Last week Roy Underhill took me to the back room of his new school in Pittsboro, N.C.
“Is this the office?” I asked.
“No,” Roy said with a wicked grin. “This is where I keep the confiscated tape measures.”
It might surprise some modern-day woodworkers that the spring-loaded tape measure wasn’t always the tool of choice for laying out one’s work. Instead, the preferred layout tool for woodworkers for many generations was the folding rule: a brass-bound boxwood device that would unfold to 24″ , though other lengths were available.
And that’s why Underhill bans tape measures from The Woodwright’s School.
The invention of the modern tape measure is sometimes credited to Alvin J. Fellows of New Haven, Conn., who patented his device in 1868, though the patent states that several kinds of tape measures already existed on the market at that time.
Tape measures didn’t become ubiquitous, however, until the 1930s or so. The tool production of Stanley Works points this out nicely. The company had made folding rules almost since its inception. The company’s production of tape measures appears to have cranked up in the late 1920s, according to John Walter’s book “Stanley Tools.”
In our shop here at the magazine, there have always been people in both camps. Senior Editor David Thiel always preferred zig-zag folding rules. Publisher Steve Shanesy uses tape measures. Senior Editor Glen Huey prefers a 24″ ruler (non folding) for many layout chores. I’ve always used a 12′ tape and a couple combination squares.
But lately I’ve found myself holding my folding rule quite a bit. It’s a common-as-dirt Stanley No. 66-1/4 that belonged to my grandfather, I believe. Someone in my family has thoughtfully coated the entire thing in a thick film of glossy polyurethane, which makes the device an eyesore.
Plus two of the rule’s three joints were looser than I like , they flopped around like when my youngest sister broke her arm. But I fixed the ruler’s problem. Perhaps this solution will get me crucified, but it worked great. I put the rule on the shop’s concrete floor and tapped the pin in the ruler’s hinges using a nail set and a hammer. About six taps peened the steel pin a bit, spreading it out to tighten up the hinge. Now the rule works like a new one.
I like using the folding rule so much because it’s great for taking inside measurements on casework. It’s stiff, so I don’t have to worry about it sagging across a long distance. It’s marked in 8ths on one side and 16ths on the other. That’s great for most work , sometimes the 32nds and 64ths on machinist-style rules can make a measurement hard to read. And, of course, it won’t put me in the “time out room” at Mr. Underhill’s.
If you ever want to try using a folding rule and have difficulty finding a vintage one, you might consider the one from Garrett Wade with the delightful politically incorrect name: Blindman’s Rule. It’s $22.40 (sometimes it goes on sale), is made in Holland by Sybren and is easy to read.
– Christopher Schwarz
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