Want to improve your precision? Throw away your ruler!

On many occasions, I was convinced that Gramps was just trying to confuse me for the fun of it.  Many of his lessons were arcane, at best, and most of them took a long time to sink in.  In many cases the “sinking in” time was much longer than I care to admit.  But at no time was I more confused than when I was admonished to throw away that ruler so I could get the dimensions right!  What, was he talking about?

The good news is that it didn’t take as long for this lesson to sink in as it did for others.

Measuring is a skill.  It is as fundamental to the craft as sharpening.  And yet, most mistakes in the shop are nothing more than errors in measurement.  So what’s to be done?  Stop depending on that ruler!

Story sticks – are shop made measuring devices with critical dimensions pre-determined and clearly marked.  Learn about them and use them.

Templates – Don’t lay out and measure individual pieces.  Develope templates and use them.

Gang saw to length, whenever possible.

Tricks – there are many “tricks of the trade” that old craftsmen used to increase accuracy and improve productivity (thereby increasing profitability, for those with capitalistic motives).  There are tricks for finding center and tricks for laying out units or segments, just to name a few.  All will help you become less dependent on that ruler.  Pick up any old book on carpentry, joinery, masonry or architecture and you’re likely to find that the very first chapter is devoted to math, geometry and measuring “tricks”.  Study them.  They are invaluable.

Dividers and steel square  are much more than the symbol of Freemasonry.  Add the line and bob and you have the necessary measuring tools that allowed craftsmen, through the ages,  to build everything from Pyramids, the great Cathedrals of Europe to the Eifel Tower and the Statue of Liberty.  And yet, most craftsmen today (having become mostly dependent on all manners of electronic gadgetry) are woefully unschooled in the use of these essential tools .  Take the time to learn the secrets of these devices.  You will become the heir of a legacy that is thousands of years old and improve your craftsmanship, to boot.  And remember, the only electricity that is required to operate the dividers, the square, the line and the bob is the electricity that jumps back and forth between the synapses in your brain.

So, the next time you’re trying to determine whether that little mark you’re looking at is a 32nd or a 64th (or, heaven forbid, a millimeter or a micron), consider some other alternatives you have for completing that seemingly simple task of determining x, y and z.

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2 Comments on “Want to improve your precision? Throw away your ruler!”

  1. Bob Easton Says:

    The problem with rulers is that they all have ****WAY**** more marks than the ONE you need at any particular moment.

    Story sticks RULE!

  2. Trevor Says:

    Great post, how about a follow up with some of your favorite old books on carpentry. I have a few but it is always good to have some cross pollination. A great one I found recently is “Circular Work in Carpentry and Joinery” by George Collings and Karl Shumaker. Very humbling.


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