In Shop Blog, Techniques

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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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Showing 6 comments
  • Ray

    Thanks for the feedback, Chris. I hope my post didn’t come across as angry, because I’m not at all. Rather, I am looking at this philosophically… it’s been my experience, based on my working collection of antique tools, that back in Grandpa’s day most real woodworking tools (not the handyman grade) WERE made to a higher standard. I’m not sure I really expected that these new rules would be as nice as Grandpa’s, so I am not surprised to find that they aren’t. But I’ll follow your suggestion and give Garrett Wade a call and another chance.


  • Christopher Schwarz


    I just went out and looked at mine. It’s not perfect, but it is probably better than what you encountered.

    Mine has a little tear-out at one of the ends. Two of the dimension ticks aren’t struck properly (they don’t quite reach the edge).

    Garrett Wade is a good company in my experience. I’d ask for a replacement and tell them your complaints. Someone might fish out the best ones for you.

    I hope I didn’t steer you wrong. I like my Blindman.


  • Ray

    I’ve been looking at those Blindman’s Rules in the Garrett Wade catalogs for years. My grandpa used one just like it and gave it to me right before he died, but I didn’t want to use it and wear it out, so after reading Chris’ post I decided to buy a couple more of them … one for me, one for my young son. But when they arrived I immediately saw that the quality just isn’t there anymore. The brass joints are very stiff and poorly machined and the wood on both rules has tearouts and chips. Also, the inking of the letters is sloppy. One of the rules I received even has an inky fingerprint on it! They’re going right back.

  • Mike Siemsen

    Was a Blindman’s rule used by men installing window blinds?

  • Rick Yochim

    Ok, let me see if I’ve got this striaght. You’re saying, if I understand correctly, that an old folding stick with gradations marked on it used to be the preferred method for layout? Really, is this what I’m reading?

    Well then, what’s next? I suppose you’re going to tell us that some guys place long thin scraps along a wall where the new cabinets are going and mark off where the cooktop goes, the plumbing stubs out and the elctrical outlets are to be roughed in? Or some story like that.

    Next thing you know, you’ll be suggesting that we just bump pieces to be cut up to where they’re going and mark the cutline with a pencil or something. Sheesh.

    That’s it, we’re cuttin’ you off. No more trips to Pittsboro for you bub.

    Rick Yochim

  • David

    Chris – Not sure you want to go this far, but it’s possible to restore the rule to readability and usability and still take off the ugly polyurethane. Note: this procedure is NOT possible with a printed rule (these were denoted "Blindman’s Rules" by Stanley).

    First, strip the poly off with methylene-chloride-based stripper. This will likely also pull out the blacking in the struck letters, numbers and divisions. Once you’ve gotten the surface clean, you can optionally scrape it lightly with a card scraper to level the surface and remove the last traces of the polyurethane. Be cautious – you want to make sure that you’ve left the die-imprinted lettering and numbering intact.

    Prepare a solution of boiled linseed oil and lampblack. Other black PIGMENTS will also work, such as asphaltum – a dye, such as an aniline dye, will forever ruin the rule. Coat the rule with this mixture and allow it to dry for several days. Follow this with a card scraper, which will clean the non-printed surface of the boxwood but leaves the dark letters intact. Finally, apply a couple of coats of shellac, or nitrocellulose laquer. Stanley’s factory used almost this exact procedure to make these rules when new, though they used an alcohol-soluble nitrocellulose that was proprietary to the firm.

    Obviously, one would only want to do this to a rule that’s common and has no collector’s value – doing this to a rare rule would destroy it.

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