Woodworking Skills & Stuff: #2: Rules aren't meant to be broken. They're meant to measure things...

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Blog entry by StumpyNubs posted 07-13-2014 03:34 PM 2697 reads 0 times favorited 10 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 1: What happened to all the Stanley #1 hand planes? You may be surprised... Part 2 of Woodworking Skills & Stuff: series Part 3: Which type of vise is best for an old-timey bench? »

As you know, here at the Stumpy Nubs Workshop we like to bend the rules. Something we even break them. But most often we simply create a nasty kink that forever keeps the darn things from lying flat again. Yes, I am a rebel. But rules aren’t really made to be broken, they’re made to measure things. So quality really matters.

By now most of you have caught on to my little play on words. But for the few still confused, I’m talking about the plain old woodworking ruler, an all too often underappreciated tool. I can understand why you might have been a little slow on the uptake. For one thing, I called them “rules”. That’s a term I had to adopt later in my woodworking career since I grew up calling them “rulers”. But ask an old-timer for a “ruler” and you’ll end up with a nasty welt after he thwacks you on the forehead with his “rule”. So for the sake of this discussion, and to avoid another controversy like the infamous “jig saw”/”saber saw” incident of 2012, I will be using the term “rule”.


The rule gets a bad rep these days, probably because it doesn’t roll up with the press of a button like the fancy-pants measuring tape. But for true accuracy you can’t beat a high quality steel rule. Yes, I said “high quality”, because not all are created equal. How do you know the difference? Why does it matter? Those are two excellent questions…

Heavy vs. Light: Just like with the people you see every day, you can often judge quality by weight alone. If it’s really light, it’s probably junk. Aluminum and soft steel are popular materials for the type you find in office supply stores, but they won’t hold up in the workshop. Over time and use they will nick or bend. A good rule is made from hardened steel.

Stamped vs. Machined: One of the reasons cheap rules are made from soft materials is that they can be die stamped from large sheets. But a stamped rule creates a problem. The edges are often slightly rounded over, which means the marks won’t always go all the way to the edges. A good rule has machined sides that are square to the face. When you run your finger down the edge it should be sharp, and you should feel the graduations through your pencil when you’re locating your mark.

Printed vs. Etched: Cheap rules have printed markings, and it’s pretty obvious why these aren’t ideal. They wear off over time, for one thing. But more importantly, printed markings tend to be wider, introducing more error into your layout that can add up over the course of a project. Good rules have acid etched markings, which are permanent and much finer than the printed ones.

So, you’ve examined all of your rules, and they seem to meet the standards for quality. Does that make them right for woodworking? Not necessarily. Like any tool, there are different types for different uses. Machinist rules are usually of excellent quality. But the scale isn’t always relevant to woodworking. Do you really need a rule with markings to the 64th of an inch? Do you really need a metric scale? These things can clutter the face of a rule and lead to error. While I do like to have a metric rule in the shop, I only get it out when I need it. I like a good, simple one with a marking every 1/16”.

Now that you’ve picked out your rule, how can you get the most out of it? Here’re a few tips:

Start with the “one”: I don’t always trust the first inch of my rule. I don’t know why, it may be because I used to use cheap ones which really shouldn’t have been trusted. But I’ve noticed that even the pros, with their fancy, expensive rules use this trick. When measuring the width or thickness of a work piece, start with the one. Any nick or wear of on the end of the rule will be canceled out. Just don’t forget to subtract an inch from your layout!

Use the edge: Sometimes the thickness of the rule can work against you. Your eyes can misjudge the position of your pencil when compensating for the distance from the markings on the face of the rule to the work piece beneath it, creating an offset. When I need very precise marks, I stand the rule on its edge so that the scale touches the work piece.

Find the width: One nice thing to have around the shop is a center finding rule. It has a zero in the center and the markings run out from there toward each end. But you can find the center of a work piece with a regular rule too. Simply place one end on the edge of the board, and angle the rule across its face until one of the marking with an even number touches the opposite edge. Divide by two and you have your center.

Divide evenly: You can use a similar technique to divide a work piece into equal parts. The zero end goes on one edge, and the rule is angled across the face until the number that corresponds to the amount of divisions you require meets the opposite edge. Mark each inch across the face and you’re done.

This is just a small sample of what a good rule can do. So use your measuring tape when you must, but don’t forget about the lowly rule. It may look like a simple tool, but it can be one of the most versatile in your shop.

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10 comments so far

View DIYaholic's profile


19921 posts in 3681 days

#1 posted 07-13-2014 04:07 PM

Great snippets of info and “tricks of the trade” there.

A couple of hints that you didn’t mention….

1) “Tis a good idea to compare your measuring devices. Use your best rule and compare, “side by side” with your other rules, tape measures, even fence scales and see if the markings line up and are accurate. Relegate the “less than accurate” devices for “rough” marking/cuts.

2) One should try to use only one measuring device on a project. That and not use the less than accurate ones for “final” marking/cuts.

Carry on….I know you have some video to shoot!!!

-- 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 StumpyNubs's profile


7851 posts in 3806 days

#2 posted 07-13-2014 04:07 PM

Great tips, Randy! Thanks for adding them!

-- Subscribe to "Stumpy Nubs Woodworking Journal"- One of the crafts' most unique publications:

View eddie's profile


8565 posts in 3620 days

#3 posted 07-13-2014 04:23 PM

these are good rules ,thanks

-- Jesus Is Alright with me

View Sawdustmaker115's profile


306 posts in 2727 days

#4 posted 07-13-2014 04:41 PM

Thanks for the tips, I’ve been wanting to purchase some new rules, thanks for mentioning what to look for

-- Anthony--

View DocSavage45's profile


9043 posts in 3848 days

#5 posted 07-13-2014 04:51 PM


Good blog! Randy, nice additions. For me I’d add read the rule several times and make sure. Charles Neal said “Measure 3 times and then “Sneak up on it!” Yesterday…. Rebuilding my bench into a hybrid woodworking bench and I measured once accurately then when I cut added an inch? Can always cut down but never up. Whew!

-- Cau Haus Designs, Thomas J. Tieffenbacher

View CFrye's profile


11166 posts in 2846 days

#6 posted 07-13-2014 08:12 PM

Great info Stumpy (and Randy)! I had learned and forgotten the divide evenly trick. Thanks for the refresher!

-- God bless, Candy

View Mean_Dean's profile


7057 posts in 4153 days

#7 posted 07-13-2014 10:39 PM

Nice rules of thumb!

-- Dean -- "Don't give up the ship -- fight her 'till she sinks!" Capt James Lawrence USN

View lightcs1776's profile


4264 posts in 2660 days

#8 posted 07-14-2014 04:04 AM

Great overview. Definitely a needed guide to selecting a rule.

-- Chris ** If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace. — Tom Paine **

View littlecope's profile


3117 posts in 4508 days

#9 posted 07-14-2014 05:25 PM

I always did the “starting at one trick” too
but when using the yard stick (for longer measurements)
someone years ago told me to Zero at 10”...
That way, you don’t have to “Remember to Forget” the extra inch
i.e., 7 1/2” will be at 17 1/2”
You have to disregard the extra 10” of course,
but the last number is still the number you’re working for…

-- Mike in Concord, NH---Unpleasant tasks are simply worthy challenges to improve skills.

View StumpyNubs's profile


7851 posts in 3806 days

#10 posted 07-14-2014 05:26 PM

Zero at 10 works with regular rulers too as long as you aren’t measuring anything bigger than two inches.

-- Subscribe to "Stumpy Nubs Woodworking Journal"- One of the crafts' most unique publications:

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