Shop Tips & Tricks #6: Measuring Things - Rulers Versus Tapes

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Blog entry by GnarlyErik posted 12-08-2012 10:31 PM 30958 reads 9 times favorited 16 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 5: Centerlines - Finding, Marking and Using Them! (Part Two) Part 6 of Shop Tips & Tricks series Part 7: Measuring Things - The Two-Foot Folding Rule »


Most people today use a flexible metal tape for measurement, except for some old-timers. There are reasons for this besides stubborn intransigence – although that surely plays a part. First, most set-in-their-ways people like me suspect metal things are more affected by temperature than wooden things, which is correct. Steel thermally expands or contracts roughly three times as much as the wood in a ruler. For example, a six foot length of steel tape will expand or contract about 19/1000” with a 40 degree F temp change, and the change with wood is only 6/1000”. Since that is less than a 1/64” difference, in practical terms, it makes no difference. Maybe in rocket science, but not in woodworking.

Another reason? Well, by golly, we JUST DON’T LIKE those flimsy, fluttery, noisy darned things, that’s what! Face it, we DO stick with the things we are used to and like. And, that isn’t anything new either, I recall as a young person in the boat shop, the old guys back then sneered at my shiny, new six foot folding rule, clinging stubbornly to their gnarly old two foot versions! And don’t even dare bring a steel tape into the shop! Ah well, times change, and so does everything around us.

And, just for the record, I have a two foot folding rule too, because there are a few interesting things you can do with those you can’t do with anything else so conveniently, if at all. More about that perhaps later in another post.

I have seen many an old-timer flick out their two foot rule in one motion, and have the saw set and in action before I got my six-footer out of my pocket. And, I’ll bet you, man for man, I can do the same thing these days against the young guy with his noxious steel tape clipped to his belt. And just try shoving a bit of scrap out of the way on the other side of the bench with your wimpy tape! The fact is, we work best with the things we like and are familiar with. To me, there is very little warmth and friendliness in a sterile piece of metal compared to my friendly boxwood rule, with its nicks, patina, splatters, easy and familiar action, and even its smell – but then, that’s just me, and trust me, don’t try that kind of comparison with your wife, husband or significant other!

I’ve had a a couple of favorites now for close on to forty years if not longer. I’ve broken several over the years of course – rulers, not wives! And, I keep a spare or two around, because if you can’t measure in a woodworking shop, you are shut down until you can. This brings me to my first point. A year ago I went off with my brother for a day to look at a boat for him. When he left, he drove off with one of my much-loved rulers in his car by accident – my fault. When I missed it, I called him – I said I loved it, didn’t I? By that time, he had flown 5000 miles away and could not send it back. I told him not to bother, I’d just get another one – although the one I lost was so well seasoned and easy to use – I could flick it out and have it fully extended in about half a second, and I really hated to lose it. One thing about folding rulers is the more you use them the easier they operate, especially if the joints are kept oiled periodically. Eventually though, they can get too ‘easy’ and become sloppy – but just try getting a steel tape to hold up for forty years!

Problem was, no local supplier had the ruler model I had and preferred – a ‘Master Mechanic’ Inside Reading six foot folding ruler made of boxwood. Not the local hardware, not Lowe’s, not Home Depot, no one! After a little research, I found the manufacturer no longer makes this model in boxwood. In plastic yes, but not for me – I’ll pass on plastic, thank you. Besides, I strongly suspect those are made offshore now.

Then I got lucky, I thought. Lufkin still makes a boxwood model which looked exactly the same as mine in the pictures online – their model #066F. I ordered one and it came ‘Made in the USA’ right on the side. But it wasn’t the same at all. Sure, inside reading, and all that, but it was different – thicker, bulky, heavier, klutzier. I practically hate it in fact, but kept it since it is the only spare I have now. Meanwhile, my brother has inherited my old rule and since he seems to like it, I don’t have the heart to ask for it back. But, if I go visit him, I will take the new one and swap them out surreptitiously – he’ll never notice the difference, will he?

Here is a picture of the old Master Mechanic versus the new Lufkin.

