


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Showing 21 comments
  • Brian Whittaker

    Chris

    I would offer two tips for people hunting for their first wooden folding rule in the antique shops. First, make certain that the rule folds up flat, because many old rules have warped with time because of being stored in bad places. Second, it is worth looking for a ruler with big bold numbers, like one of the two wooden rules in your photograph. It is known as a blind man’s rule for obvious reasons and is much more legible than any rule I have seen in metal. I use a blind man’s rule that folds to a very pocketable 6" to set the distance between the blade and fence on a table saw and get very accurate results, a reminder that we do not always need tools designed for machinists.

    Brian

  • Eric

    Paul, drafting triangles indeed have square edges. As someone who was a professional draftsman before the computer age I can assure you that they are not worth a tinker’s damn for ink work no matter how you hold the pen. When we worked with ink all of our triangles and templates had pennies taped to them to prevent smearing the ink. I don’t know where you came up with the information that the T square rabit was to keep from tearing the paper. That was the least of my concern as a draftsman.

    The whole discussion over the Staples folding ruler appears to be a case of making a mountain out of a molehill. Anyone expecting to get some high quality measuring instrument for $7.00 has got to be in la la land. On the other hand, I am sure that this folding rule is probably accurate enough for all but the extreme purist and if the hinge gets too loose, throw it away and buy a new one. Duh!

  • Milford Brown

    One more word on the edge taper – traditional Japanese carpenters’ squares have both inside and outside edges tapered, because ink is the traditional marking medium, both for string lines and straightedges there.

    Now that modern copy methods have replaced ink-on-tracing-paper as the negative for blueprints, some drafting instrument sets no longer have the pen, the pen insert for the large compass, or a separate small compass with a pen instead of a lead holder.

  • Paul

    About Russels comment?

    Let me assure you that all proper drafting triangles have square edges, cheaper ones are showing draft angle from molds. The The proper use of drafting pen is straight up with the handle, as the pen nibs are tapered. The T-square Rabit is to prevent catching(tearing) paper as it is moved.

  • Kerry Doyle

    I still have my starrett 6′ folding rule with slide and use it regularly. It feels right. Great for inside measurements and reliable enough for woodworking. Will supplant with a dial caliper when sheer anal retentiveness is required.

  • Paul

    Chris,

    The hint about the dapping punch is correct, however their (there ?) is a simpler way, I use bearing balls from old bearings. Simply select a size that does not fall thru! A light tap is all it takes

  • Bill Houghton

    Nick,

    We still have the six-foot folding rules, in fractional inches; and some still have the sliding rule that allows for efficient inside measurements. I’ve even seen them in the home improvement stores – not just specialty stores – although I get mine at garage (known on the Mother Island as "boot," I believe) says.

    Bill

  • Gary Cruce

    I would also like to see one of the fine wood tool companies take this on and make a serious version. For 7 bucks the OXO version is not bad, but as Chris points out not enough for serious woodworking. Nick the folding rule from Hafele is also available in N. America and has been a handy tool, but lacks the accuracy of those old straight edges. Although I often wished someone had the energy to turn it into a truely accurate rule. I for one always use metal straight edges from Starret, but a foldering version would be nice when the rule gets long (~24"+).

    My 2 cents.

    G

  • Nick Webb

    Well it looks like for once we are better off on this side of the pond than you guys.
    http://www.hafele.co.uk/Hafele35a1/Templates/Hafele/Products.asp?param=7173&ig_id=54043&title=H%26%23228%3Bfele+pocket+rule&tab=

    Though of course you’ll hate the fact that it’s metric only.

  • ToolGuyd

    Russell, I didn’t know that’s what the tapered edge was for, thanks for the explanation!

  • Russell Kay

    There’s a reason for the tapered edge where the scale markings are. When you’re drawing (drafting) a straight line on paper, using ink (especially india ink), you don’t want the ink to wick under the ruler and smear, so it’s normal to build into the ruler or straight-edge or triangle, either via a taper or something akin to a tiny rabbet, an airspace between the ruler and the paper surface.

  • John Economaki?? We’d have a ruler that also cut dovetails but no one could afford it. 😉

  • Mike Lingenfelter

    I sent a suggestion to John Economaki a few months ago, that he should look at making a folding rule. I’d like to see what he would bring to the design.

    Mike

  • John Cashman

    I second the motion that one of our current toolmakers reproduce these rules. I’ve mentioned it when speaking with any manufacturer. It is probably the most neglected of the new/old tool market.

    ai hadn’t thought of faux ivory. I like that better than wood — I don’t think you could find enough decent boxwood for production, and i have no objection to artificial materials if tey are superior to the traditional.

    Blue Spruce infused wood, maybe?

  • Nathan Beal

    Thanks for the write up. As for tightening the hinge on the OXO ruler, all you need to peen it properly is a ball end punch, called a dapping punch in the jewelry trade. I actually find tube rivets to be easier than flush rivets.
    ~Nathan

  • David

    Chris – Just an FYI, but the brass-hinged folding rule isn’t a 19th century invention – it’s most definitely 18th century. There are several paintings from the period of carpenters and cabinetmakers that show these folding rules in their pockets. One particular one (that I can’t remember the title of at the moment) shows a cabinetmaker, his customer, and his workmen – every one of which has one of these on their person.

    Stanley, of course, produced scads of these in the second half of the 19th century into the first half of the 20th, as well as other producers such as Chapin & Co. and British makers such as Rabone and that mass production means that the most often found rulers are from that period. However, 18th century folding boxwood rules aren’t uncommon, and can be had on the antique tool market for considerably less than other 18th century items.

  • Christopher Schwarz

    Don,

    Or Corian…. It would look like ivory and be easy to use.

    Chris

  • Don Peregoy

    I do wish some one would start offering a 4 fold 4’4” ruler (with a hook). Looks like the collectors have pushed the price of the old ones out of my reach. I did get a new one but it was not well marked and warped all out of shape. You would think there is a market. I know its not traditional but fiberglass would be fine by me.

  • Christopher Schwarz

    Oops. Will fix.

    Chris

  • David Smith

    Is it $6.99 or $7.99? =)

  • ToolGuyd

    I picked up one of these on impulse during one of Staples’ 50%-off Oxo sales.

    The ruler felt a little bit flimsy, and at full extension the two halves were not perfectly aligned, with a lip at the edge where they met.

    I promptly returned it the next day. It’s not a terrible ruler, but it’s too mediocre for my liking.

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