Now to my second point – why “Inside Reading”? Just in case you are not familiar with the difference in styles, inside reading means when you fold out part of your rule and lay it flat on your stock with the unfolded joints up towards you, you look at the numbers naturally reading from left to right, from low to high numbers.
This is called ‘English Measure’. The ruler lays nice and flat against your work, as you work from left to right, which seems right to me. See below:

The more common type – called ‘American Measure’ is reversed – the low numbers are on the outside, so you must use it from right to left. If you try to use the rule from left to right, the unfolded joints are underneath, and you can’t lay the rule flat on your work – it either must hang off the edge of your work – which is not convenient if you are working inside a large piece of stock like ply, or you are forced to read the numbers from high to low, or, you must unfold the full length of the ruler and flip it over for it to lay flat – then the numbers are upside down! For the life of me, I still can’t figure why that style is dominant – and the only one available most places now. Have you noticed how hard it is to find really high quality hand tools now?

You will notice in the picture below there are small holes drilled around the one inch mark in my rules. That serves two purposes; one is to hold the end in place with a nail when I am marking off multiple smaller increments without fear of shifting, and the other is I can use my rule to swing an arc of up to a 71” radius on occasion:

The are things I do like about steel tapes, one being the little thingy on the end to clip on the edge of something to hold the end – but those are the first things to go too. And of course you can have steel tapes in almost any length is you don’t mind the weight. Don’t tell anybody, but I do have a couple lying around. Another thing to keep in mind about your favorite rulers – or tapes – if you love them, don’t ever, ever loan them or let anyone use them, anytime, no time, ever, and most especially children, who are drawn to them like magnets!

The last time one of my grandchildren took a shine to my ruler, I went out and bought a brand new one just for him – American Measure of course since it was all I could find.

-- "Never let your dogma be run over by your karma!"

16 comments so far

View David Craig's profile

David Craig

2137 posts in 4195 days

#1 posted 12-08-2012 10:36 PM

Thanks for this article. That is one thing I never understood and was driving me crazy about wooden rules, was the way the numbering system worked. I could never understand how anyone would find them useful. I now know there is a type to look for.

Thanks for sharing,


-- There is little that is simple when it comes to making a simple box.

View DIYaholic's profile


19921 posts in 3761 days

#2 posted 12-08-2012 10:59 PM

That was a good read. I even learned something!!! Thanks for taking the time to explain!

-- Randy-- I may not be good...but I am slow! If good things come to those who wait.... Why is procrastination a bad thing?

View shipwright's profile


8717 posts in 3884 days

#3 posted 12-09-2012 01:23 AM

When I started all the old guys had the two footers and used them constantly. Unfortunately, the shop needed to replace the planker who had left to go seining with a brother and I was elected. Before I really caught the folding rule bug I was more in need of a small 25’ steel tape.
The treasured measurer of my early days was a small, light, very well made 25’ tape. I loved that thing and never found another after it broke. (nothing like forty years, more like forty weeks).
I still wish I had taken to the folding rule because I just think they look and feel right…. but alas, I needed length of a steel tape and never did. My loss.
Thanks again for another great blog and good memories Eric.
I wish we could sit down and have a chat.

-- Paul M ..............the early bird may get the worm but it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese!

View GnarlyErik's profile


344 posts in 3220 days

#4 posted 12-09-2012 02:53 AM

Truth be known Paul, even the old timers kept a 25’ steel tape tucked away somewhere. There were just some things – longer measures generally – which they will do so much quicker. I’ve even hand them borrow one of mine at times.

-- "Never let your dogma be run over by your karma!"

View HillbillyShooter's profile


5811 posts in 3378 days

#5 posted 12-09-2012 03:28 AM

Erik: As always, thank you for this post. The first thing I did after reading this post was to locate an old 6-footer I kept from my father’s tools. It is so old, the markings are barely left and if it was ever painted or anything other than natural, all the paint is gone. I could not locate any manufacturer’s name, but it had an interesting feature: a six inch brass inlay that slides in and out of the first section (or the last section if you look on the back of that section). Any instruction for this sliding brass inlay? John

-- John C. -- "Firearms are second only to the Constitution in importance; they are the peoples' liberty's teeth." George Washington

View lightweightladylefty's profile


3647 posts in 4799 days

#6 posted 12-09-2012 05:01 AM


I never have gotten the hang of using a wooden fold-up. My husband uses one and I don’t touch it. (Maybe I’ll check whether it is American or English.)

Your reminiscing reminds me that when my two oldest grandchildren (grandson and granddaughter) were very young, I had a cheap, short (maybe 3’ or 4’) keychain tape measure that I kept my keys on so I would always have some way to measure when I was shopping. They asked repeatedly if they could have it when I died! I guess they thought I already had one foot in the grave way back then!


-- “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Benjamin Franklin -- Jesus is the ONLY reason for ANY season.

View GnarlyErik's profile


344 posts in 3220 days

#7 posted 12-09-2012 06:13 AM

Yes John, the little brass slider is for taking inside measurements of things like windows and doors. You open the rule up to the last section that will fit inside the opening, and then slide the brass slider over to get the last little bit. You need to add that to the part represented by the open joints. They are normally in six inch increments, so if you have five in the space, it would be 30” plus the slide part. Capice? You can also use it as a depth gauge for a hole.

But, it is also easy to measure inside without the slider too – just measure about half the distance from each side and make a mark, then measure between the two marks and add everything up! I never liked the kind with the slider though, because it invariably gets bent it you carry the rule in your hip pocket as I do, and are then useless. But, back in the day when most workmen wore overalls, they always had a little side pocket on the right leg – and that was what it was for!

-- "Never let your dogma be run over by your karma!"

View GnarlyErik's profile


344 posts in 3220 days

#8 posted 12-09-2012 06:17 AM

L/W – I never saw a small child who wasn’t fascinated by a folding rule or steel tape for some reason. But, a straight ruler or a yardstick – not so much. Isn’t that odd? Maybe the toy companies ought to give that some thought.

-- "Never let your dogma be run over by your karma!"

View MsDebbieP's profile


18619 posts in 5247 days

#9 posted 12-09-2012 11:54 AM

a lovely posting!!
Now, if only the numbers were facing the right way—being a lefty I apparently want to measure in the wrong direction all the time and the numbers are upside down.

-- ~ Debbie, Canada (, Young Living Wellness )

View GnarlyErik's profile


344 posts in 3220 days

#10 posted 12-09-2012 03:08 PM

Well Debbie, I have read somewhere that the reason the American version ended up opposite the English model was simple perversity – at a time when the US was at odds with Britain, the standards office decided things would be different. That may be so, but I sometimes wondered if the reason was a left-hander was making the final decision, and decided things should read from right to left! The problem with that is, as you say, the numbers appear upside down now. But, perhaps they did not to begin with, but so many right-handers complained they turned the numbers over, and now no one is happy! Stranger things have happened in history.

-- "Never let your dogma be run over by your karma!"

View MsDebbieP's profile


18619 posts in 5247 days

#11 posted 12-09-2012 03:56 PM

haha “and now no one is happy” ... life! :D

aren’t we silly?!

-- ~ Debbie, Canada (, Young Living Wellness )

View Dave's profile


11435 posts in 3926 days

#12 posted 12-09-2012 04:40 PM

I enjoyed that so much. You taught me a lot. I have a shop full of them and was taught by my father that they are so much better. You will not catch a brick layer with out one. Thanks for the wonderful post. Well written and well done.

-- Superdav "No matter where you go - there you are."

View mafe's profile


13188 posts in 4175 days

#13 posted 12-09-2012 05:18 PM

Here is a trick how to fold it:

-- MAD F, the fanatical rhykenologist and vintage architect.

View NormG's profile


6507 posts in 4090 days

#14 posted 12-10-2012 04:39 AM

That is just how my father would fold his

-- Norman - I never never make a mistake, I just change the design.

View jaykaypur's profile


4017 posts in 3494 days

#15 posted 12-19-2012 11:43 AM

Thanks for this. I often wondered about the genius’ that designed the newer version you mentioned. LOL

After reading this, I am now on the hunt for one of the older ones.

-- Use it up, Wear it out --------------- Make it do, Or do without!

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